Namma Bengaluru, former ‘pensioner’s paradise’, indigenous defence research, development and IT hub of India, is home to a defence startup with quite literally a ‘deadly’ product.
In a first for a private Indian firm, Bengaluru-headquartered Stumpp Schuele & Somappa Defence (SSS Defence) stormed the indigenous arms and ammunition space with two sniper rifle prototypes: the Viper, chambered for .308/7.62x51mm cartridge, and Saber, chambered for .338 Lapua Magnum cartridge. Their products were profiled in Times of India in Sep 2019 (read that story here).
As a fellow Bengalurean and avid watcher of indigenous defence manufacturing, particularly from the start-up sector, I caught up with Team SSS Defence at their office in a quiet, leafy lane of Koramangala on 18th Nov, 2019 when DEFEXPO 2020 was still some time away. Two weapon prototypes sat menacingly on Managing Director Satish Machani’s large, glass-topped desk. Chief Technology Officer Dinesh Shivanna (admittedly a media-shy, science, technology and aviation buff) and Vivek Krishnan, CEO, extended me a warm welcome. Together, they ran me through the audacious idea they brought to fruition in record time (less than 3 years), leveraging the deep manufacturing expertise of parent company SSS Springs, fused with latest technologies including 3D printing.
Here are the excerpts from that interaction and email interview:
Kaypius: How did you, Dinesh and Satish come together for this enterprise? Can you share a short background of all three and the common idea that brought you together on this project?
Vivek Krishnan (VK): Satish Machani is a sponsor and part of the promoter family behind Stumpp Schuele & Somappa Springs (4S). Dinesh and I have been professionals and entrepreneurs in our own right. Dinesh comes from a strong tech background while I’ve been closely associated with setting up businesses de novo. We’ve known each other for many years. Both of us are alumni from General Electric (GE) and it was absolutely normal for us to be working on multiple domains. Going back to 2016-17, the 3 of us met with the brief that 4S would be keen to look at pastures beyond automotive. Defence was indeed an area that the firm could venture into, considering that there was significant knowhow in complex metallurgical processes, industrial engineering, mass manufacturing etc. That said, it did take us a little while to decide on our choice of arena. It’ll be too long a story but we did decide to foray into manufacturing of ammunition and small arms thereafter in quick succession. The likes of L&T, Tata and Mahindra had already moved in to the high value equipment space and considering their size, partnerships and offset opportunities gravitated to them easily. However, this was an area that was largely devoid of competition besides the OFB (Punj Lloyd was there, but at that point, it was almost entirely driven by tech from Israel Weapon Industries). We had a clear vision from Day 1 – to emerge as an OEM instead of being limited to a supplier or an integrator. Needless to say, we had to tone down our ambition early on as we jostled with stumbling blocks in the form of (a) not having a license (b) having no clue on requirements of the user or MoD’s functioning and (c) having to surmount doubts in our own mind as to whether the vision was too ambitious. So, we did start by associating with partners – Companhia Brasileira de Cartuchos (CBC Brazil) for ammunition and Lewis Machine Tools for small arms. Note that our tech collaboration and partnership with CBC continues strong. However, despite LMT being a great firm, we realized early on that their US roots and ITAR compliance would keep us dangling with the promise of a bounty that could very well be a damp squib instead. That is when we decided to go our own route in design and development of our own weapons. The sights and accessories got added to the portfolio as we got more confident and built a core R&D team.
Kaypius: Why did you choose a niche product like sniper rifle?
VK: We’ve been asked this question often. But it was initially phrased like this “you guys say that the sniper rifle product of yours is indigenous. If you could do it, why are the other guys not doing so” ? My answer was “I cannot speak for them but you should surely enquire”. I personally think that is because they chose their battles and this was not in the list for the difficulty that it entailed. Our decision to get into the space was to make a statement. A sniper product is the closest that comes to a gold standard in precision shooting. Not that making a semi-auto or auto weapon is any difficult. But sniper weapons require an obsessive mindset to design and an attitude for race car engineering. Of course, we also adopted a race car company-like mindset to taking business risks, especially when the authorities (MoD and IA) in India had already decided that the procurement would be direct and via a global bid format. We had a good hunch that the tender for .338 Lapua Magnum rifles by the Indian army would hit roadblocks because of the way it was drafted. So, we went with our intuition and developed the product irrespective. Plus, there was a very sound export market for the product that we could play on (again a business risk but a calculated one). Now, we hope that the Indian army as per the spirit of the DPP 2016 give us a fair chance as the OEM. The last round of bids for the snipers were only for OEM’s to bid into and we were not yet ready then. So, in all fairness we’ve been lucky as well.
