US, India experts discuss defense technology at first South Asia Initiative conference at Stanford University

Ritu Jha-

Earlier this month, the Bechtel Conference Center, policymakers, directors, scholars, and entrepreneurs from the US and India came together for the first South Asia Initiative at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC). They were there to consider defense capacity in the face of growing competition, disruption, defense innovation, and military relationships with technology.

The day-long conference, held May 6 and themed “A New Agenda for Indian Competitiveness,” focused on the role that critical and emerging technologies can play in India’s national security.

At a panel about redefining the military’s relationship with technology, panelist Gen. Raj Shukla( Third from right) discussed the importance of machine learning and AI.

“Using AI, we [India] have developed a road vehicle identification system. It can identify if a vehicle coming in has a bomb… If this system had been in place, Pulwama would not have happened. So right from the lowest to higher stuff, I think technology is sweeping the military landscape.

“I see my career as a soldier and as a young officer I was asked to concentrate on fight and technologies will come and towards the end, at end of my career, I realized you have to conceive your technology own and drive no one will come to you,” Gen. Shukla, a retired General Officer of the Indian Army who served as the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Army Training Command (GOC-in-C ARTRAC) said.

Talking with indica on the sidelines of the conference Shukla an advocate of modernization of India’s defense said, “I think the Indian army is extremely conscious of the need for technology. Last three to four years we have taken this very seriously. And we have submitted a road map to the honorable Raksha Mantri(Defense Minister).”

Adding on said they are in the process of working on… it has become pretty obvious that technology logical transformation has been so dramatic, it is so huge, there are no doubt we do lack there and there is lot of deficit.

The whole discussion today points to the fact that today the emerging technology domain is propelled by tech, innovation and innovation naturally come from the private sector.

“If the future of military technology lies in innovation, we obviously have to embrace private sectors and startups in a much bigger manner than we have done before,” Gen Shukla said. “We have taken the steps, but it is a huge challenge because our northern adversaries, especially in the military, have taken the first baby steps.”

During the panel discussion, Gen. Shukla mentioned “we(India) need to prioritize emerging technologies over legacy and platform. That would mean a huge change in how you look at warfare, the force structuring, and its gaming changing.

He told indica the investment has gone up 25 percent on R&D by various stakeholders… but technology takes some time. So, the atmosphere has changed and mechanics still have to catch up.

Here in the context of the US-India relationship, the biggest bugbear is policy interventions and regulatory framework, Shukla said, adding that the technology of the future will come not from strategic players but from startups.

He said India does have a strong defense industrial infrastructure but that part of the infrastructure has to change its outlook. It has to be more innovative, energetic, and entrepreneurial.

“The way forward is civil and military fusion,” Shukla said. “Fuse all elements of startups, entrepreneurs, technology, DRDO, ISRO, military, civil servants everybody has to come together. The push is there now it has to be executed.”

Asked what areas India needs to focus on, Shukla said, “Technology is important. Along with technology, an agile bureaucracy less of process and more of outcome and less of red tape.”

He added that even Narendra Modi, the prime minister, has been saying that military bureaucracy is a problem.

Asked about India’s foray into defense manufacturing and export, Shukla said, “Why just manufacturing? We should have a manufacturing hub with a digital punch. We have BrahMos [missiles] being exported. The defense should not only strengthen our security, it should also gather revenue.”
He addressed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, a federal law that targets Iran, North Korea and Russia, and so affects India’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems. Gen. Shukla sounded confident India would get around the problem and get the S-400 systems.

Discussing artificial intelligence, Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Sklenka said AI would never have judgment. “In the end, that is what I believe drives fundamental aspects of warfare,” he said.

Kari A Bingen of HawkEye360 spoke of the huge commercialization of defense, ongoing and billions of dollars the private sector is spending on research and development. She said what the Department of Defense is probably spending is a drop in a bucket to what the commercial sector is doing.
“So, how do you harness commercial resources when the government cannot control them,” Bingen asked. “What’s exciting in the commercial space is really its greater access to the democratization of space technology. Over 100 nations have satellites in space, this shows how accessible space technology has become.”

Heather Richman of BMNT, a firm devoted to helping companies speed up complex problem-solving, said she was looking at four things in new technology: machine learning, quantum computing, hypersonic travel and biotech.

Sanjay Jaju, Director iDEX( Innovations for Defence Excellence (iDEX)), speaking at the panel, The Way Forward in Defense Innovation said, “Our country’s security and prosperity has grown out of the industrial base from World War II,  to now I think we’re at this pivotal time.”

Formed in 2018, iDEX by the Modi government to foster innovation and technology development in defense and aerospace by engaging with startups, individual innovators, R&D institutes and academia said when they started there were few startups in defense but that number is increasing because many of the products are acquired by the department of defense and this gives startups confidence that they have capacity and capabilities to solve the military problems.