Civil-Defence Convergence Strengthening India’s Defence

To strengthen our defence forces and complement the Make-in-India campaign with Maintain-in-India strategy – the civil-defence convergence could lead to a win-win scenario for India

By D Anand Bhaskar

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Unlike developed markets, the aviation sector’s Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) industry in India, has evolved in silos – military and civil. Given that the security of our nation took precedence during the country’s formative independent years, most aviation platforms inducted in the country were primarily secured off the shelf, for defence purposes, via organizations such as Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), that were tasked with ensuring the nation’s safety security by having a presence across the entire aviation value chain – from development or transfer-of-technology (ToT) for diverse platforms, to their local assembly or production and even their aftermarket requirements. This was supported by the creation of a proprietary and pan-India network of Maintenance Depots (called Base Repair Depots or BRDs) to undertake heavy maintenance of military assets. Together, HAL and the BRDs have been the historical ‘national backbone’ of India’s military aviation’s engineering & maintenance ecosystem

The above mentioned robust, primarily defence-driven maintenance infrastructure however, contrasts sharply with the country’s maintenance capabilities for civil aviation that grew rather slowly. Only in the 1990s, as Indian civil aviation began to gather momentum (driven by commercial airlines), an associated indigenous MRO ecosystem began to take shape.

Today, the country’s Civil Aviation has become a signature of the nation’s growth ambition against the backdrop of an anticipated addition of over 2000+ aircraft by the next decade, making India the world’s 3rd largest civil aviation market – behind the USA and China. This fleet enhancement possesses the potential to deliver extensive benefits for Civil MROs, making India, an aviation as well as a MRO Hub.

India’s civil aviation has become a signature of the nation’s growth ambition against the backdrop of an anticipated addition of over 2000+ aircraft by the next decade

Unfortunately, the insulated or siloed development of India’s Civil and Military ecosystems with their corresponding policies, regulations, engineering & maintenance infrastructure, and manpower, has created a ‘Berlin Wall’ where despite the presence of extensive civil MRO capabilities, there is little or almost no sharing of expertise, learning’s, technology, or even manpower between civil and defence enterprises, despite increasing synergies between aviation platforms.

For a nation like ours, this causes needless duplication of infrastructure, capabilities as well as time – luxuries that we as a nation can ill afford, to do justice to the Hon’ble PM’s clarion call for Atmanirbharta. Moreover, such isolated development is in stark contrast and completely contrary to the way the global MRO industry has developed – where engineering and MRO services are equally equipped and permitted to collectively address both civil and military requirements.

Indigenization For National Defence – A Must!

Given the current geo-political scenario including our relations with our close neighbours – we cannot de-prioritise our defence readiness. In fact, our security requirements will only expand and evolve with time, putting further pressure on our budget and, on the exchequer.

Notwithstanding the above, deliveries of planned and indigenous modernisation programmes have repeatedly fallen short of expectations. This has had far-reaching implications making India increasingly dependent on aviation and aerospace capabilities bought in from the West at exorbitant costs, creating a complicated and multi-generation mix of technologies and platforms that has meant a continuous dependence on Western suppliers for dedicated aftermarket support.

With emerging aviation platforms and technologies being increasingly complex, intelligent and prohibitively costly, indigenous MROs become duty-bound to find and create ways to explore synergies to create strong aftermarket capabilities for the country’s benefit, stretching every dollar (or rupee) of investment including extension-of-life measures for the current platforms, regardless of whether they are transport-led (AN32/ Chetak/ Cheetah) or mission-critical ones such as P-8Is, MiGs, Mirages or Sukhois. As is the case, significant synergies in design for certain platforms already exist for their use in civil and military operations. This includes platforms such as BBJ (Boeing Business Jets), ASW platforms such as P-8I (based on B737), Dornier 228, ERJ-135/145 (Legacy 650) and A320s being currently adapted for AWACs use etc. Interestingly, training capacities, spares and components required in civil and defence sectors are also quite similar.

Civil-Defence Convergence

Taking cognisance of global MRO developments, India’s needs and having witnessed the role and capabilities of Civil MROs in driving the Indian aviation and the economy during the pandemic, the GoI announced its plan to promote Civil-Defence convergence in 2020. The move was meant to break the Berlin Wall or siloed mindset of the sector and foster enhanced coordination and speed in terms of development, by getting the industry to eventually begin both thinking as well as operating on a global, integrated footing, driven by the singular vision of self-reliance.

With life cycle cost of any platform being 2-3 times of the development cost, defence MRO offers a burgeoning market. Integrating Civil MROs to partner and share the growing load of the Defence aftermarket ecosystem brings in several advantages for the nation, some of which include:

1. Boosts transparency and partnership (on the lines of public-private partnership in aviation and other sectors)
2. Creates new or strengthens indigenous defence engineering and maintenance capabilities via larger participation.
3. Promote and strengthens cross-industry cooperation and collaboration for synergies, leading to efficiencies.
4. De-risks defence preparedness in an event where the sole maintenance provider, say HAL, isn’t able to deliver.
5. Creates economies of scale and generate large-scale employment, stimulating economic development.
6. Spurs competition, leading to better and efficient delivery of defence services, for better quality output at an optimised cost.
7. Expands the market and facilitates optimum resource utilisation, avoiding needless duplication, wastage and maximising infrastructure utilisation.
8. Assists customers (defence as well as airlines) to save costs (fuel and logistics), conserving precious foreign exchange.
9. Reduces industry’s skill shortage by opening-up a currently inaccessible talent pool (defence manpower)
10. Export of MRO services to other countries in the region – having similar defence platforms

Civil MROs are ideal to strengthen the hands of the Indian defence forces and help the country maintain its strategic deterrence

Committed to the nation and to aviation for over 70 years, Air Works began indigenous civil-defence convergence more than a decade ago for undertaking maintenance of Boeing Business Jets (Heads of State programme) in partnership with the OEM and the IAF. In another development, Air Works also completed Phase 32 checks for Indian Navy’s P-8I ASW aircraft indigenously – a country first. As India’s biggest independent MRO and an Embraer defence ASF for the region, Air Works is already maintaining ERJs on behalf of the IAF and the BSF, in India, helping expand capabilities, reduce TAT as well as forex.

Challenges however remain, especially in areas of training and availability of skilled manpower, a liberal taxation regime for inventory management and logistics, as well as a simplified, indigenous regulatory framework (DGAQA and DGCA). Especially in terms of manpower, it may be prudent to note that a leading US MRO has nearly 20% ex-servicemen as its employees – a far cry from what Indian MROs can or are allowed to. While a beginning is indeed being made with civil-defence convergence, we must ask ourselves, if it will be a missed opportunity for us?

With the country invested in developing, manufacturing and deploying emerging platforms, Civil MROs such as Air Works and others, are ideal to strengthen the hands of the Indian defence forces and help the country maintain its strategic deterrence. They are equipped to provide a wide variety of maintenance support across airframes and components, speeding up turnaround and offering more competitive solutions to our defence forces, complementing Make-in-India with Maintain-in-India – and creating an integrated sector for civil as well as defence platforms, heralding a win-win for the country.

–The writer is Managing Director & CEO, Air Works Group. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda