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Before redesigning DRDO, learn fully about it

Before redesigning DRDO, learn fully about it

Two DRDO veterans argue as to how it can develop future technologies if it is not involved in developing the technologies, weapons, platforms and systems of today. They warn against attempting fundamental changes without a full understanding of the DRDO’s role, capabilities and track record so far.

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Last Updated : 02 May 2024, 00:25 IST
Last Updated : 02 May 2024, 00:25 IST
Last Updated : 02 May 2024, 00:25 IST
Last Updated : 02 May 2024, 00:25 IST
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The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) makes news often with public announcements of its achievements, drawing the admiration of many Indians. There are also discordant voices at times, casting doubts on DRDO’s capabilities. It is time to tell the story objectively and in public. In full disclosure, the authors state that we have been intimately associated with DRDO for many decades and that we have had little to do with DRDO since our superannuation nearly two decades back. We believe our article to be credible because the arguments are evidence-based. 

When the DRDO was established under the Ministry of Defence in 1958, the development mandate of the organisation was limited to import substitution of components. The annual budget was meagre, with a very little foreign exchange component. When the Department of Defence R&D came into being in 1978, the emphasis was restated in favour of indigenous development of complete systems and weapon platforms. An increase in budget allocations came in the mid-1980s, taking it closer to 5% of the defence budget. A cluster of major weapon system development projects such as guided missiles, main battle tank Arjun, multi-barrel rocket launchers, the Tejas fighter aircraft and an Aerial Early Warning System for the IAF, torpedoes and sonars for the Navy, UAVs, radars, communication systems and Electronic Warfare systems were taken up by the DRDO during the 1980s and 1990s, responding to the felt needs of the Services. 

It is a matter of record and great satisfaction that most of these development programmes succeeded and their outputs found their place in the Indian arsenal, through serial production in the defence PSUs such as HAL, BEL, BDL and the Ordnance Factories. However, many of the development projects exceeded the timelines stipulated, causing problems in induction plans of the Services. Despite some dissatisfaction on this count, it is a fact that the cumulative value of these first-generation weapons and systems accepted by the Services between the years 2000 and 2020 exceeded Rs 3 lakh crore, and climbing. 

The imperative of indigenous development from the financial angle and for the skills and employment generation in the country is obvious. A little less obvious is the fact that the technology and systems development capabilities of DRDO has helped to make India “a smart buyer” when the need arises.    

To get a good overall assessment of where DRDO has arrived in 2024, we only need to note the highlights which made an impact on the minds of the people at large as well as the leadership of the country over the last 5 years

In April 2024, India delivered the first batch of BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles to Philippines under a $375-million deal concluded in 2022. All the 3 Services in India are already equipped with BrahMos, the product of a joint venture between DRDO/India and Russia.

In March 2024, DRDO performed a spectacular technological feat with the successful test-flight of the Agni-5 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a strike range of more than 5,000 km and equipped with Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) technology. Prime Minister Narendra Modi publicly lauded the efforts of DRDO.

The Annual Report of the Ministry of Defence lists a dozen successful test flights and other events concerning indigenous guided missiles during the year 2022 alone. They include Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) from the nuclear-powered submarine INS Arihant, Ballistic Missile Defence interceptor AD-1 missile, Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle, and others. 

Earlier, in March 2019, Prime Minister Modi surprised the world with his announcement that India had become the fourth country in the world to conduct an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test to destroy an orbiting  satellite kinetically (that is, by direct collision).

In January 2021, the procurement of 73 LCA Tejas Mk-1A fighter aircraft and 10 Trainer aircraft at a cost of Rs 46,000 crore was approved by the Union Cabinet. Then then IAF Chief R K S Bhadauria asserted that the DRDO/HAL Tejas is far better than the Chinese-Pakistani JF-17 fighter jets. In December 2023, a second deal for 97 additional Tejas fighters was cleared by the Defence Acquisition Council. In April 2023, HAL inaugurated a third production line for the Tejas at Nashik, increasing annual production capacity. All this from the seeds sown by DRDO in 1980s.

DRDO developed Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AEW&CS) Netra played a crucial role during the Balakot strike in 2019. Following the induction of the first system in 2017, subsequent acquisition of the second and third Netra systems by the IAF is a testimony to the programme’s success. 

In November 2020, DRDO successfully flight-tested the enhanced version of Pinaka, the multi-barrel rocket launcher (MBRL) system used by the Indian Army and which saw combat action in Kargil in 1999. In August 2020, the government signed a Rs 2,580 crore contract with Tata Power Company, L&T and Bharat Earth Movers Limited for supplying six regiments of Pinaka Mk I MBRL systems to the Indian Army, to be delivered by 2024 

What of the crucial subsystems, components and materials which render these systems truly indigenous? 

