A culture of technology innovation is a pre-requisite for the success of ‘Make in India’
Lt Gen. Rameshwar Yadav (retd)
The government has announced setting up of defence corridors in Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. This has been done to encourage the Indian industry to contribute towards defence production and make the country self-reliant in the field of military hardware and software.
Interestingly, recent media reports mentioned that the Indian Army is planning to replace the assault rifles, the basic personal weapon of soldiers across the spectrum of arms and services with reduced technical specifications from ordnance factories and private sector. Unfortunately, India as a country has not been able to develop even small arms of reckonable quality and continues to procure them from abroad.
While the figure quoted for indigenously manufactured weapons stands at 6.5 lakhs, only 72,400 state-of-the-art assault rifles have been imported under the fast-track procedure for frontline troops. The move is ostensibly to give a boost to ‘Make in India’, albeit at the cost of reduced quality content of the weapon system to be introduced. It is a good idea and fits into the corporate parameters to achieve economies of scales, though media reports suggest that inadequacy of funds is one of the reasons for compromise in the General Staff Qualitative Requirements (GSQRs). It militates against the operational efficiency which should be the primary criteria.
While our disputes lie in the mountainous terrain with infantry as the predominant arm on the frontline, 85 to 90 per cent of the capital budget is spent on heavy weaponry and platforms to be used in areas with settled borders. Despite being the largest and the main combat content in the Indian context, the infantry does not get the priority that it deserves. A simple back-of-the palm calculation would reveal that the entire frontline infantry can be equipped with the best of weapon systems within the cost of eight to 10 Rafale aircraft or a single ship.
Of course, there is a need to attain higher deterrence capabilities. The technologies available with the ordnance factories for the manufacture of weapons under license are normally one to two generations old because, by the time an assembly line is set up, the technology gets updated. Hence, purchase of state-of-the-art imported equipment becomes necessary to attain higher combat superiority. Also, as such equipment are costly, it may not always be possible to purchase the requisite quantities.
The problem of financial resources is not only with the infantry weapons, but it also spreads across the entire spectrum of military hardware. The government-owned and controlled R&D establishments have not kept pace with the requirements of the armed forces. There are structural inadequacies in the entire security mechanism. Therefore, there is a technology deficit in the country which has strategic implications. As a result, the country is always on the backfoot due to dependence on foreign countries.
It obviously has thrown up two major issues reflecting national incompetence in producing requisite technologies, besides the ethical question of soldiers fighting with inferior weapons. The accountability rests with the government R&D establishments, which have large battery of scientists, adequate finances and superior infrastructure for their mandated job. Whatever success stories they have had owe substantially to technologies from foreign countries. Hence, the entire R&D mechanism needs a review to rekindle and reset the systems and processes without any further delay.
The basic flaw in the system has been the false notion of secrecy, thereby a policy of keeping the private sector out of the loop of anything to do with defence. Interestingly, the world over it is the private sector which is the prime manufacturer of military equipment. Given this, we need to cross this psychological barrier of differentiating between public and private sector and look at them as complementary to each other. Plus, there is a need to develop a culture of R&D to upgrade indigenous capabilities and capacities of defence structures in addition to the government owned R&D establishments. India has been successful in the field of manufacturing products involving modern technologies. The question arises, why that shouldn’t be done for defence production also?
To start with, India needs to bridge the existing technology gap by acquiring state-of-the-art-technologies from foreign sources by paying for it, even if they have an exorbitant price tag. It would be the fastest way to achieve our national objectives. However, it would be fair to assume that no country is likely to part with their cutting-edge technologies easily.
A look at the way few advanced countries indulge in strictures regarding conditions of sale, licensed production and even inspections with an eye to protect their intellectual property, is essential. At times, there are contractual provisions for denial of procurements from other rival manufacturers to retain their monopoly. Therefore, to avoid such political exploitation, there is a need to change the goalpost by resetting and redesigning our entire institutional approach towards the R&D mechanism.
How do we proceed beyond the realm of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to transform the way we look at the research structures and processes? The obvious answer lies in involving the private sector alongside the existing public sector establishments. In that, the infrastructures, institutional knowledge and laboratories of the DRDO may be shared with the private enterprise and academia for their optimum utilisation.
