#3 Of Myths and Delusions

Mirage of high-tech self-sufficiency,Porous Censorship,Emerging tech and risk reduction, 5GW, and Game of drones

Matsyanyaaya #1: High-Tech Self-Sufficiency is a Delusion

— Pranay Kotasthane

(An edited version of this article first appeared in Times of India Plus on 22nd June 2021)

The near-daily cadence of reports highlighting China's growing technology prowess has set the cat among the pigeons in many democracies. In response, these countries are now offering higher subsidies and fatter incentives to increase the competitiveness of their own technology industries. 

The US Senate, for instance, passed a $250 billion Innovation and Competition bill on 8th June aimed at outpacing China. The Indian government, since last year, has launched Product Linked Incentive (PLI) schemes for 13 sectors worth ₹2 trillion, some of them targeted at high-tech industries such as semiconductors, telecom, and networking. Earlier this month, a draft growth strategy of the Japanese government also promised generous financial incentives to attract cutting-edge chip-making facilities. Not to be left behind, the EU, too, has announced a €145 billion plan to upgrade its semiconductor and electronics manufacturing. 

While the intent is encouraging, it's interesting to note that all these plans are qualitatively quite similar to China's 'Made in China 2025' — a state-led industrial policy for technology. Released in 2015, it was labelled as a threat to global trade for channelling state subsidies to achieve import substitution. But now, many countries seem to be following a similar approach. Of course, China's subsidies are often discriminatory and place extreme restrictions on foreign investment. Even so, all these policies mirror China's at their core — they are all about using old-style industrial policy instruments such as subsidies and incentives to achieve high-tech self-sufficiency.

Will Subsidies Revive Technology Industries?

Unlikely. There are significant problems with the goal of high-tech self-sufficiency and the instrument of industrial subsidies, both. That's because high-tech industries today rely on extensive cross-border movements of intermediate products, talent, and intellectual property. As R&D costs required to produce technological improvements have risen across sectors, erstwhile 'national' industries have been transformed into global supply chains. Instead of national champions making complete products independently, companies only specialise in specific parts of global supply chains. 

For instance, the US Semiconductor Industry Association estimates that a typical semiconductor production process spans 4+ countries, 3+ trips around the world, and 12 days in transit. Japanese companies have developed expertise in semiconductor manufacturing materials, Taiwanese companies have a big lead in semiconductor manufacturing and packaging, and a significant portion of semiconductor design happens out of subsidiaries in India. Even with its massive fiscal resources, the US will find it challenging to indigenise all parts of this diversified supply chain. External dependencies for intermediate goods, specialised equipment, international talent, and critical materials will remain even when the final product is American.

Also, consider Artificial Intelligence (AI) research. MacroPolo, a think tank, notes that over half of all top-tier AI researchers are immigrants or foreign nationals working in another country. Some of them will invariably take the knowledge gained to their native countries. Restricting such expertise at a national level, in a connected world, is no longer possible. 

These two examples tell us that not only is throwing taxpayer money insufficient for high-tech self-sufficiency, but the goal itself is a delusion. 

Be Different

Instead of aiming for self-sufficiency in technology like China, democracies should aim for two slightly different strategic goals. One, build enough redundancy in global supply chains such that China dominates no part. And two, build enough collective expertise in all aspects of technology supply chains to outpace China. Neither of the two goals needs self-sufficiency. On the contrary, countries can achieve these goals only through multilateral strategic cooperation.

Specifically, democracies can do three things. One, think in terms of multilateral tech ecosystems instead of national indigenisation. Build consortiums to construct a diversified high-tech manufacturing base. Instead of duplicating efforts, countries need to build technology ecosystems cutting across all stages at a multilateral level. Besides being cost-efficient, this geographic diversification will make supply chains more resilient. 

Two, cooperate on developing new standards. Global standards set the tone for competition in the high-tech sectors. Once a standard gains hold, companies using these standards gain a disproportional competitive edge, as China's success in the 5G standards-setting process has demonstrated. By funding joint development of future communications and security standards, countries can hand their companies a long-term edge.

Three, remove the barriers to strategic R&D cooperation between companies in like-minded countries. Technology companies collaborate through licensing, cross-licensing, joint development, technology exchange, and visitation & research participation. In each of these areas, governments have a vital role. For example, reducing export controls can facilitate more technology exchanges. Lowering investment screening barriers for select countries can encourage joint development. And finally, smoother visa processing and lower employment barriers for technology professionals could facilitate higher research collaborations.

