In a move underscoring escalating security concerns, India has taken a stringent step against using Chinese-made components in its military drones. The decision was made in light of apprehensions about potential security vulnerabilities, as reported by defense and industry insiders.
India's move comes against the backdrop of heightened tensions with its neighboring nation, China. As part of its military modernization, India is eyeing an increased use of sophisticated unmanned devices. But it's not just about acquiring more equipment. Authorities are deeply concerned about the risk of intelligence leaks from Chinese parts embedded in drones, which could jeopardize communication, imaging, radio transmission, and essential software functions.
It's important to note, this isn't the first time concerns about China's tech have been raised. The U.S. Congress had put a halt on the Pentagon's dealings with Chinese drones or their parts back in 2019.
According to documents procured by Reuters, India's new stance reinforces the phased import restrictions on surveillance drones that commenced in 2020. During meetings earlier this year, Indian military authorities established clear directives: drone components originating from “Countries sharing land borders with India will not be acceptable for security reasons”.
A tender document further emphasized the “security loopholes” in such systems, prompting vendors to be transparent about component origins.
Interestingly, when referring to the term “neighboring countries”, it's indirectly pointing toward China. One senior defense official commented on how the Indian industry is still leaning on China, despite cybersecurity fears.
While the intention is security-driven, the implications for Indian drone manufacturers are cost-heavy. Many manufacturers are grappling with higher expenses, as they are now sourcing components from non-Chinese suppliers.
As Sameer Joshi, a drone supplier in Bengaluru, stated, “Switching to a non-Chinese pipeline pushed up costs dramatically.”
Moreover, he reportedly mentioned some manufacturers resort to “white-labeling” components procured from China to manage costs.
India is wrestling with technological challenges as well. Despite ambitions to develop an indigenous drone system called Tapas, delays plague the program. Although the drone meets many criteria, challenges with the engine mean it can't achieve the desired operational altitude of 30,000 feet or stay airborne for a full day. With indigenous projects facing hitches, India has chosen to buy 31 MQ-9 drones from the U.S. for a whopping $3 billion.
R.K. Narang, a drone expert, emphasized the necessity for a “coherent national strategy” to bridge these technological gaps. Even though Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman allocated a quarter of this year's defense research budget for the private sector, the reality is a lack of substantial investment in research and development by major Indian firms.
The Way Forward
The prevailing sentiment is that the path to boosting domestic manufacturing might require enduring higher costs. As a senior defense official concluded, embracing local production after purchasing from China could inflate costs by 50%. It's a price, he suggests, the nation might have to pay to nurture a robust, secure ecosystem at home.
To protect its skies and security, India might need to tread a challenging path of balancing costs with its strategic needs.
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