By Krishn Kaushik
NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India has in recent months banned domestic manufacturers of military drones from using components made in China over security concerns, according to four defense and industry officials and documents reviewed by Reuters.
The move comes amid tensions between its nuclear-armed neighbors and as New Delhi pursues a military modernization that envisions greater use of unmanned quadcopters, long-life systems and other autonomous platforms.
But as India’s nascent industry tries to meet the needs of the military, defense and industry figures said India’s security leaders feared intelligence gathering could be compromised by Chinese-made parts in drone communications functions. cameras, radio transmission and control software.
Three of these people and some of the six other government and industry figures interviewed by Reuters spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media or because of the sensitivity of the subject. India’s defense ministry has not responded to Reuters questions.
India’s approach, first reported by Reuters, complements phased import restrictions on surveillance drones since 2020 and is being implemented through military tenders, documents show.
During two meetings in February and March to discuss drone tenders, Indian military officials told potential bidders that equipment or sub-components from “countries sharing land borders with India will not be acceptable for security reasons,” according to minutes reviewed by Reuters. The minutes did not identify the military officials.
A tender document said such subsystems had “security holes” that put critical military data at risk, and called on suppliers to disclose the components’ origins.
A senior defense official told Reuters that the reference to neighboring countries was a euphemism for China, adding that India’s industry had become dependent on the world’s second-largest economy despite concerns over cyber-attacks.
Beijing has denied involvement in cyber attacks. China’s Commerce Ministry, which last week announced export controls on some drones and drone-related equipment, did not respond to questions about India’s measures.
The US Congress banned the Pentagon in 2019 from buying or using drones and components made in China.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been trying to build up India’s drone capability to thwart perceived threats, including from China, whose forces have clashed with Indian soldiers along their disputed border in recent years.
India has earmarked 1.6 trillion rupees ($19.77 billion) for military modernization in 2023-24, of which 75% is earmarked for domestic industry.
But the ban on Chinese parts has increased the cost of making military drones locally by forcing manufacturers to buy components elsewhere, government and industry experts said.
Sameer Joshi, founder of Bengaluru-based NewSpace Research and Technologies, a supplier of small drones to the Indian military, said 70% of goods in the supply chain are made in China.
“So when I talk to, say, a Polish guy, he still has his components coming through China,” he said.
Switching to a non-Chinese pipeline drove costs up dramatically, Joshi said, adding that some manufacturers were still importing material from China but would “white label it and keep costs more or less within that framework.”
India relies on foreign manufacturers for both parts and complete systems as it lacks the know-how to make certain types of drones.
A government-funded program to produce an indigenous medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned system is delayed by at least half a decade, said Y. Dilip, director of the state-run Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE).
The platform, called Tapas, meets most of the requirements, but more work needs to be done to reach the military’s goal of a drone that can reach an operational altitude of 30,000 feet and stay aloft for 24 hours, it said. Dilip.
“First of all, we were limited by the engines,” he said, while neither domestically built nor international models were available for India to do the job.
Aside from Tapas, which is expected to begin military trials this month, ADE is working on a stealth unmanned platform and a High Altitude Long Endurance platform, but both are years away.
To fill these gaps, India announced in June that it would buy 31 MQ-9 drones from the US for more than $3 billion.
RK Narang, a drone expert at the government’s Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analytics, said “there needs to be a coherent national strategy to close the technology gaps” to deliver commercially viable products.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman promised in February that a quarter of the 232.6 billion rupees ($2.83 billion) budget for defense research and development this year would be for private industry.
Still, Narang said there was little investment in research and development by India’s big private companies. Joshi said venture capitalists shun military projects because of long lead times and the risk of orders not being executed.
The senior defense official said India would have to accept higher costs to boost domestic production.
“Today if I buy equipment from China, but I say I want to make it in India, the cost will increase by 50%,” he said. “We as a nation need to be ready to help build the ecosystem here.”
($1 = 82.2775 Indian Rupees)
(This story has been corrected to say 1.6 trillion rupees, not 1.6 billion rupees, in paragraph 12)
(Reporting by Krishn Kaushik; additional reporting by Joe Cash in Beijing; editing by David Crawshaw and YP Rajesh.)