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In huge boost for indigenous research and industry, Defence Ministry seeks 500,000 microchips, based on Indian design and IP

New Delhi,September 12, 2022: In an initiative of far-reaching consequences,India’s Defence Ministry has put its money where its mouth is: it hastranslatedbuzzwords like Atmanirbhar Bharat into practical action by volunteering tohelm the production of 5 lakh semiconductor chipsdivided across two designs, provided they are based on an indigenousdesign andIndian Intellectual Property (IP).
It has committed to consume 10 percent of the microchips so produced –that is 50,000 units—in a military role, leaving the makers to sell the rest in the civilian market. This demonstratesshrewd realization that a military market alone, can never enthuse the industryand thehigherperformance criteria ( andconsequent makingcost) demanded byarmed forces applications – what are called MILSTD or military standard – need to be offset bylargercivilian consumer and enterprise markets.
In a Sunday afternoon  posting on his Facebook Page,  Defence Secretary Dr Ajay Kumar has  shared a link to the Ministry of Electronics and IT site which carries a  copy of the September 7  Tender Document.
Writes Dr Kumar: “A great initiative towards Cyber Secure India!! Development of Indian microprocessor based chips would be historic development in the history of cyber security of Digital India. No more fear of embedded backdoors or malware vulnerabilities in chips which we use for our equipment.”
He adds: “…Once developed India could be source of secure chips in the global electronics supply chain. Therefore, this small step is expected to open many new doors in the future.”
The 105-page Request for Proposal  emphasises the central mantra that has motivated government:
"The core of the SoCs is to be based on processors designed and owned by Indian entities, designed based on ‘Open Source’ ISA. In addition to design, development and packaging in India, the major design IPs ie Processor, Secure Boot and Security IPs of such processors are to be owned by Indian entities.”
SoC  stands for System-on-a-Chip ( SoC), jargon for a  single slab of silicon or  some other semiconductor material that integrates all components of a computer or other specialist electronic system. The insistence on Open Source  will make it easy  for a wider community of developers to build newer applications exploiting the basic chip.  The tender effectively  rules out global chip makers  submitting  their own proprietary commercial products.  The Ministry’s  insistence that the  “processors must be “designed and owned  by Indian entities”  is  the biggest  vote of confidence till date in the inherent capability of Indian engineers to deliver  indigenous intellectual property  to meet the stringent  environmental and performance  requirements of the military.
This story has appeared in Swarajyamag on September 11
Typically Military Standard  devices  must meet severe shock and vibration  standards and function  in all environments from desert to  icy heights. At the minimum in India, this covers a temperature range of minus 40 degrees Celsius to plus 55 degrees.
The statement of intent also reveals tacit acceptance that   at present India does not have indigenous fabs or semiconductor fabrication facilities  where chips to the currently achievable  standards of density can be manufactured. Hence it insists on “design, development and packaging in India” but does not include manufacture.This opens the possibility that the winning applicants would be free – at least to start with – to   use a silicon foundry outside India, but then  package the final products in India.  This also neatly dovetails with  the way the indigenous semiconductor manufacture roadmap is  being laid out: even new aspirants like Tata Electronics are said to be scouting for partners to set up packaging units of microchips first, before entering the foundry business.
Hitherto,  the armed forces have been using  inhouse labs within the Defence Research and Development Organisation ( DRDO) basedin Hyderabad and Bengaluru  to design its strategic   semiconductor device requirements and has been using the Semi Conductor Laboratory ( SCL) in Chandigarh under the Department of Space as a manufacturing base. However SCL is not equipped to manufacture to current  commercial standards that are in the 5-7 nanometer range. ( one nanometer is one-billionth of a meter). 
However there are many applications that do not require this level of  component density – and  for starters there are already two academic agencies in India who have already created a wholly Indian microchip:

  • A team at IIT Madras led by Prof V Kamakoti (now Director IIT-M), has  developed a microprocessor – ‘Shakti’– claimed to be India’s first RISC  ( or Reduced Instruction Set) processor, tailored for low power applications like mobile phones.  It is being  manufactured at SCL Chandigarh, using the 180 nanometer fabrication technology.  The Shakti family has grown to three chips, the latest being ‘Moushik’, released in October 2020.
  • Another microprocessor designed, developed and manufactured in India is  AJIT,  helmed at IIT Bombay by a 9-person team headed by Prof. Madhav Desai. Sample quantities were again manufactured at SCL, Chandigarh. Both projects were supported by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (Meity),  but have not reached   commercial scale. (For Photo story on Indian chip developments see Image of the Day)

That may all change now: If Shakti or Ajit can be used to create what the new tender called  BSC-1 and BSC-2 ( for Bharat Secure Chip)  and meet their application requirements, this will provide a big head start  for any one hoping to qualify  for the opportunity offered by the Defence Ministry.
In another pragmatic step, the government has offered to provide some monetary Deployment Linked Incentives (DLI) and has even offered to provide 20% of this in advance.
The tender says it expects the first  chip to be ready in 3 and a half years and  the second in four years. A subsequent tender would   address the making two more advanced  Systems on a Chip.
It remains to see what level of interest the Defence Challenge will evoke.  But it can be fairly said, the  government  has in this instance, translated words into action – and challenged  the electronics industry to  respond.