Few days back I read an article where the present Director of DRDO, Mr. V.K.Saraswat stated that Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) cannot force to sell their products to the armed forces, thereby they should not be blamed if their productivity is low as they do not get the necessary support from the Indian defense! I personally feel that this is an emotional statement rather than a strategic one, coming from a man who heads one of the costliest ‘albatross of the neck’ of the Indian government. After all these years, there has hardly been any equipment which DRDO has developed in the promised timeframe and conforming to the accepted parameters. It has been a chronicle of false claims, tall promises, inexplicable delays and sub-optimal products. The only success it has to its credit relates to replication of some imported products (commonly called ‘reverse engineering’ and ‘indigenisation’). And still it expects the armed forces to buy its sub standard equipments, using which they are supposed to protect the nation!!!
DRDO has 51 laboratories with 5,000 scientists and over 25,000 support personnel. Which means that for every scientist, there are 50 support staff!! The magnitude of overstaffing in such a niche organization is a matter of concern. After all, their salaries are being born by burning holes in the honest tax-payer’s pockets. DRDO has an annual budget of around Rs. 6500 crores (this year statistics), and it still asks for more. Since the year of its inception, there is not a single major or minor product, barring an excellent sonar system and the INSAS rifle that has found usage in the armed forces. The case of the notorious ‘Arjun’ tank, whose delivery date has been delayed by 26 years puts DRDO capabilities to lead the nation’s defence research program into question. In short, the Indian armed forces have been forced to do with less, and suffered more, because of the inadequacies of the DRDO. Though it has been subjected to a lot of criticism, no attempt has been made to identify the underlying reasons for its lackadaisical track record. There are three primary reasons that have led to this sorry state – lack of accountability, lack of focus and failure to develop scientific disposition.
Right from its inception, the main thrust of DRDO has been on empire-building and construction of facilities rather than developing a scientific temper. Every DRDO establishment boasts of world-class auditoriums, convention centres, conference halls and hostels. A major part of its budget is spent on activities unrelated to real research work. Glossy brochures and meaningless seminars consume considerable resources. Mediocrity thrives due to propensity for non-scientific activities. Rather than concentrating on a few selected fields, DRDO has expanded its scope of activities to beyond manageable limits. It has a laboratory at Tezpur (Assam) where orchids and mushrooms are grown for research. The said laboratory prides itself for having identified the sharpest chilli in the world. Another defence laboratory located at Pithoragarh is engaged in the development of hybrid varieties of cucumber, tomato and capsicum. It is also trying to develop new strains of Angora rabbits. Amongst its claimed achievement is production of ‘Namkeen Herbal Tea’. Expending of defence budget on such irrelevant activities defies logic and reveals a total lack of focus. Many feel that DRDO’s failure in high-tech areas has resulted in a crisis of identity – it has lost sight of its primary responsibility and resorted to delving in fruitless work to justify its existence.
