Hope From The New DRDO Advertisement?

Has anyone seen the new DRDO print advertisement? It's in most of the defence glossies. It's a pretty unobtrusive advert with typically sarkari design values (like the unforgivably ill-conceived BrahMos ad in all the magazines!). But obviously this isn't a transgression on the creative preoccupations of the country's premier defence research and development agency. But why an advertisement at all? And why now? I can't recall (please correct me if I'm wrong) DRDO ever advertising at any time in the past in any real measure -- and I'm not counting recruitment flyers.

The thrust of this particular ad -- the text at the bottom of the page -- is an open invitation to foreign arms developers and agencies willing to collaborate and co-develop critical defence technologies with DRDO. The ad, a little broadly, lists DRDO's areas of expertise as aeronautics, materials, strategic systems and a few others. I would imagine, first off, that DRDO would have found it virtually indigestible to freely publicise its willingness to collaborate and build systems with foreign partners. I mean, isn't that anathema? Someone at the MoD I spoke to recently said the advertisement was produced at the directions of the MoD and DRD council, though this could be just a little South Block gossip. DRDO has of course in the past worked extensively with foreign entities, but keeping it in-house and Indian has quite correctly been its touchstone, the very plank on which it has legitimised its existence since 1958.

Until now, it seems.

A mere print advert doesn't accentuate structural reform -- especially if it was created and published under duress -- but it does disclose a possible change in outlook, the future of possible prudence.

Critics of the anti-DRDO lobby often lark on about how wasteful and delayed foreign arms development programmes have been in comparison to DRDO's own inventory of projects, but it has frequently occured to me how untenable (even unpatriotic, if that is one of the compelling factors) such a stand is. The fact is Indian arms development programmes do NOT have to be delayed and prolonged and wastefully expensive like the professed foreign programmes people draw comparisons with. Our programmes can be better than other countries' programmes. Our scientists, armed forces and government can still externalise decades of creditable progress and dubious wastage by ceasing all comparisons with foreign agencies. If all agencies involved set their minds to a time when the armed forces only have to look within for their warfighting needs, then comparisons -- every last one of them -- will be redundant. That may be an ideal state, but the untreaded path is full of possibilities. For starters, lets stop obsessing with being a young non-aligned nation which has suffered technology denial since its birth. This of course is true, but it has been allowed to become something of an unhealthily psychological and political shackle. Look forward -- the world will not wait unless you've got money to show for it.

Those who harp on about globalisation no doubt have a point, but the DRDO debate is one so full of extreme views (as one of our commenters has pointed out), that a dose of moderate logic might not be such a bad idea. It is easy to keep the tough questions unasked, just as it is easy to dismiss the future of reform as a pipe-dream destroyed by the fundamental thought-processes of the entities involved. If the Navy can extract some of the world's finest sonars from DRDO, so can the IAF pull-off a cutting-edge flight trainer or the Army, a towed gun. The achievements of the state-owned military industrial complex are not small -- but they cannot and must not be used as an escape route to justify slippages of other, indeed more critical, programmes essential not just to national security, but to a young country's economy.

I have personally been frequently clubbed with the anti-DRDO lobby. I accept of course that accusations are part of the profession (one of my personal favourites is "lifafa journalist"!). But I've said so before and I'll say it again -- India is infinitely better placed if it can look locally for all its defence and security needs instead of padding foreign bank balances and formulating massively complex and sometimes counterproductive defence procurement procedures tailored to suit a soverign nation bent on buying only from abroad. The DPP 06 is in some senses a cynical document. It does of course accomodate the "Make" procedure, but it expands at length on new and more groundedly real processes for buying from abroad. Cynical, but realistic. As Admiral Arun Prakash wrote recently on this blog, the DRDO-IAI-Rafael tripartite joint venture to create a long-range SAM (Barak-II) is ingenious -- DRDO agreed to the venture only after it accepted that the technology spin-offs on at least four critical areas would be undeniably large. This is, not even to get into the enormous potential in local private industry. If the Mahindras are building sea mines for the Navy, and Tatas will help build terminal guidance systems, then there are others who profess capabilities to build everything from night-vision devices and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to bomb guidance kits and hull materials. The government and DRDO no longer have any excuse to deny the private sector the right to contribute. For starters, it might help if "private" is stopped being seen by those in DRDO and the government as somehow anti-national, or dubious, or money-grubbing, or all three. Of course they want to make money making weapons, but why ever not? Isn't that what business is about? Is being non-profitable a virtue or an honour? Of course not. If the Army can get world-class infantry combat vehicles from a Pimpri-Chinchwad factory, why should it need Moscow's help at all? If it can arm its anti-tank missiles with seekers developed by a feverishly busy bunch of private-sector incubation students in Kanpur, tata-bye-bye to Israel? Why not.

The DRDO advert should maybe seen in that light -- not as a grumbling admission that it needs foreign partners to keep the ball rolling (it would be silly to imagine it was that), but as a healthy realisation of what the future holds. A robust mix of prudent out-sourcing and a focus on core strengths. The Israelis don't offer friendly prices. Nor do Russia, the US or the UK or France, or any one of the others lining our corridors with officials hoping for the odd RFP every now and then. So any partnership (like BrahMos or the Barak-II) must be systematic in its implications of an exponential technology and know-how upgrade. The persecution complex has to end somewhere. Except for the odd kickback junkie, everyone indubitably wants a better DRDO. At DRDO press conferences, we'd like to ask "What's next", not "Whatever next".

It's not about one thing or the other. Points and counterpoints about DRDO serve only to escalate a predicament that is ultimately political and governmental. There has to be middleground, and it is imperative that it is found soon. Foolish idealists talk of how there must be no financial numbers game when you talk of national security. That's patent nonsense. We can't afford to have multiple programmes indefatigably adrift, while the country coughs up blood for vilaayati guns. Let the armed forces be more reasonable and less pig-headed about QRs. Let the government bestow DRDO with a semblance of development autonomy that allows it to prudently bring on board the private sector and foreign agencies for quicker co-development. And, not least, let DRDO take the time to effect a serious make-over of everything, from it's persecution complex and attitude towards anything non-DRDO, down to the way it keeps its scientists and draws up development plans. DRDO's new advertisement is hopefully a beginning of better things. Better, and more. That is the whole point.


Word just in from Pallu (near Suratgarh, Rajasthan). The 15 Arjun MBTs that participated in the Ashwamedha corps-level exercise (their debut wargame) didn't match up. According to immediately available reports and sources who attended the exercise from the Army, the tanks were below-par during speed runs (suspension and NOT torsion problems!!), the overheating problems persist and there were other mobility hassles. More details tomorrow.

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