In an increasingly flat and un-safe world, defence Research and Development (R&D) delivers technological superiority over the adversaries, reduces import dependencies andaugments the capabilities of the forces to fight and deter threats. In India, the scene in defence R&D remains bleak, largely due to low levels of investment, lack of private sector participation, poor work culture in state owned R&D laboratories and absence of an innovation eco-system. This has led to skepticism on India’s ability to be a military super power and a global force in defence technology.
The annual report published by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission in 2016, highlights Beijing’s power projection development and warns that once fully developed, the weapons and forces could contribute to a regional conflict in places like the South China and East China seas. The report also states that, “China will try to strengthen its traditional war-fighting capabilities against weaker neighbours.” This is of concern to India as the result of future battles will favour the one which has a technological edge over its adversary and Beijing is way ahead of India in this regard. It is thus important for India to invest in defence R&D and develop asymmetric warfare capabilities to meet possible Chinese aggression.
In India, defence R&D has been largely controlled by state owned enterprises like DRDO and BEL. The sheer number of failures and the cost and time over runs of many crucial projects have overshadowed few stunning successes that these enterprises have had over the years. Under the guise of security and secrecy, the institutions have escaped answering questions raised on its priorities and inefficiencies. In particular, DRDO has been on the critic’s anvil for having, on most occasions, failed to provide timely delivery of crucial systems to the armed forces. A performance audit of India’s R&D effort is called for which hopefully would lead to re-assessing and re-aligning R&D activities within the country and re-shaping of R&D institutions. Concurrent efforts are needed in creating an eco-system that understands the need to innovate and has the capability to do so. This paper looks into the R&D models used by the US and China and attempts to suggest ways in which the best practices can be integrated into our present R&D set up
Defence R&D in USA
Research and Engineering(R&E) enterprise of the Department of Defence (DOD) forms the backbone of US forces’ technological superiority. It comprises of military departments and their laboratories, all DOD R&D product centers and laboratories, defence agencies like Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency(DARPA), Defence Threat Reduction Agency(DTRA) and Missile Development Agency(MDA), Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDC), University affiliations, industry partners and the laboratories of the allied governments.
The federal government owns 42 R&D centers called Federally Funded Research and Development Centers or FFRDCs. They are public-private partnerships and conduct research for the US government under its sponsorship. While some are managed by the federal government itself, most of them are contracted to universities, industrial firms or non-profit organisations. FFRDCs are intentionally kept outside the government to avail management flexibility to attract and retain high quality scientists and engineers.
The US DOD also has a Research, Development, Testing and Evaluation program called RDT&E program. It is intended to finance research performed by contractors and government installations.The program aims to develop equipment, material, computer applications and knowledge and technological base that helps build a defence product. The RDT&E financial appropriations are divided separately for the three services and one separate category has been instituted for other defence agencies. The appropriations are available for 2 years’ time and have an incremental funding policy. Each RDT&E appropriation is subdivided into seven budget activities (BAs): BA-1 Basic Research, BA-2 Applied Research, BA-3 Advance Technology Development, BA-4 Advance Component Development and Prototype (ACD&P), BA-5 System Development and Demonstration (SDD), BA-6 RDT&E Management Support, and BA-7 Operational System Development.
The priorities of RDT&E programme should also be taken stock here. Table 1 shows the percentage of the appropriations in each of the seven budget activities between 2013 – 2015. The programme spends more than two third of the allotted budget in development and demonstrations of systems, which is termed Weapons Development Activity(WDA), while only 3 percent is spent on basic research. It is also to be noted here that while the federal government finances RDT&E programmes, the prerogative to award grants solely rests with the subdivided categories.
