Military & Aerospace

Chimera of Atmanirbhar Defence
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 29 Sep , 2020

In this year full of pessimism, one is loath to add on to the pile of misery, but reality of last 70 years and our Ostrich like attitude makes it likely that the dream of defence self-reliance is likely to remain just that: a dream. Over the years we have tried indigenization, import substitution, license production, tech transfer as offset, yet nothing seems to have worked. In every case of defence deals involving purchase of billions of dollars’ worth of arms  there is naïve  talk of ‘technology transfer’. Let us get real and descend from Cuckoo land and realize that no country is EVER going to transfer cutting edge technology. We have to develop it on our own. At best we can barter with others if we have a unique technology to offer. There is thus no substitute to indigenous research.

The recent abandonment of offset as precondition for arms imports shows clearly that it is the seller who calls the tune, not buyer. Can we change the situation, yes if we are ready to accept the brutal truths and trace our fundamental weaknesses and remedy them?

Fundamentally all armed forces are conservative when it comes to accepting new technology. World over, examples of the military rejecting modern technology galore! The great Napoleon rejected the idea of an American engineer Fulton when he proposed steam engine ships for the French Navy! Emperor Napoleon was aghast, ‘What? Ships without sails?’Even more recently, readers will be shocked to know that even the tech savvy US air force had rejected the stealth technologyinitially   when it was developed by DARPA (Defense Research Advance Project Agency). In India, historically with our Kshatriya ethos that had strict rules of right or wrong in combat, we shunned modern technology for several centuries. Babur introduced muskets as the preferred weapon of a foot soldier in 1526. But right through three centuries the Rajputs and the Marathas stuck to their swords, spears and bow and arrows. In the Maratha army that defeated the Mughals and created the largest Empire in early nineteenth century, the musket-men were mostly Muslim mercenaries. The Sikh armies were an exception to this rule, but exception all the same.

At a personal level, I recall that in 1968 as I joined an Infantry battalion, we were in the throes of changing from the bolt action 303 rifle to 7.62 SLR semi-automatic weapons. At that time the battalion had many veterans of WWII who had seen action in North Arica and Italy. They swore by the old 303 and were reluctant to adopt the new weapon. I remember that I pitted a platoon armed with only 303 against another armed with 7.62 SLR during a field firing to show them the difference new rifle made!

The only way to confront the skepticism about new defencetechnology is to educate the forces leadership and rank and file to new knowledge. First step in making the armed forces tech friendly is to make its personnel view it as battle winning factor.

Biggest obstacle to research in private industry developing indigenous technology is lack of incentives. There is very little profit incentive as market is too small since we shun exports. There is a lack of linkage between vast technical manpower and defence R & D as it is monopolized by the DRDO. The only way we can have technological breakthrough is if research is decentralized. We must start defence related research cells at all major science and technology institutes. Inventions and discoveries cannot come about in centralized laboratories but will need multiple efforts.

With decentralized research, we will also be able to reap the dividend of our large pool of young technicians. Currently our institutes have become a source of supply of technical manpower to the advanced West. It is time they instead become generators of solutions to India’s myriad problems including defence.

In addition we have artificial division between civilian tech and defence tech, between pure science and technology, lack of conversation between scientists and technologists, between various branches of science and technology and between various institutes. All over the world, companies that make fighter aircraft; also make commercial airlines and do not believe in this artificial divide between civil and military technology. The much maligned Krishna Menon was aware of this and encouraged making of coffee machines in defence factories, but was pilloried by media and opposition. 

Our institutes operate in silos. There is a pronounced bias against basic research and in favour of applied research. At one time a former Prime Minister of India had declared that India cannot afford the luxury of basic research and wanted to shut down the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Fortunately better sense prevailed and that organisation survived but it also underlines the fact of lack of understanding of umbilical cord that links basic research with application. To give a simple example, CV Raman must have never thought that his discovery of Raman Effect will be used to detect explosives at the airports! Today several international companies are making this device, amongst them not one Indian. This is despite the fact that there are many Indian experts who have been studying the ‘Raman Effect’ for decades. Our ability to spot opportunity in basic science discoveries to create products for use is severely lacking.  Creation of office of ‘technology spotter’ at the apex headquarters in Defence Ministry could be one of the possible solution.  

There is an inherent contradiction in defence industry between peace time low demand and high surge demand in wartime. Govt. monopoly under the rubric of control of ‘commanding heights’ has bred further inefficiencies.

Essentially this is a problem of management. Luckily India has some of the finest management institutes and managerial talent that is recognized the world over. This source needs to be tapped in creation of structures to promote interaction between science and technology, between various institutes, between educational institutes and users and smooth exchange between civil and military sectors. What is needed is not just piece meal reform but a drastic surgery. The suitably constituted management group should study the problems in a time bound manner and its recommendations should then be implemented. This will require tremendous political will, which we seem to have at current epoch in our history. The payoff of success will be not only in terms of more security but also creation of jobs and economic wellbeing of citizens. Till the time we do not take some of the measures suggested above, the glass will appear half empty!

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Anil Athale

former Joint Director War History Division, Min of Defence. Currently co-ordinator of Pune based think tank 'Inpad' that is affiliated with Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.  Also military historian and Kashmir watcher for last 28 years. He has authored book ‘Let the Jhelum Smile Again’ and ‘Nuclear Menace the Satyagraha Approach’ published in 1996, and ‘Quest for Peace: Studies in Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies' as a Chatrapati Shivaji fellow of the USI.

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6 thoughts on “Chimera of Atmanirbhar Defence

  1. I have noticed that Hindi version of the articles is not good and proper. Mostly words used to translate into Hindi are incorrect and wrong which motivates me to report you about it. Please used proper words so that the readers may get proper information. I shall be thankful if you will correct yourself on this issue because it hits your reliability and functionality.

  2. Complements Col. Athale for this brilliant analysis. You are incisively precise and absolutely to the point. Hopefully the Political Will steers the country to the right direction for Atmanirbharta, from a mere intent to a measurable actionable holistic policy orientation.

  3. Stealth was developed by Lockheed in it’s Skunk Works andnot by DARPA. I am amazed at Athavale’s ignorance.
    Our DRDO is a consistent underacheiver because it hires people with science and technology degrees but without the spark of innovative genius that distinguishes the inventor from the paperpusher. Our defence scientists are not even competent at copying and reverse engineering because they lack basic manual skills and engineering sense – they should be sent for training to the illegal gunsmiths of Munger.
    It is time that lndia carries out a honest survey of DRDO projects and abandon those which have failed to give results, like Kaveri. When DRDO promises to deliver something in five years, it actually promises to deliver a non-working model with a whole lot of excuses.

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