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Defence secretary Dr Ajay Kumar: ‘COVID-19 has also offered several opportunities from defence perspective’

Covid-19 has been a cause of several concerns. But at the same time, it has also opened new opportunities, says Defence secretary Dr Ajay Kumar.

Written by Sushant Singh | New Delhi | Updated: May 15, 2020 8:51:27 am
Defence Ministry on Covid-19, armed forces coronavirus cases, Covid-19 pandemic, coronavirus, coronavirus news, covid 19 tracker, covid 19 india tracker, coronavirus latest news, Indian express To be operationally ready despite the constraints imposed by Covid-19 has been one of the biggest challenges faced by the armed forces. (File photo)

Defence secretary Dr Ajay Kumar speaks to The Indian Express about challenges posed by Covid-19, the likely budget cuts and defence modernisation. Excerpts: 

What is the biggest challenge posed to the defence ministry by Covid-19 pandemic?

COVID-19 has been a cause of several concerns. But at the same time, it has also opened new opportunities.

To be operationally ready despite the constraints imposed by COVID-19 has been one of the biggest challenges faced by Armed Forces. And we can say proudly that Armed Forces have been able to do so with determination and careful planning. Our ships, airplanes and our land forces have remained operationally ready and have carried out the tasks assigned with success. New SOPs had to be developed regarding what could be done and what could not be done. It is heartening to note that the Armed Forces have prepared and implemented SOPs to ensure that the forces remain operationally ready and do not get paralysed by the pandemic.

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Armed Forces have also been asked to support the civil authorities in the fight against this pandemic. This has implied Armed Forces take up new tasks. All across the country, different organizations have come forward to contribute their might to supplement the efforts of civil Government in the fight against COVID-19. Whether it is for setting up of quarantine centres across the country in real time, or earmarking medical facilities for the COVID patients, Armed Forces Medical Services has been equal to the task. We have deputed teams to friendly countries to support them in their efforts against COVID-19. Similarly, IAF and Indian Navy has ferried Indians to enable them to come back.

COVID-19 has also offered several opportunities from defence perspective. One of the important one relates to great encouragement it has provided to domestic innovation. Whether it is for developing equipment/devices for dealing with the pandemic or developing tests for detecting patients or developing vaccine against the disease, the pandemic has seen much greater acceptance of indigenous technologies and solutions as never before. The innovation ecosystem in the country has responded tremendously to this positive approach by acceptance authorities. Both industries and start ups are coming up with large number of initiatives. Several of the industry and start-ups who have come forward are same as those in defence and aerospace area. I am very hopeful that this push for indigenous innovation will rub off on other areas which have direct implication for defence and aerospace as well.

It is feared that there will be significant budget cuts in defence expenditure because of the economic situation. How will you tackle this, particularly when it comes to defence modernisation?

It is early to speculate on budget cut on defence modernization. However, under no situation do we compromise the security of the country.

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But it is also an opportunity to implement some long pending reforms and cut unnecessary expenditure in defence. Accordingly, a decision was taken to abolish 9304 posts in Military Engineering Services. Similarly steps have been taken to close down Military Farms as these are not relevant in present context. We need to optimally use our resources and this could greatly help modernization of our armed forces.

What specific measures are you taking for domestic defence manufacturing industry to help their revival? How will DPSUs and DRDO be involved in it?

Our efforts to promote indigenous manufacturing in defence and aerospace, both for domestic market as well as exports are ongoing and will continue post-COVID-19 also. We have several measures which are ongoing. Just to mention a few:

# Transfer of technology from DRDO is available for indigenous manufacturing at zero cost. This is big opportunity for industry to come forward and start manufacturing for domestic/export market

# There is free access to DRDO patents for industry which can help them new technologies/products in India.

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# New scheme for developing testing infrastructure has been approved by Department of Defence Production and the same is under implementation. This will provide dedicated testing infrastructure for defence and aerospace industry.

