In the early hours of 27 June, as most Indians lay asleep, the sound of explosions shattered the quiet at the Jammu Air Force Station. A drone had infiltrated the base, dropping two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) near a hangar that housed helicopters. The attack caused minor injuries to multiple air force personnel.
While drone attacks are an increasingly common occurrence in modern warfare, the facility did not have any detection or counter-drone systems in place.
The need for critical modern defence equipment isn’t unique to India’s air force. The Indian navy has similar needs.
While the majority of India’s geopolitical conflicts—and certainly the most visible—happen on land, there is a strategic struggle at play in the Indian Ocean as well. Monitoring the movement of Chinese ships and submarines passing through the Indian Ocean is crucial. There are fears that neighbouring adversaries could use midget midget Midget submarine A midget submarine is any submarine under 150 tons, typically operated by a crew of one or two but sometimes up to 6 or 9, with little or no on-board living accommodation submarines to infiltrate harbours and plant mines. To prevent this, the navy needs high-tech underwater surveillance and autonomous systems.
India’s large defence contractors are hardly the solution to these cutting-edge needs. Instead, the likes of government-owned Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL) and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) or even private majors such as Larsen & Toubro and Tata Advanced Systems are more attuned to conventional defence needs. This includes building vehicles, aircraft, and naval vessels. They often partner with overseas defence majors for India’s other defence requirements. The other option for defence procurement, of course, is importing it.
Well aware of the shortcomings of traditional domestic defence contractors and with one eye on fostering self-reliance, the Indian government set up a novel programme in 2018. Called iDEX, or Innovations for Defence Excellence, the programme sought to engage academics, industry, and startups in defence production in line with the global realisation that consumer tech has far outpaced military tech in terms of innovation.
The initiative is run by the Defence Innovation Organisation (DIO), a body set up by the Department of Defence Production (DPP). HAL and BEL also assist DIO in managing the initiative. The goal of iDEX was two-fold—innovate and achieve self-reliance. This mission was considered important enough to be launched by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Thus far, however, iDEX has little to show for all the fanfare that came with its creation. Just months after its own inception, it launched a flagship programme—the Defence India Startup Challenges, or DISC—which offers grants to startups and MSMEs creating defence solutions for India’s armed forces. Many believed that this could produce India’s answer to the likes of Western defence majors such as Lockheed Martin or Raytheon.