Kaypius: How did you take the idea from scratch to prototype within such a short time?
VK: We’re all Steve Jobs fans. There’s one statement attributed to him: ” When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even if it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back”. In solving the tech issues that was our approach. Our sniper products have been engineered for military use and we’ve obsessed over little things like anthropometry. Also, by insisting on commonality of platforms as a design ethos, we spent less time on going back to the board later. As an example, for both our sniper weapons, the chassis is almost the same with minor differences. It took longer for us to design and engineer the chassis though but we eliminated re-work in the process. Do note however that we’re not done and dusted with the sniper weapons. So, 2 years is not the end of it. The more we test, the closer we come to optimal. That is still work in progress. We were also assisted by developments in additive manufacturing that helped crash timelines. Our engineering team is nimble to move projects around the table to get a different set of eyes and skills to solve a problem.
Kaypius: Your experience of dealing with foreign partners in the early days of the project?
VK: Foreign partners can be a boon and a bane. In our experience, its our overbearing focus on “results now” that sometimes causes more than a legit reliance on partners. Partners might help you field a good product but there is a protectionist attitude in the best of them. More often than not, one is likely to hear stories of how they spent decades to fine tune something. Incremental learning is a sure possibility when you work with partners but there will always be something lacking. For us, ITAR and US state department regulations were a big issue. We couldn’t even see some products and components owing to the fact that they were controlled by the State Department. The negotiating stance that “if we win something, some transfer of tech may be a prospect” was also not enticing enough. People have told me that the Israelis are better but I’ve spent 20 years doing high-stakes negotiations. The Israelis are the toughest in that space. We have a partnership with CBC on the ammunition front. It has taken us almost 2 years of working to forge a practical understanding; plus the Brazilian approach of using India as a staging ground for exports to Asia and Middle east creates a better business case. But even there, we are of the view that any Indian partnership will require domestic R&D.
Kaypius: What were the specific challenges faced by you in fielding / testing the product, such as lack of firing range, entry barriers, established foreign OEMs, etc?
VK: Until recently, government firing ranges were not open to industry. Of course, it affects the producers of larger guns more than us but it’s important to note that as a business, we have to test every weapon that will finally go out of our assembly with live firing of 50 or more rounds. It’s one major reason why we’ve got to have a proof testing facility in house and operational simultaneous to the commencement of manufacturing (April 2020 target date).
As regards testing of the weapon as it was being developed, we had to be innovative or else the process would’ve taken us many more years. First, we embraced simulation during the design process. There may have been some over – design initially but that would be taken care of as testing progresses. For the first snipers that we developed, there was literally no way of testing in India as we completely lack supplies of match grade ammunition (applies to both 7.62×51 and .338 Lapua magnum). So, the only option was testing abroad. Therefore, we had to design the weapon to be modular, dissemble the pieces, get them to the US, mate the receiver with a foreign made barrel (designed for our receiver) and then test. Thereafter process import clearances for the entire weapon and bring back with match grade ammo. Just the logistics of it took us 9 months but the learning curve was steep once we got the weapon to India and tested with the agency that was trialing it. There are still points that we’re not happy about but we’re better prepared to change. In effect, we went from Mk 1 to Mk 4 within 9-10 months instead of sitting around and hoping that somebody would give us a foreign designed & proofed weapon for the trial. Yes, we also increased the chances of failing during the bid that we were in but that was a risk worth taking. At worst, we’d have failed in attempting an Indian product and learnt how to get better. At best, we’d have received accolades and won the bid. I think, we ended up somewhere in between. Now, there are units that have supported us fully in facilitating the range testing in Indian conditions and helping us field a better product. I’ll again emphasise, in the sniper business, the difference between different products is just a fraction. But instead of going in for a foreign made weapon that costs a fortune, comes with no assurance of upgrades and makes us reliant on the OEM for spares that can easily be discontinued, the Indian forces have to find an Indian player and support them fully. The very first weapons may not sing and dance like the Accuracy International, Beretta or Barrett weapons but I believe ours will still hit the marks with consistency. Most importantly, we shall be cheaper by a margin and willing to upgrade at each level. This is an advantage worth fighting for. There is a requirement for 6000 odd sniper weapons today. Working with us, the Indian army wouldn’t have to procure all 6000 in a single go. They could acquire the first 100 reassured that all upgrades that we make during the test and field induction phase will be made available to them in the next round with minimal increase in cost. The spares for the product too would surely not cost a fortune. Another case – We keep hearing the IA say that we need long lives for the barrel. That is because they’re worried about obsolescence and fear that when they ask for a new barrel, it would either be unavailable or prohibitively expensive. We’re trying to explain that such insecurity need not matter when working with an Indian co. Instead of one, ask us for 2 or more as and when needed. A sniper barrel doesn’t cost more than USD 200 (mostly between 100 – 200). That’s only 10- 15% of the weapon’s cost. By also making the ammunition locally, we hope to allay fears of the Indian army that war reserves will be compromised because of sustained training. Sniper weapons have to be fired to the point where each marksman is confident of hitting his mark. Sustained firing practice at progressively longer ranges is a per requisite for development of a scout sniper program. Today, only a select bunch are doing this and even for them, use is rationed in fear that we can’t be importing over and over.
