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Plug R&D gaps to make the most of US cooperation

An enabling ecosystem can’t be nurtured with the existing structural constraints in R&D funding and higher education.

Plug R&D gaps to make the most of US cooperation

GROUNDWORK: US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh focused on ramping up defence industrial cooperation between the two nations. PTI



C Uday Bhaskar

Director, Society for Policy Studies

THE India-US bilateral relationship is all set to be infused with summit-level political attention and policy deliberations during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s June 21-24 state visit to the US. The agenda includes a ceremonial welcome at the White House by US President Joe Biden and an address by PM Modi to a joint session of the US Congress. Such protocols have a symbolism that is indicative of the priority being accorded by the US to the country and the individual leader being hosted.

Defence cooperation is one of the major aspects of this visit. Considerable preparatory work has been done by the ministers and senior officials concerned in the run-up to the Modi visit. US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin was received by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in Delhi on June 5. They focused on ramping up defence industrial cooperation between the two nations. Both sides agreed to ‘identify opportunities for co-development of new technologies and co-production of existing and new systems and facilitate increased collaboration between defence startup ecosystems of the two countries’.

The two also welcomed the recent launch of new initiatives — the Advanced Domains Defence Dialogue committed to expanding the scope of bilateral defence cooperation to encompass all domains, and the India-US Defence Acceleration Ecosystem (INDUS-X) to advance cutting-edge technology cooperation.

Concurrently, Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra was in Washington on June 6 for the inaugural session of the India-US Strategic Trade Dialogue. The objective was identified as facilitating the ‘development and trade of critical technology domains’. These include semiconductors, space, telecom, quantum, AI, defence, biotech and others. The technology spectrum, evidently, is expansive.

One of the high-visibility items on the agenda is the US-made GE F-414 jet engine. It is expected that a deal would be reached, whereby India would be able to co-develop this engine. This would be a significant boost to the Indian indigenous effort in fighter aircraft production, which has been handicapped by the lack of such capability.

Furthermore, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan is expected to arrive in Delhi on June 13 for a two-day visit to fine-tune the tangible outcomes of the Modi visit with a focus on the jet engine and high-tech cooperation.

However, more than such conventional military platforms, the real challenge for India will be to partner with the US and leapfrog into the new technology domains that will shape warfare in the near future. Broadly summarised, this new domain spans space, underwater, cyber and spectrum with artificial intelligence (AI).

Is India in a position to partner with the US effectively and absorb the necessary knowledge and skill sets required to give atmanirbharta (self-reliance) in the new technology domains a meaningful fillip? This is where the word ‘ecosystem’ comes into focus, and on current evidence, it would appear that due to structural deficiencies and systemic inadequacies, India does not have the requisite ecosystem bandwidth to meaningfully engage with the US so as to boost the indigenous effort — the ultimate objective.

Proven competence in new cutting-edge technologies is predicated on a large knowledge pool and sustained investment in R&D. The US is the acknowledged global leader in R&D and technological innovation; China stands second, and is determined to occupy the first position in the coming decade. One instructive indicator is the number of papers published in peer-reviewed papers in science and engineering; in 2020, China had overtaken the US with 6,69,000 papers, while the US had 4,56,000 to its credit. India was at the third spot with 1,49,000 papers.

The most glaring asymmetry for India is in R&D investment, which is the foundation for a robust design and manufacturing ecosystem. India is estimated to spend 0.7 per cent of its GDP on R&D, far less than the US 2.8 (per cent), China (2.1 per cent), Israel 4.3 (per cent ) and South Korea 4.6 (per cent).

While the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is the primary state-funded entity to nurture R&D in the defence sector, it is burdened by public-sector constraints and modest funding. The Indian corporate sector also treats R&D in an indifferent manner and in a compelling review, Naushad Forbes has provided a revealing pen picture of the arid Indian landscape.

Comparing the five most profitable firms across five nations (2021), the review notes that the total R&D spending was: the US, $152 billion; China, $31 billion; Japan, $37 billion; Germany, $53 billion; and India, $0.9 billion. Total profits ranged from $410 billion for the US to $43 billion for India. The R&D spending by these firms as a portion of the profit was — the US, 37 per cent; China, 29 per cent; Japan, 43 per cent; Germany, 55 per cent; and India, 2 per cent. The deduction is self-evident — sustained investment in R&D is a prerequisite for domain innovation and commercial benefit in the long run.

Thus, India will have to nurture an ecosystem that is R&D-friendly across the board. This will iron out another structural constraint related to education that is hobbling the current indigenisation effort. The pace of technological change and knowledge expansion is dizzying and this is being driven by a young demographic profile across the world in leading centres of higher education.

The grim reality in India today is that education has become a handmaiden of politics, and even more so in the centres of higher education and excellence. Academic excellence is being trumped by loyalty to sectarian ideology and political compulsions, thereby stifling the true spirit of seeking knowledge.

An enabling ecosystem that will allow for a meaningful cooperation with the US in high-tech sectors cannot be nurtured with the existing structural constraints in R&D funding and higher education. This alas, is the unalloyed reality.


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