Besides this, there is a need for reorientation by infusing objectivity and enthusiasm amongst the individuals as well as the system which is missing as of now. Creating competitive environment with its edifice of perform or perish is the way forward to infuse positive synergies amongst the R&D establishments, particularly those who have not delivered to the extent expected.
There is a need to tap the talent in the private sector at all levels including start-ups, medium and small enterprises and big industrial houses. There may be exclusive R&D establishments catering for core competencies of the private companies in their intended defence product line. Such a model would be better for the private companies chosen by the government as strategic partners for joint ventures with foreign Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs). Help of foreign partners may be taken to provide experienced scientists and skilled manpower to start such establishments. The government on their part must provide level-playing field for the private industry to participate against the public sector competitors.
In western countries, a major part of research is done through academic institutions wherein the private industry as well as the government provides the funding for research work. This model has proved to be a success story, hence need to be implemented in our country also. In this model, the research problem is spelled out by the industry to numerous technical institutions, who then give the task to domain experts and research scholars. The DRDO may also share their R&D work and functional designs with selected private companies and academia to expand the research domain and generation of additional ideas.
The research, accordingly, is done by many establishments and scientists separately to evolving multiple options and solutions. As a result, these universities come out with cutting-edge technologies. Research scholars are given recognition for their work by granting them higher degrees for such industrial research work as well as lucrative jobs as an incentive. Similarly, the DRDO may also outsource their research work to academia instead of employing scientists on permanent basis. This would be a better way to inculcate competition and at the same time it would be a cost-effective way to achieve the desired objectives. The armed forces and government test facilities may also be made available for trials and quality assurance of the equipment being developed by the private industry and start-ups.
Since the research involves heavy capital investment, the government has a policy to reimburse up to 80 per cent of the R&D costs once the prototype of the new technology equipment meets the laid-down qualitative requirements. Recently, a Request for Proposal (RFP) has been initiated by the government to produce a prototype of Future Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV) wherein it is estimated that the prototype would cost Rs 3,000-4,000 crore. Similar schemes need to be launched at multiple level of technology thresholds, albeit with appropriate checks and balances, lest they become a conduit for siphoning out government funds. The government may also organise competitions and seminars with attractive incentives to the innovators from across the country.
The concept of government owned and corporate operated (GOCO) may be tried out for certain government R&D establishments to optimise and encourage the private sector. The DRDO labs dealing with electronics, optical equipment, robotics and artificial intelligence, IT and communication etc. may be outsourced to the private sector as there is plenty of talent available for such dual use technologies in the country. Scientists from government laboratories in such an arrangement may be side-stepped to strategic domain products to utilise their experience and expertise instead of hiring fresh graduates who would take time to understand the nuances of hi-tech strategic field.
The government may help selected universities in establishing R&D centres wherein individuals may be permitted to pursue research on varied subjects under guidance of scientists/university professors. These centres may employ retired armed forces officers and scientists from the DRDO and industry as advisors to research scholars. Few scientists (NRIs) from foreign countries, who have worked in the defence industry, may also be considered as professors and advisors. These R&D centres in each university may also be designated as nodes of excellence for certain specific scientific fields. They can have requisite laboratories and test facilities for better focus.
Taking the idea of such R&D research centres further, establishing a national university exclusively for defence R&D, may be considered by the government. This university should have full autonomy in its functioning with freedom to procure equipment from international markets and seek best possible talent from across the world. Such an institution, if nurtured well, over time, would become the hub of research in the country and be the harbinger of cutting-edge technologies.
In effect, every possible avenue to pick up talent and provide them the best facilities for research should be the guiding principle to attain self-sufficiency in developing technologies. Not to forget that the Indian diaspora is known to have contributed towards developing path-breaking technologies. But it is equally true that tremendous potential exists amongst scientists in India too to achieve equally spectacular breakthroughs.
The sky is the limit, what with the potential of Indian scientists and the entrepreneurship of private industry, to transform India from a net weapon importer to arms exporter in the near future. What they need is an enabling environment and befitting encouragement, as is the case in foreign countries who are at the forefront of defence production. So, let us first inculcate a culture of innovation and re-configure our approach, structures and processes of R&D mechanism as a key to our much-cherished strategic autonomy.
(The writer is former Director General Infantry)