Army Design Bureau: the Next step towards spearheading Military Equipment Design

Sub Title : Time to take ADB to the next level

Issues Details : Vol 16 Issue 1 Mar – Apr 2022

Author : Brig Ashis Bhattacharya (Retd)

Page No. : 48

Category : Military Technology

: March 31, 2022

The Army Design Bureau has rendered yeoman service in the first few years of its existence. However, there is a need to take it to next level and turn it  into the fountainhead for technology infusion into the Army by making it a true Design Agency thus supporting the Atmanirbharta initiative. Some striking suggestions by the author

Setting up the Army Design Bureau (ADB) in 2016(??) was a path breaking initiative to ensure that the Indian Army proactively custom-builds the technologies and platforms that it needs to address its unique concepts of war fighting. Though there was a precedence, in Indian Navy having taken a similar action in the 1960s  (with a result that 39 out of a total of 41 combat ships/submarines under order for the Indian Navy are indigenously designed), the Indian Army cannot be held responsible for the delayed initiative as  its requirements and that of the IN differed vastly. While the Navy’s Design Directorate required to design the ‘Float’, and then integrate existing mature hardware/technologies into it, the Army’s weapon/equipment designs would have had to address a totally different level of design i.e. the weapon and the weapon technologies themselves. Two things required for meeting such requirements  were missing at that time: the weapon technology and the manufacturing capability for the same. With the opening up of the Defence Sector to the private industry, the Army hierarchy rightly saw an opportunity and went on to set up an ADB.

Over the last four years or so, the ADB has done stellar work in connecting the industry with the end-user and helping both these stakeholders to shed the inhibitions which had held them back on the much-needed interactive/collaborative partnership for the indigenisation of Military equipment based on Army’s operational concepts. Even more important, the top brass of the Army has done well to handpick the officers with the right passion and attitude to man and  lead the organisation. Organisationally, the ADB is under the Deputy Chief of Army Staff in charge of Capability Development and Sustenance, a new appointment created to bring disparate functional departments for Capability Development, under one head. ADB has officers of adequate seniority looking after industry connect, academia connect and connect with internal talent in field formations. In addition, the ADB has one vertical dedicated to managing the Make Projects. Each one of them is doing its best within the powers vested in them. In its present form, the ADB is a facilitator for the industry, academia and the in-service talent to get discovered and where needed get funded through the Army Technology Board (ATB), Technology Development Fund (TDF), or the `Innovation for Defence Excellence (iDex). In addition, the Bureau provides limited handholding for individual projects (a very important role that can make or break a project), limited to the zeal and available time of individual officers of the Bureau. As the number of projects increase, this function is likely to be the worst hit.

With the organisation having succeeded to meet many of the aspirations of the Army in the last few years and now having settled well in the job, it is probably the right time to have a look at some organisational tweaks that can give it a wider role with sharper fangs that can not only amalgamate the innovative and manufactural capabilities of the industry, academia and the uniformed fraternity but also spur them on to reach the next level of competence.

What is it that is doable within the existing structure of the Indian Army that would best meet their aspirations and those of the industry, to catalyse the untapped potential of both and create a win-win situation for both?  Let me make out a case for the `Non-Status Quoist” to ponder on.

It is a well-known fact that the soldier under the pressure of bullets flying around his head or manning military equipment in emergencies, is the best man to suggest what he needs to successfully fight his battle. This concept has famously succeeded in one of the most innovative armies of the world, the Israeli Armed Forces, where all design organisations are headed by the uniformed fraternity. The celebrated book “Start-up Nation – The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” by ¬¬¬¬Dan Senor and Saul Singer, brings out much of these aspects in its narrative. Obviously, the soldier in most cases does not have the engineering skills to translate his needs or ideas into products/platforms. But given a right engineering and academic talent under command, he would, in most cases be able to realise the product.

Having said that, it is also a fact that within the ranks of the forces, each soldier is trained to specialise in certain verticals based on his Arm/Service and the area of employment within the overall framework of warfare. There are many such specialists who have the right vision and passion but are not tapped when employed in non-related or mundane appointments. Some of them may even have been passed over and will not mind leading equipment design projects with the requisite zeal over long tenures. Such soldiers will not be missed but the system will gain in the long run. Yes, the Personnel Branch of the Army will have to make some exceptions in the sector profiling requirements for such officers.

Now, getting to the organisational changes that need to be made to make things happen. First, the ADB needs to move to the next level and transform into an actual design house for military equipment, working in partnership with the industry and the academia. For this to happen, each Arm and Service should nominate suitable officers, with passion and commitment, to the ADB, to act as drivers for projects specific to his/her Arm/Service. The number of officers can be dynamically increased or decreased based on the number of development/design projects at hand. This officer(s) would act as the bridge between the ADB and the Director General of the Arm/Service, who would lead the prioritisation of projects based on use cases. Technology scan for projects of the directorate could also be entrusted to this officer/group of officers. For all procurement cases for the directorate, he could also assist in their industry connect.

Second, the ADB be given financial powers directly or through the offices of the DCOAS to fund some of the low-cost innovations based on offerings from Start-ups/MSMEs. The innovation or R&D funds are currently vested with the VCOAS and the DCOAS but due to the lack of formal funding processes, these funds are rarely used.  As for the projects perse, these could be identified through Start-up Search Programs done in partnership with the Industry Associations as was done for identifying UAV, UGVs and other products under AI, Robotics, Surveillance and Quantum Computing. Correct implementation will help capture many promising technologies that are being regularly poached by foreign venture capitalists who have understood the value that Indian start-ups provide.

Third, a reverse attachment of DRDO scientists with ADB, could be effected based on their expertise and the projects in hand. These scientists could provide the staff connect with suitable DRDO Laboratories for progressing the projects at hand to develop sub-systems/technologies. Currently, only services officers are posted in certain labs to provide the services perspective with regards DRDO Projects but are rarely used for the job for which posted.

Last but not the least, as brought out earlier, the function of handholding for critical projects (including those in the  Make II category), is very important for the success of most of the Make II and Innovation projects. The connect needs to be long term and not terminated with the posting out of the officers (which happens every 2-3 years). This  function could be formalized by setting up a mechanism wherein suitable officers from the environment (may be posted in the field army), appointed as `Project Officers’ for particular projects (one or two officers with expertise in the subject), are kept connected to the project through the ADB. Discussion strings could be gainfully employed and maintained on a separate ADB website with suitable authentication and security protocols deployed.

In sum, the ADB could be turned into the fountainhead for technology infusion into the Army by becoming a true Design agency, leading technology development through projects that conform to the operational concepts of the Army, thus supporting Atmanirbharta in the true sense of the word. It is not necessary that the organisation goes in for big projects from the word go. Success in small projects/technologies development would spur the team to gain the requisite confidence and pave the way for them to take on bigger projects like the FRCV/FICV.