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Innovation in Military Systems

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Published: Mon, 02 Oct 2017

Introduction

Technology transfer across social sectors, industries, and national boundaries is a common phenomenon in contemporary times. These transfers are mostly driven by economic paradigms – the need to embrace radical innovations so as not to be left behind in the race to be at the forefront of technological and/or commercial envelope. It is thus obvious that the technological generators – one who invested in Research and Development (R&D) and came up with ‘crown jewel’ innovations, hold the sway in today’s markets. If one were to consider the investment in R&D as a benchmark of ‘invention (and probably innovativeness) potential’ then the defence sector would lead in most countries. As an example, in 2007, the US defence budget was $440 billion. Out of this, the technology development component was $73 billion. As compared to this, the largest non-military research funding went to National Institute of health, which got $28 billion in the same year.[2]

The costs and risks in the research for military system is not really an important feature as often in private sector or any other state investment.[3] R&D for defence products is mostly sponsored by the state. This is a far cry from the conditions governing civil (private sector) R&D efforts where the costs must be subsumed by the producer in the end-cost of a product, paid for by consumers in a cost competitive market. Therefore, it makes eminent commercial sense whenever defence products (inventions) can find their way into civil markets and become truly innovative.

In the context of the aforesaid, it becomes pertinent to study success stories – examples where defence inventions reached civil applications. Examples range from Internet (the US military) to packaged ready to eat food (developed by our own DRDO – Defence R&D Organisation). This point would be demonstrated by two major case studies from the foreign markets that came up with radical innovative products. The forgotten story of ‘Jeep’ is a name that is synonymous with four-wheel drive, light and powerful vehicles that have spawned the contemporary Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs) and Multi Utility Vehicles (MUVs). The second example is that of Ray Ban glasses. Both of these have become top-notch commercial products with Jeep Cherokee and Ray-Ban aviator glasses being considered as status symbols anywhere in the world.

Jeep

With a brand punch line of “Go Anywhere, Do Anything”[4], Jeep has been associated with adventure and macho since the World War (WW) – II. The original vehicle was born out of sheer necessity of the US forces[5]. Since WW-I, the US army had been looking for a fast, lightweight and all-terrain vehicle that could be used in the war zones around the world. In the early 1940, with the Nazi forces on the ascendancy, the need for such a vehicle by the US army became acute. The army asked automobile manufacturers for a running prototype in just 49 days. The specifications were quite stringent and only two companies responded amongst 130 companies that were invited to bid. Bantan Car Company, worked with a Detroit engineer Karl Probst, who designed the vehicle in two days flat. His design was improved by the other company Willys-Overland (Quad and powerful) and accepted by the army. The contract was awarded to Willys and Ford as the sheer size and rate of delivery during the war was beyond any one company to undertake. During WW-II, Willys and Ford supplied more than 700,000 orders with Willys supplying more than 330, 000 units.

By 1942, long before the war came to an end, in an innovative move, Willys-Overland recognised that the vehicle could serve the civilian market by virtue of the fact that it had built a brand for itself in ruggedness and durability. An advertisement campaign was undertaken for building the civilian brand value. Even as the first civilian Jeep vehicle was built in 1945, Willys obtained a US Trademark Registration in 1950, five years later. Since then the trademark now registered internationally, has passed from Willys-Overland to Kaiser to American Motors Corporation, and most recently, to Chrysler Corporation. From 1968 to 1978, the production of Jeep rose three times to 600 vehicles a day. With the present day, Grand Cherokee being a much-cherished 4X4, still, the jeep story lives on. Over half of all Chrysler vehicles sold outside the US, are Cherokees.

Ray-Ban

The 1930s was an era of great strides in military aviation. Aircrafts became faster and flying envelopes expanded. Many US Air Force (USAF) pilots were reporting that the glare from sun was hindering their flying prowess. This led to invention of a new kind of glasses, with green colour that could cut the glare without obscuring vision. Thus was born Ray-Ban. This anti-glare eyewear saw many models being introduced but the traditional ‘aviator’ model with metal frames remained the favourite for a long time to come. Cashing in on the newness factor and need, the eyewear went on sale to public in 1937[6]. Within seven years, the strides were made from defence to civil usage, since the basic needs of protective eyewear were same for both.

In the 1940s, innovations such as gradient mirror lens with coated upper part and uncoated lower part, for a clear view of aircraft instrument panels, were introduced. Such innovations though meant primarily for defence usage, appealed to civilians also due to the styling and ‘macho’ pilots’ looks. After the WW-II, the Ray-Ban came to be popularised by many Hollywood stars and rest as they say, is history.

The Luxottica group is the owner of Ray-Ban and popular eyewear brands like Oakley, besides in license production of many other top eyewear brands. In 2011, it posted net sales of almost € 6.2 billion.[7]

Spill-over

The technologies and the product that moved across defence research and usage to the civil markets have been coined as ‘spill over’ technologies. The opposite route has been recently coined spill-ins. The coinage of terms is quite logical. ‘Spill over’ is meant in the sense that the technology/product was originally meant for a smaller segment – the defence sector and it ‘spilled over’ to reach the outside world, a much wider segment of the populace.

