Defence Technology – An Indian Conundrum

By Lt Gen P R Shankar (Retd)


The US has a new command called the Army Futures Command which aims to modernise 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 defence capability and soldier lethality. Disruptive technologies are part and parcel of these next generation systems. They have an outlay of 18bn USD for development of laid down future capabilities.

China is reorienting its regional land-based force into a Global Force capable of operating across oceans and continents. The fact that it is going hammer and tongs at it by incorporating next gen technologies is a no brainer. It has sent over 2500 PLA scientists and engineers systematically to universities abroad to study and get hold of latest technologies – navigation technology, AI, combustion in scramjet engines (hypersonic aircraft capable of 6 mach), directional-emission high-energy laser et al. It intends to catch up with USA in a decade at any cost.

The Russians are smarter. Quietly they have been focussing on similar technologies. If you have not noticed – for every new tech-based weapon system coming out from the US stable, there is a Russian competitor. They are selling and trading technology. Defence technology is their export-oriented earner. It is one of the routes to regain superpower status.

Israel has also made defence technology as an export-oriented commodity. Old, new, next gen, 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 defence technologies for itself; since after Brexit, there will be no enemy greater than itself for it. However, the nation of shopkeepers is eyeing export-oriented revenue.

India remains a net importer of defence technologies from these countries less China and is destined to remain so irrespective of all other issues. Our capability to develop core defence-oriented technology, harness it and ingest it into our Armed Forces is next to ZERO (on the negative side). I say this with a lot of responsibility, as a statement of fact and not as a criticism. Unless we focus on harnessing our technology for ourselves, our defence budgets will never be enough. Unless we become technically savvy, we will not be able to defend our future 5 Bn USD economy. We need to understand that. However, we have a major conundrum. We have never felt that Technology bought is costly and Technology owned is cheap. Our Armed Forces are comfortable and willing to buy costly technology but have been very uncomfortable and reluctant to invest in indigenous technology.

The PM recognises this deficit. He probably realises and understands that while the Armed Forces are solid as a rock and dependable in most respects, but like a rock they are also static. They are not dynamic enough to take the revolutionary path beyond DRDO. The Byzantine procedures binding the Armed Forces and MOD need an outside maverick approach. That is probably why he has instructed the IITs to start contributing to the technological needs of the Armed Forces. He is in effect trying to bring the mountain to Mohammed. The PMs initiative needs understanding. He is giving a major signal to all of us and we need to heed it. Otherwise we are solely to blame. Here is a man who is attempting the unconventional, will we fail him? Let us analyse this further.

The standard question from Armed Forces hitherto fore has been – why are our top academic institutions like IITs not contributing to indigenisation of defence technologies? Why do our best young minds from IITs go abroad? Do they not have nationalistic feelings? The answer is – have they ever been seriously involved in making anything for the Armed Forces? In the absence of any conclusive evidence how can one conclude that they are not nationalistic? In the event of a pull from multinationals and in the event of lack of opportunity due to the closed-door policy defence fraternity, it is only natural that our best and bright gravitate abroad. It is a revolving door phenomenon. So why blame them? Change the tack.

Before that. What is the problem? it is one of working on different planes and the story of Mohammad and the mountain. Mohammad (Armed forces) wants to go to the mountain. He does not know how. So, he is waiting for it to come to him and deliver its goodies. Additionally, various parts of his organisation exhibit signs of not willing to do move. The unwillingness or reticence is for many reasons ranging from pure ignorance to considering the academic as a Johnny head in air. The mountain (academicians) has really no need to go to Mohammad because it has an excellent international and national reputation. It does not seek/need any more certification from the defence fraternity. Our PM is trying to change the game plan. How do we respond to it? Do we just dismiss it as the whim of a savvy politician?

Let me give you a reality check on the potential in IIT for disbelievers. Students in IITs are like cadets in NDA – full of beans and enthusiasm. They really want to do something for the Armed Forces. Just to give you an idea. Three semesters back we introduced a course “Overview of Defence Technologies” as an elective in the curriculum in IIT Madras. 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 discipline lines was overwhelming. Our brightest and the best want to know about Armed Forces matters and defence technology. They exhibited a great degree of “Josh” to attend the Def Expo in Chennai, visit the L&T Shipyard at Kattupalli, go around IN Ships docked in Chennai and attend a book release ceremony in Raj Bhavan on Nuclear Issues. A talk by Abhinandan’s father, Air Marshal Varthaman 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.

What is the practicality of this infectious enthusiasm? 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 as part of the India Innovation Growth Programme (IIGP 2.0) held recently at Bombay from 843 participating teams. 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 ten years later from some foreign company? Additionally, a project has been undertaken through Army Design Bureau In IIT Madras which seeks to develop long range precision fire capability at a fraction of the cost which the US is putting in. The 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. The outlook is mental and beyond the DPP which everyone knows by rote. What is more, for the first time the annual students techfest – Shaastra, in IIT Madras is themed on Defence Technology with focus on Disruptive technologies like AI, AR, Cybersec, Robotics and so on! That in turn is aligned with the Defexpo of 2020 which is also looking at Disruptive 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. I could not care less if you are from IAS, NDA, IOFS or DRDO. If you cannot do the correct thing for the nation, but have done things as per the DPP, you are a down right ass. As Sharukh Khan put in in “Chak De” that hockey movie – “Kuch Kariya”.

Well, I have only highlighted the potential in one IIT. Multiply this by 21 (number of IITs). Multiply it again by another 100 or more (the number of good solid technical institutions in the nation) and you will get the idea of the potential beyond. After 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.

The world has hailed India’s attempt to became the fourth country to carry out a soft-landing on the moon after USA, Russia and China. The Washington Post said India’s technology is home grown and low cost (1.8 bn vs 21.5 bn USD of NASA). As per New York Times, scientists and defence experts everywhere are watching this program. If ISRO can do it why can’t the Defence Establishment do it? The reason was put across to me by an ISRO scientist. He said “General, when ISRO confronts a problem, we own it and solve it hands on. When your defence establishment encounters a problem, it ponders. It ponders on whose problem it is, who is at fault, who is to decide on how to go ahead, is there a requirement to solve it or are there alternatives etc etc. That is why things never get done”. Think over and one understands why technological issues are uphill for us. There is undoubtedly a need for the entire defence establishment to think differently and approach issues from outside the DPP. The alternative is to fail our own potential. That would be a pity.