March 31, 2016      

By 2023, India wants an advanced robotic soldier protecting its borders.

This next-generation soldier should be intelligent enough to automatically recognize threats and take action. It should also be sophisticated enough to distinguish between threats and non-threats.

If India achieves its objective, that will have a huge impact on two fronts at least.

First, the robotic soldier would give India the ability to redefine geopolitics, regionally and globally.

India could join a very small yet special club of countries (such as Russia and Israel) that are using robots to defend their borders. India may use its robotic soldier as a strategic weapon, like a nuclear bomb, to command attention and respect.

Some of India's border disputes with China

India has border disputes with China and other neighbors.

From a nation that is currently a secondary partner to the U.S., Russia, or China, a robotic soldier would give India the capability to have a strategic agenda of its own.

India will not just be a coalition partner. It will create its own coalition.

The next U.N. peacekeeping mission might involve robotic soldiers imported from India or under the command of an Indian general experienced in commanding a robotic army.

Or, just as Russia surprised the world with its intervention in the Syrian civil war, India could also enter and exit hot zones or create them in pursuit of its national interests.

The robotic soldier would change the border dynamics with China, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, for sure.

Military robotics to alter Indian economy

Second, building an army of robotic soldiers would affect the Indian economy.

During the next financial year (2016-’17), India plans to spend nearly $40 billion on defense. This expenditure has quadrupled in the past 15 years. The expenditure was $11.8 billion in 2001.

By 2022, India may be spending $620 billion on defense.

It’s no wonder then that the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) found India topping the list of nations importing weapons.

According to SIPRI, India bought 14% of all weapons sold globally between 2011 and 2015.

The defense budget not only accounts for 17.2 percent of the total planned government expenditure for the next fiscal year, but there is also an off-books number — pensions of defense personnel — that is rising rapidly. It will be around $10 billion in the next financial year.

When one in five rupees is going toward defense operations, the economy takes a hit. While the robotic soldiers will not fix the problem by themselves or dramatically change the budget, they are likely to offer relief. Every rupee saved from defense will go toward development.

What strategy will India adopt?

Will it increase its imports of weapons and acquire the robotic soldiers from overseas, or will India create its robotic soldiers under the “Make in India” program?

Imports and partnerships

In September 2015, India bought 10 military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) directly from Israel for $400 million. Now, India wants 5,000 drones and is prepared to spend nearly $3 billion. Except you cannot directly sell UAVs to India. If you are an overseas business, you must find a business partner in India.

Under the new defense procurement policy, the government wants “strategic partners” that will commit to long-term (10-year) manufacturing in India.

As the government accelerates its robotic soldier plan, it is creating quite a buzz in India.

The Pune-based Defence Institute of Advanced Technology (DIAT) about 92 miles south east of Mumbai is creating a dedicated robotics lab for the military. The lab will focus on tools that will help the armed forces from surveillance to offensive operations.

Omnipresent Robot Tech Pvt. Ltd., a New Delhi-based company created by an Indian engineer educated at Carnegie Mellon University, is building robots for the Indian Army. One of the models, weighing 55 pounds, can help with search and rescue efforts, especially after a terrorist attack.

Saankhya Labs Pvt. Ltd. has developed a postage stamp-size chip called “Pruthvi,” or Earth, that the Bengaluru-based startup is hoping will be used by the Indian defense forces in satellite phones and drones. The chip replaces the hardware in a radio with software.

For global robotics companies, defense is becoming a bigger and immediate opportunity than “India Inc.

And, clearly, to achieve its robotic goals, the government wants domestic sourcing over imports.

What does it mean if you are an overseas robotics company specializing in military drones, vehicles, and other advanced robotics for defense operations? Will Indian geopolitics help or hinder your business strategy?

Will the U.S. have to rethink its relationship with India if it wants American drone companies to succeed? Will China lose because of regional competition with India? Or will Israel scoop it all up?

Will Indian firms be able to innovate like Lockheed Martin or BAE Systems?

None of these are easy questions to answer. Yet answering them is critical for success.

No matter who you are or where you are located, remember that geopolitics will play as big a role as technology when developing robotic soldiers for India.

Are you ready to play that game?