A Quiet Revolution in the Making
Lt Gen (Dr) V K Saxena (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM
The RFP and Beyond

On 07 Sept 2022, a Request for Technical and Commercial Proposal (RFP) was issued by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) on behalf of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for the design and developmentof 5 lakh secure microchips, 50,000 of which were to be absorbed in the armed forces.

What is the significance of ‘secure microchips’ made in your own country? Sample the following:-

- Air defence battle has been joined. A deadly air threat is approaching our vital asset. The Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS) has identified the threat as ‘hostile’. The target has been designated to a Ballistic Missile System (BMS). All is set at action stations at BMS, all in a few fleeting moments. Target acquired…, target in launch zone…, launch command given… THE MISSILE DOES NOT TAKE OFF. Enemy aircrafts achieve the kill – catastrophic destruction follows.

Another one…

- A BVRAAM (beyond visual range air-to-air missile) has been launched on a deadly target. Missile is on track for a collision impact. Suddenly something happens; the guidance command from the ground control station (GCS) suddenly goes haywire. The missile looses the target lock and nosedives uncontrollably. Target escapes unpunished.

What happened?
Cyber war was in progress.

Forces inimical to the nation succeeded in surreptitiously injecting a malware through an embedded backdoor into the microchips controlling complex systems of guidance and command in our BMS and BVRAAM. This malware embedded years ago, sat quiet only to be activated on command to cripple/corrupt the source code in the launch sequence circuit of the BMS/guidance-command circuit of BVRAAM at the critical moment. Hell broke loose.

This is the difference between having your own secure microchips or having to use the chips made by FOEMs (Foreign Original Equipment Manufacturers - Intel, Qualcomm, Nvidia, Micron.. to name a few) which can be manipulated at source or elsewhere in their journey to our systems.

The World Scene

The world is worried; with 65% of the world’s semiconductors and almost 90% of all the advanced chips being made in Taiwan, the world is truly worried[1]. ‘What happens if’… Taiwan? The chips used F35, MH60R and many more advanced US platforms are made in Taiwan. TSMC or Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company accounts for a whopping 60% of the total Semiconductor foundry of the world with clients like Apple, Qualcomm and Nividia[2]. While there are other FOEMs in US, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Netherlands, Germany, France and Italy etc, the overdependence on one source is a haunting thought today, world over[3].

Where is China?

On 03 Oct 2022 a book titled, ‘Chip War- The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology’ by Chris Miller got published. The author is a Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.The book states some interesting facts:-[4][5]

- In the past decade, China has spent more money to import microchips than it has done for importing oil.

- President Xi Jinping sees semiconductors as the ‘vital gate’ that can be used to control the Chinese Economy.

- China has been unable to produce the real advanced chips required for mobile telecom, computers and servers. It is playing the catching up game with the lead players.

- US is trying its best to limit/block the Chinese access to niche microchip by technology by restricting the use of US made specialist tools required for making them.

What about US?

Aware of all the grim realities of dangerous and highly vulnerable over-dependence on Taiwan and with China playing the catching up at a feverish pace, US on 9 Aug 2022 signed into law an Act titled Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors and Science Act of 2022 (in short called the CHIPS Act). This Act provides for an upfront investment of $ 280 billion to catalyse investments in the domestic semiconductor manufacturing capability.[6]

What is the Emerging Scene?

- To quote the author Chris Miller from his book Chip War (quote) ‘CHIP WAR is a decade old battle to control what has emerged as one of the most critical resource – microchip technology with United States and China increasingly in conflict.’ Unquote[7].

- The leading countries of the world are increasingly realising the dangers of overdependence on a single source and are making efforts to secure and broad-base their source base.

- It is basic to state that anything from missiles to microwaves from banks to electric grids to stocks to economy to supermarkets to media to the ATM round the corner will all COME TO A GRINDING HALT without the chips that control them.

- What is more critical is the fact that all the contemporary and futuristic technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), integration of Live-Virtual-Constructive (LVC) simulation in one immersive experience, control of large scale net-centric hybrid war spread across hundreds of dissimilar systems in multiple mediums connected seamlessly, gene technology, human computer interface, extended reality, 3D printing, 4D sensors… all WILL BE NON-OPERATIONAL without the microchips controlling them. Chips - a few nanometres in size with many a terabytes in speed of operations!

- Not only the microchips must embrace niche technologies, these must be one’s own for a microchip made by an FOEM (despite all the guarantees and assurances to the contrary) always has a higher risk of an embedded malware that may sit quite for years and decades but when activated either pre-programmed or ‘on command’ can cause catastrophic damage in hundreds of different domain and scenarios, the worst of which are in crucial defence arsenal which can put a nations’ security at stake. Some examples of this were cited in the beginning.

Where is the World in Microchip Technology?

Microchip industry is on fire. The verticals on which the competition is based are size, speed of processing, energy efficiency and resistance to cyber-attacks. Every nation wants to do one better.

