Look who's talking!

I reproduce here R Prasannan's fine piece in The Week -- the other side of the DRDO story. Some of our commenters have referred to this piece from the April 8 edition of the magazine, so I've posted it here.

DRDO gets a bad name because of Army and Air Force
by R Prasannan

Finally, the much-maligned and underpaid defence scientists feel vindicated. Having been rubbished by the media and the defence services for long-delayed and aborted defence technology projects, they feel that someone has heard their side of the story, though this story is not that flattering to the Army and the Air Force.

The 14th report of the Balasaheb Vikhe Patil-headed parliamentary standing committee on defence has vindicated THE WEEK's reports (Feb. 19, 2006 and February 18, 2007) that the services are as much to blame for Defence Research and Development Organisation's project delay. The committee has noted that many of DRDO's difficulties are caused by the changing of the qualitative requirements (QR) by the services midstream, and the long and extended trials by them. Said a DRDO scientist to THE WEEK: "When it comes to imported systems, the services are willing to dilute their QR if the supplier can bring down the price. Why can't they extend the same concession to systems developed by our own scientists?"

The committee, too, has criticised the services' phoren craze. "...indigenously developed product is subjected to prolonged and exhaustive trial and evaluation, whereas imported products are not subjected to the same evaluation, but are readily accepted...," it noted.

The committee has listed several instances of the services' changing QR midstream, leading to delay in projects. The Army asked DRDO in September 2000 to develop an air-defence gun system for Rs 17.7 crore. Four months later, the vice-chief reported that the existing L-70 and ZU guns could be upgraded to a level superior to what the Army had asked it to develop. The new QR, issued in May 2001, was so different from the earlier one that DRDO had to short-close the programme after spending Rs 14.5 lakh.

In 1994, the IAF asked DRDO to develop an emergency floatation system for Mi-8 helicopters for Rs 75 lakh, when IAF was negotiating with FPT of the UK. As FPT could not meet the air-worthiness requirement, the system was imported from Kazan in Russia, and the indigenous development programme foreclosed after spending Rs 48 lakh. To DRDO's credit, instead of throwing away the already-developed technologies, it employed them in the indigenous Advanced Light Helicopter.

In 1993, the IAF asked DRDO to develop a mobile balloon barrage system for Rs 45.99 lakh. By March 1998, DRDO was ready with the system. One and a half years later, the IAF reported that it no longer needed the system, as it was based on the 1980s operational philosophy.

The maximum flak on DRDO has been over the delay in the light combat aircraft (LCA) programme. The IAF, too, has to share the blame. It asked DRDO to redesign the composite wings "to cater for weapon definition changes" in January 2004, by which time the prototypes had flown for more than a few hundred hours.

The most intriguing case has been the cargo ammunition development project, sanctioned in January 1998 at Rs 16.35 crore. Initially, DRDO thought it could modify the bomblet developed for Prithvi for the cargo system. When this failed, DRDO attempted to design the bomblet and fuze afresh. That threw up certain technological constraints. Finally, all the "constraints were overcome and the design of 130mm cargo shell, bomblet, bomblet fuze..., packing system and ejection system were worked out."

Hardly had DRDO opened champagne bottles when, according to the committee, "the project was shortclosed [as] the government did not grant an extension of time after spending Rs 2.78 crore." The committee has recorded that it is "not fully convinced with the reply... that due to technological constraints, change in design and development and GSQR, the projects sanctioned were abandoned...."

The services' argument has been that changes in technology and threat perception are making them amend the QRs. (THE WEEK reported in February that the Nag anti-tank missile programme was delayed partly because the Army and IAF suddenly wanted longer ranges than what they had originally asked for.) The committee has observed that several projects "were shortclosed due to change in General Staff Qualitative Requirements by the user, or due to technological obsolescence."

The problem appears to be mainly with the Army and Air Force. The Navy, which has its own design capability, has fewer problems with DRDO. As the committee observes, "Only the Navy has design capability, and... is far ahead of the Army and Air Force in R&D and outsourcing."

Thus, naval engineers and designers seem to have a better working relationship with DRDO. For instance, the Samyukta electronics warfare programme for the Army was launched in May 1994, but is yet to be completed and handed over to the Army. On the other hand, the similar Sangraha programme for the Navy, which was launched a year after the Army programme was launched, has already been completed, and is being happily used by the Navy. This was after the cabinet committee took seven months to sanction the Army project and 13 months for the Navy one.

Similarly, other naval projects like high-speed torpedo Varunastra and anti-torpedo decoy system Mareech, though delayed by two years, are expected to be completed with no cost overrun. A non-official expert put it pointblank to the committee: "The Navy has the best example. So why don't we follow that? All major developments take place as part of the service, under their care and accountability."
The Navy's higher satisfaction level with DRDO is reflected in the naval representative's statement before the committee: "With the help of DRDO..., we have made considerable progress on the electronic warfare systems." According to him, the Navy has stopped buying sonars from abroad for the last five to 10 years; DRDO-developed sonars have been retrofitted even in Russian-built ships; DRDO's electronic warfare systems are being inserted in foreign-built naval aircraft; and systems are being sent to Russia for retrofitting on aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov, which is being refurbished in Russia.

Similarly, Garden Reach Shipbuilders of Kolkata has no problem with the special steel developed by DRDO and produced by Steel Authority of India for anti-submarine corvettes. As the Garden Reach representative proudly told the committee, "We are now the first major user of this indigenous steel.... The entire electronics, weapons and sensors in that ship are going to be... indigenous." The only problem, as noted by the committee, is that the Navy is often unable to provide enough ships for trials of warheads.

There are problems within DRDO, too. As many as 1,404 scientists have left it in the last 10 years. As the ministry pointed out to the committee, many of the multinationals' R&D centres are located in cities where DRDO has a cluster of laboratories and establishments. "Some of the scientists selected in DRDO through proper selection process, after training and R&D experience in the organisation, are offered lucrative salary by MNCs and private companies," it said.

Not that the report is a clean chit to DRDO. The organisation has been criticised for its lack of project management culture, reluctance to involve the users in project management and review, lack of trust in the capabilities of private industry, and lack of technological follow-up with public sector manufacturers. But the committee has refrained from blaming DRDO even for US sanctions which delayed the Kaveri engine.

As a DRDO scientist told THE WEEK, many of these technologies are being developed for the first time in the country, and there would be teething problems. "This would happen in any country where strategic technology has progressed far ahead of civilian industrial base. We have been developing extremely complex technologies for fighter planes and warships and electronic warfare, whereas our civilian industry produced the first indigenous car only recently," he said.

The problem, according to him, is not in the development of technologies, but in integrating them into products and weapon systems, which is the job of design engineers. As DRDO chief Dr M. Natarajan has been saying, "We don't have enough design engineers in the country. India needs at least one lakh of them."

┬ęThe Week 2007

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