By Smita Purushottam
With the increasing lethality of China’s military, cyber operations and advanced Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs), never has the urgency of investing in India’s domestic technological capabilities been more acute. China very early on started leveraging ICTs for military modernisation, even as India’s defence strategy and weapons acquisitions policy continued to address physical, kinetic threats. In lockstep, China started reorganising its “civilian” Information Technology and Industry Ministries in 1998/2008 to promote ICTs manufacturing and R&D. Ultimately, China aimed to have a “world-class” military by 2049, with Informatisation at its core, creating a Strategic Support Force integrating information systems in all battlefield domains.
China soon began aiming at enhanced military lethality through ‘Intelligentisation’ and enlisted the AI and ICT capabilities of its business behemoths Tencent, Alibaba, Hikvision, iFlytek etc, for its military, under its Military-Civil Fusion strategy. Elsa B. Kania (Battlefield Singularity) describes the ultimate objective being “Intelligent machines becom(ing) primary war-fighters’’. In the future, Indian soldiers will be faced with autonomous unmanned systems and warfighting robots, suffering unacceptable casualties if they do not have corresponding domestic technological capabilities.
As opposed to China’s massive lead in ICTs (AI, 5G and Quantum Tech) – and indigenous, modernising, digitising and intelligentising defence industry and force – India has still to understand the foundational role ICTs play in national security. Moreover, it has an imported weapons park (although domestic procurement has begun), foreign control of communications systems, half a dozen AI “strategies”, silo-based decision-making, and timid organisational defence production processes reform. Thus, defence production and acquisition functions are siloed from each other, which benefits only import lobbies.
The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) are also siloed from each other and MEITY is oblivious to national security considerations. Despite DoT’s mandate to nurture domestic industry, not a penny in R&D support or substantial procurement orders have gone to domestic industry. B.K. Raghuveer, CEO of Nivetti Systems, one of India’s best router manufacturers, said: “Smart City infrastructure, Surveillance Networks, military communications infrastructure, Airport and Railway infrastructure, etc. are huge spends by the government that is gifted to overseas economies by India.”
Moreover, India signed away all protections to its nascent electronics hardware industry (including telecommunications) by joining the Information & Technology Agreement-1 (ITA-1) in 1997. China joined ITA-1 only when its industry was firmly established. India followed up this folly by signing FTAs with countries with a trade surplus (even with China) in high-tech electronics products – Japan and South Korea – further decimating its hardware industry.
In 2012, Indian OEMs’ share of the domestic telecom market was still a respectable 23%. China now set out to drive out domestic competition, aided by a lack of strategic trade and procurement policy on the Indian side. As a result, Indian OEMs’ share declined to 7% in 2018 due to China’s unfair bidding practices.
A series of 40,000 cyber-attacks after the Galwan standoff – on Government establishments, the banking sector, vaccine producing pharmaceutical companies and power grids, the most famous of which was last year’s massive Mumbai blackout, many of which were attributed to Chinese hackers and Advanced Persistent Threat groups, alerted the Government. Our organisation SITARA had earlier alerted the National Security authorities about the risks associated with Chinese ownership of sensitive networks – exponentially magnified if Chinese companies entered 5G. National and Economic Security had to be prioritised in Telecom Policy and secure networks starting with 4G built with Indian equipment, so that they could be 5G ready.
Massive procurement reform to combat corruption was required. Full commitment to domestic procurement would turbo-charge domestic economic/technological development by imparting a 40% stimulus to GDP. A strong ICT industry would be India’s force multiplier for National Security and the successful conduct of modern warfare. In fact, all future technological progress would depend on mastery of ICT technologies. Unless India upgraded its indigenous technology and R&D capacity to get future-ready, it would forever remain part of the global South.
Moreover, Chinese equipment in our sensitive networks would be incompatible with the Quad and US security partnership. The US Indo-Pacific Commander just announced the establishment of an information fusion centre and stressed interoperability and information sharing between partners. The US also said it will help develop India’s defence industrial base – we have to hold them to it and not sacrifice domestic technological capabilities to any grouping, even as we explore partnership opportunities with them.
As a result, procurement reforms giving some margin of preference to domestic producers and warning against artificial skewing of tender specifications to exclude domestic bidders – were indeed passed by Government. The BSNL tender for national 4G networks, initially tailored to Chinese needs, was revoked and retendered for domestic bidders. SITARA’s request for telecom security legislation was partly met by the Telecom Security Directive and Trusted Source Order.
But there is a long way to go. There is no sign of R&D support to the sector as yet. Very few tenders have actually been given to domestic companies. The private sector is no better. Airtel and Vodafone have just placed huge procurement orders on Huawei, despite the security risks involved.
Meanwhile, Niti Aayog and MEITY have given away critical Government contracts to foreigners. It is difficult to quantify the mind-boggling National Security implications of MEITY’s decision to accord Google Cloud permission to store Government data, even as the world gears up to control Big Tech. Indian data centres and cloud providers will be unable to offer matching terms, with Google even offering to host it for free and profit from the massive meta-data monetisation opportunities! All applications will be developed on Google, rather than Indian clouds. Business will be stolen from the Indian ecosystem, again relegating us to poor cousin, coolie status. The exodus of talent from India will intensify.
Over decades, our flawed procurement system and colonial-era subservience to FOEMs has cost India 1000s of lakhs of crores in contracts awarded to foreign companies, which have grown rich off the Indian market. This is the main reason India has never emerged out of poverty and we have not developed a robust domestic innovation ecosystem.
India must invest in futuristic domestic capabilities in ICTs. Gen. Rajesh Pant, National Cybersecurity Coordinator has called the country’s Information Infrastructure “Super-critical”, not just Critical. To this end;
- India’s ICT networks must be treated as Super-Critical, Sensitive and Strategic Information Infrastructure vital to national security, like the US, China and other countries, to prevent overturning Prime Minister’s national security vision and Atmanirbharta directives.
- MEITY and DoT must be merged into a Ministry/ National Commission of Information & Communications Technologies & Industry under the Prime Minister, to ensure security oversight.
- MOD must be reorganised: Defence production must be given priority over defence acquisition and ICT ascendancy integrated into warfighting strategies.
- A National Strategic Mission to fund R&D in ICTs must be declared. A DST draft recommends national mission mode projects and technology development. The CAREL model can fund domestic technologies developed through the public sector or Universities with 100% pass-through funding to the private sector (we prefer direct funding to the private sector for spiral iterations but this is the next best thing).
- The USOF (Universal Service Obligation Fund), which has been used to fund a Japanese company, must be used for domestic companies.
- Domestic procurement is the key to prosperity and National Security. Orders to domestic companies to build a secure indigenous cyber infrastructure must be given. PPP-MII Orders must also be enforced in capital and revenue Defence Procurement.
- Indian IPR ownership must get greater weightage than price in tenders.
- R&D tax incentives must be restored.
- The MEITY Order giving Google Cloud permission to store Government data and all other awards and contracts to handle Government data given to Big Tech and Big 4 Consultancies – must be rescinded. These contracts undermine all the good work the Govt has done recently.
- A Telecom Security Act must be passed.
- The Commission must adopt a unified national AI plan spanning several security and line ministries.
– The author is a former Ambassador to Switzerland and Founder & Chairperson, SITARA (www.sitara.org.in)