Talking of cyber-attacks, as recent as Aug 2022, Intel the big giant of the microchip industry announced its latest innovation of a TRC (Turntable Replica Circuit) technology in chips that can effectively block cyber-attacks based on the hardware.[8]

While the cutting edge microchips world over range from 7 to 10 nanometres NM (one billionth of a meter) the race to reduce their size is feverishly active. IBM announced way back in May 2021 that it is coming up with 2NM chip which will be as powerful[9]. There was also a report in Oct 2021 of an implantable microchip measuring less than 0.1 cubic millimetre[10] (called motes; size of a dust mite that can only be seen under a microscope!) Apple announced in Mar 2022 that its M1 Ultra microchip is the world’s most powerful chip…. The race is active.

What is the Emerging World Trend?

- Microchip is the ‘new oil’ requires no explanation.

- Chip wars is not a stuff of science fiction, it is a global war being fought; no-holds-barred.

- Countries around the world are fully aware of the net current status of over-dependence on a single country especially keeping in mind its heightened vulnerability in the current geo-political situation.

- Countries in the forefront of the microchip technologies are making huge investments to keep a grip on the niche technologies.

- There is a deliberate (read desperate) efforton the part of US to block China in closing the gap to get on to the cutting edge in the microchip technology.

Where is India?

- The first Indian industrial grade microprocessor initiative started way back in 2014 as an academic initiative by the RISE (reconfigurable intelligent system engineering) laboratory at IIT Madras. Fabricated in the semiconductor lab of ISRO, Shakti microprocessor was claimed to be ready by Nov 2018. In 2020 IIT Madras announced the successful design, fabrication and boot-up of the latest member in the Shakti family called MOUSHIK. The chip on boot said – Namaste India… a music for Atmanirbhar Bharat.[11]

- Way back in 2019, working on a project funded by MeitY, the students of IIT Bombay led by Professor Madhav Desai developed a microprocessor named AJIT all the way from concept to design, development to manufacture at the Semiconductor Laboratory (SCL) at Chandigarh. AJIT is in the 180 nanometres technology domain and has a speed of 70-120 Mhz. Its features and capabilities are comparable to other microprocessors of ‘its size’ however it is not on the cutting edge of technology today[12].

- Talking of the period 2018-2020, India was not only nowhere in the microchip manufacturing front-ranking nations, its import bill was also looking majorly northwards. For instance in the FY 2021-22, India’s semiconductor import bill increased by a whopping 65.2%, in which some 53.6% of imports came from a single source - China. What a huge vulnerability indeed!

- The Semi-Conductor Laboratory (SCL) earlier Semi-conductor Complex Limited (SCL) started out as a Govt Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) way back in 1976 as the only microprocessor manufacturing facility in India. A major fire gutted the facility on 07 Feb 1989 destroying major imported facilities. Fire could not be controlled owing to mismanagement and lack of initiative by the CISF unit[13]. That was the state then.

- SCL came under the administrative control of Department of Space (DoS) in Mar 2005 and later in Feb 2022, it was put under MeitY pursuant to a major organisational restructuring to shift focus to R&D. Today it has the capability to make micro-electronic devices in the range of 0.8 micrometres. This is planned to be improved to 0.35 micrometre technology.[14]

- Since SCL actually never positioned India where it should have really and the import bills kept sky-rocketing.

- The first thaw in this state came in Dec 2021 when the Govt approved a major investment of USD 10 bn ( 76000 Cr) with an aim to position India as a key player in the global supply chain in the domain of chip and display production. [15]

- The Govt is expecting to net some 25Bn investment worldwide to boost local manufacturing of chips and display panels. It has removed all stops. This includes the ceiling for maximum permitted investment and has assured to provide the fiscal support to cover upto 50% of Project cost for setting up semi-conductor facilities in order to boost local manufacturing of chips and display panels.[16]

- Another positive development took place in Sep 2022, when there was a welcome announcement from a Taiwanese electronics company, Foxconn to set up a domestic semiconductor facility along with an Indian conglomerate Vedanta. The facility planned in Gujarat is likely to be operational by 2024.

Path to Pride- The Power of Indian Industry

While all the above was in progress, the RFP mentioned in the caption of the article got issued. It had some prominent signatures:-

- The Govt in this RFP has actually issued a ‘dare’ to the private industry to come up with a product that could be compared to the best in the world[17].

- Far ahead of the Moushik and Ajit and miles ahead of what the SCL is doing or planning to do in the near future, this RFP calls for a product that is latest, contemporary and in the niche technology area.

- Besides everything else, the involvement of the MoD is of special significance since; it is looking for 50,000 chips for its critical defence equipment.

- Not only these are to be rugged, reliable, shock proof, vibration proof and temperature conditioned, these got to possess the security features suitable for the net-centric operations of the 21st Century.

- Own chips, with our very own source code will ensure that incidence of NO GO will not be inflicted by embedded malware when the nation’s security is at stake.

