Reform DRDO, but also back it fully

Reform DRDO, but also back it fully


A parliamentary committee looking into India’s military preparedness, defence production and requirements has dealt the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) a rap on its knuckles for its underwhelming performance. The DRDO has not met expectations, the parliamentary panel has observed, calling for a “major overhaul” of the organisation.

Set up in 1958, DRDO was expected to enable India to indigenise production of its weapons requirements. But that has not happened. Its output has been embarrassingly little. This is evident from the fact that India continues to import the bulk of its military hardware. This is reason for concern, not only because these imports are very expensive. This isn’t the first time that DRDO has come under fire. Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) reports routinely haul up the organisation for its underperformance. The quality of DRDO products leaves much to be desired; its products have been rejected by the Indian armed forces. DRDO projects are notorious for their delays, too, resulting in huge cost overruns. And many DRDO projects are not fully ‘made in India.’ The Light Combat Aircraft Tejas, for instance, has been under development for far too long now and still some way from becoming fully operational with the Air Force.

Several of the criticisms levelled against the DRDO are valid. There is no denying that the DRDO needs a reset to sharpen its focus and deliver. However, we need to take into consideration the many constraints under which the DRDO has functioned, including sanctions, poor funding, etc. Over the past few years, it has been allocated around 6% of the defence budget. This is a small fraction of the funding that the DRDO’s counterparts in the US and China command. Cuts in budget allocations have forced the DRDO to cut back on some of its major projects. In these circumstances, DRDO has done reasonably well in at least some areas, especially with regard to development of missiles.

Shrinking the DRDO into a narrower regime of R&D is not the solution to the problem. Rather, it must be acknowledged that the military and other stakeholders have so far not exactly backed the DRDO wholeheartedly and consistently. The Tejas itself had to be thrust on the Air Force. This needs to change to make the DRDO more effective and productive. There are many ideas of reform that the government and DRDO authorities should consider seriously. The DRDO must be made responsible solely for R&D. Defence production could be taken out of the DRDO’s purview and put in the hands of the private sector. It is important, too, that the armed forces fully back the DRDO. They need to show clarity and vision on what they need from it. Perhaps their personnel must lead DRDO projects.