The drone asymmetry-triggered arms race raging in the global defence ecosystem is both a serious threat and an opportunity for India to emerge and dominate. The current global drone geopolitical alignment is definitely not in favour of India given the emergence of Iran, Turkey and China as leaders in this latest asymmetric arms race. The fact that Iran has emerged as the dark horse capable of striking fear into the world’s top Defence Tech exporter Israel thanks to its low-cost long-range drones is proof of the effectiveness of drones and the role they will play in future warfare.
Though these developments pose a significant risk from a security perspective, as far as India is concerned the fact that all these countries have a strong global trust deficit works in India’s favour. India has proved itself as a cost-effective, trustworthy & reliable partner in the IT, fintech and automobile industries.
Realising the importance of developing indigenous capabilities from both a security and threat perspective as well as a global opportunity perspective the Indian government is proactively guiding the evolution of a strong ecosystem in the right direction. The global drones in defence ecosystem are almost a level playing field with the likes of Iran and Turkey balancing the traditional defence technology dominance of Israel and the Western powers and present an opportunity for India to emerge as a Global Drone Hub thanks to its proven and trustworthy track record as a destination for the development of technology solutions.
The ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war has also exposed the vulnerability of traditional defence and national assets to the use of low-cost drones in large numbers and their ability to affect financially unsustainable asymmetric collateral damage.
Establishing mass manufacturing capabilities has been the key to achieving global scale in any industry. This has been proved in the case of automobiles, White goods, mobile phones, and Laptops, which have propelled countries such as Japan, Korea, China, and Taiwan to emerge as global leaders.
Hence for India to emerge as a global drone hub, especially in defence, establishing domestic manufacturing capabilities based on the following is a key essential:
- Process standardisation & system integration of automobile manufacturing
- Manufacturing precision of aerospace
- Scale of software development of IT
- Strong domestic consumption of electronic manufacturing
- Strong reputation and trust as a reliable partner globally
The good news is that India checks all the boxes mentioned above.
This fact truly positions India to evolve into a preferred global drone hub.
Policy support by way of enabling civilian drone regulation, positive lists of buy-Indian coupled with a negative list of imports published by the ministry of defence, and innovation support programmes like IDEX are excellent governmental-level support that lay a strong policy level foundation for building indigenous drone manufacturing capabilities that is key to propelling India towards realising its potential to evolve into a global drone hub.
Standalone drone manufacturing in India today is practically non-existent but potential does exist in the form of infrastructure, resources and knowledge to put together a global scale drone manufacturing ecosystem:
Drone manufacturing is an integration of the following subsystems:
|Airframe||Moulded plastics / composites /aluminium||Highly scaled in automobile & aerospace manufacturing|
|Power system||Electric motors / IC engine||Highly scaled in automobile & White goods manufacturing|
|Electronics control & communication||Electronic components & assembly supply chain||Highly scaled in manufacturing White goods, mobile phones , automobiles, computers|
|Software including firmware, UI||Software development||Highly scaled IT and applications industry|
|Quality standards||Processes compliance & certification ecosystem||Scaled testing ecosystem in auto, electronics, software|
Hence potential exists in the country to evolve as a global drone manufacturing hub especially when coupled with the high reputation that India enjoys as a reliable, responsible and trustworthy partner in high-tech domains of IT, fintech, automobile and electronics manufacturing.
India truly has all the building blocks required to evolve into a global drone hub.
What Indian drone manufacturing requires is one large volume use case that will facilitate it to manufacture drones for both domestic uses as well as exports to be able to leverage economies of scale and emerge as a globally competitive manufacturing hub.
The Volume Use Case
The largest population of drones in India is that of Chinese DJI COTS (Commercial off The Shelf) drones. DJI by sheer number outnumbers the populations of any other type of drone by a huge margin. For every non-DJI drone, there are over 100 DJI drones spread across India, including an estimated 1.5–2 lakh pieces in the national security agencies right from the national borders to the local police. Every country across the globe faces exactly the same predicament when it comes to its national security.
While this is definitely a serious breach of national security that poses a significant threat to any nation, it also presents an opportunity that India can leverage to jumpstart and build its mass drone manufacturing capabilities.
COTS drone manufacturing is that large volume use case that has the potential to propel India’s emergence as a ‘Global Drone Hub by 2030’.
The very fact that India’s national security agencies including the armed forces, paramilitary, homeland security and law enforcement favoured the adoption of Chinese COTS drones purchased through decentralised procurement over the traditional capital purchase route clearly indicates the ‘atmanirbhar’ solution for replacing them also has to be exactly the same.
Recognising the shift from ‘Made for Defence (MFD) to COTS products’ the department of defence the USA created the Blue UAS (https://www.diu.mil/blue-uas) programme to solve the problem of Chinese COTS drone infiltration. Which is an Empanelled list of COTS Drones for direct purchase by government agencies primarily involved with national security.
The creation of a programme similar to Blue USA coupled with a democratised replacement procurement process has the potential to propel India to emerge as a Global Drone Hub by unlocking a large volume manufacturing opportunity.
Such a solution will amount to hitting two birds with one stone because not only will it resolve the grave national security threat it will also jumpstart Indian drone manufacturing by providing manufacturers with an opportunity to produce drones at a scale similar to that experienced in the case of automobiles, White goods, mobile phones and other electronic products.
The scale of production coupled with the need to replace drones manufactured by the world’s lowest-cost producer China will require the Indian drone manufacturers to leverage economies of scale and efficiency to be globally competitive.
The smaller size of COTS drones will entail lower investment by Indian manufacturers to get started on a mass manufacturing use case and clear-cut outcomes will present a compelling case from an investor’s perspective, thus leading to the inflow of much-needed funds into the Indian drone ecosystem.
Hence in conclusion the vision of “INDIA AS A GLOBAL DRONE HUB 2030 “ can be fast-tracked by replacing the large number of Chinese COTS drones currently being used by the Indian Army, Paramilitary, Homeland security and law enforcement with Indian manufactured COTS drones.
The sheer volume of drones to be replaced can be leveraged by India to establish mass domestic manufacturing capabilities and derive the benefits of economies of scale.
Products developed under such a programme also have significant immediate export potential to other countries looking at solving the very same Chinese COTS drone infiltration problem.
–The writer is Director of Zuppa Geo Navigation Technologies Pvt Ltd