- The chips need to be supportive of AI based operations involving machine learning, cloud computing and image processing. These must possess the capability to share data on large distributed networks.

- On the security front our chips must have features that prevent intellectual property (IP) data thefts, support autonomous operation, enhance privacy and protect selected code data from disclosure

Commenting on this development, the Defence Secretary Dr Ajay Kumar has stated, quote,’ A great initiative towards Cyber Security India!! Development of Indian Microprocessor based chips would be a historic development in the history of cyber security of digital India. No more fear of embedded backdoors or malware vulnerabilities in chips which we use for our equipment. Once developed, India could be a source of secure chips in the global electronics supply chain,” unquote.[18]

Some other details about this initiative:-

- The challenge is for the design, development, manufacture, validation and deployment of two types of secure systems on chips (or SoCs – an integrated circuit that features many or all high level functions of an electronic device on a single chip).

- A family of four such SoCs named Bharat Secure Chips (BSC -1, 2,3, 4) are expected to meet the requirement of semiconductor devices in various commercial products as also in the critical defence systems. The current RFP is for BSC 1 and 2 being developed in phase 1.

- The core of the SoCs is mandated to be based on processors designed and owned by Indian entities alone. Besides design, the development and packaging must also be by an Indian entity.

- Additionally, all the design and security related IPs have also to be owned by Indian entities.

- Suffice to mention that the chips have to have all the contemporary security features. A few as picked up from the RFP document:-

  • Trusted Boot (embedded module that protects the code and critical data from changes whether malicious or inadvertent, detects and identifies when it is corrupted and provides a means to recover and restore the same).
  • True random number generation through a physical process rather than an algorithm thus providing protected random numbers for creation of cypher keys or assigning value to counters etc.
  • E-fuze memory for creating memory redundancy, chip identification and authentication.
  • Tamper detection module which makes unauthorised access easily detectable

- 50,000 of the 5 lakh chips are to be deployed on systems and equipment meant for defence forces.

- To promote indigenous development and to provide for the additional expenditure likely to be incurred in developing special security features the RFP has the following two provisions:-

o A Deployment Linked Initiative (DLI) against deployment of a designated numbers of BSCs.

o An incentive for early development of SoCs.

Bottom-line

That briefly captures the current ‘chip war’ flavour – worries of over-dependence on a single source, cut-throat competition, blocking the ‘rival’ and more.

It is heartening to see that a right kind of awareness exists in the corridors of power in India. Old technology and SCL is kind of passé today as the Govt is going whole hog in trying to acquire the microchip muscle on the indigenous route. Now that the power of the ‘Indian intellect’ is at play, the targets are not far to achieved well ahead of the RFP stipulated time of 3 and a half years for BSC 1 and 4 years for BSC 2

Endnotes

[1]Defence Ministry invites industry to make 5 lakh microchips in India,” at www.cdac.in. accessed on 19 Nov 2022
[2] “2 Charts show how much the world depends on Taiwan for Semiconductors,” at www.cnbc.com. Accessed on 19 Nov 2022.
[3] “Semiconductor Industry” at www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 19 Nov 2022
[4] “How does theUS block China from getting microchip made abroad?’ at www.washingtonpost.com. Accessed on 20 Nov 2022.
[5] “The next global tech battle will be the chip wars,” at www.forbes.com.Accessed on 20 Nov 2022.
[6] “The CHIPS and Science Act,” at www mckinsey.com.Accessed on 21 Nov 2022.
[7] “Chip War: the fight for the world’s most critical technology by Chris Miller, “ atwww.goodreads.com. Accessed on 21 Nov 2022.
[8] “Intel develops new chip technology to block hardware based cyber attacks,” at www.siliconangle.com. Accessed on 21 Nov 2022.
[9] “IBM says that it has created the world’s smallest and most powerful microchip,” at www.np-cnn-com.cdn,ampproject.otg. Accessed on 21 Nov 2022.
[10] “The world’s smallest implantable chip can save your life,” at www.popularmechnics.com. Accessed on 21 Nov 2022.
[11]IIT-Madras creates Shakti India’s first microprocessor,” at www.timesofindia.indiatimes.com.Accessed on 21 Nov 2022.
[12] ‘AJIT, a made-in-India microprocessor,” at www.iitb.ac.in.Accessed on 29 Nov 2022.
[13] “When india’s dream of becoming a semi-conductor power house was shattered,” at www.m.tribuneindia.com.Accessed on 29 Nov 2022.
[14] “semi Conductor Laboratory,” at www.en.m.wikipedis.org. Accessed on 29 Nov 2022.
[15] “India expects at least $25 Bn investment under semiconductor incentive scheme,” at www.reuters.com.Accessed on 29 Nov 2022.
[16]ibid
[17] “Request for proposal by Ministry of Electronics and Information technology Government of India..” at www.cdac.in>id=tenders,” accessed on 04 Dec 2022.
[18]1 ibid

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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