|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
According to news reports, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has adopted a policy that raises participation of indigenous firms in manufacturing 'technical textile' for Armed Forces. It has been clarified the "Technical Textile" implies it is used for specialised products like bullet-proof jackets, bullet-proof patka and high altitude clothing. Generally, the term technical textile is referred for products manufactured for non-aesthetic purposes - primary criterion. Technical textiles include textiles for automotive applications, medical textiles like implants, agro-textiles for crop protection, and protective clothing; for example heat and radiation protection for firefighting clothing, molten metal protection for welders, bulletproof jackets and space suits. The market size of technical textiles Compared to the annual 1 per cent global growth rate of home and apparel textiles, the global growth rate of technical textiles is about 4 per cent per year.
Currently, technical textile materials are most widely used in filter clothing, furniture, hygiene medicals and construction material. Though India is the second largest textile economy in the world after China, India's contribution to the global technical textile industry is insignificant. The products under the MoD's new policy implementations include high altitude inner clothing, three-layered gloves, multi-purpose boots, snow boots, crampons and sleeping bags and other such products made of technical textile. The tenders related to the products up to the value of 50 lakh will go to an Indian company giving the lowest bid. Foreign manufacturers will be able to participate in cases where the value of tenders is worth more than 50 lakh. But, in such cases also, even if a foreign company is found to be the lowest bidder, the endeavour will be to procure 50 per cent of the product by value from an Indian manufacturer. However, the norm, in this case, will be that the indigenous company will have to supply the products at the same rate of the winning bidder. If the condition arises where the product is to be procured from only one participant, then the Indian firm gets preference. This policy is to encourage 'Make in India' with a view to enhancing income and employment.
Media has quoted an un-named senior Army officer in saying that the policy was given the nod at a meeting in Mumbai under the aegis of the Ministry of Commerce and was attended by the Army, and details for other areas were also being worked out. It is a bit surprising why MoD kept on importing items like high altitude inner clothing, three-layered gloves, multi-purpose boots, snow boots, crampons and sleeping bags, or kept on accepting inferior items from the governmental defence-industrial establishment, where provisioned, because before being appointed Defence Minister in September 2017, Nirmala Sitharaman had plenty experience as Minister of State (MoS) in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. It is not that none of these items are manufactured in India. But it is like the decision for the indigenous manufacture of the new bulletproof resistant jacket was taken only last year based on the Amrita University proposal to DRDO and the joint propel TDF-DRDO sent to MoD and Dr Shantanu Bhowmik, Head Research & Projects, Department of Aerospace Engineering, Amrita university, Coimbatore writing to then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar that the proposal needed to be progressed expeditiously since similar research was ongoing by foreign companies like Boeing, EADS, Airbus, Lockheed Martin, Bombardier etc for developing high performance thermoplastic-carbon fibre composite for various applications in aviation and defence, and that Amrita University was in the forefront of this technology globally. The noteworthy issue was that MoD kept on importing bulletproof jackets while Indian companies were exporting bulletproof jackets and helmets built in India to the highest specifications of personal protection to more than 230 forces in over 100 countries; exports including to the British, German, Spanish and French armies, and police forces from Japan to the US. Why these issues keep coming up is brushed under the carpet under pretext of labyrinth procurement processes and red tape. However, the stink of corruption too remains unmistakable. It has been brought out in these columns earlier that Army wanted to but combat uniforms from open market because the concerned Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) enterprise was selling the same combat uniform set with same material at four times the price. Army's demand was being resisted by the OFB despite the fact that the concerned ordnance factory was outsourcing stitching of said uniforms. This is just one example of the endemic corruption nexus between the MoD and the defence complex that runs into crores. Whether the Army has been eventually permitted to procure combat dresses from the open market is not known but a June 29, 2018 news report quoting MoD intimated that soldiers and JCO's will now be required to procure clothing items, including summer uniform, shirt angola, woolen jersey, mufti dress and accoutrements like lanyard, belt, badges, ribbons, chevron and formation sign using the clothing allowance authorised under the 7th Central Pay Commission. It is good that "technical textiles" are being introduced into Armed Forces for specialised products like bullet-proof jackets, bullet-proof patka and high altitude clothing. By when it would fructify is anyone's guess but the mention of "high-altitude inner clothing" raised the question why not the complete set of high altitude clothing including outer clothing? Why only crampons and why not the complete set of high altitude and glacial warfare equipment.
Another significant issue is what is the R&D for uniforms for Armed Forces to meet 21st century warfare requirements? In 2012, British Firm 'Intelligent Textiles', had developed conducive yarn that takes power and data to where required, with redundancy, so that if the fabric gets cut, damaged or torn, there is still a way of re-routing the data. It removes the hindrance of the many wires and cables required in military equipment that adds weight, can tangle and snag. During field trials in the same year, the fabric was integrated into the vest, the shirt, the helmet, the backpack, and into the glove and weapons platform. The ring-main circuit allowed powering data where required. Power could be sent to even the helmet without it being tethered. Also being developed was a 'fabric keyboard' for use with a portable computer integrated with the uniform. By September 2015, the firm had secured a multimillion-pound deal with the US and UK to bring this technology to soldiers. Where are we in such technologies?