A Framework for Defence Interaction with IITs

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By Lt Gen PR Shankar (R)

This is an extension of my article Defence Technology – An Indian Conundrum

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER.
IT COMES FROM RESEARCH.

RESEARCH GENERATES TECHNOLOGY.

TECHNOLOGY OWNED IS CHEAP.
TECHNOLOGY BOUGHT IS COSTLY

 

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From Oxymoronism to a Framework

India lacks adequate defense technology. It needs to invest in defense R&D if it must be a power of reckoning. It needs to break its trader mentality. It needs need leadership and massive involvement of our academics in research. These oxymorons are well known. That is probably why the PM has asked the IITs to contribute by coming up with indigenous defense technologies. So far so good. How does one do it? That has been our zillion-dollar question. The fact that outsiders have been better at tapping our brain power and technological potential is also another oxymoron. Hence, I am 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 which is often underplayed and needs to be exploited. All IITs are multidisciplinary, 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 which 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 Defense 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 has 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 defense R&D implies 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.

Approaches

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 3-4 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 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.    

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.

UpgradationUpgradation of an existing system by indigenous technology is well feasible by IITs. Personally, I recommend that 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 SubstitutionImport 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 needsanalysis 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 which 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 are that the defense establishment have 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 Defense 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 coopted. 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 engagements 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 has to be understood that ISRO has succeeded in using the IIT intellectual potential to its immense benefit  in this manner. We need to copy it.

Knowledge Enhancement

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 LevelAt the middle level, exposure should be to enable / impart hands on experience in weapon systems and exposure to 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 LevelAt the level of major projects / programs being undertaken, there must be specialty research in specific subjects which enables the program to move forward as visualized. This will enable the overall knowledge bubble to expand. 

Conclusion

The suggested framework is based on my experience in the Army, a couple of years exposure in DRDO at grass root 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 a step towards strategic Independence which we have not yet achieved. As a future 5 Tn USD economy we must be strategically independent to be a reckonable power.

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