Bangalore: In a bid to cut costs and the long gestation periods for many of India’s military projects, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has, for the first time, decided to use components sourced from commercial suppliers in large, critical projects, three people familiar with the development said.
The research agency typically relies on parts designed and developed by its own teams to ensure that these can stand rugged use in military equipment, such as tanks, and are reliable in harsh conditions ranging from the desert of Rajasthan to the Himalayas.
The radars of the airborne early warning and controls system, or Aewacs, a surveillance plane to monitor Indian skies, will be the first large defence system to be built mainly using so-called commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) components and microprocessors, an official with the Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification, or Cemilac, said.
Greater efficiency: Rustom, the unmanned aerial vehicle being built by the Defence Research and Development Organisation, uses components sourced from commercial suppliers in the flight control systems and avionics. Hemant Mishra / Mint
Cemilac is the certifying authority for all military aircraft and its systems. The official didn’t want to be identified.
The Aewacs radars, being built by Centre for Airborne Systems, are to be integrated on Embraer aircraft, manufactured by Embraer SA of Brazil, by 2011.
DRDO is also using such commercial components in the flight control systems and avionics for Rustom, the medium-altitude long endurance unmanned aerial vehicle being built indigenously.
Normally, the defence research agency designs systems from critical components it builds on its own to ensure what is known in defence parlance as the military-grade standard, but the designing and development of some components could take as much as five years.
DRDO also buys military-grade parts from foreign suppliers. Military-grade standard requires the components to be rugged, durable and be able to withstand extreme vibration, heat and temperature.
DRDO has now found this ruggedness in locally made components as well, with the domestic electronics industry designing products to withstand the country’s extreme and varied climate and infrastructure conditions.
“You see a television installed in a bus that runs even in rural towns. How much more rugged can you get,” said Prahlada, chief controller of research and development at DRDO. “Radars are the first systems (where) we are using (commercial components).”
Use of off-the-shelf components could lower the price of building a system by as much as half and reduce time needed for its development by up to two years, he added. Prahlada, who goes by one name, however, could not put a number to the savings expected.
India began experimenting with commercially available components for its military equipment after the 1998 nuclear tests, when the US imposed sanctions, prohibiting supply of components that could be used for both commercial and defence purposes.
Projects such as India’s first indigenous light combat aircraft Tejas and passenger plane Saras were hit due to the ban. Since then, though, with India’s economy on a rise, the country has become a huge market for component suppliers, who bring in advanced chips and systems around the same time they are introduced in developed markets.
“It will be more difficult to apply trade barriers (now). Because of the COTS, there are more players from whom you can source,” said P.S. Krishnan, director of the Aeronautical Development Agency, the DRDO unit building unmanned aerial vehicles. He did not name the commercial suppliers DRDO is sourcing components from.
Defence experts, however, warn that buying such components should be done judiciously, factoring not just the cost but also lifetime support as military equipment is normally used for at least two decades.
“The ruggedization for use in military has not been waived. You can’t have all components off the shelf; you need precautions and those you buy should be put to tests for military grade,” said J.K. Sharma, former chief executive (airworthiness) of Cemilac. “As the confidence grows, we will see more large systems that use them.”