The average internet buff would be less than aware that the vast world of the web was created entirely for fighting the Soviet Union by a department called ARPA, or Advanced Research Projects Agency, funded by the US Department of Defence. More humble inventions were nonetheless revolutionary. The sanitary pad evolved from a cotton shortage to dress wounds in hospitals that led to the production of cellucotton, which was then repurposed by enterprising nurses; synthetic rubber for your SUV’s tyres came from a World War II effort, when the enemy cut off access to natural rubber. Simply put, armed forces requirements drove innovations that were then released for commercial use. These and other innovations contributed to the US becoming the superpower of the post-war world.
In India, innovation by the armed forces has only recently got the attention it deserves, with the military mainly being seen as the defender and not a developer. That latter role was left to the ‘proper’ institutions, leading largely to an iron wall between the two, and no commercial outflow. In recent days, that is changing, in small dramatic ways. It could, with the proper push, be just the rocket science that the country needs to charge up its development graph.
Bright ideas save lives and make money
Take one recent example. Responding to the Covid pandemic, Lt Cdr Mayank Sharma of the Diving School of the Indian Navy conceptualised and designed an ‘Oxygen Recycling System’ (ORS) to address severe Oxygen shortages. After developing various prototypes that were put through stringent testing and assessments under the directives of NITI Aayog, a team of medical specialists, and several other organisations, a model was developed. This is an ingenious device that enhances re-cycles and thereby increases endurance of oxygen cylinders by 10-15 times, thus allowing hospitals to beat the oxygen gap. It is portable, allowing critical patients to be quickly put on oxygen support. And the add-on, apart from its low costs, is that it can also be used by soldiers at high altitude, and in naval ships and submarines. The technology of the system called ‘Aadyant ORS’ has been handed over to MSMEs to quickly scale up production. This is an example of how a bright idea can not just save lives, but also push high tech into critically needed areas.
There’s more. A naval doctor, Surgeon Lt Cdr Arnab Ghosh developed the ‘Navrakshak PPE kit’, which is a breathable protection kit, a boon for doctors and health workers sweating it out on the front lines in sticky clinging gowns. The technology has already been transferred to six MSMEs by the Indian Navy. Now plans are on to get isolation and surgical gowns using the same technology to be made in villages in Gujarat to boost rural employment. This process was possible because of the setting up of the rather handily named ‘SASTRA’ (Security and Scientific Technical and Research Association), which essentially does the ‘dirty work’ of commercialising an idea and creating MSME clusters for the defence sectors. In simple words, it’s the link between a bunch of manufacturers and the bright officers in the Services.
The Services jump in
The Navy had signed an MoU with the Rashtriya Raksha University (which houses SASTRA) last year. The Army has done so too, as has the National Security Guard. Both the Army and Navy have partnered with the Society of Indian Defence Manufacturers (SIDM) to allow frequent interactions with industry. The Army is also encouraging new ideas within. Army officers have developed long-range reconnaissance systems, technology for real-time tracking of patrols and indigenised artillery parts. Army’s Infantry School working with the DRDO developed a machine pistol in a matter of a few months. Whether these can be turned into exports is yet to be seen. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has signed an MoU with IIT Kanpur to boost aerospace technologies, while its Mehar Baba competition for designing swarm drones is a game-changer, with the participants mentored throughout.
The environment to innovate
All of this makes for a great start, provided the environment is created to innovate, particularly in marrying a defence application to commercial use. To go back to the Internet example, the project was headed by J.C.R Licklider, whose educational background was a combination of engineering studies and physiological psychology; in other words, he was a multidisciplinary thinker. His vision of an “intergalactic computer network” was accepted at a time when a mainframe computer was the size of a couple of refrigerators. ARPA believed in him and the result was a revolution.
In simple words, immense success requires multidisciplinary organisations that understand both the research and the market, and ensure that the innovation is seen through to its final stage. That’s what DARPA did with its simple mandate “to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security”. In the process it invests in outrageous research as well — cyborg insects, for instance — but then provides the tech to the services even as it is envisaged. Separately, innovation is also encouraged in the services. The US Navy, for instance, was granted 20 patents in just one month. President Joe Biden is now even more focussed on funding innovation with a $325 billion plan. So funds, easy approaches for patenting, and an agency that is willing to go wild on science.
Innovation thrust in India
Here, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his team are bent on kickstarting innovation. The RRU under the Ministry of Home Affairs has an impressive track within a short time and represents the academic side, with its own incubation and innovation unit. The SIDM, originally set up with the encouragement of then defence minister Manohar Parrikar, has grown from about 200 members to more than 480. Then there is the ISpA (Indian Space Association), launched last month, joining big names like Bharti Airtel, Larsen & Toubro, Tata Group and One Web among others. This lies at the core of the Prime Minister’s vision of a ‘Digital India’. There is the Defence India Startup Challenge (DISC), under the Ministry of Defence. Add to that the push given by the Services. But here’s the bottom line. India added 33 unicorns in 2021. Not one was from defence.
Too many cooks and not enough broth
Clearly, something is not quite right. First, consider that the delegation of financial powers to the Services, though a huge jump from previous years, is inadequate for the kind of innovation required. The Deputy Chief of Army Staff, for instance, has a fund of Rs 7.5 crore for the private sector but almost double that amount for government R&D. Ideally, it should be the other way around, since government entities have recourse to other sources. A similar issue is seen in the DISC, which grants Rs 1.5 crore and requires the applicant to match the contribution. An entity that has that kind of cash to spare probably doesn’t need the offered half and the rigours of a ‘monitoring committee’. Moral of the story? Funding must not be frittered around. One purpose, one fund.
Second, there are too many cooks, all stirring the same pot. One overarching autonomous institution may be preferable, with the mandate to pull in anyone from anywhere. No, not an ‘umbrella’ organisation engaged in inter-ministerial turf wars, but an aggregator, drawing in any mix of innovators and business.
Third, the services themselves need to provide the thrust. The Navy owes its success to the push given by the outgoing Chief Admiral Karambir Singh, and has got its NIIO (Naval Indigenisation and Innovation Organisation) fully up with an ‘across the service’ presence. The others have yet to catch up due to multiple reasons. People in the armed forces need to be assured that their ideas will be listened to, no matter how ‘out of the box’, or whether or not they have a PhD or several letters after their names. It’s the crazy ones who have the ideas. Fund them, or else see them spirited away abroad. The ‘brain drain’ is real, and the race out of India runs on the rails of a ponderous bureaucracy.
The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)