Private sector firm Astr Defence's ATAL polymer-framed, Striker fired pistol

The past few years have seen private firms leading innovation and indigenisation

by Sanjib Kr Baruah

Sumeet can feel the cold in his bones. The winter air reminds him of his village in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh. Posted at a mountainous forward post on the Line of Control, the soldier is on a hawk-like vigil. Nothing can be left to chance in an area prone to infiltration by Pakistan-propped militants.

Among the first recipients of these new-generation tools are the troops facing the Chinese.

India has designed and developed 75 cutting-edge Artificial Intelligence-based military products that have been offered for sale to friendly nations.

“[There is a] realisation that over-reliance on Russia and the west for weapons is curtailing India’s capability to manoeuvre in international politics.” ―Prof Kumar Sanjay Singh, Delhi University

A few metres ahead flows a mountain brook that marks the Line of Control―the de facto border between India and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

To the untrained eye, Sumeet’s guardhouse might look the same as before. But, in the past two years or so, a lot has changed. Giving Sumeet company is his trusty INSAS rifle, a 5.56mm x 45mm weapon, leaning nonchalantly on the stone wall. But in the barracks behind, there are several ‘sector-specific’ weapons like the American Sig Sauer rifle, the Israeli Tavor assault rifle and the good-old AK-47 to choose from.

There is a mounted telescopic sight just next to Sumeet, a four-screened CCTV set on a table and a hotline, although mobile signals have improved considerably in the last year or so. On the roof of the guardhouse is a solar panel for uninterrupted power.

Sumeet’s body armour is made of fibre, unlike the iron plates of old, which has cut down the weight by a third, to under 20kg.

A little distance behind Sumeet, in another outpost, two soldiers amble into a futuristic, US-made Polaris ATV (all-terrain vehicle)―a far cry from the once ubiquitous Maruti Gypsy―to go on reconnaissance patrol. This particular unit is equipped with quadcopters, Finland-made Sako sniper rifles, Israeli Negev LMGs (light machine gun), handheld thermal imagers fitted with rangefinders for surveillance....

“Most of the equipment is fairly new; they have all come in the course of the past one or two years. With these state-of-the-art equipment and installations in place, the efficiency of our border monitoring and security grid has enhanced significantly. It is almost next to impossible for infiltrators to come in now,” says Sumeet, a steely resolve on his face.

His confidence is bolstered by the fact that, invisible to the human eye, surveillance drones and counter-drone systems are alert in the skies, 24x7. Such impenetrability has been instrumental in militants nearly abandoning infiltration routes in north Kashmir. The routes have shifted to south of the Pir Panjal range in stretches around Jammu, Samba, Kathua and certain areas near Rajouri and Poonch.

The 15 Corps, or the ‘Chinar’ Corps, with its base at Srinagar’s Badamibagh area, is the nerve centre of counter-insurgency operations in the Kashmir valley. Says Lieutenant General Amardeep Singh Aujla, who commands the corps: “We are absorbing technology in a big way, whether it is related to surveillance, lethality, protection, communication or battlefield transparency, and in space and cyber―these are the facets where a lot of acquisitions have been done. And courtesy the Atmanirbharta (self-reliance) programme, I think more and more indigenous technology is finding its way into our systems, and the inventories are getting integrated in a seamless manner.”

These cutting-edge platforms and high-tech equipment have been deployed all across the LoC and the border with the China-controlled Tibet Autonomous Region on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), as well as the MacMahon Line in India’s northeast.

Major General Sanjiv Singh Slaria, who till recently headed the counter-insurgency Kilo Force under the 15 Corps, says: “We need to be able to anticipate new forms of threats emanating from terrorists to make sure we remain ahead of the curve.” The Kilo Force covers about 580sqkm in north Kashmir.

Among the first recipients of these new-generation tools are the troops facing the Chinese. With the insurgency situation in the northeast calming down, deployment has shifted to face the northern adversary.

The Army department that issues tenders, Requests for Information (RFI) and Requests for Proposal (RFP) has never been so busy. Loitering munitions, an entire range of drones, counter-drone systems, advanced radio systems… the list is long.

In terms of strategic capability, the DRDO has done well to develop and deploy a credible second-strike capability from land, air, water and underwater. Quietly, 30 per cent of the DRDO’s R&D funds are being used for the Strategic Force Command’s requirements.

Says Lieutenant General Harpal Singh, the Army’s engineer-in-chief: “Technology is being inducted at an unprecedented pace. In just the past two years, we have built high-altitude habitats and technical storage in eastern Ladakh. These can house up to 22,000 troops, and 450 armoured vehicles and guns. These are re-locatable and can be easily dismantled.

