At India’s DefExpo defense show this week, Tata announced a string of tie-ups with foreign manufacturers from the United States, Israel and Europe that set it apart from other emerging Indian defense manufacturers like Larsen & Toubro (L&T) and Mahindra & Mahindra.
The Tata group is becoming well known around the world for its low cost car, its bids for the Jaguar and Land-Rover brands, and for taking over Europe’s Corus steel company. Now it is emerging as the Indian market leader in a new area – defense equipment.
The company is transferring India’s proven ability to produce low-cost software and international-quality auto components and cars to the defense and aviation industries, persuading companies like Boeing (BA), European Aeronautic Defense & Space Company and Israel Aerospace Industries that they can benefit by buying from India.
The pairing with IAI is probably the most important announced in the past week. A joint-venture company is planned to develop and manufacture defense and aerospace products such as missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, radars, and electronic warfare and security systems. With EADS, Tata will be bidding for a long-delayed $1 billion Army communications system, while it is to supply Boeing with aerospace components – including orders for the United States Air Force – totaling $500 million over five to eight years. There is also a helicopter cabin order from Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation.
The main prize that everyone wants is a $10 billion Indian Air Force order for 126 multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) that is now out to tender. Robert Gates, America’s defense secretary, will push Boeing’s and Lockheed’s bids when he is in Delhi next week to try to revive slow-moving joint defense and security collaboration agreements.
India’s private sector has historically played a very minor role in the country’s $10 billion-plus annual capital expenditure on defense equipment. Up to 70% is spent abroad because the Indian public sector cannot deliver in terms of quality or speed on either research or production. Only about 30% of the orders placed in India (around 10% of the total) goes to firms like Tata, L&T, and Mahindra because the public sector-dominated defense establishment has never allowed the private sector to develop. That is beginning to change, but only slowly.
In June last year, I wrote a post saying India would soon announce names of a small number of Indian private-sector companies – Raksha Udyog Ratnas or, literally translated, “defense industry jewels” – that would be allowed to compete for big research, development and production projects on equal terms with the public sector.
I should have known better, as I wrote last October when it was becoming clear that the policy would be blocked. The names have still not been announced, and it doesn’t appear that they will be, at least until after the general election next year, because of opposition from Leftist political parties, encouraged by trade unions and the defense establishment.
There is also a new offsets policy which requires foreign defense suppliers to spend 30%-50% of their orders in India. The government has forecast this could generate $12 billion in orders in the next four to five years – among the first will be business from Lockheed (LMT) for six Super Hercules C-130J military transport aircraft costing $1 billion that India ordered earlier this month.
It will be some time however before offsets produce orders that provide economies of scale, so Tata wants to build manufacturing capacity independent of how the Ratnas and offsets develop. Tata Advance Systems has been set up to manage the manufacture and integration of orders, and Tata Industrial Services will match Tata’s and other Indian companies’ capabilities with offset and other requirements from abroad. For large projects, various group companies such as TCS Aerospace (software), Tata Power, Tata Advanced Materials and Tata Motors will pool capital raising and risk management resources.
This will enable Tata, one of the country’s two largest business houses, to build up capacity and scale so that it is ready to manufacture in quantity for the Indian defense forces when it is allowed to do so. It also enables foreign defense companies to get used to working in India at a time when they are about to be forced to use Indian components through the new offsets policy. Other companies are also making similar moves, though none is so wide-ranging as Tata which, so far, is winning.