The International Shift to Future Military Technologies
The United States (US) has a new command called ‘the Army Futures Command’ to modernize the Army. It had six priorities- long-range precision fire, next-generation combat vehicle, future vertical lift platforms, a mobile and expeditionary Army network, air and missile defense capability, and soldier lethality. Disruptive technologies are part and parcel of these next-generation systems. They have an outlay of 18 billion US dollars for the development of laid down future capabilities.
China is reorienting into a Global Force capable of operating across oceans and continents. It is going hammer and tongs at it by incorporating next-gen technologies. It has sent over 2500 People's Liberation Army (PLA) scientists and engineers, systematically, to universities abroad in order to study and get hold of latest technologies – navigation technology, AI, combustion in scramjet engines (hypersonic aircraft capable of six mach), directional-emission high-energy laser et al. It intends to catch up with US in a decade at any cost.
The Russians are smarter. Quietly they have been focusing on similar technologies. For every new tech-based weapon system coming out from the US stable, there is a Russian competitor. They are selling and trading technology. Defense technology is their export-oriented earner. It is their route to regain superpower status.
Israel has made defense technology an export-oriented commodity. Old, new, next-generation, disruptive technologies – they are in the game in all of these. UK is carrying out an assessment as to what technologies it wants to invest and develop for export. Make no mistake, UK might never need these defense technologies for itself; since after Brexit, there will be no enemy greater than itself. However, the nation of shopkeepers is eyeing export-oriented revenue.
India – The Net Importer
India remains a net importer of defense technologies from these countries (less China) and is destined to remain so. Our capability to develop core defense-oriented technology, harness it and ingest it into our armed forces is very poor. This is a statement of fact and not a criticism. Unless India can harness its technological potential, its defense budgets will never be enough. India needs to understand that unless India becomes technically savvy, it will not be able to defend its future five (5) trillion US dollar economy. However, it has a major conundrum. India has never felt that technology bought is costly and technology owned is cheap. Indian armed forces are comfortable and willing to buy costly technology but have been very uncomfortable and reluctant to invest in indigenous technology.
PMs Nudge Towards IIT
Prime Minister Narendra Mod recognizes this deficit. He understands that while the armed forces are solid as a rock and dependable in most respects, they are equally static. They need to be dynamic to take the revolutionary path beyond Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO). The Byzantine procedures binding the armed forces and the Ministry of Defense (MoD) need an outside maverick approach. That is why he has instructed the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) to start contributing to the technological needs of the armed forces. The PM’s initiative needs understanding. Here is a man who is attempting the unconventional. Will India fail him?
The standard question from Armed Forces hitherto fore has been – why are our IITs not contributing to indigenization of defense technologies? Why do our best young minds from IITs go abroad? Do they not have nationalistic feelings? The answer is – they have never been seriously involved in making anything for the armed forces. Hence, can one conclude that they are not nationalistic. In the event of a pull from multinationals and in the event of the secrecy in defense affairs, it is only natural that our best and bright gravitate abroad. It is a revolving door phenomenon. So why blame them?
Military Technology Potential in IITs
Students in IITs are full of beans and enthusiasm. They really want to do something for the armed forces. Three semesters back IIT Madras introduced a course “Overview of Defense Technologies”. The first semester saw 90 enrolments, which rose to 250 in the second, and shot up to 640 in the third! Such a groundswell response from across all disciplines is overwhelming. Our brightest and the best want to know about armed forces matters and defense technology. They exhibited a great degree of “Josh” to attend the Def Expo in Chennai, visit the L&T Shipyard at Kattupalli, go around Indian Navy (IN) Ships docked in Chennai, and attend a book release ceremony at Raj Bhavan on nuclear issues. A talk by, Air Marshal Varthaman (Abhinandan’s father) on IAF was attended by over one thousand students who rarely stopped clapping throughout the lecture. That is the kind of enthusiasm and it is infectious.
The best and brightest need a way to contribute. That is the missing link. Two students from IIT Madras have been chosen among the top innovative start-ups from 843 participating teams as part of the India Innovation Growth Program (IIGP 2.0) held recently in Mumbai. They will receive equity -less funding worth Rs 10 and 25 lakhs respectively. IIGP 2.0 is a unique tripartite initiative of the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India, Lockheed Martin, and Tata Trusts. Both these projects have direct defense applications. The practicality of this enthusiasm is whether the armed forces can convert this potential into equipment, or will they buy it 10 years later from some foreign company?
