Bangalore: In a first for an Indian military aircraft programme, private sector firms Larsen and Toubro Ltd (L&T), Godrej and Boyce Manufacturing Co. Ltd and Tata Advanced Systems Ltd have bid to develop and build an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, used in surveillance operations.
The three companies, and a fourth bidder—a combine of state-owned defence equipment makers Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd and Bharat Electronics Ltd—submitted their bids on 15 May to the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) for the medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) aircraft, named Rustom, which will be designed to fly at least 250km at a stretch.
“Now, a technical evaluation will be done before identifying the lead partner,” said P.S. Krishnan, director of the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), the DRDO unit that has built drones such as Nishant for the military. He said a decision would be taken later this year.
The three private sector firms declined to comment.
Given the sensitive nature of defence projects, private firms had been restricted to being component suppliers or sub-contractors in military plane programmes, while state-owned agencies or firms such as DRDO and Hindustan Aeronautics have led and managed the projects.
In 2002, India opened up defence equipment production to private sector companies and even allowed up to 26% foreign direct investment in such ventures.
In the US, private sector companies such as Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. compete for military plane projects. The F-16 is built by Lockheed, while Boeing builds the F-18. Both firms get enormous support from the US government.
Russia and China, on the other hand, allow only state-funded firms to build planes for their military.
L&T, India’s largest engineering company, Godrej and the Tata group have dedicated divisions that supply parts to the country’s space and aerospace industry.
Godrej & Boyce supplies the Vikas engines for India’s rockets, while the Tata group builds components for Hindustan Aeronautics, DRDO and the Indian Space Research Organisation.
L&T makes military vessels for the Navy, and has built a radar with Bharat Electronics for the Army, in addition to being involved in other aerospace projects.
ADE is testing a technology demonstrator, or a bare prototype, of Rustom. Once a vendor is selected, it and ADE will design an enhanced version of Rustom, which is meant to replace the Israeli Heron drones currently in use.
Typically, the cost of producing one set of five Rustom vehicles with five sets of spares, payload and ground handling equipment would be around Rs250 crore, ADE said in its tender.
The partner, once selected, will build the drone, test and certify it, and provide maintenance services. It will also work on converting Rustom into an unmanned combat aerial vehicle, in addition to developing future versions of the drone.
India’s market for MALE UAVs, the class of drones used for surveillance, border patrolling and exploration, is expected to touch $800 million (Rs3,768 crore) by 2016, according to research firm Frost and Sullivan.
Despite India being a major customer for global military aircraft makers, its own aerospace industry is nascent. The country has built a few aircraft such as Tejas, a light combat aircraft; Dhruv, an advanced light helicopter; Saras, a 14-seater passenger plane; and Nishant. Only Dhruv and Nishant have been inducted into the forces.
None of these projects involved private sector firms in design and development.