The DRDO Debate Deserves Further Debate

Hopefully it's not too late to post this here. Following the Delayed Research Derailed Organisation series in The Indian Express last year, I received this piece from Cmde Ranjit B Rai on the need to take the debate further. I'm not sure if it was used in the paper finally, but I found it in my inbox and thought it would make sense to put it up here (wish I'd seen it earlier!). It occured to me that the views of a person who was with the Navy (with its famously healthy rapport with DRDO, unlike the IAF and Army) would be welcome. Here it is unedited, followed by Hindustan Times report today on the Akash "dud":

By Cmde Ranjit B Rai (Retd)

Commencing 13th Nov 2006, Amitav Ranjan and Shiv Aroor opened a can of worms, in The Indian Express by reporting on India’s DRDO, which subject has got raised in Parliament. The duo have tabled progress cards of DRDO’s military projects for your readers, who in the final analysis bear the financial burden for defence and should demand accountability, and a modicum of transparency.

In his key note address at MOD’s Defence Economics Seminar held on November 15, India’s Controller And Auditor General, V N Kaul who has fiduciary responsibility for DRDO’s spending, spoke up front and indicated that India’s DRDO is not subject to transparent external audits. Speakers suggested that DRDO should no longer hide behind veils of secrecy for its projects, and should devise methods with CAG to maintain confidentiality when such is essential. Regrettably it is a fact that many large projects that DRDO has under taken have not fructified and have witnessed questionable time and cost over runs. Nine years ago Navy Chief Vishnu Bhagwat demanded an audit of India’s hugely expensive Advanced Technology ATV nuclear submarine project, but he was sacked for fear of exposing details of the still classified project. This has deterred others from raising the issue of audit, and DRDO’s projects have become holy cows, but it is a fact scientists are not known to be good project managers.

Hence DRDO’s somewhat over critical assessment by The Indian Express is opportune for debate. The country’s manufacturing sector is maturing with capable capacities and investment in foreign factories, and so there is scope for them to take on some DRDO tasks. With slight change in practices and collaboration with local and foreign industry, and insertion of technology, the concatenation of production facilities, talents and well-equipped laboratories that DRDO has built up, can now deliver better.

If the recently instituted mandatory 30% MOD off set policy in imports of over Rs 300 crores is extended to include high end defence technology, another wide window of opportunity can emerge. India is an attractive and leading defence importer of $ 5 bill per year. MOD has sorely missed the bus, by not including off sets in the massive $ 4 bill Scorpene deal. Such a step would have been in India’s national interests, though some over runs and failures in research projects will have to be accepted, as it is a worldwide phenomenon. There exists another serious lacuna in India’s higher defence set up.

There is no accountable Commander In Chief, and it is the diffused Cabinet control method of responsibility, scripted in to article 52 of the Constitution that ensues. Hence not much attention is paid to this vital subject by the busy Prime Minister, who leaves it to the MOD and invariably a junior Minister is placed in charge of DRDO. Even in Japan, which is a bi cameral democracy like ours, the Prime Minister is constitutionally made accountable as the C in C for all defence matters. In India only the ATV and nuclear projects are under the PMO. In UK, which does not have a written constitution, the PM is accountable. To exacerbate the situation the three Armed Force Chiefs are autonomous, and the Government has not even specified the core competencies of each service leading to duplication in many defence spheres like UAVs, missiles, special forces, anti air defence and EW which has proved challenging and expensive for DRDO to manage individual needs. The QRs setting methodology for common equipment and doctrines are also varied.

It was therefore interesting to read young America returned Member of Parliament Milind Deora’s views in an edit page piece on 21st Nov on DRDO. His piece began with a laudable recommendation to emulate the US DARPA model, which is a purely R and D and design agency, unlike DRDO which took upon itself to become a manufacturing agency, for which it was not qualified. That set Parkinson’s Law of expansion in to motion, so we have a high tail to scientist ratio. This was fait accompli in 1958 as Indian industry could not have taken up the challenge of production like USA’s huge industry did, and our needs in number of systems were limited. FFE was short and policies of indigenization and import substitution were the credo. Changes are now possible as Indian defence industry led by Larsen and Tubro, Tatas and Kirloskars as examples have matured but it will also require the India’s Officials Secrets Act of 1923 to be revised to make civilians privy and accountable for classified data. DRDO needs to stop re inventing the wheel and farm projects to industry in the food, IT and communication sectors and shed laboratories that are no longer functional. The services also need to monitor the projects from an ab initio stage. All this is very easily said but it was Ernest Hemmingway who insisted that journalism is the end of a good cause. This requires political will.

