From Imports to Exports

The DARPA model of R&D can transform Indian defence industrial complex

Y.H. Gharpure

According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), four out of top five arms exporting companies in the world are based in the United States, which has the world’s largest military industrial complex. Out of USD 2.2 trillion factory output in US, 10 per cent is defence production sold mainly to defence department.

The military industrial complex has been developing new weapons and protective gears of a variety of types and range through research efforts by dedicated scientists and engineers. This has enabled the US to become a super-power not only militarily but also economically.

While the above is the current status of the US defence preparedness, such was not the situation in the past. Until the US’ joining of World War II in September 1939, the US defence preparedness was minimal. However, through the efforts of General Crowell and others and emphasis from President Franklin Roosevelt that America must be arsenal of democracy, by the time the war ended, the US was producing thousands of tanks, fighter aircraft and ships, in addition to millions of tons of munitions. The Air Force Plant 31 in Michigan was, by the end of the war, producing a B-24 bomber every 55 minutes. Such dramatic defence production was possible as a result of the efforts of the American Ordinance Association led by General Crowell.

Apart from efforts of US Ordnance Department, NASA, National Defence Industrial Association (NDIA) etc., there is one organisation which played a major role in creating the US Military Industrial Complex. It was the Defence Advance Research Project Agency (DARPA). We shall review below the important role DARPA.

DARPA is under department of defence and is responsible for development of emerging technologies for the military. Its objective is to conceive, develop and demonstrate breakthrough technologies relevant to national security needs. It’s roles further involve transition of these technologies into working capabilities to enable new tactical and strategic possibilities. These include systems like synthetic aperture radar, ground moving target indication, advance communications, data networks development etc., routinely used by today’s fighters. Such technologies enable unprecedented understanding as to how adversarial forces are moving. Stealth revolution is another feather in the cap of DARPA. It has also developed electro-optical infra-red sensors, components for miniaturized Global Positioning Systems (GSP), micro electromechanical systems and advance command and control technologies etc. which had resulted in revolutionizing military targeting.

Mission of DARPA over the last 60 years was to make a strategic investment in breakthrough technologies for US’ security. The birth of DARPA however was due to a different provocation. It was the launch of Sputnik by USSR in 1957 which gave strategic technological surprises to the US and woke it up to initiate action to prevent the US from becoming victim of strategic technological surprises.

The objective was to achieve spectacular results by working with innovators inside and outside the government and accepting revolutionary concepts and transforming systems impossible to achieve into practical capabilities and realities. It is out of the same spirit that game-changing military capabilities such as precision weapons and stealth technologies were developed. In addition to internet, automated voice recognition, language translation and global positioning, systems were developed not only for defence but also for civilian use. DARPA believes in bringing about transformational changes as against incremental changes. Such changes however are brought about by collaborative efforts of the academic, corporate and governmental agencies. brought together in an innovative echo system created by DARPA.

All the above has been achieved with only 220 government employees in six technical offices including 100 programme managers. Three essential, interdependent strategic objectives of DARPA are demonstrating breakthrough capabilities for national security, catalysing a differentiated and highly capable technology base; and to remain robust and vibrant to deliver on its mission.

To achieve above, DARPA interacts with a plethora of agencies to foster a novel relationship based on a win-win situation for all stakeholders. In a thesis titled, ‘Study of the DARPA model and its applicability to the Indian Defence Research and Development System’ as part of the Manekshaw Papers, Bikramdeep Singh lists the salient features of the DAPRA model as:

  • Small, Flexible and Flat Organisation
  • Autonomy and Freedom from Bureaucratic Impediments
  • Eclectic Team
  • World-Class Technical Staff and Performers
  • Teams and Networks
  • Hiring Continuity and Change
  • Project-based Assignments Organised Around a Challenge Model
  • Outsourced Support Personnel
  • Outstanding Programme Managers (PMs)
  • Acceptance of Failure
  • Orientation to Revolutionary Breakthroughs in a Connected approach; and
  • Mix of Connected Collaborators

At any time, DARPA oversee around 250 research and development programmes. The key factor is identifying, recruiting and supporting excellent programme managers and extraordinary individuals who are top in their field and are hungry for opportunities to push the limits of their disciplines. These leaders are from academia, industry and government agencies inducted for limited stints of around three to five years.

