PM Modi’s recent visit to the US coupled with that to France throws open the avenues for technical collaboration in myriad areas. We need to optimise opportunities thrown open, especially in technology development. Beyond co-producing some state-of-the-art engines for fighter jets and helicopters a huge market for Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul, boosted further by an attempt to reduce dependence on China, calls for focused exploitation.
The recent first Official State visit of Shri Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, to the USA has heralded a new era in the deep strategic partnership between the two nations. It marks a new high in the Indo-US cooperation and is an acknowledgement of the place of pride India holds in the comity of nations, globally.
The PM’s visit has opened the floodgates of bilateral ties, estimated at USD 192 bn, through major mutual strategic support in 60 areas of cooperation to include GE -HAL F414 jet engine deal for LCA Mk II, MQ 9B Predator Drones, semiconductor, quantum technology, blockchain, big data analytics and AI (Artificial Intelligence), atomic energy particle accelerator, green hydrogen, battery storage, renewable energy, healthcare, communications and space technology; bilateral trade and a number of global, geopolitical and geostrategic issues.
The Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) 2012, has been escalated to the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET) 2022. Media is abuzz with analysis and debate on the pros and cons of the visit and the fallouts. That said, the best opportunities lie in planning, directing and coordinating a two-pronged long term strategic partnerships in developing the defence industrial corridor with womb to tomb focus on life cycle sustenance support management through maintenance, and overhaul (MRO) infrastructure and a research, design and development emphasis through academia industry partnership in critical and emerging technologies.
The next visit by PM as Chief Guest at the Bastille Day Parade to France is yet another great opportunity which has been preceded by an extremely successful visit by the NSA. These visits have opened the floodgates to import of defence equipment and systems, and India gets to meet its urgent defence requirements. That said, the jet engine deal is a common technology stack. Design and development of the Power Pack comprising engine and transmission system has been a big engineering and technological challenge to get the form, fit and function. India, as a defence manufacturing hub has been aspiring to patent and produce engines for armoured fighting vehicles, ships and aircrafts through R&D and public private partnerships.
It has been a 40-year long grind but there is no light at the end of the tunnel since there are technological missing links. The GE HAL deal or the French Safran impending deals for co production with 80 % and 100% transfer of technology (ToT), respectively, are a great opportunity to meet the aspirations. The deals need to be viewed beyond the engine on offer to catapult India as an engine manufacturing hub. A number of nations have come forward to offer complete ToT of the engine but the motivation must lie in creating a consortium to design and develop engine technology in India and not ToT.
The moot questions which beg elucidation are – What are the initiatives India must take and US must support to make DDTI & iCET model deliverable programs? How does one tame these tech elephants in the room?
Let me share a story from the Indian Integrated Guided Missiles Development Program. During the design and development stage, limited mission objectives are designated to develop a robust system. The true learning and challenges come when unexpected failures happen. After seven to eight successful missions two missiles failed – a structural airframe failure during maneuver and a missile topple within a few minutes of launch. These failures can be massively demoralizing and requires deft dynamic leadership.
Late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam would inspire his team by reminding the scientists that failure during these design and development phases is actually the true success because the post flight analysis will be the best learning to create robust systems. This was also the time when academia, industry and the intellectually vibrant Indian diaspora would volunteer to join the failure data analysis and deliberations and be part of the Indian initiative to find solutions to complex problems. IGMDP was a hugely successful program and serves as a stark example for paving the way forward. The answer lies in creating a consortium of learned and experienced subject matter experts to share the right knowledge with the ‘know why’, brainstorm the failures in the research, design and development programs and projects – ‘know why, know what, know when, know where, know how‘ to train the scientists and technologist ‘the right know who’.
An oft quoted social wisdom reads (no gender intended) Give a Man a Fish, and You Feed Him for a Day. Teach a Man To Fish, and You Feed Him for a Lifetime. So the need of the hour is learning to fish and embracing learning by doing and committing the right hands on the deck.