Additionally, a project has been undertaken through the Army Design Bureau (ADB) In IIT Madras which seeks to develop long-range precision fire capability at a fraction of the cost which the US is putting in. Technology and promise exist. It is now up to the Army to convert this technology into a product and destroy targets 100 km away. It demands a new outlook beyond the Defense Procurement Procedure (DPP) which everyone knows by rote. What is more, for the first time the annual students’ techfest – Shaastra, in IIT Madras is themed on Defense Technology with a focus on Disruptive technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented Reality (AR), Cyber-security, Robotics and so on (https://palepurshankar.blogspot.com/2019/10/shaastra-2020-student-defence.html). That in turn is aligned with the DefExpo of 2020 which is also looking at Digital Technologies. It cannot get better than this from an academic institution. If after this, things do not take off and the candle gets extinguished – do not blame the PM, do not blame the IITs, blame yourself. As Shah Rukh Khan said in “Chak De” a movie based on hockey– “Kuch Kariye” which means do something. I have only highlighted the potential in one IIT. Pan India the potential is huge. Beyond this, look at the research facilities of private industry and other national institutions like ISRO, DAE, CSIR, et al. The potential is gargantuan. The challenge is also gargantuan.
A framework for defense interaction with Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), such other institutions and massive involvement of our academics in research will certainly pave a way forward in mitigating the defense technology conundrum in India. What is needed is an approach from Oxymoronic to a Framework. Hence, it is shifting from pontificating to suggesting a framework on which this entire thought process should progress. So, let us begin with a SWOT analysis of IITS.
SWOT Analysis of IITs
Strengths. Our IITs have the best brains in the country. The more important thing is that all IITs have excellent faculty. That is a major strength that is often underplayed and needs to be exploited. All IITs are multidisciplinary and have tremendous networking ability through their national and international connections. As a result, their ability to generate knowledge and solve complex problems is very high. They have tremendous research facilities and can set up focused facilities in better time frames. Of course, each IIT has a specialty that must be identified and nurtured.
Weaknesses. The one major weakness of any IIT is it is not oriented to the Armed Forces and their world view of Defence is second hand, largely, through the DRDO prism. A direct connect must, therefore, be established with users including operational familiarization. It includes literally staying in the trenches with troops to understand the battlefield. There is presently no platform or structure available for generating a meaningful interaction with IITs. The Outreach is much below par. Address this.
Opportunities. With the expansion of the IIT system, the volumes and potential have increased immensely. Additionally, this expansion implies a lot of young and new faculty who will stay in the system for long. They are largely nationalistic and full of beans to contribute to national causes. They also know that defence R&D implies the generation of cutting-edge technologies, for which they have trained abroad and have contributed to systems of other countries. In my opinion, this is a huge opportunity now. A few years down the line it will vanish.
Threats. The major threat for any engagement with IITs will come from within the Armed Forces who are getting into unfamiliar territory. It is meeting of highly structured minds on one side with free-thinking innovators on another. A few bridges must be built, and impediments overcome.
Blue-Sky Approach. A blue-sky approach must be taken for new technologies and for next-generation systems. These will largely be big projects for which multidisciplinary research is contemporary in nature. They will have to be taken up with a view to achieve technology expertise or dominance. These projects will be long term in nature. They will perforce have to have a multi-establishment approach. They must be guided and anchored by a Service or a major Arm. In addition, they will have to be assisted by DRDO, OFB and DPSUs. Funding issues must be on a long-term basis. My recommendation is about three-four blue sky projects per major IIT and maximum one for a new IIT. Simultaneously, a blue-sky approach can be taken for disruptive technologies which are over the horizon like AI, Virtual Reality et al.
Core Research and Expertise. Core research must be undertaken on a niche and exclusive technologies. To this end centers of study can be established in specified IITs to develop expertise in a niche technology. We must invest in the future.
The reinvention of the Wheel. In technologies where there is a denial regime/system in place, we will have to reinvent the wheel and develop systems to gain independence from others. The project scope could be huge, but technology threshold / know-how levels will not be high. The effort in reinvention must be to take a leap forward. The leap forward will have shades of Blue-Sky projects. It can also be termed as the reverse engineering/copycat approach. Comparatively, it will be a low-cost faster time cycle approach with good visibility.
Upgradation. Upgradation of an existing system by indigenous technology is well feasible by IITs. One existing system should be given per IIT through a consortium approach along with a private industrial player for upgradation. This is a low cost, low hanging fruit.