Many accomplishments such as the test flight of the Autonomous Flying Wing Technology Demonstrator (2023) (a big step towards the realisation of combat UAVs of the future), the Uttam Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar (AESAR) Fire Control System for Tejas Mk2 and other frontline fighters of the IAF, and many other such systems can be counted. The DRDO achieved an important milestone in the development of Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system for submarines by proving the land-based prototype in March 2021, to enhance the submerged endurance of diesel–electric submarines. A contract has been signed with a major Indian engineering industry to build two AIP system modules for Indian Navy submarines. The aircraft carrier INS Vikrant and other frigates  make extensive use of the special grade steels developed by the DRDO. The technology developed by DRDO for naval grade plates was adopted successfully by the Rourkela Steel Plant (RSP) and supplied to the naval constructors in thousands of tonnes.

Thus, one sees DRDO as a vibrant S&T organisation of long standing and a great track record of delivery, focussed on carrying out its mandate of helping the Armed Forces to become more and more technologically self-reliant and adapting itself to the new milieu of international cooperation, Indian private industry participation and creative interactions with the academia.

Despite all these contributions over the last three decades, one is not surprised to see an amount of discordant criticism of DRDO’s performance in the public space, unmindful of the actual track record. It is natural for a public-funded institution in a free and open society to be subjected to scrutiny, even criticism, whether deserved or due to information gaps. Citizens are quite justified to be concerned about why India should continue to depend heavily on imports for defence. Of course, we cannot lose sight of the global arms bazaar and other vested interests – those who stand to lose significantly if indigenous development succeeds -- and their role in generating and propagating erroneous perceptions.

The questions and criticisms can and should be answered, and improvements brought about by persistent efforts, with more objectivity on all sides, better communication, and national policy affirmation favouring self-reliance.

That is why one is astonished, even shocked, to see the recommendations of a recent expert committee constituted by the Ministry of Defence under the chairmanship of a former Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India on “Redesigning DRDO.” Going by what has appeared in the media so far, the committee recommends many radical changes.

At the outset, everyone would be glad to see the recommendation of the committee regarding the creation of a ‘Defence Technology Council’ under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister, conveying the importance and urgency of the Atmanirbharta mission in defence systems procurement. Similarly, the recommendation regarding empowering DRDO to undertake even more forward-looking research would be welcomed by many.

However, quite astonishingly, the report proceeds to recommend fundamental changes in the well-proven structure and mandate of DRDO, without throwing any light on what actually is the shortcoming in the existing system. One is surprised to see the measurable accomplishments of DRDO and the Department of Defence Production over the last five decades brushed aside casually as “some achievements.” Worse, the report appends the presentation made by DRDO to the committee highlighting its achievements amidst the challenges and distances itself from it with the statement that the committee does not endorse the DRDO presentation. It is difficult to believe that any good review can come out of such adversarial attitudes.  

The creation of a new ‘Department of Technology and Innovation’ within the Ministry of Defence has been recommended without explaining why the existing Department of Defence R&D and the Department of Defence Production are not adequate to promote and manage a larger involvement of MSMEs, Indian corporates and foreign companies. The committee restricts DRDO’s role to carrying out frontier research of relevance to futuristic goals in defence application, displaying a lack of comprehension of what it takes to navigate the waters of research, development and production of defence systems. 

It is not our case that Indian industry cannot be entrusted with this entire chain of responsibilities. Many big and medium-scale industries are already engaged successfully in these activities for over three decades, with the full support of DRDO. There is certainly a strong case for the Indian industry to take up full responsibility for the development and production of select projects, based on objective assessment of capabilities. That is the way to go in the long run. How does one determine that we have arrived there already, without analysis of evidence and realistic planning? To exclude the DRDO and its decades of experience in defence systems development is to commit hara-kiri with national security. 

It is also not understandable how one can consider redesigning the “defence technology ecosystem” without due attention to the issues concerning forward planning and requirements formulation in weapons and systems acquisition by the Services, budgetary allocations on a long-term basis, role and utilisation of existing defence production infrastructure, and many other issues. And how would the new system interface and interact with the Defence Acquisition Board under the Raksha Mantri and the Defence Procurement Policy, evolved through painstaking efforts over the last 20 years?

Regrettably, the recommendations of the committee on reconfiguring a scientific institution like the DRDO into 10 national laboratories, and other such statements, disclose a strong preference to pre-determined ideas, with little inclination to analyse the root causes of what keeps India in the top place in the global arms importers list for over a decade now. We hope earnestly that the government will decide the course of action keeping in mind the moral of the wise fable about the goose that lays golden eggs. 

(Dr Narayanan was formerly Director, Aeronautical Development Establishment, and Chief Adviser, DRDO; Dr Aatre was formerly Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister and Secretary, Department of Defence R&D)

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