Yet in defence of DRDO, much has been achieved in India’s nuclear arena, ships, avionics and sub systems and some strategic fields, so all is not lost. In many ways the DRDO of India is a reflection of most of India’s government organizations and loss making PSU’s of days gone by. Many DRDO labs became unwieldy structures, were poorly managed with no checks or balances and with political influences, not to mention the arms dealers lobbies that operate in India and offer sops to politicians and encourage imports and decry indigenous projects. The decision to make Prithvi a liquid fuelled missile, which is now being corrected in Prithvi-111, was taken to ensure employability for the many scientists and workers employed in the field at Hyderabad. It is no wonder the DRDO failed to deliver on many of the projects except those that were closely monitored especially by the Navy. The improvements and resurrection of the SU-30MKI from an old SU-27 is an example. In the Navy a unique Weapons Electronics and Engineering Establishment WEESE at Delhi which it is a mini DRDO in itself, silently audits and assists DRDO projects and shipyards, while Navy’s design bureau with 50 years of experience and 300 naval constructors has contributed. The Navy also insisted that production after design should not be entrusted to DRDO or Ordnance factories, as that combination could be very difficult to professionally manage for a project.

Some DRDO heads have also behaved like satraps under the veil of secrecy, and built a slew of 39 lavish laboratories all across India along with laudable infrastructure and now possess a most imposing HQ in New Delhi, that we can be proud of. The DRDO has recruited a bevy of scientists who are exposed to modern technologies and some of them have done remarkable work in the guided missile, sonars and electronics field, while others including dead wood passed on from the services have whiled away their time, as promotions are mainly time bound. Earlier western technology was consciously denied to DRDO because of sanctions, but these are lifting. The services must admit they failed to constantly monitor, guide and spoon feed projects like the Arjun MBT, the 7.62mm INSAS rifle and LCA but came in at the preliminary trial stages, with criticism. This lesson seems to have been learnt.

Finally, the temples the DRDO has built can now be restructured for projects to come alive. If the LCA which already has the GE-404 engine gets the MIG 29 multi mode radar and weapon suites amalgamated from the foreign supplier of the 126 fighter contract, like Sweden’s SAAB did for Gripen with BAE, the LCA may still meet its target. Singapore had seen LCA’s potential and seriously offered investment and joint design and production in 1990, but DRDO was insistent the production would be only in India and we missed an opportunity. Such overtures can be revived, as the LCA has a good level of flying technology with many unique features. Only fresh management can bring the escalating costs down. The wheels that DRDO has invented can certainly be re polished and made to revolve easily. It’s the will that is needed and India is no longer the pygmy it was, when DRDO was formed in 1958.

(Cmde Retd Ranjit B Rai is former Director of Naval Operations and Intelligence and holds an MSc degree in Defence Economics)

The Hindustan Times had this report plastered on today's front page. That the missile hasn't passed muster is old, but the WAC meeting part is new. Here it is in full:

Indian missile a ‘dud’, air force doesn’t want it
Nagender Sharma

NEW DELHI, April 4: Serious doubts have been raised by air force officers about the effectiveness of the Akash missile system, according to confidential documents of the Indian Air Force (IAF) seen by HT. The surface-to-air missile system, developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), consistently failed during trials, the papers show.

The DRDO says all doubts have been cleared and the missile system is a success. But the IAF is yet to buy and deploy the missile system. Doubts about the medium-range Akash missile system, developed at a cost of Rs 800 crore after more than two decades of research and trials, emerged at a meeting called by the Western Air Command in Delhi last year. Sixty middle-level and senior IAF officers attended the meeting.

A presentation, based on the report of an IAF expert who had witnessed the trials, contained several startling revelations. “The IAF expert witnessed repeated cases of missile parts falling off during many trials. He recommended that the Akash missile system was not fit to be deployed,” a senior officer, who attended the presentation, told HT.

Pointing out major flaws in this missile system, developed as a part of the country’s Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme, the report presented to the IAF officers says, “The expert noticed it took 25 minutes to load a single missile on the launcher, which rendered this missile system unfit for use in war-like situations. The night loading time would therefore automatically be twice more than daytime.”

Describing the Akash missile trials as a “disaster”, the presentation report says, “Out of 20 test trials seen by the IAF expert, the majority of them ended in a failure.”

"It was not capable of picking up low-level targets over any sea, due to multi-path reflection. The missile warhead was also not capable of engaging present-generation targets, due to repeated failures," the report says. However, the DRDO has strongly defended the missile system. In a written response to queries by HT, the DRDO said it was "fully satisfied with the current status of trials of Akash. Currently all doubts have been cleared and resolved".

"The missile system is now complete after successful trials and the organisation is confident about its success," the DRDO added.

The IAF report criticised the DRDO and senior officials from the Ministry of Defence, saying, "There was deliberate data suppression and the IAF was pressured to either change or withdraw the report." The report indicates that desperate moves were made during the trials to prove that the system was a success. "A radar was placed on a 13-metre-high platform for all trials, to increase the efficiency of the missile system artificially, which would not be the case in hostile conditions of war," it says.

Cautioning the IAF on the limitations of the Akash missile system, the report says, "In its present status, Project Akash cannot meet the operational requirements of the IAF, due to major design flaws, and if the IAF wanted to use this particular missile system, then it would have to lower its acceptability standards."

The DRDO, however, said the Akash missile system had an edge over other systems due to its multi-target handling capacity, being a fully automatic system. It said since the system was completely indigenous, it could be quickly upgraded within the country.

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