In short, throwing taxpayer money at high-tech companies is easy and inadequate. Excelling in the high-tech sector requires genuine multilateral cooperation. 

What Can India Do

Foreign policy will play a key role in developing India's technology prowess. Given India's developmental challenges, its financial incentives are unlikely to match what richer countries can afford. Embracing a multilateral approach to technology has a better chance of success. 

The Quad is one such platform that is suitable for deep technology cooperation. The announcement of a working group on critical and emerging technologies at the first-ever Quad summit-level meeting is a good start. Rare earths and semiconductors are two immediate focus areas for the four countries to work on. 

There's no doubt that democracies should counter China's push for technology self-sufficiency. But a response doesn't imply that all democracies copy the same methods as China. By putting their comparative advantages to work, democracies can outpace China.


Cyberpolitik: Porous Censorship

-Prateek Waghre

This week marks the passage of one year since two significant events in the context of global flows of information; the passage of Hong Kong’s National Security Law; and India’s decision to ban 59 apps for activities ‘prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India’.

It was also notable then that June kicked off with a controversy over Israel-based Wix removing a website calling for democracy in Hong Kong, reportedly in response to a takedown request from the city’s police. Wix later reversed the action stating it was a ‘mistake’. It was subsequently blocked by local ISPs, although it appears to be an easily bypassed DNS-based block implemented inconsistently. Similarly, most of the apps/services blocked in India remain accessibly using VPNs.

In Censored, Margaret E. Roberts describes this ‘filtration’ of information or censorship as a tax on information, rather than an outright ban and interrogates the question of how effective such ‘porous censorship’ can be.

First, Roberts described three strategies that states can use:

  1. Fear: Relying on coercion and a credible, visible threat of punishment  and follow through to be effective. However, it can also backfire by drawing more attention to the information being censored or seeding discontent.

  2. Friction: Increasing costs of disseminating or accessing certain types of information, relying on the elasticity of demand for it among most people.

  3. Flooding: Increasing costs for consumption of information by ‘flooding’ by drowning out undesirable messages.

Roberts argues that a multi-pronged approach allows for targeted deployment of these strategies.

  • Friction and flooding for most information consumers who are unwilling or unable to spend additional time/money/resources to overcome these barriers. This is even more effective in an era characterised by information overload and works to filter out the ‘activist core’ from a potential support base.

  • Fear for those groups who exhibit an inelasticity of demand for information or a willingness to supply information even with higher entry barriers (influential groups/people, media organisations, etc). They are also motivated enough to incur the additional costs imposed by friction and flooding.

However, in times of crisis or instability, more people exhibit a higher demand for information representing scenarios in which censorship is likely to be less effective and more accoutability is demanded from governments.

With this idea of ‘Porous Censorship’ in mind, it is worth revisiting the Demos framework from Edition 1 (Internet ka Boss: One earth, many internets). The attritive nature of these struggles shift the balance of power towards the state. 

Matsyanyaaya #2:Emerging Technologies and Conflict Risk

-Aditya Pareek

A recently published King’s College London Centre for Science & Security Studies research paper by Marina Favarov, puts into perspective several important “risk reduction” assessment and policy recommendations; in the emerging technology domains - including for space and nuclear weapons. The document also speaks to the primacy of the civilian-private tech industry, both in ensuring the security of critical assets in high-tech domains and in tackling threats from these emerging technologies. 

  • As one of her arguments, Favarov asserts that “the locus of innovation has shifted away from militaries and governments and towards the private sector”. According to her, this makes it imperative for states with or without nuclear weapons to take stock of the escalatory potential of emerging technologies. 

Matsyanyaaya #3:The Myth of Fifth Generation Warfare

-Aditya Ramanathan

In the 1980s, there was much excitement about a new generation of fifth-generation languages. Soon, programmers would be able to give up labourious coding and simply delineate constraints, leaving the rest to computing power. While fifth-generation languages never quite materialised there remains a broad understanding of what constitutes such a language.

More recently, states are backing the costly development of fifth-generation fighters like the American F-35A. Such aircraft are to incorporate stealth features ('low observability'), have much better sensor packages, and must be able to operate in a "network-centric combat environment". While more detailed definitions of what constitutes a fifth-generation aircraft remain elusive, we would probably recognise a fifth-generation fighter if we saw one.

