Money Over Matter | Coming of Age

DRDO takes baby steps towards adulthood and higher challenges

January 2017 may well turn out to be a month of redemption for the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) on two counts. First, with the successful test firing of long range guided Pinaka rocket on January 24, DRDO proved its competence to develop advanced weapon systems. Executed in close collaboration between the public and the private sectors, it may well become a trend-setter for the development of more complex systems.

Secondly, at the Republic Day Parade, DRDO proudly showcased Medium Powered Radar Arudhra and 155mm X 52 calibre Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS). ATAGS is an indigenous field artillery marvel. With a range of 35 km for boat tailed and 45 km for base bleed ERFB ammunition, the gun system is configured with all electric drive technology, a first of its kind in the world. Once again, right from the inception of the project, two private sector majors were involved in every phase of development.

Hopefully, these successes will not prove to be flashes in the pan and be a harbinger of the development of many more state-of-the-art weapon systems, thereby reducing dependence on imports.

It is time India gets rid of the disgraceful stigma of being the largest importer of conventional weapons in the world. Many hold DRDO responsible for India’s failure to develop an indigenous defence technology base. Its failure to create, stimulate and nurture an environment of innovations has resulted in a disappointing performance of the Indian defence industry.

Innovation implies an active and exploratory crusade that seeks to better existing products, processes and systems. It is considered to be a dynamic catalyst to progress and is a key step in the pentad of growth (improvisation, improvement, upgradation, innovation and invention). Whereas improvisation and limited improvement can be undertaken by the users; major improvement and upgradation can be carried out by the production agencies. However, innovation and invention are the functions of research and development (R&D).

Unfortunately, rather than operating in the challenging realms of innovations and inventions, DRDO had earlier chosen the easier path of delving in improvisation, reverse engineering and indigenisation of imported equipment. Resultant neglect of genuine R&D work resulted in its failure to acquire the necessary scientific outlook. Consequently, DRDO came to be identified with tall claims, prolonged delays and sub-optimal performance. Landmark development projects of Arjun MBT, Kaveri aero-engine and Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) brought no credit to DRDO.

Potential Belied
The Technical Development Establishment of the Indian Army and the Directorate of Technical Development & Production were merged with the Defence Science Organisation to create DRDO in 1958. The objective was to have a single unified agency to handle all defence R&D activities.

The mission statement of DRDO has three objectives – to design, develop and lead to production state-of-the-art sensors, weapon systems, platforms and allied equipment for our defence services; to provide technological solutions to the services to optimize combat effectiveness and to promote well-being of the troops; and to develop infrastructure and committed quality manpower and build strong indigenous technology base.

To start with, DRDO was a small organisation with 10 establishments/laboratories. Growing rapidly over the years, DRDO presently has a network of 46 laboratories in 25 cities. Now, DRDO is India’s biggest R&D organisation with the largest pool of scientific manpower. It has a total strength of 25,148 employees with 7,549 scientists and the rest in technical/support cadres.

Director General DRDO heads the organisation. He is also secretary department of defence R&D. Prior to 2015; he was performing the duties of scientific advisor to the defence minister as well. Functioning of DRDO has been grouped into seven technology clusters – Aeronautical Systems; Armaments and Combat Engineering; Electronics and Communication Systems; Life Sciences; Micro Electronic Devices and Computational Systems; Missiles and Strategic Systems; and Naval Systems and Materials. Each cluster functions under a separate DG Cluster.

In addition, DRDO has three human resource institutions, three certification agencies and four research boards. Also, it has an autonomous body (Aeronautical Development Agency), one joint venture (Brahmos) and one deemed university (Defence Institute of Advance Technology).

Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS) on display at Republic Day parade 2017
Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS) on display at Republic Day parade 2017

It is generally believed that there are three primary reasons for DRDO’s failure to deliver – absence of accountability, lack of focus and failure to develop scientific disposition. DRDO is not answerable to anyone. There is no external audit. Escalation in costs and deferment of completion dates are taken for granted. Although most promises of indigenous products in the required time frame remain unfulfilled, no one has ever been taken to task for misleading the defence services, at times with grave consequences.

With assured career progression and a total absence of accountability, all functionaries were safe in the knowledge that they would never be called upon to justify their performance. This had emboldened them to mark time to earn pension and seek reemployment thereafter. Although it prevented infusion, retention and blossoming of young talent, DRDO hierarchy remained totally unconcerned.

Many believe that DRDO’s failure in high-tech areas has resulted in a crisis of identity and a total lack of focus. It lost sight of its primary responsibility and resorted to delving in infructuous work to justify its existence. It forgot that it had been created solely for the armed forces and funded through the defence budget.

Recent Reforms and Welcome Signs of Turn Around
It was in February 2001 that the Group of Ministers on National Security had, in their report submitted to the Prime Minister, advised DRDO ‘to focus more on core technologies, in which expertise is neither available within the country nor can be procured from alternative sources’.

The Standing Committee of Defence in its 14th Report had reviewed the functioning of DRDO. It expressed its unhappiness at the non-achievement of indigenisation targets and faulted DRDO for its failure to achieve self-reliance objectives. The committee expressed its strong disapproval of DRDO venturing into fields unrelated to crucial defence research work and wanted it to concentrate on fundamental R&D for producing systems for strategic requirement of the armed forces. It suggested shedding of research work in the field of life sciences to other agencies.

