Hence, the Atmanirbhar needs to go beyond mere figures and quantities to be successful within even the next few years, let alone in the short term.
By Milind Kulshreshtha
Over the last decade or so, tremendous effort has been put in by the three services in terms of indigenization of equipment and systems in the Armed Forces. The degree of success has been varying, even with Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) already in existence as the country’s Defence R&D hub. However, DRDO’s delays in some major projects like the Light Combat Aircraft `Tejas’, Main Battle Tank `Arjun’ and few others, somehow have not been able to give commensurate operational results as per the investments (in terms of time and funds), leaving private-sector R&D an opportunity for participating in Defence. Again, the local commercial industry itself requires an impetus to gain expertise in many niche areas like a semiconductor chip manufacturing, engines etc. before they themselves can fulfil the military grade item manufacturing standards.
During this process of commercial Industry participation in the Defence sector, Defence Acquisition Procedure (or Defence Procurement Procedure, DPP) itself has evolved organically over the last two decades. The changes in DPP are triggered more so as to adjust and induct what is available with Commercial engineering sector for military, rather than for grooming them as a Defence supplier. The induction of COTS items in one such case here, which has found acceptance in the military against MIL Grade (Military Grade) items, however, with chassis ruggedization to comply with the required standards like Joint Service Standards like JSS 55555.
On Sunday (Aug 9, 2020) the Ministry of Defence issued a statement on the government’s push to Atmanirbhar Bharat and has surely mentioned some large figures and quantities for local industry to pick from, however, the fund and support mechanism to the local Industry, including the existing private Defence industry, shall play an important role to make it successful as a pillar for Indian Armed Forces in decades to come. It may go a long way in case the Commercial Industry is not seen as merely for what it can field for trials but rather as to what actually can be developed for the military by multiple organizations (on technical merit basis).
When seen from a different perspective, the Armed Forces today are in need of a two-pronged approach under the self-reliant objective viz. Upgradation of outdated systems and, second is the insertion of the emerging weapons system technologies. Emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), IoT (Information of Things), Big Data, UAVs may be inserted within the existing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) of the war-fighting units, more in a support role to how things are being done today on a battlefield.
For example, an AI-enabled Battlefield Surveillance System (BSS) can function superior to a Real-time software-based existing system. On the other hand, some major systems like Battlefield Management System (BMS) shall require a gradual iterative developmental approach, adequately ‘stage-wise’ funded by the MoD but executed by shortlisted industries. Multiple industries involved in the same field, with both budgeted by Defence, shall lead to a competitive and vibrant environment, with the Armed Forces being the end winner of this.
Military System Development Process
Advanced military systems have a complex developmental life cycle and timelines can go into many years or decades due to various factors like evolving technology, changes in the Battlefield Tactics, innovations (including that by the adversaries) and, last but not the least, Armed Forces’ own readiness and perspective on imbibing the latest technology. For example, a system like the Air Defence system can take decades of developmental effort from abinitio, since associated key sub-system technologies like Radar, electronics, software, tactics of enemy aircraft etc. pushes the system to be actually under an ever developmental lifecycle.
We may have to accept that a perfect system for an immediate operational deployment cannot be made in the first go, however, this effort can ensure that at least next iteration shall be good enough. But this is an enigma in the Indian scenario, as there is no provision for failure on Specifications or timelines. This means for Industry to ensure that while a system is being prepared for field trials, an in-house R&D team shall be already working on the advances in progress in the Industry and in the armoury of the enemy etc. Now, here the lines have to blur between the Indian Army and the Defence Industry, with the roles and responsibilities between the two implemented in a smart manner. It is to be considered that each side is not simply playing safe to avoid risks, whereas it is well known that hi-tech Defence system development is always filled with high risks of failure.
Hence, the Atmanirbhar needs to go beyond mere figures and quantities to be successful within even the next few years, let alone in the short term. The MoD/DMA may have to separate out ‘import-substitution’ from actual major system development the effort, realizing that later approach shall automatically be fulfilling the first.
In the gambit of Atmanirbhar initiative of the Government, Indian Armed Forces are definitely not required to accept any sub-optimal system, since probably our enemies already have superior systems to at least temporarily gain some initial technological advantage even over a highly motivated and a battle-hardened Indian side. At the most, Forces may have to adjust to positioning such adhoc under the trial system in the second line of Defence as standby sub-systems, more for fine-tuning to achieve optimal performance. This has multiple advantages, like giving real-life field exposure to the local Defence industries to the ‘ground’ truth of Indian terrain etc. and automatically builds robustness in the system, rather than looking at Armed Force’s Staff Qualitative Requirements (SQRs) as a challenge.
(The author is C4I expert. Views expressed are personal).