Ingesting Technology in the Armed Forces


By Lt Gen P R Shankar (Retd)

It is my deep belief that “technology owned is cheap and technology bought is costly”. India has paid dearly due to not owning it since Independence in 1947. To be a power of reckoning, India needs to invest in requisite defence technologies and own them. Surprisingly, many of these are resident in India lying unharnessed. To harness the available technologies, we need wisdom and good leadership to unearth and ingest them into the Armed Forces. It needs determination and vision to do so.

As we have militarily locked horns with China when the Chinese Virus is raging, there are many moving parts in our Military Ecosystem. Military leadership must juggle with the changing realities of emerging threats from old adversaries, disruptive technologies, economic recession due to the pandemic, efforts at enhancing jointness and the thrust for self-sufficiency. The challenges are clearly daunting. The opportunities, however, are also aplenty.

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The Revolution in Military Affairs is now being impacted by numerous technologies and is turning into Disruption in Military Affairs. These technologies plus the pandemic effect will take us to horizons of conflict and warfare yet to be foreseen or imagined. Multi Domain Operations and Unrestricted Wars/ Conflicts will be driven by disruptive technologies. In my opinion the new domains in addition to the existing Air, Land and Sea would include Space, Cyber Space, Nuclear, Information Environment and Electromagnetic Spectrum. Operations could be conventional and/or non-conventional, executed using hard and/or soft power, by state or non-state actors, by day and night in a condition or war and/or peace. Exploitation of asymmetry and gray zones will be the norm.

In this context it must be understood that the military teeth of a nation consist of the traditional weapon systems of the Air Force, Navy, and the Army represented by its traditional Arms – the Infantry, Mechanised Forces, Artillery, Engineers, Signals, Air Defence and Aviation. Each of these traditional teeth has a plethora of weapons systems. At the base level, many of these systems individually need constant technological input, upgradation, invention, and innovation. At an advanced level, each individual weapon system is being impacted by a bevy of disruptive technologies. This impaction could be by one disruptive technology individually or by a cluster of interactive technologies to make it a complex phenomenon.

For example, future communications would be network based, cyber proofed and AI driven and be talking to manned/ unmanned systems simultaneously. The next generation rocket will be enhanced with latest propulsion technologies, navigation systems and high-grade sensors and interlinked to an AI driven ISR system and it should have land, air, and naval versions.  So the combinations are limitless and can stretch with imagination. Also the impaction will be complex. In such a scenario, we cannot afford to have all technologies. In any case there is a level of technology tolerance and absorption on the battlefield. Beyond that technology will be counterproductive. We must be discrete in our choices in technology adoption as per our environment, ability, and affordability.

We also need to be cognizant of the fact the Indian Armed Forces are going to be heavily constrained by dwindling budgets. The traditional allocation of about 1.5 per cent of the GDP was not enough for conventional purposes. This must now encompass technology ingestion also. That too in a period of recession where the GDP itself is shrinking. So one must cut cloth accordingly. This reinforces the fact that we need to be selective and choosy in what we do, how we do and why we do. In this context it will be interesting to see the models adopted by other countries.

Iran has been under heavy sanctions since long and has not been able to import defence equipment. Its import bill is only 4-8 million dollars annually. Its Air Force consists of old Iraqi aircraft shifted to Iran during the Gulf War and never returned. They have somehow kept them flying through indigenous innovation. However with indigenous technology they have built a strong rocket and missile force of surface to surface missiles, surface to air missiles and armed UAVs, cruise missiles.

Low cost disposable UAVs were used in the attack on Aramco oilfields, which were executed over 1000 km. They have extensively used Explosively Formed Projectiles (EFPs), which fire a molten copper slug able to penetrate armour with great effect on US forces in Iraq, something like an anti-armour claymore mine. They have used Limpet mines in the Gulf to sink oil tankers. They have a Quds force which the US considers to be a combination of CIA and Special Forces. They have held their own in war. Their model has been one of innovation and maximising what they have with a clear strategy as to how to prosecute operations.

Most of us know that US has been leveraging Academia and Defence Industry extensively to equip itself with latest technologies. For example, the first Nuclear Submarine Programme was conceptualised at the Naval Post Graduate School, Monterrey. It was from this programme that modern management concepts like PERT and CPM were rolled out.

Way back in 2008, the US Training and Doctrine Command conducted a competition in India for universities on an international scale on Mini and Micro UAVs. It was their investment in future to tap innovation and research in universities. Their futuristic outlook has been traditionally very deep. Currently, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one of the six priority areas for modernisation of the US Army. The entire project is being executed from Carnegie Mellon University, mainly through the Academia. With huge budgets and deep pockets, the US has invested in Civil Military Fusion since long, and acquired a decisive technological edge on the battlefield.

The Chinese have been outright copycats. Their forte has been IPR theft, forced ToT absorption; reverse engineering, upgradation of old equipment and gaining knowledge from the West/ Russia one way or the other. They have combined this approach with investment in pursuit of intellectual dominance. The number of Chinese PhDs graduating from US universities is mind boggling. They are surely and steadily graduating to a different level through a convergence of knowledge and practice.

Israel has been a major player in the electromagnetic spectrum and information domains. They are foraying into cyberspace aggressively. Their ISR and EW systems are being used worldwide. Their success is attributed to a large network of startups based on applied military technology. Many young veterans have acquired technical expertise through researched study and military experience. They now form the backbone of their military startup ecosystem. Their research is largely funded through exports of these systems which can also be used on space platforms, a highly innovative revenue earning model.

India needs to evolve its own model. That is the first step. We need to think of what we have, what we need and what we can afford. We need to have a balanced and joint approach consistent with our realities. The technologies which work in Ladakh will fail in the deserts and vice versa. It is not only a matter of reducing imports through indigenisation but also exporting technology driven systems to fund us through the slump. Hence technology ingestion is a matter of many more issues than just having technology.

The approaches to move forward are many. Some of these are indicated in the box below.

However, the Armed Forces need to move out of their citadel and hit the ground running. We need to evolve our model based on our conditions, go beyond Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and other academic institutions of repute and link them with industry. Most importantly we need to Take control of our destiny and craft a way forward to attain self-sufficiency. Fundamentally it comes down to good leadership. In addition I feel that the tour of duty idea can be leveraged in the startup scenario as highlighted in the box.

Let me reiterate. Our IITs, IIMs and higher-class technical institutes have their strengths and capabilities waiting to be exploited. They are eager but do not know how. The challenge is unearthing the potential and converting it into a kinetic.  Many multinationals have done it successfully over the years. Why not the Armed Forces? I think it is time do so.

The writer is a former Director General, Artillery, Indian Army and presently a Professor at Department of Aerospace, IIT Madras

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