“A few shelters have been constructed using local material. The temperature in these shelters is maintained at 20 degrees Celsius while the outside temperature is minus 20 degrees Celsius. We are now looking at building permanent defence bunkers using 3D printing technology. These can withstand a direct hit from a tank. We have already tested them in certain conditions and are now taking them forward along the northern borders in a phased manner.”

The Growing Private Story

There is buzz about the sweeping changes in the military production landscape among the private sector’s established players, medium enterprises and start-ups.

Says Jayant Patil, who advises Larsen & Toubro’s CEO and MD on defence and smart technologies: “Today, we see teaming and large-scale work share between public and private companies. This is visible across defence PSUs (public sector undertakings). Among the best examples is the warship development programme, which includes large survey ships and shallow water anti-submarine warfare crafts. Same is the case with the Akash (missile) programme. In the evolving era, there is also pre-bid public-private partnership to bid for mega programmes, including design and development programs.”

As a result, an era of innovation has begun in the Indian military industrial landscape, an idea that was the central theme of the DefExpo 2022 at Gandhinagar in October. From the home-made Hindustan Turbo Trainer-40 basic trainer aircraft to the indigenous ‘Atal’ pistol (made by Hubballi-based Astr), and the country’s first combat-ready drone (Jatayu Unmanned Systems), not only are these products catering to domestic needs, but they are also eyeing markets worldwide.

The world-class BrahMos missiles and the flagship Light Combat Aircraft Tejas have already generated considerable interest abroad, as has the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant which, with a displacement of about 45,000 tonnes, is a big talking point.

The country is also marking new frontiers in the field of niche technologies. For instance, India has designed and developed 75 cutting-edge Artificial Intelligence-based military products that have been offered for sale to friendly nations.

These are besides the country’s demonstrated capabilities in the designing and building of long-range surveillance systems, a wide range of cutting-edge missiles, artillery rockets and underwater weapons. The other emerging verticals are overall command and control systems, fire controls and autonomous solutions.

In 2020-21, Indian weapons makers exported about Rs13,000 crore worth of weapons and systems; 70 per cent was from private companies. In September, the first-ever export of India-made artillery systems took place; Armenia contracted to buy the Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launchers. There is also talk of a deal for the Kalyani 155mm gun.

What is obvious is the intention to use home-grown equipment and systems. One such effort is originating at the table of a young Army captain who has been handpicked and placed at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. Captain Rajprasad, from the Army Design Bureau (ADB), has set up a lab and an office within the IIT campus with the agenda of furthering research and development in military. His list of innovations is mind-boggling. (See graphics)

Established in 2016, the ADB spearheads the Army’s ‘Make in India’ initiative. “The entire ecosystem has acquired a strong buzz in the past three to four years,” says Rajprasad, who is in his 30s and uses only one name. “With so much willing talent, we need a body like the American DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) in India that will ideate cutting-edge technologies and induct platforms and systems into the military.”

Tracing The Changing Narrative

The winds of change sweeping the military landscape may well have been kick-started by China and Pakistan. Their belligerent postures resulted in India positioning itself as a ‘hard state’ that would not take things lying down.

The attack on the Indian military base near Uri in September 18, 2016, which killed 19 soldiers, was the first landmark event in this timeline, prompting the now-famous surgical strike.

Later, in reaction to the Pulwama car bombing of February 14, 2019, which killed 44 security personnel, an Air Force fighter aircraft crossed PoK to bomb terrorist infrastructure in Balakot on February 26, 2019. The Pakistanis struck the following day.

During this time, the Army also undertook a series of operations across the porous Indo-Myanmar border to target insurgents. However, China’s rapid infrastructure build-up and massive modernisation led to a growing asymmetry with India, forcing the latter to modernise as well.

The biggest contributor to India’s modernisation has been the border confrontation with the People’s Liberation Army. It was sparked off by a series of violent brawls between soldiers across eastern Ladakh and north Sikkim, which culminated in the Galwan clash on June 15, 2020. While 20 Indian soldiers died, Chinese officials say only four of their men were killed.

“India is in a serious weapons race,” says Prof Kumar Sanjay Singh, who teaches modern history at Delhi University and specialises in Cold War politics. “It started with Pakistan but lately it is with China. China’s prominence has come because of two reasons. First, China has suddenly decided it can unilaterally violate the SOPs developed to ensure violence did not break out along the LAC. Second, China has made rapid strides in military modernisation and war-fighting capability, which has created serious asymmetry between Indian and Chinese militaries along the LAC. There is, therefore, a pressing concern to upgrade India’s military capability. It is focused on procurement of advanced weaponry and on indigenisation of defence production. This is because of the realisation that over-reliance on Russia and the west for weapons is curtailing India’s capability to manoeuvre in international politics.”

