In a groundbreaking development that has sent shockwaves through the Indian defense innovation ecosystem, the Headquarters of the Integrated Defence Staff (HQIDS) recently unveiled on the X platform (formerly known as Twitter) that they had issued “AoN” (Acceptance of Necessity) for a staggering ten iDEX cases all in a single day. This remarkable achievement, celebrated as a “landmark” moment, took place on September 18, 2023, and holds profound implications for the Indian Navy’s future endeavors.
As these newly granted AoNs pave the way for contracts to be signed, the Indian Navy is poised to secure a substantial share of successful iDEX cases in the coming months. This achievement is a testament to the Navy’s dedication to overseeing various development agreements, conducting numerous trials, and ensuring prototypes are ready for deployment.
The driving force behind this momentous leap is the ‘SPRINT’ initiative, an undertaking of the Naval Innovation and Indigenisation Organisation (NIIO). Launched in July the previous year during the NIIO seminar ‘Swavlamban,’ ‘SPRINT’ has played a pivotal role in reshaping the defense procurement landscape. For those unfamiliar with the terms ‘AoN’ and ‘SPRINT,’ here’s a quick primer. In the Defense Procurement Process, the initial step is the granting of ‘AoN,’ which stands for ‘Acceptance of Necessity.’ Subsequent stages of procurement follow this critical step. In cases where the procurement falls within the purview of the respective service and amounts to up to 300 crores, ‘AoN’ is granted at the Tri-Service level by the Services Procurement Board (SPB), chaired by the Chief of Integrated Defence Staff (CISC).
Following the AoN, the Service Headquarters issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) to advance the procurement process. Traditionally, this cycle of product development, trials, AoN approval, and eventual procurement used to be a time-consuming ordeal, often taking several years. In some instances, products would be on the brink of technological obsolescence by the time they reached end-users. This glaring issue required urgent attention, especially in an era marked by rapid technological advancements.
Recognizing the imperative of accelerating technology adoption, the Navy established a Technology Development Acceleration Cell (TDAC) as part of the NIIO. TDAC’s mandate includes fostering collaborations with academia and industry, among other responsibilities. While the Navy had long emphasized innovation and indigenization, these efforts were formalized with the creation of NIIO in August 2020. The ‘SPRINT’ initiative, launched the following year, represents the flagship program of this emerging organization. More than just a new scheme or process, ‘SPRINT’ is a resolute declaration of intent. It involves the Navy collaborating with iDEX with the goal of developing at least 75 technologies or products, aligning with the theme of Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, which celebrates 75 years of India’s independence.
When ‘SPRINT’ was launched, skeptics questioned whether such an ambitious goal could be achieved. The prospect of developing 75 technologies in a year appeared overly ambitious, even for the forward-thinking Indian Navy. Doubts were raised about whether Indian startups could develop these technologically intensive products within compressed timelines. However, it quickly became evident during the initial phase of implementation that progress was firmly on track.
Yet, there were still skeptics on social media who anticipated the usual delays in trials and procurement, as had been the norm in the past. The turning point came when the first ‘AoN’ was granted well ahead of the one-year deadline, with actual orders being placed in a matter of weeks, a development that defied all expectations.
Sanjay Jaju, the then Additional Secretary of Defence Production, aptly described what the Navy had achieved as “magical” when the winners of ‘SPRINT’ were announced the previous year. The recent announcement by HQIDS serves as further proof of the ongoing transformation’s magical nature, with ‘AoNs’ worth over Rupees 1200 crores being granted in just one day.
Although the monetary figure may not appear colossal, it is essential to note that these ‘AoNs’ pertain to only 10 cases, each with a maximum government investment limit of Rs 15 crores (as each individual case has a grant limit of Rupees 1.5 crores). What’s more significant is that these endeavors are spearheaded by small startups, some of which are bootstrapped but have demonstrated immense promise. Cumulatively, the ‘AoNs’ for approximately a dozen ‘SPRINT’ cases now total nearly 1500 crores, with orders already placed for about 200 crores.
Understandably, the larger ‘SPRINT’ cases, especially the more complex ones, will naturally take longer to materialize. Extrapolating from the achievements so far, it is safe to say that the entire defense innovation ecosystem has undergone a profound and lasting transformation. If the same pace of progress is maintained, and there is every reason to believe it will, the Indian defense ecosystem’s future output is a source of boundless imagination. Consider the potential impact on defense exports, as some of these groundbreaking products are set to be showcased during the upcoming Swavlamban event scheduled for October 4-5. The Navy remains confident that it will not only meet but surpass its stated goal of developing 75 products.
In addition to the iDEX cases, ‘SPRINT’ has also encompassed in-house naval innovations, further enriching its scope. The total number of products set to be displayed during Swavlamban 2023 is expected to approach a hundred, with several holding the promise of being global firsts and game-changers. With these exceptional results, the Indian Navy and all other stakeholders can aim even higher. Indian startups have unquestionably delivered on their promises, dispelling doubts about their capabilities and expanding the horizons of challenges that can be presented to them.
With the establishment of NIIO, the Navy affirmed the necessity for innovation. The results have not just met but far exceeded expectations, ushering in an ‘AoN’ for change that will undoubtedly redefine the Indian defense landscape for years to come.
The author is a Delhi-based, DCC-qualified defence beat writer and independent contributor to print and online publications
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