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Capability development needs investment of resources, time and genuine hand-holding

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

“It is not possible to have state of art technology without investing in research and development (R&D)… And, strategic partnership is between countries and not just two companies.”

These were the two messages given by the chief executive, MBDA missile systems, Antoine Bouvier to a group of visiting Indian journalists at the company’s headquarters in France.

MBDA is a successful European company that designs, develops and manufactures missiles and missile systems. Bouvier has been at its helm for a decade of its 16 years existence since 2001. Besides its order book of Euro 17 billion, MBDA has the distinction of having 21 per cent market share worldwide, does more than 50 per cent exports outside Europe and supports over 90 armed forces.

With MBDA’s credentials well defined, the next step is to know how the French defence procurement works. The French government has a specialised procurement agency called Direction Générale de l’Armement (DGA). The DGA works closely with the military and industry. Based on the military’s modernisation vision, the DGA draws up the profile of the technology/platform the services would require in the coming years. This profile depends upon the vision of the military, the capabilities of French industry and the money that the government is willing to spend on that particular system. This is a three-way consultative process by the DGA involving the military, the MoD and the industry. Once the requirements are finalised, the DGA places the order with the selected manufacturing company and gives them a deadline. The DGA monitors the programme through its development, as based on that it seeks funds from the government. Once the system or the platform is developed, the DGA tests and certifies it, after which it is handed over to the military. In case certain technologies or systems that the military desires are not available or are not cost-effective within the French industry, the DGA either imports them or creates a joint venture with a foreign company, specific to that technology or system. Such is the DGA’s reputation for professionalism that many French export customers buy equipment based solely on DGA certification.

Given this backdrop, it was time to listen to Bouvier on how much money MBDA invests in R&D. “Money invested in research is of two types. There is research in technology (R in T) that the government gives which is confidential and cannot be disclosed. And there is research in development (R in D) which the company puts in,” he said, adding that, “technology studies are first done between the defence ministry, armed forces and industry (under DGA). Once these are successful, development starts with the overall investment being 1:10 (technology studies and development).” According to him, “MBDA puts a significant part of its sales in research.” A senior company officer, not willing to be named said that as much as 28 per cent is put in research to stay ahead, more so in times, when markets are shrinking and customers are looking for low-cost options.”

Given MBDA’s commitment to research and the fact that Indian public and private sector companies, for different reasons, do not invest much in research, how would MBDA’s joint venture signed with Larson & Toubro in February 2017 — its first in India — work? “We understand that India has the vision to build its defence capabilities and its defence industry in a step-by-step approach. So, we are working on medium to long-term basis with L&T under Buy Indian, Designed, Developed and Manufactured (IDDM), and Buy and Make categories of missiles and missile systems,” Bouvier said.

He added, “Our objective is to set base in India for future exports by having product investments after serving needs of the Indian armed forces. Our investment thinking is consistent and significant to include building industrial capability, technology transfer and product support.”

Antoine Bouvier
Chief executive, MBDA missile systems, Antoine Bouvier

According to Bouvier, “We believe that the fifth generation Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM-5) will be a good project for technology transfer. Moreover, we will use the technology developed by the prime (the JV) in India.” In response to the question on how much technology will be transferred by MBDA to India through the JV with L&T, he said, “This will be governed by the Indian laws, and the sharing agreement that we have with L&T where both partners have invested equally (though the holdings are 51:49, with L&T being the senior partner).”

“We reply to all RFIs coming in new categories and hope to deliver many systems, sub-systems and equipment through the JV,” he added.

Technologies in the ATGM-5 are derived from the MBDA’s latest medium range missile or Missile Moyenne Portée (MMP), which was earlier offered as a base platform for co-development to the DRDO. MBDA has started production of the MMP with deliveries to the French armed forces due to commence in 2018. As the replacement for the Milan and Javelin anti-tank missiles with the French military, the MMP, with precision of over four kilometres range is a flexible system capable of Lock-before-Launch, Fire and Forget mode alongside Lock- after-Launch with man-in-the-loop engagements.

According to an official, “The digital missile, with uncooled Infra-Red seeker and tandem warhead is capable of one-metre steel penetration and also of defeating depleted Uranium reactive armour. It has 15 years life which through mid-life pyro-tests upgrades can be extended to full 25 years.” Thus, the missile’s multi-purpose lethal package (anti-tank, anti-personnel and anti-structure) can defeat targets ranging from heavy tanks with reactive armour to entrenched infantry.

Asked about the very short-range air defence (VSHORAD) system for the Indian Army which has been hanging fire since 2010 with three competitors — MBDA’s Mistral, Swedish RBS-70NG and Russian IGLA-S –, Bouvier said, “We have done out best and are fully complaint. The review is with the Indian ministry of defence and we are confident of positive results.” As an aside, sources in the Indian Army say Mistral has performed better than RBS-70NG.

MBDA’s Mistral will also arm the Army’s Rudra helicopters which do not have missile. The IAF, which is the lead agency for integration of Mistral has invited MBDA for cost negotiations. “The contract negotiation committee (CNC) will start in a few days,” Bouvier said. This is not all. HAL’s other armed helicopter programme — Light Combat Helicopter — which is under development will also have Mistrals. “The live-firing of Mistral on the LCH is planned to be held by the end of this year in Chandipur. Like the Rudra, the LCH will also have four missiles on each wing,” Bouvier said.

Speaking about strategic partnership, Bouvier said that he was not disappointed with the sudden closure of the Maitri short-range surface to air missiles (SR-SAM) co-development programme with the DRDO. The canister-based, vertical launched SR-SAM had been under development with the MBDA since 2015 when the DRDO suddenly declared that it would have the indigenous missile to replace the Trishul quick reaction 25km range missile which was being built unsuccessfully since 1984. Interestingly, MBDA’s General Michel Petre (retd) disclosed that France had offered to transfer SR-SAM seeker (uncooled Infra-Red) technology including its source codes to the DRDO. This would have been a major breakthrough for India which lacks seeker technology. Whatever be the DRDO’s reasons, MBDA has now offered SR-SAM along with vertical-launch MICA and Sea Ceptor ship-based air defence system to the Indian Navy in response to its RFI.

The point Bouvier made was that given close ties between India and France, there are immense possibilities of MBDA giving high-end technology through its JV with L&T to India. Given this, the way for India to develop indigenous defence capability is straight forward: It should invest in R&D, and seek both tangible and intangible technologies from nations with strategic partnership — France clearly being one of them. Tangible technology refers to source and object codes of high-end force multipliers, while intangible means management skills and other best practices.


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