A couple of weeks back, Pentagon chief Mark Esper said the US military needs help from private firms and universities to win the artificial intelligence (AI) race with China, because “whichever nation harnesses AI first will have a decisive advantage on the battlefield for many, many years".
Last week, India’s defence minister Rajnath Singh launched a portal for Innovations for Defence Excellence (iDEX) to facilitate the involvement of startups. This, too, recognizes the need for a strategic push to prepare for new military frontiers as neighbouring China takes rapid strides in hi-tech.
The first steps under iDEX have been 15 “challenges" thrown by the three armed services, ranging from laser weaponry to countering drones. More than 600 startups responded, out of whom 44 got grants to develop their technology. Another set of nine challenges was announced last week, as well as an “open challenge" for startups to bring their own innovations for defence.
Vishwanathan Sahasranamam, CEO of Forge, which is one of the six designated incubators for the selected startups, acknowledges that a rocky path lies ahead to reach the next level of the iDEX plan. “We want to create defence tech companies, not just prototypes. Entrepreneurial innovation is about building a company," he says.
The iDEX grants require matching funds from the startups to ensure commitment. The challenges from the defence services come with an assured minimum order quantity once a prototype passes muster. This too differentiates the programme from research projects. But it will take a lot more for these startups to get a line of sight to viable defence tech businesses.
One of the biggest challenges is an outmoded defence procurement procedure, which not only takes inordinate time but is also skewed in favour of established companies and imports. A startup has little chance of bidding successfully in an open tender under this regime.
In fact, the more innovative its product, the harder it gets to land an order. Bengaluru-based startup Tonbo Imaging, for example, overcame this barrier only after the US and Israel started buying its computer vision products.
A report prepared last year by the then minister of state for defence, Subhash Bhamre, pointed out that India’s Armed Forces face years of delay between requesting weapons and getting them. Even a critical requirement like replacing the air force’s ageing MiG-21s has been bogged down for over 18 years.
The Kafkaesque procurement procedure is a fallout of a series of defence scams going back to the Bofors scandal of the 1980s. Officials became more concerned about avoiding accusations in defence deals than doing what’s best for defence. This is the barrier that iDEX faces.
NITI Aayog programme director Mudit Narain, who is helping establish iDEX, believes that the imperative of tech will eventually trump bureaucracy. “The world is moving dramatically, the Armed Services are seeing that and asking for new tech. They know what the adversaries are doing and the opportunities that tech provides today," he says.
Silicon Valley investor Venktesh Shukla hopes iDEX will condition the bureaucracy and Armed Forces to open their minds. “Dealing with startups is complicated and messy, but you better learn how to do that if you want to out-innovate the rest of the world," he says.
iDEX draws inspiration from the US Defence Innovation Unit (DIU) launched in 2015. DIU is currently helmed by Michael Brown, former CEO of global cybersecurity firm Symantec, with an office in the Silicon Valley and direct access to the defence secretary.
In-Q-Tel (named after “Q", the fictional R&D head in Bond films) invests in startups that develop cutting edge technologies useful to the CIA. iDEX too has drawn up guidelines for venture capitalist-style investing in startups, going forward.
Shukla’s suggestion is to create a unit of tech domain experts as the first point of contact for startups. “The biggest bang for the buck will come from somebody thinking out of the box and not from what they (Armed Forces and bureaucracy) think should be solved," he says.
For example, the narrative so far has mostly centred around indigenization for import substitution.
India can think bigger by tapping its tech resources for true innovation. The green revolution, space and atomic programmes, and more recently, Aadhaar, have shown what’s possible given the right structures and incentives. Robotic soldiers and drone warfare of the future will need a mental model shift beyond the here and now.
Sumit Chakraberty is a contributing editor with Mint. Write to him at email@example.com