In 2016, the government created the Indigenously Designed Developed and Manufactured (IDDM) category under the overall policy of defence indigenisation and the Make in India initiative. “Today, we see more than 80 per cent acquisition is targeted to be from Indian companies,” says Patil. “The four positive indigenisation lists (favouring domestic manufacturers) serve as a resolve of the user to not fall back on imports of the items listed therein. The plan to acquire indigenously had to be matched with budgetary support. The government’s commitment is visible from the enhanced allocation (68 per cent of capital acquisition budget) for acquisition from Indian companies and 25 per cent of that for acquisition from the private sector.”

The growth story is also generating spinoffs in never-imagined spheres. Even as two Defence Industrial Corridors (DICs) in Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu―both aiming to attract investment of about Rs10,000 crore each―are being set up, the Kerala Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (KINFRA) has come up with another idea. It has set up a 60-acre defence park in Ottapalam, where about 50 defence-related firms and start-ups will be able to set up shop. There are facilities for storage, laboratories and research work.

Said Aneesh A.S., manager of the KINFRA defence park: “The idea to start the park resulted from the changing environment, with high demand for high-tech defence and military equipment. We have recently completed the infrastructure work of the park and have now started the allotment to private firms and entrepreneurs. Already eight units have started work. Companies from across the world can come and set up shop. The only criteria is that they have to be connected to defence production and services.”

Military-Industrial Complex

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India’s weapons import declined by 21 per cent between 2012-16 and 2017-21.

“Without doubt, the contours of a military-industrial complex are taking shape,” says Prof Singh. “This is resulting in a new ecosystem where there is a greater emphasis on a private role. This is a decisive step for the emergence of a military-industrial complex in India.”

Most major economies have a developed military-industry complex or the architecture that connects the military to the defence production industry, resulting in a win-win situation for both. The military gets the weapons while the industry profits from the sale. “But, at the same time, two issues crop up,” says Singh. “The acquisition needs will be met from the small share of the budget kept aside for defence. That will hurt the acquisition of cutting-edge military systems while pursuing indigenisation.”

Historically, an undesirable aspect of a powerful military-industrial complex is that it exercises influence over public policy and its formulation. “How this military-industry complex develops in India would be interesting to watch,” says Singh. “To what extent the political class can manage to exert control over defence production, rather than being its agent, would be a key challenge. The fate of Indian democracy hangs on that.”

But the speed at which India’s military-industrial complex is developing, few would doubt that, over time, the theme might change from ‘Make in India’ and ‘Made for India’ to ‘India making for the world’.

Tools of The Trade

Innovations by Captain Rajprasad of the Army Design Bureau that are in various stages of induction and deployment

Unmanned mine and IED detection vehicle
AI-based intrusion detection and integrated command station. Integrates multiple sensor feeds into a single module and undertakes real-time AI-based analytics. Enables AI-equipped command centres
A backpack-sized remotely operated vehicle with all-terrain mobility and capable of disposing IEDs. It can be used to clear rooms in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism ops
Wireless electronic detonation circuit. An electronic system that can remotely detonate multiple targets simultaneously
Multi-target, remote-controlled blaster. Portable, handheld detonation equipment. It can also be delivered to targets using unmanned aerial/ground vehicle

Cutting-Edge Tactical Platforms


* Autonomous surveillance and armed drone swarm
* Swathi weapons-locating radar
* Ultra-light howitzers, Dhanush (howitzer), K-9 Vajra artillery guns

In The Pipeline

* Zorawar light tanks
* Guided rockets for the already inducted Pinaka (multiple rocket launcher)
* Integrated surveillance and targeting system
* AI-enabled future ready combat vehicle
* Enhanced missile capacities for Arjun MK1A and Arjun MK2 tanks
* Futuristic infantry combat vehicle
* New wheeled armoured fighting vehicle
* Light armoured multipurpose vehicle
* Look-deep drones
* Advanced anti-drone capability
* Loitering munitions on BMP-2 (infantry fighting vehicle)/Carrier Mortar Tracked (self-propelled mortar system) chassis
* Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability through mini UAV, see-through armour (which gives a panoramic view while sitting inside a tank or armoured vehicle), autonomous combat vehicle, fuel cell/alternate fuel-based silent overwatch equipment, AI-based integrated surveillance, detection and alarm/ engagement system