Deadlines fuel the success of DARPA. It continuously scans deep science in selected fields, communicating the same to the leaders in scientific and engineering community for them to identify challenges and find potential solutions. No wonder, the United States is the global leader in cutting edge technologies which are precise and more powerful than anything available anywhere in the world.

A few of these examples include Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), High Performance RF Arrays, Cognitive Electronic Warfare, Finding Nuclear and Radiological Threats, Submarine Detect and Track, Highly Autonomous Unmanned Ship, Cyber Operations Assessment of Information Operations, and Deep Data Analysis for Stability Operations.


Indian Defence Industry

While the US is the largest producer of arms, India is among the largest importers at USD 18 billion. This is in spite of the very large defence production facilities led by the Defence Research and Development Organisation. It currently has 70 projects—making almost all major conventional weapon systems and platforms such as rifles and machine guns, tanks and fighter air crafts, airborne early warning and control system, aircraft carrier and wide array of missiles including surface to air, surface to surface and sub surface use.

Currently, DRDO claims to be working on 530 R&D projects worth Rs 48,000 crores. It claims to have developed products/ technologies worth around Rs 175,000 crores. However, DRDO has more misses than hits to its credit. The credit includes conventional missile programme’s relative success. But most projects are hit by delay and cost overrun.

It has 52 laboratories. It partners with 40 academic institutions, 15 national science and technology agencies, 50 public sector undertakings including nine defence public sector undertakings and 40 ordnance factories over and above its own huge set up. In addition, 250 private sector industries are also associated for meeting DRDO’s requirements as also 1,500 small and medium enterprises supplying 20-25 per cent defence components.

In spite of such massive resources, India is self-reliant to meet its defence requirement to the extent of only 30-35 per cent, that too not of great strategic importance. DRDO has much to answer for its performance. The ambitious programme is not backed up by organisational structure and methodology like DARPA. Further, DRDO, being totally a government organisation is dominated by generalists and bureaucrats with no expertise in defence production. They always go by rules, reviews, screenings, scrutiny, committees, centralised control, delays, doubts, caution, indecision, inaction, suspicion, friction, lack of communication etc., which is endemic to the Indian bureaucracy with the result that there are enormous delays and cost overruns. The end product developed is globally out of date thereby forcing the defence services to import the latest and the most advanced defence hardware and systems.


Comparative Analysis of DARPA and DRDO

A comparative analysis of DARPA and DRDO throws up startling facts. Both organisations were established in 1958. The DRDO’s annual budget is Rs 10,253.17 crore (USD 1.8 billion) as compared to DARPA, which has a budget of USD 2.8 billion. DRDO has a workforce of approximately 7,000 scientists and 25,000 technical staff and support personnel as compared to DARPA which has only 240-odd personnel, including 140 technical staff.

DRDO has a dedicated state-of-the-art laboratory infrastructure comprising a network of 52 laboratories as compared to DARPA which operates through academia, corporate and government laboratories. DARPA had field stations (DARPA Forward Cells in Combat Commands) like in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they try emerging technologies and get direct feedback from forward troops and Combat Commands on the military application. This also instils user confidence in equipment delivered by DARPA apart from being involved in future technologies. DARPA participates actively in the conduct of field trials.

The Director, DARPA reports to the secretary of defence and DoD through the director of defence research and engineering and under-secretary defence for acquisition, while the Director General (DG), DRDO is directly under and is nominated as Scientific Advisor to the defence minister. The DRDO has command and control model.

While DARPA and DRDO were established around the same time, DARPA has moved far ahead and established global benchmarks in defence R&D while DRDO is burdened with increased bureaucracy, endemic cost and time overruns, high expenditure on defence R&D, low risk-taking appetite and virtually no accountability to the Services.

DARPA projects typically last three to five years while some DRDO projects span over two to three decades. It was to address the DRDO shortcomings that Kelkar (2005) and Rama Rao (2008) committees were appointed to study the DARPA models of which latter committee report was accepted.


