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Indian military can’t be a silent spectator to global semiconductor boom. See US, China

As China and the United States move to dominate the global semiconductor market, India must go from chip taker to chip maker.

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India’s semiconductor mission must converge with its military ‘Atmanirbhar’ ambitions as a geopolitical priority. The country needs hundreds of chip startups to serve its military and commercial needs. India is home to 20 per cent of the world’s chip designers, almost all of whom are employed in the back offices of foreign firms. It is time our human talent works to further our national interests.

The military cannot afford to be a silent spectator. Instead, it must play an instrumental role in building domestic chip capabilities.

From phones to car keys, semiconductors are ubiquitous in our daily lives. As a result, governments around the globe are investing billions of dollars in building domestic semiconductor capabilities. This effort includes Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s $10 billion Semiconductor Mission, the US government’s $208 billion Chips Act, and China’s eye-popping $1.4 trillion investment vision for its semiconductor sector by 2025.

This rising interest is due to increasing global technology protectionism to prevent strategic semiconductor technology access to China and Russia. Starting with former president Donald Trump’s era, the US has been increasing semiconductor and electronics sanctions on its adversaries, including preventing the sale of machines from leading Dutch chipmaker ASML.

Also read: India has joined the global chip race. Question is, should it fly solo?

The growing relevance of semiconductors

Every item of military technology today relies on some semiconductor technology to sense, communicate, compute and act against threats. From simple night vision cameras to advanced quantum encryption, from software-defined radios to missile seekers—the entire military continuum uses thousands of advanced semiconductor components.

A recent report from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), titled the Silicon Lifeline, is a 60-page analysis of the Western electronics that make up Russia’s kill chain—including Unarmed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), missiles and jamming stations. The analysis reveals that these complex systems are powered by semiconductor products like image sensors, microcontrollers and field programmable gate arrays. RUSI’s research points to 450 unique dual-use semiconductor components, out of which a whopping 318 come from 57 US-based companies. Components from semiconductor manufacturer Texas Instruments alone power Russia’s Iskander K Cruise Missile, the Akveduk Radio Station, the UAV Orlan, the Orion GLONASS, the GPS tracking device, and many others.

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Chinese civil-military fusion

It is not just the US stepping up its game to dominate the global semiconductor market. A 2021 announcement from the Chinese state media revealed that its space stations and Mars rover carry indigenously designed and produced semiconductors. This revelation should come as a rude shock to the strategic technological debate.

While US sanctions focus on denying access to the latest nanometres, it is pertinent to point out that cutting-edge military technology does not rely on cutting-edge semiconductors. For example, the 110-nanometre image sensor process is sufficient to build advanced surveillance systems. With silicon photonics technology coming up, the hype around the smallest nanometre for improved computing and the ‘Moore’s Law’ hysteria that we are reaching the pinnacle of, will all become obsolete.

While China may not be able to compete with Taiwan on mature 3-nanometre technology, it is gaining an edge in an area that will become a military differentiator. Chinese chip design firms are using government push and import substitution programmes to gain an edge in high-end chip development. These developments mean that the Chinese military will have access to state-of-the-art technology in the coming years.

Drawing inspiration from the now-abandoned model established by American engineer and policymaker Vannevar Bush around World War 2, China is using civil-military fusion to set up their entire semiconductor industry. Civil-military fusion is a strategy by the Chinese Communist Party to convert the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into an advanced and formidable force. The military is a notably sticky customer. China is using this nuance—coupled with the larger ticket size associated with military-grade products—to prop up its domestic semiconductor industry.

While these products may not carry the latest, flashy nanometre tags, they are sufficient for operational requirements and allow companies to remain afloat, learn exponentially and grow to find a commercial market eventually. An example of this model is Jingjia Micro, which started its journey by making military-grade graphical processing units or GPUs for radars and satellites. In 2021, it launched its JM9 GPU with performance benchmarks equivalent to NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 10 Series Pascal from 2016 used for AI or machine learning. As a result, the company‘s cheap and highly reliable products have made their way into military aircrafts, radars, satellites and displays.

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‘Atmanirbharta’ is key

China’s semiconductor capability may not seem like a threat to the West, but it should definitely concern India. There is no doubt that India missed the boat on the last electronics wave and that the government is making every effort to incentivise the domestic industry to step up to the challenge this time. However, there is no focused effort on fulfilling the needs of the domestic defence industrial base or any narrative around the importance of these technologies for military end-use.

Without home-grown microelectronics, achieving 51 per cent indigenous content in military systems is challenging. For instance, building modular size, weight and power (SWaP)-optimised solutions would not be easy. Most chip technologies are dual-use by default. The military will continue to be the best early adopter for new chip startups. Allowing chip innovation in dual-use applications is integral to building new capabilities. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)’s Microelectronics Technology Office (MTO) and Electronics Resurgent Initiative (ERI) showcase how military research and development is central to building the next generation of chip technologies.

The Indian military, with its flagship programmes like the Defence Research and Development Organisation’s Technology Development Fund (DRDO-TDF) and Innovations for Defence Excellence (iDEX), need to be stakeholders with the Indian semiconductor mission to create an ecosystem of chip startups.

Next, foundry access is complicated for a chip company working on military or dual use. While the 40-180 nanometre nodes meet most military requirements, certain chip-manufacturing capacity exists only in the Quad, which forms the trusted foundry network of the US, Australia and Japan. So there is an opportunity to create a technology corridor that allows Indian chip companies easy access to the Quad foundries, and we must step up to the challenge. To become a developed nation in the next 25 years, India must become a net exporter of critical technology like semiconductors. It is high time we went from chip taker to chip maker.

Vrinda Kapoor is a deep-tech entrepreneur and biologist by training who works at the intersection of national security and technology. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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