HomeAatmanirbhar BharatRevamping DRDO | R&D faces reality

Revamping DRDO | R&D faces reality

Source: indiatoday by Pradip S Sagar

Revamping DRDO | R&D faces reality
Revamping DRDO | R&D faces reality 7

DRDO, India’s top defence research agency, has long been criticised for delayed projects and cost overruns. Now, a new committee tasked with revamping it is looking to change all that

From a room on the ground floor of the DRDO Bhawan in New Delhi—adjacent to the imposing pile of South Block—India’s former top scientific advisor K. Vijay Raghavan is speaking to a gathering of people involved in defence research. Tasked by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), he is reviewing the role of the nation’s premier defence research agency, the Defence Research and Development Organisation or DRDO, with the goal to fully revamp it, and has a November deadline to submit his report. To assist him, Vijay Raghavan has an eight-member team drawn from the armed forces and industry. However, the absence of anyone from the DRDO itself in the panel has raised eyebrows in the agency headquarters. Besides restructuring DRDO’s role, the Vijay Raghavan committee—set up in the last week of August—is mandated to find solutions to attract and retain high-quality manpower through a system of incentives and disincentives and strict performance accountability. While embarking on this transformation of the DRDO, the Union government has in mind the example of the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the United States. Set up in 1958—the same year as DRDO—DARPA is a funding agency that makes “breakthrough investments for national security” and works with academic, industry and government R&D institutions. The ultimate goal is to inject professionalism in the DRDO, maximise academic and start-up participation and, through it all, address the chronic charges of delayed projects and cost overruns that tarnish its reputation.

The DRDO, which has a budget of Rs 23,264 crore in the budget estimate 2023-24, operates nearly 50 laboratories with a staff strength of around 30,000, of which 30 per cent are from the scientific community. In addition, there are over 20,000 contractual employees attached to DRDO labs. Within the DRDO, the Directorate of Futuristic Technology Management, started in 2019, aims to fund research pro­jects in educational ins­t­i­tutions, National Research Institutes and start-ups/ industry through a network of DRDO Industry Academia-Centres of Excellence (DIA-COEs). Essentially, it follows the same DARPA model, which is expected to be given a push by the VijayRaghavan panel.

Answering the charges of persistent delays, DRDO scientists argue that the armed forces keep changing goal posts by demanding deviations/ additions to developed technology. In fact, a few years back, the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar had said that the Indian military’s requirements often resembled ‘Marvel comic books’ as they were “absurd, unrealistic and fanciful”. The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas and Main Battle Tank (MBT) Arjun are classic exam­ples, in which the military’s constant demand for upgrades played havoc on project timelines. Other projects that have been delayed include the LCA Mk-II, the Kaveri aero-engine and the Astra air-to-air missile. Nevertheless, over the years, defence scientists have not only received flak from the military fraternity but also from three parliamentary panels and the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). The various committees, from the A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Committee (1992) to the V. Rajagopal Rao panel (2020), all recommended various steps to overhaul the DRDO’s structure and steps to greater indigenisation of latest technologies.

As India celebrates the success of ISRO’s indigenously developed space technology, DRDO is criticised for being unable to rid India of the unenviable distinction of being the world’s largest arms importer. However, though detractors might harp on its tardiness, DRDO can be rightly proud of its missile and radar technologies. The DRDO’s foremost successes are the Agni cruise missiles, Tejas and Arjun. Along with Pralay surface-to-surface missile and the Pinaka rocket system, they have been inducted into the armed forces.

While India’s defence establishment believes that the DRDO should focus on futuristic air, ground, maritime and space systems, a majority of the DRDO officials say that, for years, its laboratories were tasked to meet the immediate needs of the military. Some military analysts agree and point out that most projects of the defence manufacturing sector are limited to the production of outdated tanks, guns, helicopters, weapons platforms or the setting up of manufacturing units to produce foreign weapons through technology transfers. Now, the terms of reference of the Vijay Raghavan-led committee have recast the DRDO’s main objective to the development of latest technology. Lt Gen. D.S. Hooda (Retd), the former northern army commander, claims that the country lags in cutting-edge technology and the adoption of Artificial Intelligence, robotics, quantum technology and hypersonic weapons. “The focus should be on these high-end technologies on which future wars are going to be fought,” he says.

Most defence scientists welcome the government panel, but add that it should not undermine DRDO’s contribution. However, A.K. Singh, the former director general of DRDO, admits with candour that the organisation could not adapt to change over the years. “It requires a proper diagnosis and treatment rather than symptomatic treatment,” Singh says, while vouching for the capability of the DRDO scientists. The DRDO’s approach, he adds, lost vital focus on defence research as its canvas of activities became wider—a case of simultaneous pursuit of too many projects. For example, the DRDO has a Directorate of Civil Works & Estates, which looks after the construction of government buildings. Singh claims such pursuits show how earlier committees set up to address DRDO’s problems failed to provide solutions.