Import Substitution. Import substitution is another low hanging fruit. A lot of small parts, components and sub systems are still under import. Some of these need minimal research to produce indigenous substitutes. If IITs are involved with MSMEs a lot of ground can be covered. It will save foreign exchange, expand the positive interaction, and give confidence to IITs to take up larger products / systems.
Engineering Analysis and Testing. Many systems and processes in defense manufacturing need analysis and testing backed by research. IITs have tremendous capacity to carry out such tasks through their research parks. This aspect will be especially beneficial for base workshops, base repair depots, and shipyards.
Mechanisms for Engagement
There are many mechanisms that need to be put in place to ensure that there is enough engagement with IITs. As it stands some mechanisms have been put in place. However, the problem with the current mechanisms is that the defense establishment has an amorphous contact structure. They also tend to treat the IITs as another DRDO lab or a vendor. As a result, the effort is sub-optimal and superficial. That must change. The need is of the defense establishment. It should not expect the mountain to come to it. Hence it must be ensured by the defense establishment that a well-defined structure is in place as per their requirement and the engagement should be deep and meaningful. I am specifically using the word Defence Establishment which encompasses the MoD, Army, Navy, Air Force, DRDO, PSUs, OFB and private defense industry. All of them need the IITs.
As far as the mechanisms are concerned, I visualize a Centre for Defense Technology and Innovation as a mandatory basic requirement in each IIT. It can be funded by MOD and manned by experienced veterans and academics on an as required basis. They can be nodal agencies to enable interaction with the HQs of defense establishments, run competitions, organize courses, run start-up and incubation activities, hold conferences and provide a whole host of other support activities in this venture. In this endeavor, all Service academies and training establishments should also be co-opted. Extensive interaction with units and troops in op areas should be promoted. Similarly, each Service and Department must have a single-window system for contact and follow up. The success of any mechanism lies in its ease and ability to enable interaction and engagement. As of now the mechanisms are ponderous and laboriously time-consuming like the DPP.
I would also suggest very strongly that all DEFEXPOs, AEROSHOWs, and Conferences be made free of cost and compulsory for participation by IITs. Conversely, each IIT should enter into MOUs with specified establishments to progress certain technology fields. The model adopted by the Army Design Bureau should be refined to achieve better results. The current IDEX model, MAKE I / II et al, as good intentioned they are will achieve only marginal results. The wider the engagement the better. It would be worthwhile to study how global technology giants garner and scupper technology on a worldwide canvas.
A major form of interaction would be IIT students doing projects and internships in defense establishments. In fact, it should be made mandatory for each defense Laboratory / Base Repair Unit / Production Centre to take in a laid down number of students as interns. It must be understood that ISRO has succeeded in using the IIT intellectual potential to its immense benefit in this manner. We need to copy it.
Defense technology and management is niche, widespread and multidisciplinary. In India, defense professionals across the board (Users, R&D personnel or for those in the industry) lack structured study formats/programs on defense technology topics. If the overall defense industry must grow, there must be broad-based as well as focused courses available for people to study and carry out research. In my opinion, knowledge enhancement must be carried out at three levels.
Grass Root / Entry Level. At this level students must be given exposure to defense technology through capsules/courses as electives so that basics are known to them and they are oriented to the subject. This generates interest in students to delve into defense technologies.
Middle Level. At the middle level, exposure should be to enable / impart hands on experience in weapon systems and exposure to a battlefield environment. We need to evolve specialized courses in weapon technologies a la Cranfield University. These must be specially designed M Tech, MS, PhD courses which can be conducted in select IITs/ IISc. These will be in addition to courses conducted at DIAT. All current M Tech programs being attended by service officers need to be converted into focused technology cum management programs to cater for the growth of knowledge within services.
Project/ Program Level. At the level of major projects/programs being undertaken, there must be specialty research in specific subjects which enables the programmed to move forward as visualized. This will enable the overall knowledge bubble to expand.
The suggested framework is based on my experience in the Army, a couple of years exposure in DRDO at a grassroots level and now two years in a premier IIT trying to get it into the defense framework. One might not agree with many of my suggestions. I have no issue. Come up with an alternative. Otherwise our Prime Minister’s intent that IITs should contribute in indigenizing defense technologies will only sound hollow after some time. Of course, one could say that this sounds like a Modi promo as one of my critics remarked on an earlier article of mine. Do we have a better option? If we can evolve a format sensibly it will be a step towards strategic independence which we have not yet achieved. As a future five trillion US dollar economy, we must be strategically independent to be a reckonable power.