The urgent complex problems hold the biggest opportunities. To that extent, the Indo – US playbook must have myriad key areas of mutual strategic support and programs to create meaningful engagements. Transfer of technology has been a fancy term but the reality is that it is transfer of processes which is a low hanging fruit but technology is a priced possession and no OEM shares or transfers the knowledge of “know what, why, how …..”.
We have had so many ToTs but both the learnings and true value ToT has been grossly sub-optimal. However, the experience is that for all technologies forecasted and developed indigenously, the learning by doing has been the maximum, lifelong and a foundation for technology sovereignty. That said, some random but relevant thoughts on the Indo -US Playbook, which would be as relevant to Indo France Playbook, are shared for consideration.
Harnessing the Youth Bulge – Rising Aspirations. India has over 400 million employable youth less than 35 years of age; a demographic dividend, an advantage which is enjoyed only by India, both in quantity and quality. US has a total population of over 334 million. Also, the youth are educated and compliant for skill enablement. The Indo US playbook must look at this hugely aspiring youth in harnessing this capacity in augmenting manufacturing support to Indian industrial and defence industrial corridors by strategic partnerships, joint ventures and creating a bridge between Indian diaspora in US and Indian manufacturing hub. This calls for revamping DTTI into a womb to tomb journey.
Joint Research, Design and Development. A good tutor often challenges the taught and builds him cerebrally to develop the intellectual strength to bust the cocoon and fly the butterfly. In this engagement the student asks soul searching questions and both learn from each other, through mentoring and reverse mentoring cycles. This is true transfer of technology. A bad tutor helps the taught finish the home work and assignments and guides him to keep his nose above the water and swim. This is limited transfer of technology.
The Indian R & D Organizations have a track record of commitment, perseverance and persistence and need ‘good tutors’ to gain by the vast knowledge and experience of the scientists and technology experts to act as willing good tutors. India’s flagship DRDO programs on Kaveri engines, High and medium altitude long endurance drones, AI, robotics, blockchain, AR, VR, National Mission on Semiconductors, 5G and 6G, quantum technologies, renewable energies, green hydrogen, space, cyber, precision agriculture to name a few big tickets must be joint R & D programs under the iCET umbrella for creating the technology readiness levels (TRL).
Huge prospects lie in incubating TRL 1 to 3 technologies in academia, TRL 4 to 6 with academia industry partnerships and TRL 7 to 9 as products under the aegis of Corporate. In this era where technology and economy are two sides of the same coin, the India US Playbook must transform initiative “i’ of iCET into integrated ‘I’ program for critical and emerging technologies.
Brain Circulation and Not Brain Drain. The Indian growth story is about rising aspirations and rising intellectual infrastructure for building the human capital, the youth bulge, in terms of premier academic institutions, IIT, IISER,IIIT, NIT, National Skill Development Universities, AIIMS to name a few, technology innovation hubs, canters of excellence, Defence India Start up Challenge of iDEX and progressive National Missions – Gati Shakti, Skill India, Startup India, Digital India among many others which have set the direction for academia industry interface and partnerships. These are compliant with state-of-the-art infrastructure, applied research orientation and an insatiable will to excel.
The latest QS ratings 2024, which are an indicator of the academic excellence of engineering and technology institutions, are dominated by US Universities; IIT Bombay at 150 is the first Indian Institution. The aforesaid National Missions will have a resounding impact when enabled by a joint academia industry partnership and the Indian professorial diaspora in US who would act as catalysts. Indian brain drain to US has been an age-old phenomenon. There is a need to create a formal program of brain circulation where students and professors from India go to US on defined research initiatives and return to India for impacting academia industry partnership positively. A similar circulation from US to India is yet another opportunity in focused research collaborations between academia; a formal engagement as a part of the Indo US playbook.
