Friday, December 1, 2023

Defence Innovation Is The New Black

By Commander Rahul Verma 

Addressing the annual session of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) on the completion of 125 years in Jun 2020, the Hon’ble Prime Minister said, “Intent, Inclusion, Investment, Infrastructure and Innovation, these five things are important to speed up India’s development and make it ‘Atmanirbhar’. This vision also resonated during the first ‘Swavlamban’ (self-reliance) seminar conducted by the Naval Innovation Indigenisation Organisation (NIIO) on 18 July 2022. 

The Prime Minister said that the resolution of creating 75 indigenous technologies in this period of making new resolutions for India is inspiring, and he expressed confidence that it will be fulfilled very soon. Still, he said that this is kind of the first step. “We must work to continuously increase the number of indigenous technologies, PM Modi said, “Your goal should be that when India celebrates 100 years of its independence, at that time, our Navy should be at an unprecedented height”, he added.

The military innovation process is not dissimilar to that of a private firm. Innovative technology can actually swing an entire market. Technology-intensive companies are constantly seeking the next ‘Revolution in Non-Military affairs’ alongside the search for RMA. Within a firm, technological or managerial changes will increase productivity, and a business that embraces both technological and managerial innovation adds an even more significant increase in productivity. In many ways, the Armed Forces behave like any other human organisation. The organisation’s function is to maximise efficiency and promote a common goal. In a competitive marketplace, innovation is necessary for survival. 

According to a Professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), “warfare is an extremely competitive endeavour. Its most successful practitioners strive for even the smallest advantages”. Therefore, government organisations must constantly implement change. As per Prof Clayton, new technological or managerial processes are costly in a business organisation. But in a military organisation, innovation is simply disruptive. Military organisations are not just any organisation; they are hierarchical. However, change occurs within a military to foster an advantage in war, where Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) is required. As Sun Tzu wrote, “To not prepare is the greatest of crimes; to be prepared beforehand for any contingency is the greatest of virtues.” 

The conventional wisdom is that militaries tend to innovate following a war; this aligns with the notion that power transition increases the likelihood of conflict. According to the dynamic differential theory, major war occurs when strong military powers fear a significant decline in their relative power. Consequently, the strong state may see militarised conflict as a strategic tool for self-preservation, especially if it faces only one challenger rather than many challengers. For instance, strategic concerns led to the Cold War between the United States of America (USA) and the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

Technology only establishes the constraints of the achievable and creates the potential for military revolution. What indeed produces a genuine innovation is the scope to which militaries recognise and exploit the expectations fundamental in new instruments of war through organisational structures and deployment of force. It was how people reacted to technology that generated seismic shifts in warfare. 

Armed Forces must focus on investing in both the technical and doctrinal areas. There is an inherent paradox when it comes to military change. The commonplace assumption is that militaries are seen as traditional in nature and, therefore, strongly disinclined to undertake major change. Challenging this virtue of one’s core competency is very difficult, but with Swavalmbhan 2022, it became clear that there is a keen interest in our senior leadership to bring change to the Indian Navy. An innovation-friendly organisation will maintain a culture of a mindset receptive to change, also known as productive paranoia. 

Military, civilian and industry leadership at Swavalmbhan 2022; File Photo

A military with productive paranoia will look for unmet strategic challenges and value those who do so. An organisation with a culture of productive paranoia will be able to focus on a definite thing or a short list of things. This emphasis on novel concepts results from trial and error in the development stage and would need financial support. Organisational practices for creating new products differ from those for managing already successful products. Managing established products is mainly done using traditional accounting methods, cost optimisations and operational effectiveness. Success can be measured using traditional metrics such as profits, return on investment, net present value and time. In contrast, the creation of new products must be managed using startup methodologies such as design thinking, customer development, experimentation and iteration.

Success should be measured by examining how well the innovation teams are doing in their search rather than converting them into financial terms. Maritime superiority is enabled by technological supremacy. As the competition for dominance escalates, competition to field new technology-based warfighting capabilities intensifies at a corresponding rate. Now more than ever, the competition from research to technologies to capabilities is dynamic, disruptive, and intense. The context of this competition is driven by four underlying predispositions that, if mastered, also present chances for competitive advantage: 

(a) Engaging with academia and industry experts to unlock the sea of data for enhanced insight, rapid decision-making, and new mission capabilities based on various intelligence, algorithms and Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)

(b) The commoditisation and proliferation of technology offer unfettered access by competitors worldwide. Barriers of cost and complexity that historically limited access to advanced technologies is decreasing. Anyone (friend or foe) is a potential user and/or innovator of high-tech capabilities. 