There is a total lack of accountability as DRDO is not answerable to anyone. Director General of DRDO is also Secretary Defence R&D. In addition, he performs the functions of Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister. Thus he wears three hats. Therefore, no questions are ever asked. Escalation in costs and deferment of completion dates are taken for granted. In 1997, India was on the verge of signing a contract for the import of Weapon Locating Radars (WLR) when DRDO intervened to scuttle the deal with claims that it would develop and produce them in two years. India went into the Kargil conflict without WLR and suffered many casualties due to its failure to neutralise Pakistan artillery effectively. Incidentally, DRDO has not been able to produce WLR to date and India had to buy WLR from the same previously selected producer in 2003. DRDO should have been held accountable for knowingly making false claims and the resultant loss of precious lives. But no such action has ever been contemplated. There are numerous such cases, where DRDO has pumped in loads of money for a project, which has never seen the light of the day. The jawans in Kashmir were compelled to design their own steel plated patka, or headgear, in place of the helmet, which is awkward in insurgency firefights. The paramilitary devised their own light armoured vehicles, and the DRDO’s heavy steel bulletproof vest was no less cumbersome than medieval armour. For 20 years, the armed forces have been tackling improvised explosive devices and mines. But the DRDO has only recently, after 9/11, discovered robotic systems to do the job. The Arjun tank that is being displayed for the past 15 years is not a dummy. But it has come into limited service in the army riding on the back of a political fiat. For the second time in its history, the army has a tank it cannot allow, in good conscience, to be sent into battle in a real war. Its antiquated rifled barrel main gun cannot fire missiles, and is not optimal for fin-stabilised anti-tank munitions. Worse, the Arjun’s sophisticated (German origin) pneumatic suspension system is fed nitrogen gas through pipes that are, to put it delicately, not protected by its armour, and hence even small-arms fire can bring the 58-tonne monster to a grinding halt. Even today, the country’s air defence system is severely hampered by the DRDO’s failure to produce the ‘Trishul’ and ‘Akash’ surface-to-air missiles. All vital areas across the country, as well as combat formations and the naval fleet, are protected by a multi-layered air defence system. The first layer is fighter aircraft of the IAF, which seek to either destroy enemy air bases or shoot down their aircraft when they enter our air-space. If these aircraft get through, they hit the second layer, which has Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMS) with ranges from 2-30 km. Since the Seventies, Soviet-origin missiles with specific variants for the army, navy and air force did this job. The ‘Trishul’ and ‘Akash’ were designed to replace these systems beginning from the mid-Nineties. It is now 2010 and the missiles are not there, which means 50 of our cities and industrial zones are more vulnerable than they should be to air attack, as are our armed forces.
In 2005, the Kelkar Committee recommended an integrated approach involving users, Ministry of Defence and the industry. It wanted DRDO to confine itself to projects requiring sophisticated technology of strategic, complex and security sensitive nature. It further recommended outsourcing of high technology research and development work to private sector on the lines of parallel development on cost-sharing basis. Consequent to the acceptance of the Kelkar Committee recommendations, the Government introduced major policy changes in Defence Procurement Procedure. In Defence Procurement Procedure – 2006, the role of DRDO has been redefined as follows -:
• R&D Functions.
• Development of strategic, complex and security sensitive systems.
• The related technologies will be futuristic and sophisticated in nature. These technologies are likely to be circumscribed by denial regimes and hence would need to be developed indigenously.
• Advisory Functions.
• Assist HQ Integrated Defence Staff in categorisation of proposals as per the technologies sought in Preliminary Services Qualitative Requirements (PSQR) formulated by the concerned service HQ.
• Help Integrated Project Management Teams (IPMT) constituted by Acquisition Wing in the formulation of Project Definition Document.
• Analyse DPR and facilitate identification of competent production agencies.
• Monitoring Functions.
• Assist in monitoring during design and prototype development phases.
• In case of unsatisfactory progress, recommend adoption of exit procedure to abort the project.
It can be seen that as regards R&D activities, DRDO is mandated to restrict itself to the development of strategic, complex and security sensitive systems. All other R&D activities have been put outside its domain. In the light of DRDO’s continued failure to deliver and recent reduction in its role in the new Defence Procurement Procedure, there is an urgent need to carry out a thorough overhaul of its structure and functioning. A few cosmetic reforms will not do. That will amount to condoning inefficiency and wasteful expenditure of the defence budget. First of all, DRDO must understand that it exists exclusively for the armed forces. That is its raison de etre! It consumes a considerable chunk of resources that the country spares for national defence and it must not be permitted to fritter it away on irrelevant and peripheral activities. Over the years, DRDO has lost direction and diluted its commitment to the services. As per its vision statement, DRDO has taken upon itself the onerous responsibility to ‘make India prosperous by establishing world class science and technology base’. Similarly, its mission statement includes ‘development of infrastructure and committed quality manpower and building of strong indigenous technology base’. These functions have not been assigned to DRDO in its charter. It is a self assigned role. DRDO appears to be mistaking itself to be another Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. DRDO must never forget that it exists exclusively for the development of defence technologies and, therefore, ought to divorce itself from all unrelated activities to focus on what is needed by the services.