But what about fifth-generation warfare? Last year, Pakistan's military spokesperson accused India of waging "fifth-generation warfare" against the country through a systematic campaign of misinformation. An opinion piece in The Hindu asked if India was "up to China's fifth generation war". The author warns us that "new age wars might not even look like one, since they are more about shaping perceptions than about combat."

So what is fifth-generation warfare? One attempt at a definition describes it as "moral and cultural warfare" that encompasses misinformation and hard-to-attribute cyber-attacks. Presumably, Russian involvement in the 2016 US Presidential elections and the Cambridge Analytica data scandal fall into this category.

There is much to unpack in these colloquial definitions. First there's the conflation of war and warfare. To be clear, war is best defined as the political act of using force to bend an enemy's will. Warfare is the actual conduct of war. Therefore it is warfare and not war that we are discussing.

Second, it is not clear that the misinformation or propaganda prevalent online constitute warfare. For them to be understood as a new form of warfare, proponents must demonstrate that they are materially different from, say, the information campaigns waged by the Soviets and Americans through the Cold War.

Finally, there's little evidence that such tools have, in fact, replaced warfare. The waxing and waning of warfare is subject to many factors: the condition of the present global order, the relative military strengths of states, and their ability to form alliances or partnerships. States spent an estimated $2 trillion on arms in 2020. Both conventional and unconventional wars continue to be waged and competition in nuclear arms persists.

None of this is to suggest that misinformation or cyber attacks are unimportant; indeed they form a major area of study for the authors of this newsletter. Our argument is that, one, while the tools are new, misinformation and sabotage are old. Two, that these don't constitute modes of warfare by themselves and could, in fact, act as aids to warfare in some circumstances.

The Roots of 5GW

If the idea of fifth-generation warfare ('5GW') is suspect, why does it show up as a buzzword among some analysts and military personnel? We can only speculate, but the likely answer is that such simplistic models are attractive because they appear to explain recent developments in a straightforward, no-nonsense manner.

The idea of generations of warfare have their roots in an article written in 1989 in the US Marine Corps Gazette by William Lind, a civilian analyst. Lind described three generations of conventional warfare, followed by a fourth generation of unconventional warfare that employed modern tools of destruction and propaganda. Lind's article was both cautious and ambitious. While he's been rightly criticised for his historically inaccurate idea of three generations of warfare, Lind was perceptive enough to realise that unconventional warfare would likely dominate the years following the end of the Cold War.

The problem was that, as the late Colin S. Gray pointed out, "4GW has discovered nothing in particular beyond a vital aspect of the permanent nature of war." Writing in 2005, Gray predicted someone would eventually describe a fifth and a sixth generation of warfare in the coming years.

Not surprisingly, there is little interest in 5GW among academics. The political scientist Ahsan Butt searched the contents of five academic journals on international affairs and found no references to 5GW in the last five years. He concluded that terms like 5GW are "are often used to lend a veneer of strategic gravitas to ultimately vapid analysis."

Leave a comment

Game of Drones:Non-State Actor Edition

-Aditya Ramanathan & Aditya Pareek

On 27 June, non-state actors mounted a kinetic drone attack in India for the first time.

India and Pakistan have targeted and brought down each other’s uncrewed aerial vehicles in the past. But the use of what were likely cheap, commercially available drones married to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) is new, at least in the public domain.

The two small bombs dropped on Jammu Air Force Station on 27 June caused no serious damage or injuries but it comes amid mounting evidence of the use of drones by insurgents for surveillance and even arms smuggling.

This should hardly be surprising. For one, non-state actors across the world have used such devices and mounted such attacks, whether they be Houthi rebels in Yemen or Mexican drug cartels.

Of course, insurgents are still amatuers at this new game. The attackers in Jammu apparently tried to target the air traffic control tower and helicopters in the Air Force Station. They failed at this task.At least one report suggests the inaccurate targeting could have been because of “faulty execution or wind factor”, which goes to show that manoeuvring a UAV is a complex and highly technical operation.

However, insurgents will likely become more effective in their use of cheap drones in the future. That means India must not only develop new defences against these devices but also adding cheap drones to its menu of retaliatory options.

Our Reading Menu

If you have any suggestions for us, please leave a comment. We are eager to learn.

Leave a comment