# Efforts to promote investment sin the 2 Defence industrial corridors are going on. During DefExpo 2020, several expressions of interests amounting to thousands of crores were received. These are likely to yield significant investment in these defence corridors.

# We are proactively working to increase the MSME base in defence and aerospace. Projects like Defence innovation centre in Coimbatore with CODISSIA are steps in that direction.

# Progress is being made in strategic Partnership Model. For submarines, the RfP should be out shortly.

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# The Inter-governmental agreement for manufacturing of spares for Russian platforms was signed and now the process of incorporating the specific units for manufacturing these après is underway. This process should see more traction as international travel has not been possible due to COVID1-9

# Under Make-II, more projects are being undertaken and will provide greater impetus to the indigenous manufacturing efforts.

# Indigenization effort of DPSUs and OFB has got a boost based on Indigenization Policy 2019 and we expect at least 1000 components to be indigenized each year in coming five years.

# The order for 83 LCSs is in pipeline and will provide a big boost to domestic aerospace industry. Even though the order goes to HAL, there are hundreds of industries who support HAL by supplying various parts and components and this should provide a big boost to the industry.

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# iDEX programme for Startups has caught imagination of large number of startups. Defence India Startup Challenge is becoming something which the startup community looks forward to participate. Startup involvement has yielded great results in both new technologies and products. What used to take years has been done in months and costs have come down by factor of 10 or more. The startup effort is proposed to be continued in future as well and build on successes achieved so far.

We are continuously working with the industry to address the issues raised by them.

We have extended last date for responding to the EoI/RfPs for capital procurement to 1.6.2020 to enable them to participate effectively. Similar approach is also adopted for revenue procurements by the Department of Military Affairs. All DPSUs agreed to expedite payments to MSMEs. Big Government PSUs and Departments like OFB, BEL, BEML, MDL have already made sure that payments due are being immediately once the due is established. Department of Defence Production is working with DPSUs and OFB in this regard. Orders have been issued that disruption of supply chain due to COVID-19 would be considered as Force-Majeure and provisions of Force Majeure clause may be invoked wherever necessary.

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We have also extended the time for consultations on the draft DPP 2020 which was supposed to end on April 17, 2020. This will provide some more time for industry to prepare their response to the public consultation process which is underway but some industry were not able to attend to it due to COVID-19 related constraints.

We have also advised to have pre-bid meetings through VC or other remote communication measures like conference calls etc.

You had initiated a lot of plans for modernisation of OFBs. Are these plans still on track?

Several projects have been taken up in recent past for modernization of OFB. One of the main project is JV between OFB and Kalashnikov of Russia which will be manufacturing AK-203, one of the latest assault rifle in the world, in India. The project was initiatied based on an Inter-Governmental Agreement in February 2019 and significant progress has been made since then. The RfP for nearly 7.5 lakh rifles has been floated and response received. Based on the evaluation of RfP, we expect the production to start in this OFB plant soon.

OFB has also made a beginning in exports. They have formed an Export Division under a Member and Export officers have also been appointed at factory level. We hope that OFB will be able to make a greater mark on global defence export market in coming years.

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Innovation has been another new trend that we have initiated within OFB. OFB has started making new products and solutions. During 2018-19, for the first time, OFB filed over 100 patents. This is extremely positive

OFB modernization is still a process which needs to be completed. OFB has potential to become a world class producer of arms and equipment and develop new technology.

How has the restructuring of higher defence organisation helped at the time of this grave crisis?

The Government in a major reform in higher defence set up of the country has set up the institution of CDS. Besides, Department of Military Affairs has also been created with CDS as its Secretary. This reform had been pending for nearly 20 years. Gen Bipin Rawat has joined as a the first CDS of the country on Jan 1, 2020.

The creation of CDS has brought into effect a mechanism which will induce greater jointness in our defence forces. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the defence forces have played a significant role coordinated by the CDS. Several new initiatives towards jointmanship are in various stages of consideration. These have had their impact in the role which Armed Forces have played during the COVID-19 crisis and will be further in view in coming months.

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