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LOOKING BEYOND EFEXPO 2020
LOOKING BEYOND EFEXPO 2020
It is important that the festivity of DefExpo 2020 is supplemented by some honest, serious and sustained thinking on what needs to be done for digital transformation of defence, argues AMIT COWSHISH

Digital transformation of defence is the special theme of DefExpo 2020 being held at Lucknow in February, 2020. It reflects the centrality of artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, ubiquitous sensors, additive manufacturing, and quantum science in the ongoing digital transformation in military affairs. How the exhibition will further the cause of digital transformation is a bit of a puzzle, though.

In its eleventh edition now, defence exhibitions have been bringing together the exhibitors, users and the policy makers, and providing them an opportunity to find common ground for promotion of the business interests of the defence industry onthe one hand and the government’s interest in strengthening the defence manufacturing base in the country on the other hand. The theme of the forthcoming exhibition seems to suggest that the government expects this commonality of interest to take into account the imperatives of digital transformation.

Purely from the business point of view, India’s defence market holds a great promise like no other market does. India has the fifth largest defence budget in the world and contributes 3.7 per cent to the global military expenditure. This may not amount to much in absolute terms, but with there being little chances of remission any time soon in the security challenges faced by the country, and the government’s continuous thrust towards making it a manufacturing hub to beef up the economy, the opportunities India offers cannot simply be ignored by the defence industry.

This ground reality accounts for the continued interest of the defence companies in various defence-related events, despite stagnant budget outlays the slow pace of the procurement programmes. The last edition of the exhibition held in 2018 was a fairly successful event. According to the official figures, as many as 702 exhibitors participated in the exhibition, of which 160 exhibitors were foreign companies. To cap it all, more than 350K visitors braved it out in the sweltering summer at Tiruvedanthal in Kancheepuram district of Tamil Nadu.

It would be naïve, though, to assess the impact of the exhibitions in terms of the number of the participating exhibitors, footfalls or the MoUs signed. The razzmatazz often does not produce tangible results. The theme of the 2018 exhibition, inaugurated by the Prime Minister, was ‘India: The Emerging Defence Manufacturing Hub’, and yet in the two years since then the situation has not changed so palpably as to inspire confidence that the country is firmly set on the path to becoming a defence manufacturing hub.

Many good ideas wither away along the way for want of conceptual clarity, implementation plan, dogged followup, or simply because the interest in that idea wanes under the pressure of a new rallying cry. It is important that the festivity of DefExpo2020 is supplemented by some honest, serious and sustained thinking on what needs to be done for digital transformation of defence.

This raises many questions like what is meant by digital transformation, is it something that has dawned on the defence establishment only recently, are we lagging in digitisation, what is retarding digitisation, and so on. It is problematic to answer the very first question as the term ‘digital transformation’ means different things to different people and indeed would mean different things in different contexts. No wonder then that no definitive and universally applicable definition of the term can be found.

But if one were to attempt a barebones definition, it would mean integration of digital technologies – innovation, information processing, cloud-enabled services, artificial intelligence, et al – with the ongoing and future activities of an organisation to make them more efficient in terms of their performance and outcome.These concepts are not alien to the defence establishment in the context of military operations, development of defence capabilities, and defence production.

So, what is it that the DefExpo seeks to achieve? The MoD e-book answers this by saying that the exhibition ‘will focus on bringing to the forefront the digital advances in the industry and provide a platform for drivers of such transformation to come together’. Which is good, but it cannot be the ultimate objective of the exhibition and certainly does not explain which perceived shortcoming and deficiencies in the existing system are sought to be addressed through the medium of the exhibition.

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February 2020