Budget Activity % spending of the total RDT&E budget
Basic Research 3.0
Applied Research, 7.1
Advance Technology Development 7.9
Advance Component Development and Prototype (ACD&P) 19.4
System Development and Demonstration 17.4
RDT&E Management Support 6.6
Operational System Development 38.9
Table 1: % Spending of the RDT&E Budget in different Budget Activities. (Adopted from DoD’s President’s Budget for FY 2013-15)
A special program called “Reliance” looks into technologies that serve more than one service agency and thus enhance joint-war fighting capabilities,. “Reliance” has created 17 portfolios called Communities of Interest (CoI). Each such community comprises of eminent academicians, scientists and engineers belonging to a specific technological area. Few examples of CoI portfolios are Advanced Electronics, Materials and Manufacturing processes, Cyber, Counter Weapons of Mass destruction, Electronic warfare, Energy and Power Technologies, Autonomy etc. The CoIs are collecting, coordinating and aligning the technical capabilities, requirements, gaps, opportunities and priorities for their respective portfolios. This information forms the basis for a detailed Technological Roadmap which helps the leadership to identify and understand the under/over investments and avoid duplication of technologies. The structure and brief objectives of each group is highlighted in Fig 1.
Fig 1: Structure in a CoI portfolio.
The technologyresources for scientists and engineers working across DOD labs is made available by Defence Technology Information Centre(DTIC). DTIC serves the DODcommunity as the largest central resource for DOD and governmentfundedscientific, technical, engineering, and business related information. It helps to build on previous research,development, and operational experience, and thus reduces duplication. The set up helps build collaborations among the scientific community and leverages on available expertise and experience.
A special mention has to be made about Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA is mandated to find and fund high pay-off projects that are disruptive and has the potential to create technological surprises.
The Chinese Model
The Chinese R&D and innovation saw a sudden splurge starting this millennia. China is now second in the list of nations with highest R&D spending and has got direct relation to its pursuance of technological superiority over the United States. It has become successful in changing its reputation from a labour intensive, low-cost manufacturing hub to an indigenous, self-sustaining and innovation driven economy. So how did China change its perception, priorities, and made room for innovation and R&D?
The 1998 Ministerial Reforms and Reorganisations were aimed to reduce enterprises dependency on state funds, make them more efficient, and, eventually, profitable and self-sustaining. The result was that better equipment started emerging from key defence sectors and there were two key parameters, which led to this result. Firstly, the government kept increasing the allocation of defence budget for weapons acquisitions. Between 1997 and 2003, the increase was as high as 153 percent. Such a steep increase was bound to increase the industrial output. Secondly, the Chinese firms had limited but consistent access to foreign equipment, especially from Russia and Israel. This access assisted few companies to copy-produce military systems and integrate high-end technology into their production lines.
Chinese firms follow two approaches for defence equipment manufacturing. First is the “Good Enough” approach and second, “Gold-plated” approach. The first one follows creating “low-cost-lower tech” versions of their foreign counterparts. The Chinese realise that it would be too costly to attempt to acquire the capability and produce advanced weapon systems in every possible category. Instead, they intend to focus on making breakthroughs only in certain key areas. The equipment produced with this approach, although cheap qualitatively, meet the needs of People’s Liberation Army, which has fielded them in high volumes.The second approach involves indigenously designing and developing sophisticated high technology systems to match that of advanced nations. To employ this strategy, the Chinese seek to acquire high end technology from foreign suppliers and simultaneously evolve knowledge base in the same domain through consistent basic and applied research in National S&T institutesand affiliated universities.
China has in place two agencies for regulation. These are the StateAdministration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence(SASTIND) and Civil–Military Integration Promotion Department (CMIPD). CMIPD is mandated to work primarily towards civil-military integration and develops integrated standards for civil and military equipment. SASTIND’s primary responsibilities include drafting guidelines, policies, laws and regulations related to science, technology and industry for national defense.