In India, there are instances of ‘spill over’, albeit the scale has been rather timid. A list of 140 technologies developed by the DRDO, which have duel applications are listed in the form of a publication[8], inviting the civil Industry to participate through technology diffusion. Some of these technologies have been transferred to civil sector like a novel pressure sintering/bonding technique for large clutch plates have been successfully transferred to Clutch Auto Limited.[9]

By a simple comparison of the narrative given above, it would be clear to the readers, why hugely successful stories of innovations like Jeep or Ray-Ban are not scripted in India. The defence R&D model followed in India is purely government centred. The government invests in defence related research in government labs of the DRDO. Such funding or initiative does not come the way of private sector for many reasons. The primary reason is the absence of a roadmap for harnessing the private industry’s efforts into the mainstream by ensuring that sensitivity associated with defence sector is not compromised. In the name of national security, the private industry has been kept out of the defence sector, till recently. Now it has been realised that without the presence of a competition to the government labs and Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs), their efficiency would never increase. Also it is not possible to quickly leapfrog the technological gap that exists between India and the developed (and even not so developed) world without finding a solution to the inefficiency that has somehow become a hallmark of governmental sectors. Infusion of capital and innovativeness by and into the private sector is a must for the R&D efforts to realise their true potential.

The methodology of sharing IPR of products developed through funding by the government and innovations by the private sector is a stumbling factor for the process to go forward. It is obvious that defence related IPRs, even those having duel use, needs to have some governmental control inbuilt. The mistrust and vested lobbying has thus far not allowed a solution to this process even though the US model is very much present to be emulated. The down side is that since the private sector is not invested in product development from the beginning, they do not have any stakes to carry forward the product so developed, to a wider market for maximising profits. What remains then is just an invitation by the Scientific Adviser to Raksha Mantri, to the private sector, to partake the R&D efforts of the DRDO labs, as mentioned earlier. In such a scenario the defence R&D efforts would not reach its true market potential. Consider that the Jeep brand received ‘2012 Silver OBIE Award’ from the Outdoor Advertising Association for America for the Jeep Wrangler Call of Duty® billboard design[10]. Is it possible to see this kind of aggressive market pitch by a government entity? The markets would be penetrated predominantly by the desire to maximize profits and this desire would manifest with the private sectors and thus comes the efficiency and innovativeness.

The Future

Innovations require the factors of newness and commercialisation to be present in a product. While defence products are always required to retain the ‘cutting edge’ element, the motive of commercialisation is rarely a factor. However, this thought process is fast changing and defence equipment, along with providing the balance of power, are also turning out to be big business in the global arms market. The commercialisation angle though, can be really addressed if the product/technology reaches a much bigger clientele than just the security forces. Involvement of private industrial sector in development of such product/technology is thus a necessity, for them to be termed an innovation.

Products like Jeep and Ray-Ban that could be termed as innovations today, were essentially made on demand of the defence forces but it brought to the fore, a latent need of the civil market. This would always be the common thread for all ‘spill over’ technologies. We all know drones can deliver death on the battlefield, but might they also soon be delivering gifts and purchases to our door? Amazon.com is counting on it. UAVs pioneered by the military are finding a home down in farmers’ fields. A UAV can treat an acre of steep hillsides in five minutes, which is very difficult or even impossible to do with a tractor Such technologies are now also known as ‘duel use’ technologies and controlled by the innovator nations under ‘The Wassenaar Arrangement’[11] due to their highly commercial/strategic ramifications. One such instance is the jet engine technology that is used for military as well as commercial aircrafts. India and China are striving to develop a jet engine and when they do, the commercial and strategic ramifications are obvious. Innovative defence technologies are very much the future to strive for. In the same vein, it is worth considering that civil technologies developed for high-end technical function may be considered for defence applications because any R&D effort is time and capital intensive. Thus, a convergence of R&D efforts, for defence and civil applications is the need of the hour.


[1] Steven R. Rivkin Technology Unbound: Transferring Scientific and Engineering Resources From Defence to Civilian Purposes (New York USA: Pergamon Press Inc., 1968), p xii.

[2] T.W. Lee, Military Technologies of the World – Vol II (Westport USA: Praeger Security International, 2009), p. 364.

[3] Dr Hatice Karacay Cakmak, Department of Economics, Beytepe, Ankara, Turkey, “A Theoretical Glance at Military Expenditures”, 2009 p.3, see hrcak.srce.hr/file/74277, accessed on Aug 06, 2014.

[4] History of Jeep modelS, at http://www.jeep.com/en/history/ accessed on July 21, 2014 .

[5] The evolution of jeep has been traced at http://www.hrja.org/jeep.htm, accessed on July 22, 2014.

[6] The history and evolution of Ray-Ban at http://www.luxottica.com/sites/luxottica.com/files/ray-ban_history_en.pdf. Accessed on July 23, 2014.

[7] Ibid.

[8] DRDO, Advanced Technologies for Civil Application (DESIDOC, New Delhi, 1987)

[9] Ibid, p. 117.

[10]http://media.chrysler.com/newsrelease.do;jsessionid=5F352AF1915E13814ADD6F1A32B6E67D?&id=2210&mid= accessed on 05 Aug 15

[11] Manoj Kumar, Resources Optimisation through Environmental Leadership (New Delhi, Knowledge World, 2012), p126


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