Can BRAHMOS, which has many firsts to its credit, be called a Make in India project? The short answer is ‘yes’ but some explanation of the DPP policy is required

BrahMos Aerospace, the makers of BRAHMOS supersonic cruise missile, which completes 20 years on February 12, has many firsts to its credit. It is the first successful joint venture between India and Russia; it has met manufacturing and delivery timelines, a rarity for the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO); it has been accepted by all three defence services — the Navy, Army and the Air Force; with its supersonic speed of 2.8 Mach, it is difficult to intercept; given its speed, weight and accuracy, its enormous kinetic energy would blow depth targets to smithereens, making it a strategic weapon with conventional warheads; with Indian joining the Missile Technology Control Regime club, its advertised range of 290 km can be increased to 600 km and so on.

The question which begs an answer is this: Can BrahMos be called a Make in India project? While the short answer is yes, some explaining on the 2014 Make in India policy, as elucidated under the Defence Procurement Policy (DPP-2016), is necessary to qualify the assertion.

To begin with, there is a sea difference between Make in India and Create in India. The latter, as the name indicates, is about creating from scratch, including design (based on general staff requirements of defence services), making and testing of prototypes, creating the desired Eco system by involving the national defence industry (to include both public and private sector companies), and most importantly, to continue with research to ensure that the system remains competitive globally with high end, cutting edge or best technologies.

The ultimate proof of a successfully created weapon system lies in its exports. Since basic research is fundamental to creating and staying on top, it might be interesting to know that China in 2017, earmarked about nine billion dollar for artificial intelligence alone, while the total research allocation of the DRDO in the same year was a mere $2.2 billion.

Make in India, on the other hand, is about progressive indigenisation of procured weapon systems. According to the DPP-2016, two basic criteria must be met. One, minimum 40 per cent indigenisation should be assured; this may or may not include technology transfer. And two, under the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) rules, the Indian company should be the majority partner. This requirement pre-supposes little transfer of core technologies', which in any case few counties would part with, know-why to the recipient country.

Given this, the need is to create an ecosystem for low and medium level technology absorption, which would generate employment, have offshoot uses in other defence programs, and which, overtime, could help the Indian industry become part of the global supply chain. A recent example would help explain the requirement. India is expected to buy the Russian Ka-226T helicopters under the Make in India program. Given that the proven helicopter has been flying since 2003, the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) would be required to progressively indigenise mutually agreed components only.

Against this backdrop, BRAHMOS missile system is more than Make in India program. Initially, most of the weapon system came from Russia. According to Russian experts, if Russia was not in dire need of finances, it may not have parted with its system which came to be named BRAHMOS. To be fair to the DRDO, since there was little understanding of cruise missiles, making this purchase was prescient in itself. Soon, it was realised that indigenisation was required for two reasons: To save revenue for the country, and to use the developed hardware and materials in other indigenous missile programs.

With this objective in mind, the DRDO started the special program in 2003 with the mandate to develop hardware and materials in a step-by-step approach and thereby create manufacturing vendors within India. Two sets of documentation, namely, ‘Build to Specifications' (BTS) and ‘Build to Print' (BTP) were procured from the Russian partner.

In the BTS category, India got technical specifications. With this, BrahMos Aerospace has been able to build guidance system, onboard computers and booster; Ananth Technologies in Hyderabad having played the key role. Moreover, the complete ground support systems, including launchers, command, control and communication centre and replenishment vehicles, were designed and realised in India. The entire airframe of BRAHMOS is made in India by Godrej & Boyce, L&T and VEM Technologies under BTP.

DRDO has undertaken major indigenisation of about 27 types of steel, seven types of aluminium, five types of non-ferrous alloys, 75 types of cable assemblies, including connectors, 28 types of composites and so on with the involvement of both public and private sector companies. On the one hand, indigenisation has saved cost for India, besides generating employment. On the other hand, these components are available for a variety of programs, including Akash, LR-SAM, MR-SAM, Air Defence program, Light Combat Aircraft, Nirbhay and especially the Agni series of missiles, which, for example, use the same cannister as BrahMos.

It could, however, be argued that certain core technologies, like propulsion and seeker, are imported. On seeker, the Defence Research & Development Laboratory, by organic research over eight years, appears to have made the breakthrough and will be tested soon. Indigenisation of the propulsion is the challenge on two counts. One, domestic market does not provide economy of scale for the venture to be successful. And two, the project would need huge investments, and hand-holding, which Russia is willing to do.

The irony about exporting BRAHMOS is that about a dozen overseas customers are willing to negotiate and Russia, as the joint venture partner, may clear them as friendly nations. Yet, the absence of a centralised agency to conduct export talks, including promotional activities, on behalf of BrahMos Aerospace, is hampering progress. The countries, as disclosed by former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar include Vietnam, Singapore, Chile, South Africa, UAE and certain other Middle-Eastern nations. The defence Ministry, which has a director general for acquisitions, does not have a corresponding position of director general for exports or a foreign office for sales.

The DRDO boss, S Christopher had told me in an interaction that India was willing to export a variety of weapon systems, including Prithvi and Akash missiles, Arjun tanks, LCA, AEW&C etc. According to him, BrahMos could be the negotiating enterprise for this. This is unlikely to work since BrahMos cannot handle legal issues involved in global trade. Let alone becoming part of global supply chains, companies involved in indigenisation would be dreading the prospects of limited orders, which in turn, would not inspire investments and research to stay competitive. This must be addressed to enable India to take the leap from Make in India to Create in India.