Business Standard, 18th Jul 2011
In a closed-door discussion here on Thursday, a leading authority on China's military modernisation explained how that country's People's Liberation Army (PLA, the term embraces navy and air force, too) has transformed into a top-rung, largely indigenously equipped force in barely a decade, even as India's military languishes as the world's biggest importer of defence equipment.
Tai Ming Cheung, who spoke to the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, is a professor working with the US Pentagon's Minerva Project, in which academics like him pore over Beijing's Chinese-language releases to track military and technological developments within the PLA.
Tai noted both China and India were "catch-up countries", attempting a technological leapfrog by taking just decades to reach a technology level that Western countries had taken more than a century to achieve. China still trails the US and western European powers, but is catching up fast, powered by an official science & technology (S & T) roadmap that the leadership backs. From a global innovativeness ranking of 24 in 2004, China jumped to six in 2009. It now targets fifth place by 2020, with global leadership in the high-tech arenas of space, nuclear, information technology and biotechnology. By 2040-50, China aims at S & T parity with the US.
"Until the late 1990s, the Chinese approach to defence S & T was in a much worse state than what India is in today. They have been able to deal with a lot of these issues in the last decade alone," says Tai.
India largely plays by established rules — technology denial regimes, and an intellectual property rights (IPR) regime to safeguard technology leads. While, China has benefited from its willingness to defy rules. Beijing's opportunism was evident in the early 1990s, from its large-scale recruitment of out-of-work scientists from the former Soviet Union. Its careful strategising is evident from an innovation plan endorsed and pushed from the highest levels of the political and military leadership.
"Hu Jintao (the Chinese president) always talks about S & T being a key component of the race for comprehensive national strength. China sees S & T as a zero-sum game; they can't afford to depend upon foreign countries for critical technologies. Stealing, reverse engineering and cloning is acceptable," says Tai.
At the start of the 21st century, in its first step towards becoming an innovative military builder, China embarked on a process of 'creative adaptation'. Using its imitative capabilities, its aerospace industry indigenised critical parts of the Russian Sukhoi-27 fighter (an earlier version of India's Su-30MKI), developing it into the "indigenous" J-11B fighter. In this high-end imitation, the basic platform remained Russian but key avionics, including the fire control system, were Chinese.
"It is all about being able to absorb technology from outside," says Tai. "In catch-up countries, it is initially all about absorptive capacity, not about invention. The equipment has already been built elsewhere."
Emboldened by Russia's passive acceptance of the Su-27 IPR violations, China embarked upon its innovation path, the first step of which was 'incremental innovation'. As evident from the J-10A, still China's frontline fighter, this involves developing a basic platform and then incrementally indigenising and improving it, batch by batch. The J-10A initially contained many Russian and Israeli components, which the Chinese gradually indigenised.
From here, China moved to ‘architectural innovation', transforming existing systems by rearranging their architecture. A commercial example is the iPad. Most of its components had been around for a while, but Apple rearranged these into a radical new product. In a similar way, Chinese engineers juggled existing technologies to build a missile that specifically targeted US Navy aircraft carriers, the Dong Feng 21B anti-ship ballistic missile. The DF-21B has surprised US defence planners not just technologically but also operationally, forcing them to cater to a completely new operational threat.
The third level of innovation, with which China is currently struggling, is ‘component innovation'. In this, improved components — microprocessors, precision engineered parts, digital components, etc — are used to improve platform efficiency. But this requires advanced scientific and technological skills, making such innovation difficult for a catch-up country.
"The Chinese have not been able to develop a world-class turbofan engine; their microprocessor capabilities are still relatively poor. So, they don't yet qualify as a component innovator," says Tai.
But on January 11 this year, when the Chinese J-20 stealth fighter made its first flight, there was a global firestorm of speculation that China had conducted a coup in 'disruptive innovation'. This ultimate form of innovation combines architectural with component innovation, assembling improved components into a creative new design. But Tai dismisses such talk: "The J-20 is not really a 'disruptive innovation'. It lacks the component level innovations and is, therefore, merely an architectural innovation."
Nevertheless, China's defence industry has achieved major recent successes, triggered by its restructuring at the end of the 20th century. Earlier, the Chinese defence industry was separated, Soviet style, between research and development (R & D) and manufacturing units. When the R & D developed a product, the defence industrial ministry — called the Commission for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (Costin) —would assign a factory to build the equipment. But when the factory got the blueprints, there was confusion because they had not been involved in the design.
"The Chinese leadership saw that this did not help the national interest; it only helped the defence industry. One of the first reforms was to overturn the power of Costin and allow the military a central role in overseeing the defence industry. If you don't have end-users, particularly war fighters and the acquisitions community, playing a central role, then you're not going to have innovation. If you're just going to have industry administrators, then they are going to be looking just at their interests," says Tai.
The result has been surging growth in the innovativeness of Chinese defence industry. In 1998, they filed for 313 patents. In 2008, it had gone up to 11,000 patents. In 2010, 15,000 patents were applied for.
India's defence industry today mirrors its Chinese counterpart in 1998. The R & D element (the DRDO) functions separately from the manufacturing element (the defence PSUs). India's military has little say, and no oversight, in what is researched and manufactured. And the Indian ministry of defence's department of defence production is an accurate mirror image of China's Costin, pushing back the innovative private sector to safeguard the interests of the state-owned enterprises.