As per recent reports in the media, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has established a new ministerial division called ‘NEST’, which denotes New, Emerging and Strategic Technologies. The focus in MEA till now was largely on cyber diplomacy plus nuclear, chemical and biological (NBC) weapons disarmament.
Hence, addition of NEST in MEA is an excellent development. The speculation is that NEST has been formed in the wake of the 5G controversy offered by global giants, especially by China’s Huawei which is inexorably linked to the PLA and is known to use backdoor Trojans that are largely undetectable and can be activated on Beijing’s wish. China’s ZTE too similarly linked to PLA, yet both Huawei and ZTE products have been flooding the markets in India despite an advisory issued by the NSCS years back to shun them.
The media report goes on to say that NEST is likely to become a foreign policy sentinel for the government to understand emerging technologies, particularly the current domains of Artificial Intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, genetics or next-generation telecommunications.
It can also merge technology policy with foreign policy as technologies are converging to create disruption with drastic regional and global geopolitical consequences. Quite obviously, global flashpoints between multiple futuristic technologies has required MEA to dedicate NEST as a complete functioning unit to deal with cutting-edge science and technologies, technology systems and the manufacturing and service industries emanating from them.
Logically, the NEST must have fair complement of technocrats to make it effective. Resisting this will make it largely lose its effectiveness as has happened with the Department of Defence Production (DoPD) in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) wholly manned by generalist bureaucrats who have little technical knowhow.
Adoption of 5G at national level no doubt would need to be examined by the NEST as part of foreign policy, not only because of geopolitical considerations but importantly security considerations to avoid being held hostage by a foreign power in perpetuity. This is important since we may be in hurry to connect about 90 million Indians with 5G by 2025, as assessed by KPG, without waiting for developing indigenous 5G-6G technology.
NEST would be examining technologies like 5G for keeping India abreast with fast-paced advancements in technology world-wide, ensuring simultaneously that our national security is not compromised. But the defence establishment needs to focus much more deeply at futuristic technologies that must be inducted in Armed Forces relative to global technological developments with military applications, especially in China which invests enormous amounts in R&D.
The practice in India has been that the MoD issues the ‘Technology Perspective & Capability Road Map’ (TPCR) from time to time spanning a 15 year period; the last two were issued in 2013 and 2018. These are guidelines for development of technologies by the industry.
However, not much is on ground from what is spelt out. The preamble or the first chapter of each TPCR never brings out what has been the progress on the previous TPCRs, ostensibly to cover up the lack of monitoring and accountability.
The second flaw is that participation of private sector remains small because nexus between MoD’s DoPD and DRDO/DPSUs/OFB notwithstanding propaganda to the contrary.
The result is that we have relatively made small progress in autonomous weapons including quantum drones; stealth technologies, precision guided firearms, high-energy lasers, space-based weapons, hypersonic aircraft, quantum communications, active denial systems – millimeter wave or microwave beams, tasers, e-bombs, quantum communications, electromagnetic rail-gun, hand-held EW weapons, psychotropic weapons and the like.
Decisions for planning defence resources including futuristic technologies need to be based on concrete analysis that breaks down the categories of major military technological inventions and innovations one by one and examine each individually.
The requirement would be to mitigate own vulnerabilities first in areas where military technologies are changing fastest, as also creative thinking about how to modify tactics and operational plans to combat the adversary that has or is about to acquire advanced technologies. Such challenges can hardly be met by the routine TPCR issued by the MoD.
Ideally, this should be handled by the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) heading the Directorate of Military Affairs (DMA) as its Secretary. The Chief of Integrated Defence Staff (CIDS) of HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) is also to wear a second hat as Secretary, Transformation and Coordination in DMA.
Above titles do impress the public at large, but don’t hide the fact that the CDS is severely handicapped with limited role and powers with him. Given the right role and powers, the CDS should be tasked to evolve the TPCR relevant to ushering true revolution in military affairs (RMA) and monitor its implementation, reviewing it periodically.
Signing 200 odd MoUs at DefExpo 2020 and current process of issuing TPCRs can hardly suffice. Thousands of MoUs have been signed in the last decade but the foreign direct investment in defence sector has been pathetic – Rs 51.93 crore between April 2000 and December 2019, as Parlaiment was informed on March 4, 2020.
Since CDS has not been given any operational powers, ambiguity also remains, who will the Theatre Commanders report to – Defence Secretary, Secretary DMA, Defence Minister or NSA? For that matter while government wants Theatre Commands created within three years of first CDS, are defining the National Security Strategy (NSS) and undertaking a Strategic Defence Review (SDR) forgotten as irrelevant to transformation?
Whether talking of NEST, TPCR or transformation, are we going to continue working in compartments to meet future challenges? Would it suffice for the MEA and MoD taking up issues with the CCS individually?
Speaking to the media in December 2019, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced an integrated defence, security and foreign policy review, elaborating that this would lead to a “huge technological upgrade of security forces to keep Britain safe and strengthen NATO.”
The review is expected to deliver a full-spectrum response capability to counter contemporary security threats in the 2020s. Can we learn something from this; go for an integrated defence, security and foreign policy review instead of current disjointed practices?