The Kelkar Committee Report of 2005 also recommended that DRDO should fully focus on cutting edge technology researches. It wanted DRDO to confine itself to projects requiring sophisticated technology of strategic, complex and security sensitive nature.

Consequent to the above, a committee was set up under the chairmanship of Dr P Rama Rao in February 2007 ‘to review the present organisational structure and to recommend necessary changes in the institutional, managerial, administrative and financial structures for improving the functioning of DRDO’. It was to be the first ever external review of DRDO. After the examination of Rama Rao Committee Report by the Defence Secretary, restructuring of DRDO was announced by MoD in mid-May 2010.

Many considered DRDO to be beyond redemption and suggested it’s winding up. But that would have been an imprudent step. India could not afford to waste the massive infrastructure built over the years as also fritter away the technical pool gathered.

Pinaka MBRL
Pinaka MBRL

The government rightly decided to initiate reforms to make DRDO deliver. Some steps have already been undertaken and the results are easily discernible. With a view to focus on the core areas, the number of projects has been reduced from 500 to 250. The project management system has been streamlined by enhancing the time and effort for pre-project activities. Detailed feasibility studies have been mandated to reduce project execution risks. Stringent techno-managerial reviews have been introduced to ensure timely completion of development activities. Stress is being laid on quality, reliability and safety aspects.

DRDO is undertaking two types of projects. Projects initiated on formal request of the defence services are generally taken up as Mission Mode projects and given top priority. Development of ATAGS was undertaken under this category. In addition, there are technology demonstration projects where the deliverables expected are generally limited to prototypes, with a view to develop and demonstrate a specific technology. In addition, DRDO grants projects to academic institutes, thereby financially supporting several researchers and upgrading infrastructure towards mission ‘Skill India’. With a budget of Rs 12,491.21 crore for the financial year 2015-16, DRDO successfully completed 69 projects costing Rs 2,145 crore while 57 new projects costing 1589 crore were taken in hand.

Some of the major projects completed in 2015 include high power ultra wide band electromagnetic weapon, heavy drop system, sub-munition warheads for Pinaka, high speed heavy weight ship launched torpedo, anti-torpedo decoy system, dual colour missile approach warning system for fighter aircraft, upgradation of tropo-scatter communication system, advanced jammer technologies, Ku-band transmitter for airborne radar and NBC technologies. Infrastructure projects include setting up of state-of-the-art test facilities for radar cross-section and antenna measurement, flying test bed, advanced material centre and extreme altitude research centre.

The Way Forward
DRDO should become a more focused body. All laboratories engaged in unrelated activities must be shed. Manpower policies must be corrected to acquire a younger profile. Young talent must be retained through better career prospects and freedom of professional pursuits. As desired by the Prime Minister, some laboratories must be headed by bright young scientists.

Additionally, DRDO must be subjected to performance audit regularly. It should be held responsible for the claims that it makes. A strong accountability system is indispensable. It not only raises the bar of efficiency but also breeds a culture of responsibility. Certain failures and delays are inherent in all R&D works and must be accepted as justified risks. However, DRDO must not be able to get away with tall claims which it knows are totally outside the realm of possibility.

Close interaction with industry and academia should be institutionalised through the creation of standing bodies as regular interface, both through formal and informal contacts, for continuous exchange of views. Concurrently, DRDO should remember the fact that innovations are driven primarily by small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Therefore, it should facilitate greater interaction and collaboration with all participants – prime contractors, sub-contractors and SMEs.

Consortium approach should be explored for design, development and fabrication of critical components. Review and appraisal of all ongoing projects must be carried out periodically to monitor the progress, make changes or even close them if considered unviable. Concurrent engineering approach should be adopted in technology intensive projects to minimise time-lag between development and production.

International collaboration will help DRDO to close the technology gap. Rather than starting from the basics, it should acquire latest technologies, master them and use them as a jump-board for further refinements. However, import of technologies both through partnerships and under offset programmes must be handled with due care. Their absorption must be closely monitored.

An open architecture which allows ‘plug and play’ should be created to ensure seamless incorporation of evolving technologies for defence systems. Every innovator should be able to approach a designated DRDO authority to share his ideas, howsoever radical they may appear at the outset. If considered exploitable after due appraisal, the said authority could refer the proposal to the concerned laboratory for evaluation and insertion. If required, the innovator could be provided all assistance to further develop and refine his idea to make it useable. Such an arrangement ensures concurrent exploitation of developing technologies.

Neglect of R&D means stagnation, languishment and decay. In the case of defence systems, sustained R&D acquires added criticality due to rapid obsolescence. Defence technologies develop at an exponential pace and obsolete technologies render a nation vulnerable to external threats.

DRDO should never forget that it exists exclusively for the development of defence systems. Satisfaction of the services is a true measure of its success. Therefore, it should concentrate exclusively on strategic, complex and security sensitive systems, especially those which are likely to be circumscribed by denial regimes. India’s aspirations of achieving self-sufficiency in defence equipment rest on DRDO’s performance. It cannot let the country down.