No defence modernisation can happen without startups involvement

File Photo: Indian Army chief General Bipin Rawat

By General Bipin Rawat, India’s Chief of Army Staff

  • Snap Shot
  • Have to look beyond state-owned military production, research efforts
  • Startups, Corporate have to join hands for technology infusion
  • Mechanism being worked out for startup involvement in defence sector

The Government of India has spoken a lot about privatisation of the defence sector. It is something not only the government but we in the armed forces are also looking at.

The reasons are simple. For far too long, the defence sector has been captive to the ordnance factories and research and development (R&D), mainly confined to the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Maybe, it is time to look beyond.

Our adversaries are moving at a very fast pace, developing niche technologies. One way forward is for us to try and copy them to develop similar technologies. The other option is to develop systems that can counter their advanced technologies. We, of course, must understand what will be better for us and how best we can achieve the desired results.

We got to look at finances and funds for defence startups to take shape. For that, we need changes in policies for the startups. The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and academia need to be incorporated in whatever we do and we have taken some lead in this regard. We are now sending our officers for various higher learning mechanisms in these IITs to do Master of Technology courses in subjects that we select for them and not what they select for themselves, depending on what is the need of the hour. And the entire system has to be user-driven.

Developing the incubator-innovator link is yet another issue that we need to address. I think the way to the future is technology and the quest for indigenisation cannot be completed unless startups are included in our supply chain.

India today is a powerhouse of software and technology. The nature of change that will affect India’s image and relevance in today’s economy is indeed unviable. The interesting thing about this sea change is – this happened not too long ago and it happened around us – the progress in Information Technology and entrepreneurship has radically changed the landscape, offering unmatched opportunities to the entrepreneurs.

The entrepreneurs in India are building world class startups and are attracting global investors in large numbers. It is an historic juncture for the Indian startups, as they are poised to take on larger problems and enter the global stage. In fact, as rightly brought out, the defence minister, a couple of days ago while addressing the industry, made a very relevant statement when he said, startups are the pillars of India’s strategic strength. I think that is really needed to draw our lessons and move on further.

As far as the defence sector is concerned, because of the changing nature of warfare, the requirement of hi-tech technologies, both in equipment and weapon systems, is indeed important. And again, we also need to look at the budgetary support required for developing such systems. We need to modenise urgently.

Some of the issues that we are looking at is cyber, space, and artificial intelligence. These are areas of concern. Because, as I said, the adversaries are moving rather rapidly in this direction. We either match them system-to-system or create systems to counter these technologies.

For long, defence has been dependent on the ordnance factories, the Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) and the DRDO. Now, the time has come to look at the industry in supporting us. I know we have made a beginning, but the rapid pace at which we should be moving forward has not happened.

The Army Design Bureau is working hard, as a one-point agency collaborating with the industry. As far as startups are concerned, they need to integrate with the corporate. The corporate cannot do without the startups and the startups cannot do with out the corporate. They are both inter-dependent. Therefore, it is important for the corporate to identify startups that will give them niche technologies.

The startups can do a lot with innovative ideas from young minds, which are at work today. We will look at separate funding for startups. While ‘Make-II‘ system of procurement has been developed and evolved to give them some benefit. For the startups as well, some kind of mechanism is being put in place.

We were very keen on developing ammunition with the help of the industry. Why has the plan for ammunition not yet picked up and why has it not gone the way we desired is something I would like you all to question us on and seek answers on where we compromised. We will be very forthcoming in informing you as to why there has been a slowdown in the manufacture of ammunition by the industry.

Schemes like ‘Startup India’ NIDHI are filling the gaps of initial funding of startups before validation of prototypes. Lot of other issues regarding startups are now being addressed, like prior turnover and experience, tax exemptions, self certification and initial support. All these will go a long way in ensuring that the startups begin to take shape in India. We have to look at homegrown solutions to fight future wars.

As far as the Indian Army is concerned, we are keen on ensuring we collaborate with the private industry to see that we get niche technologies and we are able to move forward in the future with our modernisation programmes. We cannot just depend on ordnance factories and DPSUs and DRDO only for R&D. We need your support and we will walk that extra mile to help you in whatever way we can.

We will address the issues in a very serious manner. The involvement of startups in the defence sector is an imperative and we all will together need to ensure the same is achieved seamlessly and in a mutually beneficial manner.

(Excerpted from a lecture delivered by the Indian army chief at a Society of Indian Defence Manufacturers seminar on ‘Startups-Cutting Edge for Technology Infusion into Defence’ in New Delhi on Aug. 13, 2019)

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