Many Committees

The most recent committee to look into defence research was the five-member panel led by V. Rajagopal Rao of IIT Delhi set up by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in 2020 to overhaul the DRDO to meet “defence and battlefield needs”. Its recommendations were never made public and only led to the closure of some laboratories. Before that, a panel headed by P. Rama Rao, former secretary of the department of science and technology, submitted a report on the DRDO in 2008. It suggested that the DRDO should concentrate only on “core technologies of strategic importance”. The committee had sug­­g­­ested making it a leaner organisation. This was done by rearrang­ing DRDO’s 52 labs into clusters based on tech­­nology domains like missiles, electronic warfare, radars, aerial vehicles and underwater weapons. In 2015, Rao Inderjit Singh, the then minis­ter of state for defence production, stated in Parliament that the DRDO had implemented all the recommendations made by the P. Rama Rao Committee that were within its power. The first panel to look into the DRDO was set up in 1992-93, and was led by the late A.P.J. Abdul Kalam during his tenure as DRDO chief. It came out with a decade-long roadmap to elevate indigenous production in defence equipment from the existing 30 per cent to 70 per cent by 2005.

Damning Delays

In February 2023, the MoD informed Parliament that out of DRDO’s 55 ‘mission mode’ projects, 23 were running behind schedule. Mission mode projects are high-priority tasks that use accessible technologies. As of date, DRDO’s mission mode projects have a total sanctioned cost of Rs 73,942.8 crore. Some areas under research are torpedo decoy systems, nuclear defence technologies, air independent pro­pulsion (AIP), torpedoes, cruise missiles, unmanned aerial veh­icles, airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircr­aft systems, gas turbine engines, advanced towed artillery gun system (ATAGS), radars and surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles.

Ajay Bhat, MoS defence, did admit in Parliament to a cost escalation in 12 projects but stressed that the increase should be seen as an “enhancement of the scope of the project”. Such projects involve Tejas Mark-II LCA, Naval LCA, UAVs and ATAGS. Bhat added that steps are being taken to address the delays, including increased frequency of project reviews and greater involvement of the armed forces and production partners during the development process, among others.

In December 2022, in a report on the performance of the DRDO tabled in Parliament, the CAG expressed dismay that some mission mode projects “declared successful” had actually not achieved their objectives despite more than Rs 1,000 crore being spent over them. It added that some of these ‘successful’ projects were taken up again to plug the holes left behind and presented as new ones. The report presented a dispiriting picture: in 119 out of 178 DRDO projects, the time schedule could not be adh­­ered to. In 49 cases, the additional time taken was over 100 per cent of the original time frame, with time extension sought on multiple occasions.

Echoing AK Singh, another top DRDO official acknowledges that due to a wide area of activity, defence scientists do not have a focused approach, which eventually leads to core projects becoming peripheral. The end result is that scientists get bogged down by numerous challenges.

For a focused approach that can deliver swift results, Lt Gen. Hooda emphasises the “need to harness and synergise efforts of the DRDO, DPSUs (Defence Public Sector Undertakings) R&D centres, private sector R&D centres and academia”. This will require a change in culture, and this has to be pushed by the government, he adds. However, he believes that while it’s not easy for the DRDO to fully replicate the US’s DARPA, its basic principles can be adopted. Under the DARPA model, there is regular churning of officials, which is good for injecting fresh ideas, says Lt Gen. Hooda. “To my understanding, there is not much difference in DARPA and DRDO in terms of budget. But a majority of DRDO’s budget goes into paying salaries and the day-to-day running of its laboratories,” he says.

In Defence of The DRDO

The DRDO has been taken to task for project delays, but one cannot ignore the fact that as a proportion of the total defence outlay, the R&D budget came down from 6.4 per cent in 2018-19 to 5.1 per cent in 2023-24, a sizeable chunk of which goes into salaries and other expenses. The amount left for R&D activities—Rs 3,500 crore for the current year—is insufficient. A parliamentary standing committee in March 2023 found India’s R&D spend to be far less than of other countries like China and the US, which spend 20 per cent and 12 per cent of their respective defence budgets on R&D. The committee recommended “appropriate and adequate funding for DRDO projects, keeping in mind… research-based technological advancements across the globe”.

Ravi Gupta, a former DRDO scientist, claims that the import lobby in the government and armed forces has also damaged the reputation and morale of the DRDO scientists. “Besides this, bureaucrats want control over a specialised organisation like the DRDO,” Gupta says, hinting at a plan in the MoD to separate the currently unified post of DRDO chairman and secretary, R&D.

DRDO officials also point to the insufficient manpower for R&D projects. They say that since 2001, DRDO has had the same number of personnel despite a sixfold increase in outlay and greater push towards indigenous research as part of ‘Make in India’. In April 2010, the Manpower Planning Board (MPB) recommended the appointment of 4,966 personnel and the ministry of finance sanctioned 1,316 posts, of which 436 have been approved by its department of expenditure. The Cabinet Committee on Security will take a final call on the matter.

All stakeholders agree that the DRDO should focus on the latest technologies to meet the future requirements of the armed forces. For that, a robust R&D ecosystem must be created beyond the research agency. The Vijay Raghavan panel’s report should indicate the road forward.

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