Shift in Defence R&D – An Users Perspective
By Lt Gen P R Shankar (Retd)
An Engineers’ Conclave was held for three days, October 5 – 7, at Lonavala. It was heartening that one of the themes adopted by the Industry was “Defense Manufacturing”. I addressed the participants on the shifts required in defence research and development (R&D) from the users’ perspective. I interacted with defence scientists and industrialists. A major issue which struck me was that many tend to see research or manufacturing as an end to itself. Their sense of catering for the users’ needs and giving the man on the ground the best weapon system to fight and defend the country was hazy. This was evident since user participation in this event was thin. I also sensed that industry was hanging on to the coattails of DRDO for R&D. I think it is time to look and approach Defense R&D differently – from the battlefield and from the soldier’s point of view. The research bubble needs to be expanded accordingly.
I reiterate my long-held opinions. Technology owned is cheap. Technology bought is costly. We are still buying technology from abroad at great cost to the poorest Indian who cannot afford a square meal. As a result, India is yet to obtain strategic independence after seven decades. India lacks defence technology. As a 2nd Lt, I heard of Arjun MBT, Tejas LCA, latest Engine and Gun technologies. When I retired after 40 years as a Lt Gen, these were still some distance away. India needs to invest in effective defence R&D if it must be a power of reckoning. We need to break our trader mentality of ‘profit only’ orientation. There must be some risk-taking ability.
Defence technology is technology applied in warfare. Hence R& D needs extensive technological inputs from the scientific community and warfighting inputs from defence forces. Defence technology must focus on two aspects. Fundamentally, it is the soldier who is the user and is most important. He is invariably from a rural background, rough and tough. He is drilled to act with speed, under battlefield stress. He has the feel for ground and battle experience. Though mostly a12thstd pass he can handle multiple tasks and modern/complicated equipment with aplomb. He is often underestimated and lost sight of. He must be empowered with the best. Secondarily, the battlefield is constantly morphing. Osama Bin Laden rudely reminded the world about it.
Scientists need to understand that it is not Services who change goal posts. It is the enemy who changes the battlefield through ingenuity, innovation and adoption of emerging technology. The battle arena remains dirty, primitive and bloody with the enemy firing at you despite all kinds of technological advances. One is also exposed to the extremities of nature and environs. In such conditions, weapons and equipment must fail proof despite sustained and repeated use. The battlefield is unforgiving. Hence when defence R&D gets behind the curve, it remains so. One must be innovative, open-minded, time conscious and user-oriented to get ahead. Psychologically, our Defense R&D has some distance to go.
Defense R&D in India has some peculiarities. It is owned by the government and monopolized by Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). It is largely insulated from both the user and manufacturers. The intellectual base is shallow. Private players have minimal R&D appetite. Investing in defence R&D is considered risky since it is time-consuming and costly. Also, goal posts change with geopolitical trends, technological breakthroughs and human factors. That’s the challenge. Our thinking must change accordingly.
So, what are the needs of Defense R&D? These are fourfold in my opinion. Firstly, a high degree of conflict clairvoyance is needed. Secondly, knowledge superiority is mandatory. Thirdly, dual use of core research suitably adopted to weapon systems. Lastly, agility to apply technology across weapon platforms and Service requirements. To cater to these needs our backbone must be the user. Multi-level and meaningful integration of user, developer and manufacturer is a must. Defence research must be focused on a project or a product.
Involvement of the intellectual community is mandatory. Our academia needs to be involved and exploited big time. For some reason, Defense R&D has drifted away from sister organizations like ISRO, DAE, CSIR Labs and other research establishments. This is not my crib. It is the voice of the Academia and other research establishments. Please heed to it. India is missing out on its best brains! Having been in an academic environment lately, I can vouch for the fact that IITs have cutting-edge technology know-how in multiple disciplines. As much as there is core research being carried out, there is an equal amount of capability for applicative research as required by our armed forces. Cross-disciplinary integration is feasible if encouraged. IITs also have the linkages to build intellectual bridges across organizations. There is a need for better involvement and engagement of IITs and other academic institutions of repute by the Defence Forces, DRDO, DPSUs, OFB and Industry to exploit this untapped wealth of knowledge.
