There is a distinct line between invention and innovation; the thickness of the line being what one perceives it to be. The exact meaning may differ from one dictionary to another, but an invention is essentially something newly produced which never existed earlier, unlike an innovation which improves upon something already existing. Military hardware, since the dawn of civilisation, has been more a product of innovation rather than invention. While the bow, cannon, musket, and atomic bomb can be regarded as inventions, a tank is actually an innovation — something you get by putting together an internal combustion engine, a gun, wheels (with tracks) with armour around it. So the payoffs of innovation are greater than that of invention.
What drives ‘military innovation’
Innovation (and invention) in military hardware for long (almost three centuries now) has been considered to be the preserve of a selected few. USA, Europe, Russia, and Israel, for many decades have been leaders. They primarily are inventors of military hardware and have set the agenda for the world in this field. It’s only in the past decade that more countries are entering the club albeit more as innovators and not necessarily inventors. The recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is an indication of where the future points to. The new entrants — call them Technovitiates — include China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Turkey, South Africa amongst others. Technovitiates, at present are mostly endeavouring to produce copies of what is already there, with countries like China fast moving into the inventor category. What drives this? For the old players, it is availability of abundant resources giving rise to a thriving military-industrial complex backed by sustained research and development (R&D). For the Technovitiate, it is ambition and a feeling of having its back to the wall. This is now leading to a different arms race and it’s just a matter of time before Technovitiates become inventors in their own right.
What should military innovation be like?
A weapon system, which earlier was considered ‘state of the art’ for a decade or two will now lose that tag much faster (although that odd Abram, B-52, or C-130 will still be around). So a country would now have to decide upon one clear technological aim — either ‘race ahead’ or ‘catch up.’ To ‘race ahead,’ a country needs to invest heavily in R&D of technology, thus, a requirement to infuse funds and resources. Other than that, there is a requirement of well established, robust industrial support, and to top it all, resilience to handle failures. Therefore, at present, it’s only the very few established defence producers who can think of ‘racing ahead.’ However, ‘catching up’ is a relatively level playing field. ‘Catching up’ can be done in two ways; one is to simply replicate a design or technology and produce a copy, which is not a formidable challenge in this hyper-connected world, even when having to deal with technology denial. Countries like China, Iran, North Korea, and even India have proved this. The other way is to exploit an inherent weakness in any niche weapon system and produce a countermeasure. This is where real innovation lies. We now see a plethora of weaponised innovations which can defeat weapon systems much more complex and costly. As seen during the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, this is where the Technovitiates are heading to. The biblical ‘David’ is taking on ‘Goliath’ — and winning. The ‘Goliaths’ will certainly not take this lying down but still it may well be advantageous for ‘David’ — who is ambitious to turn the tides. This innovative disruption is the future where India has a very bright chance of excelling.
What goes into innovative disruption?
Traditional weapon systems are complex things which need to be created bespoke, but effective countermeasures against them can easily be made using items available ‘off the shelf’ put together with ingenuity. The most important thing required is an eye that can identify a ‘chink in the armour.’ Even the best weapon systems will have some ‘chinks,’ physical or digital. Exploiting these ‘chinks’ is what the new entrants will aspire to do.
Who should do it?
Who should take the lead — government or the private industries? Unlike in the US, in India, the government needs to create and nurture an ecosystem: Education to start with, followed by infrastructure and, thereafter, funding R&D; in short, directing and sustaining the process. However, government, itself, should keep away from R&D or production, leaving that to the private industries. This symbiotic partnership between the government and private sector is the way ahead. Private industries cannot generate resources that the government can. Even firms with deep pockets are constrained beyond a point — they cannot sustain continued failure and need to earn profits today. But what the private industries does best is nurturing talent and with its relatively flat organisational structure, brings in efficiencies which the government cannot. Therefore, defence innovation, driven by the government, primarily though funding and hand holding, but executed by the private industry will bring together best practices and efficiencies of two otherwise very different entities.
So what comes in the way?
The main road block here is to look at weapon technology purely from a scientific point of view. Scientists and engineers come into play only at the ‘last mile’ as it’s called to provide a technical solution to the stated problem. Therefore, stating the problem is the first step. So here thinkers need to come in, analyse what’s changing in war, give out a prognosis and translate the same into desired deliverables which in turn will help focus on essentials, channel scarce resources in the right direction and derive maximum ‘bang for the buck.’ In an industry dominated by scientists and technologists, there should be a fair mix of polymaths who have studied humanities as well. A country should also be able to attract, recruit, and retain talent from anywhere in the world. We need to bring together and mesh the ‘doers’ and ‘thinkers.’
On a final note, Thomas Friedman first spoke of a ‘Flat World’ in 2005, since then, the world has gone from flat to flatter and now has many interconnected flat layers. Innovation now is not something monopolised by a few. The Technovitiates have arrived and have managed to throw better funded and equipped powers off balance. This will continue and a serious military power cannot afford to ignore it. India has a lot of ground to cover, but thankfully building blocks exist and all that’s required is some rearranging. If that’s achieved, India will not only ‘catch up’ but even ‘race ahead,’ but whether one chooses to ‘race ahead’ or ‘catch up,’ the first thing to do is ‘get moving.’
Col Samir Srivastava is a serving Indian Army officer, who over two decades has served in Mechanised Infantry, Counter Insurgency and UN Peacekeeping environments. His interest lies in looking for newer dimensions in matters military. Views are personal.
The article first appeared on the Observer Research Foundation website.