Boost to Industrial Corridors & Defence Industrial Corridor. India has been the largest importer of defence equipment. This equation needs to be reversed and negative import lists backed by a defence industrial corridors are Government of India driven initiatives. The F 414 and MQ 9 deals in the offing must go beyond a G2G and FMS and discussions on transfer of technology. These commitments must be developed as Industrial strategic partnerships (SPs) and joint ventures (JVs) in India to create a robust manufacturing hub.
The mega projects undertaken by Tatas in the manufacture of C 295 aircraft, L & T in self-propelled gun and light tank, Mahindra Defence in light strike vehicle, M 777, Bharat Forge in Advanced Tactical Artillery Gun Systems (ATAGs), Adani in the unmanned aerial systems to name a few in the private sector. Among public enterprises HAL for Su 30 fighter aircrafts, Advance Light Helicopter and F 414 jet engine now; BEL for radars, communication equipment and combat information software systems. The industrial deck is ready for a tsunami of JVs and SPs; a huge opportunity for US to fan out in India for an Asia Pacific Industrial complex. The US active participation leading to public-private sector integration in frontier technologies has immense potential to drive growth and sustainability beyond the envisioned five trillion economy. This has the potential to be one of the game changing derivatives of the Indo Pacific playbook.
MRO – India as an Asia Pacific & Global Hub. Life cycle sustenance support through maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) is going to be an over USD 850 bn global industry by 2030 with aviation industry as the major stake holder. India at USD two Bn today has the potential of over USD 10 Bn by 2030, by conservative estimates. MRO is one of the biggest emerging technology driven disruption expected in the foreseeable future. The manufacturing hub gives India the foremost opportunity to become an MRO hub.
The export of products, in general and defence equipment, in particular with 40 years + life cycle, heralds a new landscape in the cradle to grave journey of an equipment. It would be interesting to note that unlike a normal equipment with a life span of up to 10 years or so, defence equipment are characterized by a long useful life of over 40 years with varying exploitation patterns in diverse terrains under different climatic conditions. That said, software defined tech enabled assets by sensors, IoT (semiconductors) and big data analytics and AI (software) are redefining MRO from a periodic preventive maintenance to a reliability centric predictive and prescriptive maintenance.
There is a mega opportunity in upgrading legacy equipment and planning MRO as a design and development qualitative requirement. This calls for a well-defined versatile MRO based life cycle sustenance support on long term MRO contracts which must be planned and institutionalized as a major addon capability.
The MRO package of F 414 & MQ 9 should be extended beyond to aviation, renewable energy and complete range of combat and other systems through an integrated MRO program. With the surge in aviation industry and collapse of Russia, India can steer Global MRO ambitions beyond Asia Pacific and US support can impart the technology based competitive edge. The Indo Pacific playbook should look at major technology upgrades of legacy equipment to capture the future MRO landscape, as an integrated venture.
The Engine at MIT Boston, USA is a unique research centre of unravelling the next generation of tough tech. In the words of Katie Rae, CEO & Managing Partner, “Core to our mission is helping incredible founders, ideas, and companies scale. To create lasting impact for the world, we must reach everyone.” They envision a transformative approach to apply cutting edge technologies to find lasting solutions to the challenges in climate change, healthcare, advanced systems and infrastructure to name a few.
Let us replicate the vision and mission of ‘The Engine’ in the new found Indo US playbook. This calls for reforming and transforming the foundations of academia, industry and their linkages to harness the potential of the immense opportunities that create a more sustainable and resilient Indo-US relationships in the new world order.
Atmanirbhar Bharat and Make in India is about production for inhouse and export and life cycle sustenance support through MRO. Accordingly, OEMs must look beyond the production RoIs and cull out a SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely) MRO support addon package, especially for equipment being exported. To that extent a certified training in basic systems skills and equipment specific product skills is an opportunity for academia and industry partnerships which requires India to create as a mission oriented strategic focus and a pencil beam program oriented tactical execution. We have the power of youth bulge, Indian diaspora abroad and an Indo-US playbook as an opportunity. We must strategise and use the Indo-US playbook for technology supremacy – Let’s do it.
Lt Gen Anil Kapoor (Retd)