Kaypius: Can you tell us something about your experience of dealing with defence agencies in India?
VK: The MoD is progressively falling in line as far as importance of Make in India is concerned. But everybody is bound to be circumspect considering that decades of indigenous manufacturing hasn’t even yielded a proper assault rifle. Blame the OFB for that perception. However, we’ve benefited from Indian private participation in the larger guns and many other areas. The most important ingredient is trust. I believe that the initial trust, willingness to embrace failure and correct via co-development is the only way to build a great product. We’re doing our best to prevent even slight failure but how are we to know where we’re going wrong if the army doesn’t engage with us as a client ? If they commit on one side to Make in India and yet go ahead with a global bids, what’s the sanctity of their commitment ? There are limits to NCNC trials. We can go on and on with those but it’s futile if after all that, they still wish to repose faith with the big guys of the international weapons industry or the ailing grandfather in the OFB. So, while we are positive, it’s not us who have to deliver; it’s the government, MoD and the forces that need chutzpah. A very Israeli attitude, if I may, is required.
Kaypius: How do you plan to take on the DRDO, Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and their products in similar range? What makes your sniper rifles better?
VK: We have no plans for the DRDO or the OFB. We just want to make the best performing weapon and go global with it. Our goal is to be reckoned at par with the SIG’s. Not to be a local player. They are free to co-develop with us and we’re open to co-developing different weapons across calibers. But the cultural rift and working styles are just too much at variance. Our sniper rifles are better on design, performance parameters, ergonomics, anthropometrics, construction, modularity and light-weight characteristics. We’re going out on a limb and strategically working on models of sniper rifles that fit specific special forces missions. Eg: a compact semi-auto sniper system for airborne forces, an urban combat sniper weapon that can also double up for ops in and around armoured vehicles to cite a few. These will be game changers. (“Defexpo 2020 should see some variants hopefully”, he added in Nov 2019).
Vivek’s parting line, summing up the essence of their enterprise:
It’s not just sniper weapons. We’ve been working on a whole family of assault weapons on semi-auto and auto formats, a LMG, and, in the future, we will also come up with a handgun product. We’ll be different from any of the other firms in India who play in the small arms segment in that we shall always own our IP. We don’t believe in cosmetic indigenisation where some parts are manufactured with tech from a foreign player and the Indian company is merely an integrator.
Kaypius Comment: “SSS Defence has dared to venture into a tightly-controlled oligarchy dominated by PSUs like the OFB and select foreign OEMs. The product is niche and Indian customers alone may not add up the numbers to drive economy of scale. That is what makes this an exciting space to watch out for. Many startups don’t even have a parent like SSS Defence has in SSS Springs. This is just the sort of ‘David versus Goliath’ challenge Indian defence industry needs for delivering on the Make in India promise. If startups are able to field world-class A&D products with export potential, it can set the stage for healthy competition and collaboration where nothing much exists today. The services and MoD must lend support for trials, provide necessary hand-holding and share valuable feedback till projects reach ‘self-sustaining RPM’. Lessons learnt can be quickly ploughed back to refine the product – not difficult if it all happens right here in India.”
From all accounts, SSS Defence’s maiden appearance at DefExpo 2020 has been successful in drawing discerning eyes. The real challenge of delivering on promises comes up next.
My advice for the snipers from Namma Bengaluru: Go find your mark in the field, true to the rule of this game:
“Ek goli, ek dushman” (one bullet, one enemy)
Good luck and Godspeed!
Read another story with vital lessons for ‘Make in India’ here. If you have an indigenous aerospace & defence product that needs to be heard, feel free to connect with me.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2020. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on my Twitter handle @realkaypius. Cover photo from SSS Defence via Vivek Krishnan.