Like US, China has promulgated few policy directives to boost R&D. The state run enterprises are required to invest at least 3 percent annual revenues in R&D. It has also imposed an upper cap of profits restricting the companies to quote exorbitant prices for defence acquisitions. Like DTIC in USA, China has created Information Analysis and Dissemination (IAD) system. It is specifically tasked to gather all open source information on foreign products for technology assimilation and concept refinement. Recently China also spoke of its intention to create a DARPA like institution for PLA.
What Should India Do
In the long list of things that have to be changed, a comprehensive Science & Technology Policy, which sets up S&T and defence priorities in clear terms, would be a good start. Along with the institutional changes, there is a need to create an innovation eco-system for defence related R&D. The envisaged eco-system must find synergies with the National Security Strategy and the Nation’s S&T policy. Few recommendations to bring about the desired changes are as follows.
• Aim & Arm: Identify the most potent threats and evolve strategies to mitigate them. Threat severity must be weighed and the technologies that can help deter these threats must be sought for acquisitions.The technologies that we build must try to close gaps in our security.
• Defence Inclusive S&T Policy:Like in US and China, the STI policy must be evolved in conjunction with the defence strategy of the nation. A subcommittee has to be set up for each of the R&D areas that are mentioned in STI policy of 2013, and must be tasked to find critical technologies relevant to that area. Ways must be explored to draw a link between the chosen technologies and the security needs of the nation. Efforts must be coordinated to gain global leadership in these frontiers of science. Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC), Department of Science and Technology, is now workingto develop a Technology Vision 2035 document. A quick scan of the website will tell you that Defence is still treated exclusive of the Science and Technology policy of our nation. Department of S&T will have to learn its lessons from the past and seek to develop a coherent and comprehensive S&T policy.
• Identify “Critical-to-Security” Technologies: India should seek global leadership in only select areas that are “Critical-to-Security”. Global domination in every category is not feasible given the baseline at which India has to start. Although DRDO has specified a large number of thrust areas through its Research Boards, there seems to be no clear list of areas with high priority and low priority. Further, the thrust areas are too academic in nature and give an impression that the outcome will be research papers and not actual products. “Critical-to-Security” technologies must be more immediate and macroscopic. Efforts must be then channelised and coordinated to develop the same. (For Israel, “Critical-to-Security” was Missiles and Anti-Missile technology; for China it has been Maritime Surveillance and Security)
• Communities of Interest:Based on “Critical-to-Security” technologies, sub-domains or “Communities Of Interest” should be created on the lines of US. A Steering Committee having top scientists, engineers and academicians relevant to that domain must be entrusted to develop plans and proposals to prioritise technologies at a sub-system level and steer the technology towards a realisable product.
• Civil-Military Integration (CMI) Policy: In the last decade, both USA and China have relied on the dual use technologies to meet growing needs of its forces in much quicker time. The Dual-use Application Program(DuAP) in US and Civil–Military Integration Promotion Department (CMIPD) in China have become successful models for civil-military integration. Since FDI in defence calls for deeper scrutiny, India can start promoting FDI in non-defence R&D and then leverage on the technologies that emanate from such ventures. For example, Indian mobile companies can be asked to work on radio and satellite communication devices, since they find close overlap with their area of business. The CMI policy will eventually create an alternative to DRDO, bring competition into play and compel each stake holder to continuously innovate and beat each other in price and sophistication.
• Directed and Increased R&D investment: Fig 2 shows spending on R&D by different nations as percentage of their GDP. While countries like South Korea and Japan are making investments in excess of 3 percent of their GDP, India has been spending less than 1 percent of its GDP in R&D. It is imperative for India to increase the investments and do so in technologies that are ‘critical-to-security’ as identified by the competent authority.