Rama Rao Committee Report

The salient aspects of the report were:

  • Establishment of a Defence Technology Commission (DTC) chaired by the Hon’ble RM and supported by a Secretariat located at DRDO HQ. The Secretariat was to be composed of both DRDO scientists and the three Service Chiefs and Chief of Integrated Defence Staff (CIDS).
  • Decentralisation of DRDO management by forming seven technology domain-based centres under DG Centres. The DRDO Management Council was to be headed by the DRDO Chairman with seven DG Centres and four CC (R&D) at DRDO HQ besides an Additional FA (R&D) under him.
  • Making DRDO a leaner organisation by merging some laboratories with other similar public funded institutions.
  • Revamping of the entire Human Resource (HR) structure of DRDO by appointing a reputed HR expert as consultant.
  • Establishing a commercial arm of DRDO with seed capital of Rs 10 crore.
  • Industry players to be selected through a transparent process to increase private participation in DRDO activities.
  • Have mechanism to ensure accountability of individual laboratory Directors while ensuring full autonomy to laboratories for Science and Technology (S&T) initiatives.
  • Five per cent of the DRDO budget for three years to be allocated for rejuvenating research.

According to the 2015 PIB release, all the above recommendations to the extent possible have been implemented and others are in various stages of approval. However, recommendation to create Board of Research for Advanced Defence Sciences (BRADS), an DARPA type organisation, was not accepted.

It is not that the government is not aware of the above situation of R&D in India in general and of very little productivity of DRDO in particular. Certain steps have been taken to remedy the situation. For example, in the month of June 2021, government of India decided to scrap the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) created by British in 1775 and instead, the 41 factories under the OFB will now be coming under seven public sector companies. Some of the important projects DRDO has been working and their current status is worth review. For example, the Arjun Tank project was started in 1974 and is ongoing. Tejas project was started in 1983 and has shown some success only now. The same is the story in most of the other projects.


Time for an Indian DARPA

India needs a DARPA type set up for defence to take a quantum leap in identifying and developing cutting edge technologies in defence which can meet challenging defence requirements. It will overcome the shortcomings of the various government R&D organisations working in silos. R&D is multi-disciplinary and requires interaction between various laboratories, both locally and globally, including industry and universities to create an eco-system.

DARPA currently is focused on mathematics, synthetic biology, neuro-technology and so on. India too has to develop similar approach for development of defence technologies. Indian DARPA can be a platform for interaction between technology providers and users. What is required is to recruit new people with new ideas all the time who are not bound by archaic thinking. They should be people having risk taking culture and are willing to come for a period of up to three to five years. These are the reasons for its marvellous performance in stealth technology, computing and communications, microelectronics for surveillance and reconnaissance.

Indian DARPA should be mission-oriented agency with a focus on projects not programmes. It should combine basis research, applied research, development and demonstration to a ‘mixed risk’ portfolio. Programme managers should have the technical and fiscal authority to steer efforts which are more important than money. They should also have strong connection with the user community. Deliverables are more than reports.

Indian DARPA’S approach to innovation strategy should involve flexibility, ability to quickly exploit emerging situations with the highest priority, emphasis on high technical risk, high focus investments, competition for ideas, reward for quality performance. It should be an investment firm, not an R&D lab. It should methodically search for and exploit externally generated ideas; and pproactive programme management.

It should be a flat, small organisation with no long-term investments in facilities or themes. It should constantly rotate its programmes, programme managers and directors (provided by industry, other government agencies, customers). It should have highly flexible contracting and hiring capabilities.

If an organisation similar to DARPA is created and run successfully in India, even other national goals like health solution, food security, urbanization hassles etc. can be addressed apart from defence. After an in-depth study of the DARPA model and its performance over last several decades, we must adapt it to Indian conditions and ethos. However, the objectives of such organization would be to identify and create cutting edge technologies relevant to India’s needs. The onus will then be on the Indian industry to exploit such technologies and in the process create India’s own Military Industrial Complex. This will meet India’s own defence requirement and also enable major export of defence hardware globally.

Interestingly, Indian-origin Arti Prabhakar headed DARPA from 2012 to 2017. On 24 February 2016, she submitted a paper for the five-year plan of DARPA proposing the following:

  • Cognitive Electronic Warfare (EW)
  • Accurate, Specific Disease Diagnostics on the Spot
  • New Tools to Fight Ebola

DARPA has been able to deliver on the above projects, thanks to its commitment to identify, recruit and support extraordinary individuals as managers who are at the top of their fields and hungry for opportunity to push the limits of their disciplines. This is clearly a model worth emulating.



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