A recent report highlights the increased procurement of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones by the Indian armed forces. The ongoing border standoff with China has further fueled this trend, prompting the Army to order nearly 2000 drones to bolster surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities along the India-China border and facilitate supply transportation to forward posts. Additionally, the Army aims to utilize drones for directing artillery fire, enhancing the accuracy and efficiency of its border artillery systems.

Recognizing the significance of drones as force multipliers, the Indian armed forces intend to acquire more drones in the coming years for a wide range of applications. This presents an opportunity to develop India’s military drone ecosystem. While the country’s drone start-ups have been instrumental in driving growth in the civilian drone sector, some of them also manufacture military drones, including dual-use models that fulfill both civilian and military requirements. Start-ups like ideaForge, Raphe mPhibr, and NewSpace Research & Technologies have already received orders from the Indian Army for surveillance, cargo transport, and offensive swarm drone systems.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) supports the military drone ecosystem through initiatives like Innovations For Defence Excellence (iDEX), which provides grants to develop military-grade products, including drones. The government should consider expanding iDEX challenges specifically related to UAVs and provide adequate financial assistance to enable defense start-ups to scale up drone production. Other armed forces’ initiatives like the Mehar Baba Competition by the Indian Air Force and the Him Drone-a-thon program by the Indian Army, in collaboration with the Drone Federation of India, have also contributed to the development of the military drone ecosystem.

While progress has been made in establishing an environment conducive to the development and manufacture of military-grade drones, certain challenges remain. The Indian private sector currently relies on imports for key drone components due to a lack of domestic manufacturing capabilities. The government’s Production-Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme aims to incentivize indigenous component production but requires a larger outlay to support more start-ups. To foster a truly indigenous drone industry, India needs to build a supportive ecosystem that facilitates the supply of indigenously produced components.

Another challenge is the limited research and development (R&D) undertaken by drone start-ups. Insufficient capital and uncertainty surrounding procurement orders hinder R&D efforts. To encourage R&D, the armed forces should assure start-ups of orders upon successful product development. Additionally, the armed forces should streamline their requirements, ensuring they balance advanced features with cost considerations.

Overall, the demand for military-grade drones is projected to increase, creating an opportunity for India to become a leading producer of defense equipment. With the global market for military drones forecasted to grow substantially, India can leverage its talent pool and IT expertise to capture a significant share. However, adequate support must be provided to Indian drone start-ups to realize this potential.