Fig 2: Spending on R&D as % of their GDP 
• Human Resource:Human capital is an indispensable pillar in building a strong R&D base and must be addressed with full seriousness. Firstly, the role of educational institutions in this effort has to be clearly stated. The thrust areas of the DRDO research boards must be made as Optional Courses in Universities and relevant research must be awarded appropriate credits. A program similar to IRAD can be envisaged to encourage participation in defence programs. Not just educational institutions, but also the industry will have to share the responsibility in creating a good quality human resource. DRDO and industry in general will have to develop the talent on campus and then acquire them. The armed forces must carry out a nation-wide campaign to highlight the conditions and difficulties in a war zone and inspire talented youth to contribute to national security. The Centre of Excellence started by DRDO in various universities should be given more autonomy and made to function on the lines of FFRDCs. Concurrent efforts must also be made to retain the talent while trying to attract the new ones.Government may also seek to make changes to the Recruitment and Assessment Board, since, going by DRDO’s own admission, is not being able to recruit quality scientists and engineers.
• Approach to Design: Trying to build a Product ‘X’ of world class sophistication from the word go has its own advantages and disadvantages. For a nation like India,the disadvantage being the high developmental costs and long development cycle. India must follow ‘Build-Capitalise-Improvise’ doctrine in its R&D endeavours with focus on building medium quality parts to understand the magnitude of design effort, the technology gaps and the scale of productions. In technologies that are not so critical, we must try to emulate the ‘Good enough’ approach. Indian scientists and engineers must see if the said technology has sufficient benefits, has no critical problems and its benefits sufficiently outweigh the problems. In a globalised world, it is wise to forge strategic collaborations with other nations to not only share the technology but also the development cost. The Russians built the Su-30 with the help of French and Israeli avionics. The Joint Strike Fighter F-35 has as many as 12 partnering nations. So, India, like it did in the case of Bramhos, must seek foreign partners of both technical and strategic importance. It should simultaneously develop its own capabilities by basic and applied research, technology assimilation and eventually becoming self-reliant. In projects of high stake, the agencies must develop sound knowledge of the product fundamentals and create testing procedures to reduce technology risks.
• Government Support:A strong backing from the government is a pre-requisite for R&D success. While the aim of investing in R&D is to bring in new or better products, increase usability, sales, profits and ultimately use the same profits to invest in R&D, and create an innovation driven economy, it also creates many jobs. There are inherent risks associated with R&D activities and failures should not clog the funding, with the government having to differentiate between non-performers and failures of performers.
• National Defence Research Repository (NDRR):On the lines of DTIC in US, and IAD in China, we must create an online repository for information dissemination of research related to defence technology. National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy (NSDAP), hosted by Department of Science & Technology doesn’t speak anything exclusively about the Defence Sector. Such a repository will not only help government in tracking and avoid funding for duplication of technologies, but will also help different researchers collaborate seamlessly and build on their individual expertise and experiences. The non-strategic data will also help university students to get a firsthand impression of defence technology, which may well be a source of inspiration.
• Defence Offset Policy: Departing from the obligatory nature of the offset policy, India must forge long-term strategic partnerships with foreign firms. Data may move at the speed of light but decisions on technology transfer move at the speed of trust. India will have to shed customer-buyer relation and become more of a business partner. Only then, firms will see Defence R&D as a viable avenue for discharging the offset obligation. Meanwhile, India will have to put in place a robust mechanism for the protection of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR).
• Structural Changes:Taking cue from ISRO, which directly reports to PMO, Chairman DRDO must directly report to the RakshaMantri to avoid bureaucratic delays. Further, the decision of government in refusing to create a DARPA like entity in India must also be reconsidered.
In the age of rapid technological obsolesce, whether DRDO is working hard or otherwise does not matter. What matters is if the efforts put by DRDO are adequate to beat the global competition. The measures taken up by government are at present inadequate to move a system that has stayed dormant for decades. How this is to change will be the defining challenge in times ahead and is a mammoth task. However, no amount of difficulty should discourage a nation that aspires and has the ability to be the best. As Victor Hugo said, “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.”
(Keertivardhan Joshi is a Fellow, CSIR-National Aerospace Laboratories, Bangalore)
(This article is carried in the July-August 2017 issue of India Foundation Journal.)