Defence Industry

Defence Research : India's Achilles Heel
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Issue Vol 25.3 Jul-Sep2010 | Date : 06 Oct , 2010

Research organisations need to be built around project-based contract employees with a bare skeleton permanent staff. Generous funding, constant movement between teaching and research and tax breaks can cater to the financial security of scientists. There is no substitute to enforcing accountability.

Most scientists get just one big idea in their career. Innovators like Thomas Alva Edison are exceptions. When we recruit people for permanent jobs we are in effect carrying on the burden of unproductive individuals for decades. Not just that the individual is unproductive, s/he also blocks the way for new talent, blocks new ideas. Little wonder the permanent staff at our research establishments has turned national and defence laboratories into mortuaries of science.

Research organisations need to be built around project-based contract employees with a bare skeleton permanent staff. Generous funding, constant movement between teaching and research and tax breaks can cater to the financial security of scientists. There is no substitute to enforcing accountability.

Another major positive change that has taken place is that after the nuclear deal with US, India is finally our of the international dog house as far technology is concerned. The private sector has all this while (except some brave exceptions and the nation needs to be grateful to them) shied away from defence field for the fear of being black listed and suffer losses in other business. Since soon this would end, an active private sector participation is to be expected. This will offer the much needed competition to the defence PSUs (Public Sector Undertakings). Many of these industries have excellent facilities and workforce, they should be freed from excessive control and permitted to get into other areas of interest, why can’t they become like the General Electric or Siemens?

A word on rewards for work is appropriate here. In India we have made it a habit creating icons out of science managers rather than genuine scientists. Awards and rewards given under the general term of ‘contribution to progress’ — a most unscientific and vague term — are a norm. Thus, one finds the science mafia perpetuating itself under the guise of ‘eminent scientists.’ We must have a clear-cut criterion of quantifiable and identifiable achievement before any award is given.

An IIT alumni writes,

“Being an IITian myself, I can assure you that IITs are one of the best organisations in terms of intellectual capital but are miles behind in terms of research work. In fact, it is the failure of Indian politics which is the root cause for the brain drain which occurs every day. The best brains from the IITs prefer to go abroad and do research. I think the people in power really need to develop a futuristic vision instead of looking at short term gains of winning some election by providing some reservation. It is a good thing to be proud of Haragobind Khurana, Chandrashekhar and Amartya Sen but what is he more important is to ask ourselves the question: Why did we lose such brilliant personalities? I think we should try to hold on to the talent in India if we are planning to become to one of the economic superpowers.”

There is often a lament that country ‘X’ is not prepared to give you technology. It must be clearly understood that technology transfer is clear two way traffic- unless we have something to give, we will not get anything. A better way to generate new ideas was suggested by this author at a national seminar in IIT Delhi in Oct 2000. The armed forces should invite the final year students on visits to their establishments, experience the life of soldiers (sailors and airmen) and also see the equipment. Let them then carry out their final year projects on some new idea they generate. Given the brilliance of Indian mind, I am sure if implemented we would soon begin to generate cutting edge technology of our own.

Final words on the issue- two recent news items mirror the concerns that have been expressed earlier. A news report of July 5, 2010, quotes that the Indian Armed Forces have issued a global RFI (Request for Information) for procurement of UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles) on the lines of the American Predators5. I wish to share an experience with the readers- it was in 1979 while on a tour of Bangalore from Staff College that we were shown a drone or unarmed aerial vehicle under development- it is now 2010 and even 31 years after it yet to see the light of the day.6

Why can’t the IT majors, small engine manufacturer and ADA, (Aeronautical Development Agency) get together and mass produce the UCAV ? They need not have a range of 100s of Kms, and as a beginning could just have ability to drop grenades or simple bombs!


  1. Irvine William, ‘The Army of Indian Moghals: It’s Organization & Administration’, Luzac & Co, London, 1903. p. 194. Irvine desscribes how the peasants continued to till his land non-challantly, while nearby a momentous battle was being fought that decided the fate of his country. Sadly very little has changed as far this mindset is concerned.
  2. Sen SN, ‘The Military System of the Marathas’ London, 1928. p 133
  3. Rajwade VK (Ed), ‘Sources of Maratha History Vol. II’ Bharat Itihas Sanshodhak Mandal, Pune 1900.
  4. Letter No 192. An account of battle of Panipat by Nana Fadnavis. These are original documents in Marathi.
  5. Prasad SN (Ed), ‘Historical Perspectives of Warfare in India Vol. X Part III’ Introduction, pp 41–42. Project of history of Indian science, Philosophy & Culture, Centre for Studies in Civilization Publication . New Delhi 2002.
  6. Kuhn Thomas S ‘The structure of Scientific Revolution’, University of Chicago, 1970.
  7. The Times of India, July 5, 2010, p. 7, Pune Edition quoting a report datelined New Delhi.
  8. The Times of India, July 6, 2010, p. 8, Pune Edition quoting a report datelined New Delhi. The Tejas LCA (light combat aircraft) is yet to be operational 27 years after the project was launched.
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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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