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India’s Strategic Miss

The importance of the chip industry extends beyond economics and electrical use; it plays a vital role in geopolitics and contemporary warfare. Throughout the history of warfare, a consistent lesson emerges: the outcome of major conflicts often pivots on the pursuit of new and advanced defence technologies that provide a strategic edge to the winner. […]

The importance of the chip industry extends beyond economics and electrical use; it plays a vital role in geopolitics and contemporary warfare.

Throughout the history of warfare, a consistent lesson emerges: the outcome of major conflicts often pivots on the pursuit of new and advanced defence technologies that provide a strategic edge to the winner. In the context of the 21st century, this pivotal innovation is the modern semiconductor chip industry.

The Importance of the chip industry extends beyond economics and electrical use; it plays a vital role in geopolitics and contemporary warfare. These semiconductor chips are present in a wide range of electronic devices, from smartphones and routers to various audio equipment, making them a global essential. Remarkably, despite being produced in just a few countries, their impact spans the globe. To put it into perspective, the combined semiconductor chip purchases of the United States, China, and Japan rival their crude oil imports. However, India stands out for one notable absence: the lack of a domestic semiconductor chip industry. This raises questions about how India’s strategic community failed to recognize this significant gap and the resulting consequences. In the following discussion, we will explore the reasons behind this oversight, consider its implications, and contemplate potential solutions.

The Indian defence sector has traditionally leaned towards an import-oriented approach, particularly concerning strategic weapon technology. The space for indigenous production has been notably lacking, with only few exceptions that failed to generate a robust focus on the manufacturing aspect. At present, the majority of advanced weapon system, such as laser-guided missiles and precision weapon systems, incorporate multiple semiconductor chips, many of which were originally developed during the Cold War by countries such as the USSR and the US. The absence of a vibrant semiconductor chip manufacturing and advanced computing infrastructure in India has consequently burdened the nation’s defence capabilities.

Another important factor contributing to India’s absence from the race to develop this ground-breaking technology is the absence of a cohesive and interconnected strategic community within the country. The link between academia and the strategic community has remained largely unidirectional, with limited information-sharing and a lack of confidence-building initiatives with the civilian population. With only a handful of universities engaged in such endeavours, India’s strategic community is bereft of a widespread centres of innovation and research centres, which are essential for nurturing and cultivating human resources in this critical domain.

Moreover, the over-bureaucratization and procedural complexities inherent in the Indian strategic community, coupled with the marginal role of academia in shaping policy preferences, have collectively contributed to the oversight of this vital strategic objective. Additionally, a significant hindrance to progress has been the lack of funding allocated to educational institutions and universities to harness the potential of young and talented individuals—an indispensable requirement for advancing technology in semiconductor chip production. The costly nature of semiconductor chip manufacturing has further underscored the imperative need for increased financial support in this arena, which has been lacking in the vast majority of Indian institutions.

Consequences
The pursuit of strategic technology holds profound implications for nations, as a significant oversight in this strategic technology can have far-reaching consequences. Throughout history, we have witnessed pivotal innovations shaping the outcomes of major conflicts. In World War I, naval warships played a transformative role, while in World War II, the advent of airplanes changed the course of battle. Similarly, during the Cold War, the emergence of advanced computing technologies revolutionized warfare strategies and altered the outcome of cold war. In the 21st century, the semiconductor chip industry assumes this critical role.

Semiconductor chips have become fundamental components in modern weapon system, including rockets and precision missiles. The recent conflict in Ukraine highlighted their significance, with these munitions containing thousands of chips, underscoring the vital role of semiconductors in contemporary warfare. In the modern era, it is challenging to envision a nation aspiring to great power status without a domestic semiconductor industry.
Regrettably, India finds itself at a juncture where the opportunity to establish an indigenous semiconductor chip manufacturing or design industry has been missed. The feasibility of constructing such an industry from scratch, aimed at achieving chip sovereignty, appears impractical due to the early-mover advantage held by other countries and the considerable cost involved.

Furthermore, India’s vulnerability becomes evident when considering its active border conflict with China. China has made significant strides in producing 25% of its semiconductor chips domestically, with substantial investments in chip innovation and design. Consequently, relying on the United States for advanced chip requirements, given past instances of technology denial, is an unreliable strategic option. Without a dedicated program for strategic technology development, India risks being ill-prepared for future conflicts, particularly in the face of adversaries like China.

Way forward
Designing a path forward in the pursuit of semiconductor chip sovereignty for India requires a strategic reorientation and a concerted effort across various fronts. While it may appear that India has missed the initial race, there remains a glimmer of hope, primarily anchored in the nation’s robust software manufacturing capabilities, which are internationally recognized as among the strongest. Leveraging this software expertise represents a tangible avenue for India to recalibrate its approach.

However, it is imperative to acknowledge that software development, while significant, cannot entirely substitute the need for the design and manufacturing aspects of semiconductor chip production. To achieve a holistic solution, it is incumbent upon India to invest substantially in funding the chip-making industry. Such investments must extend over the long term to ensure readiness in the face of evolving strategic imperatives.
The present absence of active conflict provides a crucial window of opportunity for India to bolster its capabilities. This entails financial commitments to advance technological institutions, fostering an environment conducive to private sector engagement, and allocating resources as needed. Furthermore, designating specific entities as centres or institutions of strategic importance can streamline efforts and facilitate a coordinated approach.

In addition to these measures, there is a pressing need to broaden the participation base within India’s strategic community. By encompassing a more extensive segment of the population, the nation can harness a diverse range of perspectives and expertise, facilitating meaningful debates and deliberations on strategic needs. Initiating these actions promptly, with sustained commitment, India can embark on a trajectory toward enhanced preparedness for future conflicts, thereby securing its strategic interests.

Vivek Pandey is PhD Scholar at School of international Studies, JNU.

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