In a significant move reflecting growing security concerns, India has recently taken measures to bar domestic military drone manufacturers from utilizing components made in China.

According to Reuters, the decision comes as India intensifies its military modernization efforts and seeks to bolster its indigenous drone capability. Consequently, the move, while aimed at enhancing national security, has generated a mix of challenges and opportunities for the nascent Indian drone industry. These developments underscore the delicate balance between innovation, self-reliance, and strategic security considerations in the country’s ambitious goal of breaking into the upper echelons of advanced drone technology on the global stage.

Security Concerns and Impetus for Change

The backdrop for India’s decision lies in its strained relations with China and a renewed focus on enhancing national defense. Tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbors have escalated in recent years, with border clashes and geopolitical rivalries becoming more pronounced. Given these circumstances, New Delhi has embarked on a military modernization initiative, envisioning a more prominent role for unmanned aerial platforms like quadcopters and long-range endurance drones.

However, as the Indian drone industry endeavors to meet the demands of the military, concerns have emerged regarding the possible compromise of intelligence-gathering capabilities through the integration of Chinese-made components in drones’ communication systems, cameras, radio transmission, and operating software.

Government and industry insiders have raised the alarm about potential security loopholes in subsystems originating from countries with shared borders, which essentially refers to China. This apprehension aligns with global sentiments as the United States Congress took a similar stance in 2019, banning the Pentagon from procuring Chinese-made drones and components.

Below is an excerpt from the US Department of Defense’s press release statement published in 2021 regarding its position on Da Jiang Innovations (DJI), a Chinese technology company, as a potential threat to national security:

“…In 2018, [Department of Defense] issued a ban on the purchase and use of all commercial off-the-shelf drones, regardless of manufacturer, due to cybersecurity concerns. The following year, Congress passed legislation specifically banning the purchase and use of drones and components manufactured in China.”

Implementing Change through Phased Import Restrictions

To address these concerns, India has instituted phased import restrictions on surveillance drones since 2020. These measures have been extended to military tenders, where Indian military officials have informed potential bidders that components from countries sharing land borders will not be acceptable due to security reasons. While these measures aim to strengthen India’s security posture, they have also triggered various challenges and opportunities.

Technology Gaps, Challenges in Transition

One immediate challenge arising from the prohibition of Chinese components is the disruption it has caused to the supply chain. Many Indian drone manufacturers were heavily reliant on Chinese-made parts, resulting in an increased cost of production due to the need to source components from other countries.

Sameer Joshi, founder of NewSpace Research and Technologies, highlighted that around 70 percent of the supply chain was previously rooted in China. The shift to alternative supply chains has led to an upward cost spiral in drone production, affecting the overall feasibility of domestic manufacturing.

Another challenge facing India’s drone industry stems from its dependence on foreign manufacturers for both components and entire drone systems. Its indigenous drone development capabilities are still in the infant stage, and there’s a technology gap that hampers the creation of certain drone types. The delays in producing an indigenous Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drone system highlight the complexity of drone development and the obstacles that can arise.

However, amidst these challenges, there are significant opportunities for growth and development. The ban on Chinese components has underscored a silver lining of the need for self-reliance in drone technology and manufacturing. By fostering indigenous research and development, India can bridge technology gaps and cultivate a robust ecosystem of expertise. This transition could lead to advancements in drone technology, spurring innovation and greater autonomy.

The Role of Government and Private Industry

The Indian government has a pivotal role in nurturing the homegrown drone industry. As evidenced by the budget allocation for defense research and development, there’s an increasing emphasis on supporting the private sector. For this fiscal year alone, the country has set aside 1.6 trillion rupees (around $19.77 billion) for military modernization, of which 75 percent is reserved for domestic industry, according to Reuters.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s commitment to allocating a quarter of the defense research and development budget for private sector involvement demonstrates a commitment to promoting innovation and self-sufficiency.

However, it’s important to note that significant challenges remain in encouraging private-sector investment in drone research and development. Venture capitalists often hesitate to invest in military projects due to extended lead times and the inherent risk of such endeavors. To cultivate a thriving innovation ecosystem, the government must provide a conducive environment for research and development, ensuring that the potential rewards balance the risks of investment.

Balancing National Security and Economic Considerations

While the decision to bar Chinese-made components in military drones is primarily motivated by security concerns, it also has economic ramifications. The cost of domestic drone manufacturing has increased, and it’s essential for India to strike a balance between safeguarding national security and ensuring the economic viability of its drone industry.

As a senior defense official highlighted in the report, transitioning from buying equipment from China to domestically manufacturing those components might lead to a 50 percent cost increase. This underscores the need for comprehensive planning and a long-term vision considering both security imperatives and economic feasibility.

Forging a Self-Reliant and Secure Future

India’s recent steps to restrict Chinese-made components in military drones are emblematic of the nation’s efforts to enhance its defense capabilities while securing its interests. These measures signal a shift toward self-reliance, innovation, and the safeguarding of sensitive military technologies. While the challenges are substantial, including disruptions in the supply chain and technology gaps, they offer a unique opportunity for India to emerge as a leader in drone technology.

By leveraging its burgeoning private sector and fostering a supportive ecosystem for research and development, India can bridge the technology gaps and achieve a balanced approach to national security and economic prosperity. The journey ahead requires strategic planning, collaboration between the public and private sectors, and a commitment to nurturing innovation—an investment that could propel India’s drone industry to new heights on the global stage.