South Asia and Beyond

Why Indigenous Technology Must Form The Core Of India’s National Security Strategy

 Why Indigenous Technology Must Form The Core Of India’s National Security Strategy

NEW DELHI: India is reportedly preparing a National Security Strategy (NSS), which is needed to face the multi-domain challenges of the 21st century. But the NSS can serve its purpose only on the back of a robust economy bolstered by indigenous technology. Thus, in the world’s richest and strongest country—the United States—indigenous technology powered nearly 90 per cent of growth between 1909 and 1949, a momentous but often overlooked insight into the roots of national power by Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow.

Today, the contribution of disruptive, especially digital technologies with their equally potent spinoffs to growth may well have increased. China and the US have understood that technology is the unambiguous foundation of economic, military and geopolitical might. This is why US-China rivalry manifests as an epic technological conflict, and why technological primacy occupies pride of place in US-China national security doctrines. America’s NSS, which contains 86 references to technology, declares: “Technology is central to today’s geopolitical competition and to the future of our national security, economy and democracy”. The US made huge investments in technology to deal with geopolitical threats. The US Defence Department and NASA provided the patient capital and the market for transformational technologies (communications, aircraft, EW, nuclear power, semiconductors, computers, the Internet and space technologies) and for Silicon Valley. It was NASA and the US military which procured the chips developed by Bell Labs, Fairchilds and Intel for NASA’s space programme, the Minuteman missiles and precision guided bombs in Vietnam (“Chip Wars”).

President Xi Jinping has stated that “technology is the core combat capability” for a world-class military. Multiple official Chinese declarations attest to the central role accorded to technology in military and economic modernisation strategies. China has deployed every State tool to upgrade its technological capabilities. For example, China recognised the strategic value of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) very early, further bolstered by the Snowden revelations. It embarked on a massive indigenisation effort: mandating procurement of domestically produced telecom equipment, funding the R&D of successful enterprises like Huawei and ZTE, prying technology transfers from joint ventures and signing ITA-1 only when its industry was internationally competitive. This resulted in China achieving global leadership in cutting edge technologies like AI, supercomputers, 5G and quantum tech, which are enormous force multipliers as dual use technologies and for military AI, besides solar panels, EVs etc. China now poses a challenge to the West and multiple western sanctions to constrain China (and Russia)’s rise haven’t stopped China from launching a 7 nm class chip and Russia from withstanding NATO’s combined military might.

By not viewing its ICT sector from a strategic perspective in the past, India crippled its hardware electronics industry by signing ITA-1 in 1996 and FTAs with South Korea, Japan, and ASEAN. We in SITARA opposed the RCEP which was basically an FTA with China, which would have stranded us on the wrong side of divergent supply chains while wiping out domestic manufacturing.

India can greatly benefit from insights into the US and Chinese experiences.

The first is regarding the critical corelation between high R&D investment and economic growth. Thus, America’s R&D investment is 3.4 per cent of GDP; its GDP, which supports the world’s most advanced military, is around US $27 trillion, confirming Solow’s observations. China’s R&D investment is 2.54 per cent of its GDP of US $18 trillion. India’s R&D investment is only 0.64 per cent of its GDP (DST) and its GDP is a distant fourth at US $3.7 trillion.

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Secondly, the State in both China and the US has supported disruptive, “curiosity-based research” and other advanced technologies. Neoliberal narrative has tried to bury the State’s transformational role but no less a person than the American National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, held neoliberal tenets responsible for the decline in American technological abilities.

The NSS must therefore comprehensively delineate the pivotal role of the Indian State in promoting advanced technologies and in guiding their implementation. India has launched new domestic procurement and R&D promotion policies, semiconductor and quantum technology missions and is preparing a deeptech startup policy. India must set concrete targets and implement tangible incentives for increased R&D spending, strictly enforce domestic procurement, and further ease the environment for doing business, thus encouraging domestic companies to create trillion-dollar valuations for India. The design-led incentive (DLI) scheme which incentivises R&D can be greatly augmented to cover the indigenous ICT, defence, quantum tech, aerospace, power equipment and machine tools sectors and linked to domestic procurement guarantees. Similarly, procurement, at 20 per cent of India’s GDP, is a powerful tool for high-tech growth and so constant vigilance is required to ensure that tender specifications are not unfairly modified to favor foreign firms, a process abetted by foreign consultancies, whose presence in government departments must be sharply reduced. The ban on Chinese equipment in critical networks, which SITARA fought for, led to a ₹8,500 crore BSNL tender award to an indigenous company, Tejas Networks, greatly stimulating indigenous capacities. The Prachanda helicopter and Tejas aircraft defence procurements are steps in the right direction. But much more can be done: the import-oriented Defence Procurement Procedure should be replaced with a business-friendly Defence Production Procedure, following the examples of countries with advanced defence industries, to expand domestic high-tech defence production and employment.

Otherwise, India’s scientific workforce will continue to create trillion-dollar valuations only for western companies!

The State must also pursue a synergised strategy to support technology development. The ICT sector, a critical horizontal vital for national security, is highly vulnerable to cyberattack. Cybersecurity based on indigenous equipment and software needs to be accorded priority in any NSS. India must match the enhanced lethality of China’s informationized and “intelligentised” warfighting capabilities and strengthen its indigenous ICT industry, and simultaneously forge forward in creating indigenous capacities in defence, aerospace, machine tools and power equipment.

The BIRAC model for producing Covaxin, and partnerships between ISRO and the private sector and DRDO and L&T to produce India’s light tank outline tantalising visions of success if India escalates a high technology drive into an ecosystem wide effort. Professor Bonvillian, former MIT Director, cited multipliers resulting from high-tech sectors at 5-16. India can also aim at boosting growth by 90 per cent, geometrically enhancing national capabilities to tackle internal and external challenges and guaranteeing national security and welfare by making indigenous high technology the main focus and guide of its National Security Strategy.

(The author is a former Indian Ambassador. Views expressed in this article are personal.)