The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict has unfolded as a pivotal turning point in multiple aspects. At the forefront of this transformation is the notable utilisation of electronic-centric dual-use technologies (ECDUT) by both warring factions. From the initial deployment of commercial drones and loitering munitions to the implementation of electronic warfare disruption systems, and more recently, the audacious drone boat assault launched by Ukraine against Russian naval vessels – the conflict has been marked by the strategic deployment of dual-use technologies. These technologies have produced asymmetrical outcomes, effectively dismantling adversary assets and inducing psychological turmoil by maintaining an air of uncertainty regarding future actions and their origins.
This shift in the dynamics of warfare, transitioning from manned to unmanned operations, and from massive firepower to low-intensity precision strikes, has compelled military strategists to take a re-look at defence strategies across all branches – Army, Navy, and Air Force. Formerly dominant entities on the battlefield, such as tanks and armoured vehicles, have lost their supremacy, succumbing to vulnerabilities when facing attacks from small, cost-effective commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) drones.
The profound disruption caused by the successful utilisation of ECDUT products has propelled nations like Iran and Turkey to the forefront of defence solution supply chains. In contrast, India’s strength lies predominantly in mechanical engineering, with a significant reliance on imports for electronic components and subsystems.
For India, this disruption presents a unique opportunity. As a nation with considerable credibility as a responsible technology partner, India can position itself as a global leader in the ECDUT landscape. Seizing this contemporary opportunity is of paramount importance, particularly given that other countries have already established dominance in earlier computing technology opportunities, leaving catch-up efforts economically untenable.
The Significance of Developing Core Competencies
Dual-use technologies, as the term implies, hold the potential for deployment in both military and civilian contexts. This dual nature imparts strategic significance, as these technologies are accessible to civilians and, consequently, are susceptible to misuse by non-state actors and terrorists. The potential lack of accountability and responsibility in their usage poses a threat to national security, which is typically mitigated through regulations and initiatives that foster indigenous manufacturing capabilities.
Recognising the pressing need for such products within the Indian defence ecosystem, and grasping the strategic importance of ECDUT products, the Ministry of Defence has introduced initiatives such as IDEX, MAKE 1, and MAKE 2. These initiatives aim to expedite the indigenisation of defence products and solutions, with many falling under the purview of ECDUT. While these programs have succeeded in catalysing the development of system integration and assembly capabilities for ECDUT products, they have not effectively penetrated the deeper layers of the supply chain, particularly at the components and subsystem levels.
The Current Landscape
Presently, Indian manufacturing of ECDUT products and solutions is concentrated at the system integration and assembly stage of the supply chain. This echoes the prevailing approach for various other electronic products manufactured in India, such as mobile phones, laptops, PCs, white goods, and automobile electronics. Indigenous value addition primarily centres on assembling devices from imported components and subsystems. This achievement is, to a large extent, a recent development, attributed to initiatives from the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MeitY) and well-targeted policy interventions, such as the Production Linked Incentive Scheme (PLI), which have facilitated a shift from complete product imports to in-country assembly.
While the current status may suffice for consumer goods like mobile phones, a critical need exists for the government to institute enabling measures to propel the ECDUT supply chain deeper into the realm of components and subsystems. This imperative is underscored by the strategic and national security ramifications associated with these technologies.
Key Interventions Essential for Building ECDUT Competencies at Component and Subsystem Levels
The classical theory of the technology adoption lifecycle serves as an insightful guidepost, shedding light on the challenges and pitfalls that businesses inevitably encounter while developing indigenous competencies at the component and subsystem levels of ECDUT. This imperative aligns with both civilian and military perspectives, warranting a pragmatic comprehension of the stages that demand policy and funding intervention. Effectively identifying these critical junctures will expedite the cultivation of native capabilities at the fundamental components and subsystem layers.
The technology adoption lifecycle delineates two distinct phases that businesses embarking on ECDUT development must navigate:
Early Adopters (16%): Encompassing customers eager to explore novel innovations.
Mainstream (84%): Encompassing customers seeking established, user-friendly solutions.
This bifurcation unequivocally underscores the vulnerability and heightened risk associated with Stage 1, often referred to as the “chasm,” in the journey of building indigenous competencies at the component and subsystem levels of ECDUT. Challenges inherent to this initial phase encompass:
- Market Acceptance and Customer Resistance: A significant hurdle involves gaining traction and overcoming resistance from customers accustomed to proven, matured imported products.
- Sustenance Funding: Navigating through the phase of product testing and adoption, a relatively protracted period, necessitates sustained funding in the absence of immediate revenue, particularly in defence-related scenarios.
Identifying these pivotal pitfalls encountered by businesses venturing into domestic capabilities at the components and subsystems realm of the ECDUT landscape crystallises the path that policy directives should follow:
- Mandating Indigenous Content (IC): A crucial alteration to the Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP) 2020 is warranted. It should stipulate the compulsory utilisation of domestic ECDUT components and subsystems exclusively, accompanied by substantial penalties for resorting to imported alternatives.
- Facilitating Early-Phase Funding: Acknowledging the daunting challenge of securing equity funding through venture capital during the nascent stages, the government should expand existing programs such as the MoD’s IDEX initiative and the TIFAC-SIDBI Srijan innovation fund in the civilian sphere. These initiatives should be broadened and extended to explicitly encompass the development of ECDUT as a central focus.
The realm of ECDUT stands as a paramount domain, not only of great significance to India but also as a contemporary technological opportunity for the nation to establish itself as a global force. However, unlocking its full potential necessitates critical policy interventions that empower its growth. By strategically navigating the challenges, fostering indigenous competencies, and directing focused policy measures, India can grasp the opportunity to become a global dominator in the dynamic landscape of ECDUT.
–The writer is Director of Zuppa Geo Navigation Technologies Pvt Ltd. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda