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India, U.S. advance defense technology initiative

Mandeep Singh

Building synergy between defense startups in India and the United States to jointly advance innovation in defense technology, build critical supply chains and strengthen overall security ties is central to a pair of initiatives launched in 2023 by Washington and New Delhi.

What began in January with the kickoff of the United States-India initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET) advanced to a higher level with a conference held June 21 in Washington, D.C., where the India-U.S. Defense Acceleration Ecosystem, or INDUS-X, was set in motion.

Established by India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, iCET comprises a broad framework to stimulate collaboration across critical and emerging technologies, including in space and defense, quantum communications and semiconductors, among others. INDUS-X grows out of this framework to promote a collaborative military innovation ecosystem and foster bilateral co-development and co-production, according to the Washington-based U.S.-India Business Council, which hosted the conference.

INDUS-X aims to establish a joint working group to facilitate engagement between startups and delegations from both countries; launch a joint innovation fund to support startups based on a public-private partnership model; and foster partnerships with leading universities and business incubators and accelerators.

The conference brought together 15 defense industry startups from India and 10 from the U.S., representing such domains as artificial intelligence, autonomous systems and space. The firms’ representatives showcased technology and discussed areas of possible collaboration.

Working together on the startup level will build on years of defense industry cooperation by larger firms in the two countries, defense analysts Rahul Bhatia and Konark Bhandari said in a report published by Carnegie India, a New Delhi Think Tank. Boeing and Lockheed Martin in the U.S. have each teamed up with India’s Tata Group to build components for combat aircraft, according to Bhatia and Bhandari. General Electric, meanwhile, has partnered with Indian firms such as Tata, Mahindra, and Godrej to manufacture engine components.

“Today, Indian defense startups are developing a wide spectrum of cutting-edge technologies for the Indian armed forces to employ. These range from unmanned platforms and body armor to surveillance systems and advanced imaging capabilities,” stated Bhatia and Bhandari. “Made possible by the emergence of a defense and space private sector in India, INDUS-X has the potential to facilitate a wide array of defense innovation cooperation.”
An INDUS-X joint innovation fund already has an Indian model to build on, they said, referring to the Innovations for Defence Excellence (iDEX), an initiative by the Indian Ministry of Defence, which awards grants to startups to support product development.

The analysts foresee a mentor-protégé program to link startups in India and large defense companies in the U.S., and vice versa. It could be based on a U.S. Defense Department program in place since the early 1990s for established defense firms and startups based in the U.S.

INDUS-X can also help close a critical knowledge gap, Bhatia and Bhandari explained, adding that Indian defense and space firms frequently lack the knowledge required to navigate the U.S. regulatory environment and the procurement process in Washington. INDUS-X could help startups become acquainted with the processes involved.

Functioning as a “defense innovation bridge,” INDUS-X could serve “as a troubleshooting mechanism, especially when it comes to Indian and American startups applying for an assortment of regulatory clearances in each other’s ecosystems—something that has been a cause for concern in the past as well,” the authors said.

Mandeep Singh is a FORUM contributor reporting from New Delhi, India.

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