(c) Every new discovery invites follow-on innovation within that discipline. More importantly, the opportunities for cross-discipline innovation and breakthroughs also increase. Exploiting the multidisciplinary dimension of discovery to create more tremendous potential for disruptive innovation is the need of the hour. 

(d) The pace of commercial technology adoption is accelerating. The time for new products to be developed and adopted is decreasing, and new capabilities are reaching users at an increasing rate. The famous ‘Jugaad’ is visible on all the battlefields, including the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. 

The criterion for victory in this competition is unambiguous: rapid fielding of new capabilities that are adaptive, autonomous, defensible, scalable, efficient, fast and especially, lethal. The Fleet and Force face growing complexity of threats, which we will not defeat by simply out-spending abroad. Success necessitates speed of innovation, agility and adaptability from within. The way forward is equally clear: we must urgently align, allocate and accelerate both Private and Government research and development (R&D) to deliver technology-enabled capabilities faster. 

At all levels, leaders set the conditions necessary for an innovation climate that enables bright minds to thrive. Authority is pushed to the innovator level, where people in every position have the latitude, motivation, and mission-focused sense of urgency to find better ways to do their essential work. Customer-focused on the Armed Forces, they accelerate the pace of delivery. The Armed Forces should be focused on developing technology rather than certification and precedence. 

Innovation is complex, for change disrupts norms, and maybe that’s why maverick will value the innovative weapon system and push for its adoption. The process of considering a change in a core competency includes doctrinal changes, acquisition programs, force structure modifications and, most importantly, a mindset change.

Leadership is needed to break through the natural resistance to change. A modernising Navy is more flexible in resource allocation than a well-established one. For a modernising Navy, free resource mobilisation can be a boon for an innovative weapon system, and that is where an Indian Navy Venture Capital (VC) fund would be so disruptive. Horowitz’s Adoption-Capacity Theory explains when a military bureaucracy can adopt an innovative weapon system, which occurs only under certain conditions when led by the highest in the hierocracy. 

Create dedicated strategies for managing failed innovation and incorporating lessons learned. Most disruptive innovation is neither a very rapid nor a stand-alone process, and it requires cumulative knowledge and technology developed over time in one or multiple projects, some of which may partially or entirely fail.

Nevertheless, an assessment mechanism for failed innovation can ensure valuable lessons, technologies, and ideas are well-spent. For a Navy to adopt a new system, it must be able to financially support it. This ‘financial intensity required to adopt innovation,’ measured in the cost per unit of technology, should not deter the Navy from adopting an innovative system. 

Even the best and most innovative ideas require an investment of resources and funding. In summation, the Armed Forces’ direct investment into defence companies/startups can help them build around their core competencies and simultaneously allow them to transform their value chain activities, often to benefit the ecosystem while reinforcing strategic imperatives. This approach can enable these startups to embrace being value creators through positive externalities, reducing negative externalities, and creating value for both direct and indirect beneficiaries while increasing their competitive advantage. Unforeseeable risks will emerge as global dynamics change, and new technologies corrode the disparity between commercial solutions and national technical means. 

The Armed Forces need India’s leading technologists on its side. It’s not an indulgence but a compulsion to maintain defence agility. Sailors, analysts, and decision-makers require fielded, cutting-edge capabilities now. Indian Navy has converted track on chart, drawn on 18 July 22 into a course to steer. Adopting this unconventional strategy in today’s budget constraint environment has allowed us to build competitive leverage and stay ahead in this game. Therefore, defence innovation is the new black.

Cdr. Rahul Verma is presently posted at TDAC looking after Unmanned Systems and Aviation Innovations. He is a Seaking Pilot with 4,000 flying hours experience. The officer is also a qualified RPA crew with an extensive experience in unmanned flying operations. He holds a Masters degree in Aerospace Law and a Post Graduate Diploma in Autonomous Systems and Product management. He is also pursuing MBA from Washington University and IIT-Bombay

Most Popular

Subscribe to our newsletter

To receive the latest news on Indian aviation and defence.