More importantly, IITs are eager to get involved with Defense R&D. They should also be exploited for imparting knowledge on Defense Technology at all levels. As an example, IIT Madras with a dedicated Research Park and its core academic strength is well suited for taking up the role that I have outlined above as an academic institution. With a DRDO centre (Research Innovation Center) also housed in its Research Park, it has the necessary infrastructure for the kind of confluence and bridge building which is the need of the hour. We need to have the faith to invest in our Academic institutions and forge ahead.
How does one approach Defense R&D? In my opinion, defence R&D is multi-tiered and must be approached accordingly. These approaches are outlined below: -
A “Blue Sky” approach must be undertaken when one seeks game changers. It is about groundbreaking research for new systems. Such research is feasible presently only under the DRDO umbrella.
- “Reinvention of the Wheel” must be done when there are technologies which are restricted/protected and will not be given to us. The technologies can be old as in NBC, missile or space technologies. However, we must own them for ourselves at all costs. Surprisingly, we have done well here. There are lessons to be learnt here.
- The “Reverse Engineering” approach has great potential which needs to be kinetised. Imported components and subsystems can be reverse engineered in a copycat mode to effect import substitution. The industry and academia can pitch ineffectively here. It is low cost, high value and gives a great start point for further research. However, the government must set up an enabling environment.
- We can also go in for technology acquisition through “Collaboration / Exchange/ Trading/Partnership”. The Brahmos program is a prime example of this approach.
- “Build on Transfer of Technology” (ToT) is something we have failed at. It took over 30 years to start building the Dhanush 155 mm Gun based on the Bofors TOT. Government resolve is needed to operationalize TOTs, especially since we have paid for them.
- We have been using foreign equipment for seven decades. It is time to focus on research to” Upgrade” the equipment. Again, this is a field where the academia and industry has a large part to play.
Defence industry must start their own research programs duly assisted by the Users, Government and DRDO. If industry means business, it must invest in R&D. Industry houses should establish research centres either individually or collectively. If, TATAs can have TIFR why not an institute of Defense Research? The industry needs to create think tanks and chart individual research roadmaps. It needs to start communicating its capabilities and intent in a focused and organized manner. What kind of research suits the industry? Some examples are given below: -
- Project/ product-based research can be undertaken with DRDO as it happened in the cases of Integrated Missile Development Plan (IGMDP) with BDL or Pinaka Program with L&T and TATAs as “Development Partners”.
- “Process Knowledge Research” in integration or specialized manufacturing technology can be undertaken easily by our industry. Such research should put them at the pole position in the international arena for such know how. For example, BAE systems went to a firm in Los Angeles which had the expertise in the casting of huge pieces of Titanium for the Ultra-Light Howitzer.
- “Research to Extend Expertise” in established fields is a very viable option. One such example is of Bharat Forge which has invested in establishing a metallurgical research Centre.
- There are firms which have bagged orders and executed them well. Some of these orders have similar technological inputs. More importantly, they have dual use requirement in the day to day life. There is, therefore, a need to research and “Vertical Specialize” such dual-use technology.
- Industry can partner with research / academic institutions to develop new technologies. It will result in cost reduction since the research facilities are already available in them. Academia can also facilitate research with other research organizations for cross flow of technology and breaking new ground.
If India must be a power of reckoning and if it must be strategically independent, it must, at some time, stop procuring and start producing weapon system. Hence, there is no way but to develop weapon systems through indigenous technology. In turn, it means that our defence research must flow around the restrictive DRDO funnel to include Academia, sister research organizations and Industry. Most importantly the user should not be lost sight of. The user must be fully integrated into the system and should drive it. Right now, our Defense R&D seems to be a bit rudderless. This is a pyramid inversion which I am suggesting and that is the challenge.
* Author is former DG Artillery Indian Army