Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Defence R&D: looking hard at software

(Part 1 of a four-part series)

Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 24th Sept 07

The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is the tool with which the Pentagon shapes the warfare of the future. DARPA is part-credited with developing the Internet, and futurologist Alvin Toffler’s writing is all about DARPA’s transformational projects like developing a bionic soldier that can fight 24x7 for up to a week, without food or water.

DARPA scans the world for research partners; its only criterion is excellence. And Business Standard has learned that a DARPA team has visited some of India’s leading information technology (IT) companies, soliciting ideas to fund. India’s own Ministry of Defence (MoD) has barely made headway in harnessing the IT industry’s skills, even though software makes up at least one-third the cost of a modern weapons system, like a tank, a warship or an aircraft. DARPA, in contrast, told the companies it visited that:

• It will fund any project that could assist US national security, regardless of where the project originates.
• With an R&D outlay of $3 billion dollars, each project that DARPA funds could get up to $20 million a year.
• There is no time horizon for DARPA’s projects; it will fund R&D for as long as the project seems viable.

Now, a year after DARPA’s visit, India’s MoD has swung into action. On 21st September, in New Delhi, Minister of State for Defence MM Pallam Raju inaugurated the first meeting of the Defence Information Technology Consultative Committee (DITCC), which brings together the military, the IT industry, academia, and government officials. The DITCC will advise on how to harness the IT industry’s talent to improve defence R&D and production.

The DITCC has its roots in unusual teamwork between NASSCOM and the MoD. Over the last eight months, teams of software engineers from the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) have visited private sector IT companies to observe their design capabilities and global business practices. In turn, IT industry engineers have visited DRDO establishments and come away convinced there are benefits in working together.

In June 2007, the DRDO and NASSCOM signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that, for the first time, lays down a framework for cooperation. The MoU recognises that:

• The DRDO has successfully developed leading technologies in defence-related areas like aerospace, control systems, and communication, etc. As the Indian IT industry moves up the value chain, this experience is of great interest to it.
• The IT industry’s rich experience in complex projects would greatly help the DRDO in reducing the time it takes to develop a military product.
• The current vendor-customer relationship between the IT industry and DRDO needs to be changed to a long-term partnership model of co-development.

The MoU’s most important function is to lay down clear guidelines for quantifying R&D work that flows from the MoD. Defence R&D frequently involves changing the specifications of the product, this undermining the original contract. The recent MoU specifies criteria by which private IT companies will be paid for extra work that arises from these changes. Additional billing will be based on internationally accepted criteria like “extra lines of code” or “additional man-hours of work”. This will remove the messy renegotiating and re-tendering that delays government R&D.

The NASSCOM chief, Kiran Karnik, who has played a major role in taking forward this partnership, sees a clear synergy between the MoD and private software developers, where the IT industry could write the voluminous software codes that form the building blocks of a military system, e.g. an airborne radar, and the DRDO could then integrate those building blocks into a full system.

Mr Karnik explains, “The DRDO doesn’t have the technical capabilities that the IT industry has developed. Nor does it have the sheer scale, the numbers (of software developers) in-house. The DRDO is interested in drawing that capability in. What the DRDO does have is the ability to do software integration. In, say the Light Combat Aircraft, they’ve been doing the integration of all sub-systems.”

The MoD’s glacial speed of decision-making and lack of transparency has long turned off the IT industry, but now change is coming. Secretary for Defence Production, KP Singh, points out the security benefits of developing software indigenously, rather than depending on foreign suppliers. Mr Singh told Business Standard, “Algorithms have to be developed that have to be kept secret from the enemies’ hands. These are all areas in which our software industry can play a significant role and the defence department fully recognises this.”

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