The PM’s recent emphasis and campaign to ‘make in India’ is certainly far better than the whole sale import of entire weapon systems. This will at least ensure jobs in India and some degree of control over possible embargos or sheer blackmail (as happened during the brief Kargil conflict in 1999). We in India have been at it for long time called as ‘license production’ then. But in the long term and to ensure national security, there is no substitute to switch over to substantially invented and made in India, with we retaining the control over critical technologies.
In India, research has come to mean ‘reverse engineering’, i.e. dismantling an imported product and then copying it. Great emphasis was also laid on ‘import substitution’ or indigenisation of components of imported products.
In India, research has come to mean ‘reverse engineering’, i.e. dismantling an imported product and then copying it. Great emphasis was also laid on ‘import substitution’ or indigenisation of components of imported products. In addition, most of the emphasis shifted to licensed production. All this gave an illusion of scientific prowess. But all this killed the initiative of the scientists to create anything new. The syndrome can best be understood when we see the spectacle of Indian factories year after year churning out MIGs, SS 11 B-1 wire guided anti tank missiles and of course the trucks exactly as they were 40 years ago. License agreements prohibit any innovations and improvements. So when a newer Sukhoi 30 or MIG-29 or homing anti tank missile comes on the horizon, we again import the technology and begin ‘license’ production. And after all this we blame the aeronautical engineers from our IITs for being un-patriotic and migrating!
Then there is the totally artificial divide between defence technology and ‘civil’ technology. Thus we have been producing fighter aircraft for several decades, yet we have no comparable civil aircraft manufacturing industry. No other country believes in this artificial divide. The Chinese, American and Russian space and aviation industry is a joint civil-military application affair. Even the current space project of China is controlled by the PLA (People’s Liberation Army).
To compound the above follies, we then created public sector monopolies and banned all private industry from so called ‘strategic’ sectors like aviation or arms production. There has been some improvement of late, but it is still a case of too little and too late.
One can neither be a world power nor even retain independence on the basis of borrowed plumes.
And the final folly was to make the Armed Forces the ultimate arbiters of defence technology. A soldier by the very nature of his profession is conservative when it comes to new technology. Even such a great leader like Napoleon rejected steam ships and submarines when presented to him by an American engineer, Fulton. The centralised, bureaucratic DRDO that lacks accountability then completes the circle.
One can neither be a world power nor even retain independence on the basis of borrowed plumes.
Defence research and production, world over has been an engine of economic growth and generator of cutting edge technologies. In India however, it is a drag on economy as most of the hardware is imported..
In India def production is caught in the vicious circle of import substitution and indigenisation rather than development of new products. Besides its economic consequences, the import dependency has been impacting our foreign policy and level of independence. As India moves towards higher economic growth and becomes a world economic power, newer threats to our interest would emerge as we grapple with old challenges in our neighbourhood.
India has no hope in ever shining unless we rectify our crippling dependency on imported weapons.
India has no hope in ever shining unless we rectify our crippling dependency on imported weapons. We examined the American DARPA (Defence Research Advance Project Agency) model some time ago.
Salient points about DARPA are worth recounting.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was established in 1958 as the first U.S. response to the Soviet launching of Sputnik. Since that time DARPA’s mission has been to assure that the U.S. maintains a lead in applying state-of-the-art technology for military capabilities and to prevent technological surprise from her adversaries. The DARPA organization was as unique as its role, reporting directly to the Secretary of Defense and operating in coordination with, but completely independent of, the military research and development (R&D) establishment. Strong support from the senior DoD management has always been essential since DARPA was designed to be an anathema to the conventional military and R&D structure and, in fact, to be a deliberate counterpoint to traditional thinking and approaches.
Some of the more important founding characteristics are listed below. Over the years, DARPA has continued to adhere to these founding principles:
- Small and flexible;
- Flat organization;
- Substantial autonomy and freedom from bureaucratic impediments;
- Technical staff drawn from world-class scientists and engineers with representation from industry, universities, government laboratories and Federally Funded Research and Development Centres;
- Technical staff assigned for 3-5 years and rotated to assure fresh thinking and perspectives;
Major DARPA innovations that are known are the internet, stealth technology and wearable cameras. Many more inventions are shrouded in secrecy.
- Project based — all efforts typically 3-5 years long with strong focus on end-goals. Major technological challenges may be addressed over much longer times but only as a series of focused steps. The end of each project is the end. It may be that another project is started in the same technical area, perhaps with the same program manager and, to the outside world, this may be seen as a simple extension. For DARPA, though, it is a conscious weighing of the current opportunity and a completely fresh decision. The fact of prior investment is irrelevant;
- Necessary supporting personnel (technical, contracting, administrative) are “hired” on a temporary basis to provide complete flexibility to get into and out of an area without the problems of sustaining the staff.;
- Program Managers (the heart of DARPA) are selected to be technically outstanding and entrepreneurial. Management is focused, imposes little else in terms of rules. Management’s job is to enable the Program Managers;
- A complete acceptance of failure if the payoff of success was high enough!
The freedom to act quickly and decisively with high-quality people has paid handsome dividends for DoD in terms of revolutionary military capabilities. Major DARPA innovations that are known are the internet, stealth technology and wearable cameras. Many more inventions are shrouded in secrecy.
No wonder the permanent staffs in our research establishments have turned the national and defence laboratories into mortuaries of science.
What Should India Do?
In brief what should the new govt do to put the mess in this field right ……
- A blue ribbon panel to go into whole gamut of DRDO, PSUs, Departmental Undertakings, Ordnance factories private industry and its role.
- How do we link our IITs and tech institutes with research?
- How do we separate ‘INNOVATION’ FROM RESEARCH.
American Philosopher of Science Thomas S. Kuhn in his work on theory of scientific revolution emphasises decentralised structures. While we in India, copied the Soviet model and created vast scientific bureaucracies with hierarchical institutions. It is time that research activity be defused and decentralised to universities and other learning institutes. Only at the level of operationalizing and production process, centralisation is needed.
It is a rule that most scientists get just one big idea in their career. Innovators of the likes of Thomas Alva Edison are an exception to the rule. Thus when we recruit people in permanent jobs we are in effect carrying on the burden of an unproductive individual for decades. Not just that the individual is unproductive, he also blocks the way for new talent and blocks new ideas. No wonder the permanent staffs in our research establishments have turned the national and defence laboratories into mortuaries of science.
The Chinese feat in space ought to serve as a wake up call just like the 1962 Chinese invasion did, years ago.
The 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 the scientists. There is no substitute to enforcing accountability.
Finally a word on rewards for work. In India we have made it a habit of creating ‘icons’ out of science managers rather than genuine scientists. The awards and rewards given under the general term of ‘contribution to progress’, a most unscientific and vague term, are a norm. Thus one finds that the science mafia perpetuating itself and generally goes under the term of ‘eminent scientist’. We must have a clear cut criterion of quantifiable and identifiable achievement before any award is given.
These are just some small suggestions and an energetic national debate is needed to rescue Indian science from the depths of mediocrity. In that lies the hope for a future. The Chinese feat in space ought to serve as a wake up call just like the 1962 Chinese invasion did, years ago.