DRDO must be made accountable by making its Director General report to the Chiefs of Staff Committee (or the Chief of Defence Staff when instituted). An eminent personality from scientific community (and not necessarily from DRDO cadre) should be appointed as Secretary Defence R&D. The appointment of Scientific Advisor should be abolished as it serves no purpose whatsoever. Additionally, DRDO must be held responsible for the claims that it makes. 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. There is a need to put an independent oversight arrangement in place to monitor DRDO’s performance. Every DRDO project must have an exit option. In case DRDO is unable to complete a project in the initially stated timeframe, it could be given extension of up to 50% of the initial period. No further extension should be granted at all. Failure to complete the project during the sanctioned time period should logically result in its termination and foreclosure. The services could then explore alternate sources for its procurement. Such an arrangement will preclude indefinite denial of urgently needed systems to the services. DRDO has become a huge bureaucratic monolith over a period of time. Now that its role has been confined to the development of strategic, complex and security sensitive systems, major structural changes are required to be undertaken. Ruthless surgery is needed to cut flab to make it lean, focused and mission oriented. Every laboratory’s past record and performance should be objectively assessed. DRDO should also consider amalgamation of laboratories engaged in similar and overlapping activities to exploit synergy of operations. For example, a number of laboratories are engaged in the field of electronics and could expediently be merged into one entity. DRDO must learn to provide equipment in the stated timeframe. Relevance of any technology is an incontrovertible function of the time period in which it is made available. Services should not be offered a technology which has already become obsolete due to delays in its development. As is the practice the world over, initial blue print of the equipment should facilitate innovative, concurrent, upgradeable and modular design. Additionally, DRDO should focus on a few niche areas where indigenous competence available with public and private sector can be exploited. There is no point in duplicating systems which are readily available in the world market from multiple sources. Finally, DRDO needs to change its manpower policies. The current practice of declaring almost all superannuated scientists as indispensable and employing them afresh as advisors/experts should be done away with. Persons who contributed little during their active service life are allowed to subsist on the defence budget for years after retirement as well. More importantly, this practice prevents infusion and blossoming of fresh talent. There should be lateral movement of talent between academia and DRDO at all levels. Security of government job should not be allowed to breed complacence. Non-performance must not be tolerated and shown the exit door. Terms of employment should be able to attract and retain talent.
The performance of DRDO over the last 50 years has been highly disappointing and has belied all hopes of development of indigenous competence. Despite its regular public relations exercises, it has singularly failed the services, at times at a huge cost in terms of human lives. It has used the shelter of self-reliance to expand its sphere of activities. To deflect mounting criticism for its failure to develop high tech systems, DRDO has resorted to highlighting production of commonly available products with much hype and fanfare. Take the case of DRDO’s premier engineering laboratory at Pune. It boasts of having developed 18.6 meters high self supporting masts and bullet-proof podiums. These items are so commonplace that they are being produced by numerous road-side workshops. On the other hand, the same laboratory has been struggling for the last four decades to develop a suitable boat to ferry assaulting troops across a water obstacle. As mandated in the new procurement procedure, DRDO should concentrate exclusively on strategic, complex and security sensitive systems, especially those which are likely to be circumscribed by denial regimes. It should resist the temptation of choosing the softer option of delving in reverse engineering and indigenisation of imported equipment. This has, in fact, been the bane of DRDO’s culture. The new defence procurement procedure should act as a wake-up call for DRDO. It must accept the fact that its role has been pruned because of its poor track record. It is a sad reflection of its functioning and continued failure. The services are no longer ready to be fed with excuses while waiting ad infinitum for crucial equipment to materialise. DRDO has to carry out a detailed and honest introspection to identify reasons for its failure to deliver and for the current state of total despair. This has to be an in-house activity as no outsider can comprehend internal dynamics of an organisation. Lost prestige can be redeemed only after all infirmities are objectively analysed and radical corrective measures initiated.
(Excerpts are cited from Maj Gen Mrinal Suman’s article in Indian Defense Review. Maj Gen Mrinal Suman’s is India’s foremost expert in defence procurement procedures and offsets. He heads Defence Technical Assessment)