The government last week announced the formation of a nine member panel, comprising former defence personnel, academia and industry, under the chairmanship of Vijay Raghavan, former Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government, to undertake a detailed assessment of the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organization). This follows years of complaints on its functioning and output by all stakeholders including the armed forces. The committee is to submit its final report within three months.
The primary task of the committee is to consider restructuring and redefining the role of the DRDO, streamline its research efforts, foster cooperation with foreign entities and rationalize its laboratories. It would also devise strategies to enable it to attract talent, retain skilled personnel and build an environment conducive to innovation and research. All earlier committees including the Kargil, Shekatkar and Rama Rao committees have recommended its revamping, but nothing moved.
The DRDO was formed in 1958 by amalgamating the Technical Development Establishment of the army and the Directorate of Technical Development and Production with the Defence Science Organization. Its journey commenced with 10 establishments and laboratories which have currently grown to 52 laboratories, all engaged in research in multiple domains. Its staff comprises of approximately 30,000 of which only 30 per cent belong to the scientific community.
Its vision statement is ‘empowering the nation with state of the art indigenous defence technologies and systems,’ while one of its missions is,‘design, develop and lead to production state of the art sensors, weapon systems, platforms and allied equipment for our defence services.’ It has failed in both. The DRDO’s budget was enhanced by 9 per cent this year to Rs 23,260 crores of which approximately 12,850 crores are for R & D. Nationally, India allocates only 0.7 per cent of its budget for R & D, which is low, especially when we consider shortfalls in technology.
In December 2019, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence tabled a report which stated, “The committee stresses the need for a complete revamp and re orientation of DRDO functions.” It added that the DRDO needs to enhance collaboration with the private sector and aca- demia. It stressed that the organization should concentrate on research only in fields where capability weaknesses exist in India.
There is no doubt that the DRDO has delivered missile technology with little progress in other fields, which remains a matter of concern. Where it has delivered, it has been after con- siderable delays and cost overruns, resulting in dissatisfaction amongst the services. In the pre-Aatmanirbhar days, when India imported most of its defence needs, all defence procurement demands were routed through the DRDO, which then suggested which technologies they could deliver and when. Classic examples include Anti-tank guided missiles and UAVs.
In most cases the government accepted their suggestions and blocked procurements ignoring requests of the armed forces. At the end of the day, either the promised prototype was never delivered or what was fielded was way below specifications sought by the forces and that too after prolonged delay.
The result was that capabilities essential for national security were left short. Their hold and power over procurements were legendary. The DRDO also avoids involving the private sector, which the government is currently keen to incorporate. Like the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), the DRDO is also a PSU and like the OFB it failed to meet its targets. The government scrapped the OFB and converted its factories into seven defence PSUs. These are now producing results. They are competing in open tenders with the private sector without any special consideration. It is the turn of the DRDO to be similarly revamped.
It may be incorrect to compare two diverse organizations but while ISRO successfully launched Chandrayaan-3, the DRDO failed to produce even the basic weapon system, the rifle. It is not that ISRO has an unlimited budget while DRDO does not. India’s space budget is amongst the lowest in the world while its accomplishments surpass almost the best. ISRO did so largely employing indigenous technologies and involved the academia and the private sector at every stage, which should also have been the approach of the DRDO.
For DRDO to claim that defence applications are largely delinked from dual use technologies is also incor- rect, especially in the current age. Its lack of success is possibly because of its work ethos, lack of collaboration with other sectors and misplaced priorities. The change in performance of the erstwhile OFB factories is testa- ment that a change in organization structure can prove advantageous.
What is essential is that the DRDO must stick to research on major technological national short- comings. Even in these fields it should collaborate with academia and the private sector as is being done by ISRO. Laboratories, earmarked for research in other fields, should either be closed or privatised.
The government has already earmarked 25 per cent of its defence R&D budget for the private sector. This could be increased. The government regularly announcing negative lists for procurement implies that R&D needs to be given more credence. Additionally the national R & D budget should be raised from 0.7 to 1 per cent ini- tially and steadily higher.
Unless the DRDO, which is the backbone of R & D within the country, gets its act together, issuing negative lists would be meaningless. ISRO has shown that results do not flow from scientists emerging from IITs alone but from cohesion, a conducive working environment and teamwork including the academia and the private sector.
The DRDO could also become a hub for coordinating research being conducted by the private sector and the academia in multiple fields, while it itself concentrates on specific fields. It does not need to adopt the US’s DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) model, which is just a funding body. It could handle coordination with simultaneous research.
Multiple committees have recommended revamping of the DRDO, over the years, but to no avail. The last such committee was in August 2020 under Dr Ramagopal Rao, Director IIT, Delhi. Its report also appears to have been buried. The current committee has been established as the PMO finally appears concerned about the tepid performance of the DRDO. Hopefully, this time there will be some positive outcome.
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