Missing Targets - bane of DRDO
By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
Former Director General of Information Systems, Indian Army

 

MBT - Arjun Combat Tank
Rustom
LCA Tejas

Defence generally remains in the news in India for valid reasons. It was reported recently that the government procured Rs 76,000 crores of defence equipment during 2015-2016. Of course this figure does not reflect what percentage of equipment deficiency of the forces was met by this expenditure, especially in the critical segment. Another report was that the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) has issued 342 licenses to 205 Indian private companies for manufacturing of defence equipment such as Artillery guns, Tanks / Combat Vehicles, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAVs), Helicopters, Radars, Warships etc. In addition, since the beginning of the financial year 2014-15, 128 Industrial Licenses for defence have been issued to 97 Indian private companies although government does not directly undertake export of defence equipment. However, in last three years and the current financial year, defence equipment like Dornier aircraft, offshore patrol vessels, Chetak helicopters, sonars, 44 vehicles, simulators, overvests (bullet proof jackets), ballistic helmets have been exported to countries like Brazil, Egypt, Israel, Japan, Kazakhstan, Mauritius, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Turkey. Defence exports are good albeit they do not affect our military preparedness. What matters is what is being produced indigenously to equip our forces.

To this end, the news related to DRDO generally remains damp squibs. It is not the ‘not so indigenous’ Tejas that ran decades behind schedule (sanctioned in 1983 under the LCA project), as also the Arjun Tank, but everything else appears to be running in slow motion; with revised deadlines, yet more extended deadlines and so on. Consider the following examples:

  1. the medium-altitude long-endurance UAV ‘Rustom-II project (including an aeronautical test range) costing of Rs 1,649 crore was approved in February, 2011, is nowhere in sight and the PDC has been extended to 2017;
  2. the Astra air-to-air missile sanctioned at a cost of Rs 955 crore is not ready 12 years after it was sanctioned;
  3. the 'Nirbhay' cruise missile capable of carrying over a strike range of 1,000km is already three years behind schedule and will probably get further delayed, and;
  4. for the active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar project (for fighter jets) was sanctioned in January 2012 at a cost of Rs 445 crore is already over and has reportedly been extended to May 2019 - another three years.

These are but few examples but the story is invariably the same for almost every DRDO product, not to talk of quality of the DRDO-produced equipment as compared to COTS, former dubbed “sub-standard” in numerous CAG reports. From what has been discussed so far, two ironies are striking:

  1. we are proud about exporting bullet-proof jackets while the army is deficient of over 3,50,000 of these, not to count the deficiencies in with the CAPF and police, and;
  2. the (AESA) project was meant also equip the Tejas, induction of which perforce has been done with older radars that are mechanically steered.

This will remain the state for more Tejas induction commencing 2020 unless we develop the (AESA) indigenously or import it. As per media, latter is being looked at - importing AESA radar-EW (electronic warfare) package through global arms producers. This may yet turn out to be another of the numerous cases pointed out by CAG - of crores wasted on development, project eventually shut, with imports finally resorted to. Why this is recurring with consistent periodicity is a mystery when it is on record that items introduced by private players have been slightly modified or reverse engineered by DPSUs and marketed as their own - one example being the push button telephone when first introduced in India. DRDO has set answers to these endemic delays. First is about shortage of funds - that DRDO gets just 5-7 per cent of the defence budget, which is true. But then the defence budget itself is going down with critical voids in military equipping mounting. This is something for the government to think about. But in the interim, DRDO needs to prioritize what R&D can be undertaken with the budget allotted and tell the government this much can be done, rather than undertaking development of everything possible under the sun including some items even without government sanction, as reported upon by CAG. And while discussing paucity of funds for DRDO, what about the $8.2 billion lying unused in DPSUs since 1975, as disclosed by the Defence Minister recently? The second issue which DRDO has is of frequent midterm revision in qualitative requirements (QR) by the military. But this needs to be viewed in the context that if a project to be completed in three years takes 12 years instead, then revision of QR is unavoidable, least outdated technology is fielded. There is a simple solution to this ping-pong game; if a project is sanctioned for three years, DRDO ‘must’ complete it in time, which the military would accept. Any modification to the QR given by the military be developed by DRDO as an ‘upgrade’ version simultaneous to fielding the product based on the original QR. It is without doubt that India must be self-sufficient in defence equipping but then lot more focus is required to attain such capacity. A reality check is required what capacity the DRDO has to absorb state-of-the-art foreign technology. According to recent data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 81 per cent employers in India are finding it particularly difficult to hire suitable employees with apt skill sets, given the rapid technological advances and the digitization of the workplace. How does this affect the DRDO-DPSUs-OF? Why is it that the outstanding performance of ISRO scientists is not matched by their counterparts in DRDO - is it because of quota and why can’t ‘perform or dismiss’ rule be applied to DRDO as in private sector? Clearly capability and capacity checks should be mandatory before just sanctioning projects that go on for decades.

The views expressed herein are the personal views of the author.

Photo Credit: DRDO, ADA