View: An overarching Defence Industrial Strategy can set the course ahead

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View: An overarching Defence Industrial Strategy can set the course aheadBy Lt Gen N B Singh

The recently announced Innovation for Defence Excellence (iDEX) initiative of the government , wherein the MoD will be earmarking at least 500 crores to bring together innovators with public and private sector industry and the Armed forces to find technology solutions and harness talent, has the potential to foster the creation and growth of innovative business .

However, for the business to flourish, innovation driven companies need a supportive institutional and regulatory environment. The past few years have seen a number of procedures and models (Make II, Strategic Partnership model, IDEX) being announced, apparently without any clarity on what kind of industrial capabilities were being sought to be created through these efforts. It is important to adopt a unified, coherent capability-centric approach to managing defence manufacturing,

Defence Industrial Strategy

The strategic direction needs to be provided by an overarching Defence Industrial Strategy (DIS) which sets the course ahead , by taking a capability driven systems view of the entire gamut of defence manufacturing. The defence industrial policy of yesteryears which stipulated self sufficiency and self reliance did not amplify what was to be done to achieve these aims. With each acquisition , while the armed forces acquired an operational capability, the country ended up acquiring black box level knowhow about system integration and testing ,as opposed to acquiring a knowledge driven defence industrial capability. Due to lack of ownership of the process of technology transfer by the public sector (workforce) the transfer of knowhow remained ineffective.

The armed forces provide a large market for certain specific types of technologies that can quickly enhance its operational capability, hence technology insertion(upgrade ) in our weapon systems to fill up gaps in operational effectiveness should have been the focus of R&D. The inability to upgrade equipment under licenced production for a long period of time is one prime reason for the growing technological obsolescence of the current inventory.

Thus creation of such a capability is one way to kick start the IDEX initiative. A fair portion of funding in IDEX needs to be for operational capability oriented innovations , commonly referred to as capability enhancement programmes, and the rest to excellence oriented projects (transformational innovations ) focused on some niche areas e.g. directed energy weapons, high powered microwaves, millimeter wave devices, autonomous combat vehicles etc.

The Armed Forces , in turn have to provide a supportive environment in identifying prospective areas for innovation , insight and access to in service system technologies through anchor institutions (schools of learning) while Govt can look at policies to encourage financing, tax reductions, grants for niche technology incubation, collaborative R&D , liberal export policy, and international collaboration. There should be no attempt to reinvent the wheel e.g. development of a 1500 hp tank engine when the same industrial capability can be established by the private sector .

DIS could help set a long term course for in house defence manufacturing with a view to creating a suite of industrial capabilities, needed to ensure technology security consistent with the broader national security imperatives and economic policy. The aims of DIS could be :-

⦁ Give a medium to long term strategic direction to defence industrial capability building and its sustenance when the delivery of major platforms is completed, by adopting a vision of life cycle engineering support and component manufacturing.

⦁ Give out specific areas where public sector will operate for reasons of strategic assurance , areas where private sector participation is open and above all where the two need to collaborate.

⦁ Enumerate a set of policy actions to raise the intensity , content and efficiency of innovative activities, set priorities and streamline developmental timelines.

⦁ Establish a formal relationship between public and private sector firms, universities and research institutions , consolidating their capabilities for creation of a modern , self reliant and efficient defence industrial base (DIB).

The priority for the DIS should be in ensuring that industry can meet the requirements of the Armed Forces, both now and in the future. This implies establishing a DIB comprising an array of key industrial capabilities from cradle to grave, at least for major combat systems.

Manufacture of full systems under the strategic partnership model should be an exception rather than a rule; it makes sense to acquire critical sub systems and technologies through this route and develop indigenous combat systems, as the Israelis and South Koreans have done . It has the potential of killing indigenous products and enterprises nurtured over several decades. DIS will help promote a sustainable DIB by taking a through life capability readiness view of defence requirements.

Identifying and Sustaining Key Industrial Capabilities

Every nation ideally wants to keep under its control critical defence technologies, implying a sizeable, open and broad-based defence industry which delivers a large proportion of the armed forces requirements. One positive aspect in our context is the huge market available within the country. An innovation driven DIB can create value, employment, technology and long term intellectual assets in the country. Within this strategy, the aim should be to tell industry very clearly where, in order to safeguard national security , certain industrial capabilities need to be in India and under Govt control. These are generally categorized as strategic assurance i.e. assured capabilities which are critical to providing technologies or equipment to safeguard the State, e.g. space, cyber, nuclear deterrence, ISR.

Capabilities which provide a leverage or strategic influence in military, diplomatic, political or industrial terms are the ones where private sector participation needs to be maximized. Be it aerial, maritime or land systems it is important to create a knowledge cache of vital know how, know what and know what is to be done. Hence, it may be worth the effort to take stock of existing defence industrial capabilities in the public and private sector, identify gaps and fill up such gaps using technology sourced from Indian/foreign companies. Collaboration rather than competition, a facilitative and partnering environment instead of an adversarial stance can only make Indian defence manufacturing the new growth story.

New technologies will have less benefit if the knowledge of how these might best be operationalized by integrating into existing equipment is absent. It is indispensible for the country to create a suite of capabilities required to design complex systems, from concept to point of build; and the associated skills to manufacture the build with requisite quality, reliability, testing , acceptance, sustainment and upgrade of platforms through-life. Attempting to buy and manufacture new systems under buy and make, across the full spectrum is neither affordable nor desirable. A pragmatic approach may be to continue building up on indigenous platforms already developed like the Arjun, ALH, LCA , Akash, Dhanush identifying operational capability gaps and inviting companies to provide innovative solutions to plug the same. This would help foster an innovative culture and usher a technologically advanced , domestically sustainable and internationally competitive DIB, with industrial corridors, techno- industrial parks and high tech zones.

The need for a wide spectrum indigenous industrial capability to manufacture, upgrade and support weapon systems is indispensable for mission readiness of platforms. It is prohibitively expensive to keep imported systems combat ready through life. A long term military modernization programme, comprising a cost effective mix of capability enhancement programmes and new acquisitions is essential for India to establish an industrial ecosystem comprising system integrators, sub system developers and hundreds of component manufacturers . Time to set course through a DIS and create industrial champions through consolidation of SMEs and bigger enterprises

Lt Gen N B Singh, PVSM, AVSM, VSM is a former DG EME and Member, Armed Forces Tribunal.