DRDO's VK Aatre: Then and Now

Frontier India has done an interview with Dr VK Aatre, former DRDO chief, on the current state of affairs in the organization and its relationship with other agencies. Very readable piece. Problem is, when you start out with your mind already made up about something, chances are you’ll end up doing what P. Chacko Joseph has done – tailor the product to suit your biases and needs. Either way, it’s a good read, though it doesn’t really put up any new defences. To his credit, Aatre isn't an apologist for mediocrity, and was known to frequently accept hard questions. Unfortunately Chacko doesn't ask any. Aatre’s sole rejoinder to the “DRDO bashing” (the phrase has even spawned a blog all unto itself) is that while criticizing DRDO, reports do not recognize the successes. Sure, Aatre was part of one of the more successful departments and laboratories at DRDO, but that was his work. Mr Joseph has been creative enough to refer to the Express series of last year (Delayed Research Derailed Organisation) as the “recent media attack”, inadvertently giving it more space in the discourse than certainly I had imagined possible. Anyway a few months ago, Dr Aatre himself was kind enough to contribute to the closing piece of the Express series last year. And here it is in full:

Advice From ex-Chief: Accountability Absolute Must


DRDO should definitely be held more accountable for its work and it should stop saying it can do everything under the sun.

Coming from Dr Vasudev K Aatre, who headed the organisation between 2000-04, this could be the luxury of hindsight but yet, a painfully candid admission to the need for reform.

Now a professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, Aatre has responded to this newspaper’s investigative series on DRDO’s dismal record (for the previous seven parts, visit www.expressindia.com). “I have been honest about our delays, I could not hide our shortcomings. There is a need to break certain cycles as the series in The Indian Express has shown. It is crucial that DRDO is a dictator of its own destiny.”

For that to happen, Aatre prescribes a five-point programme fundamental to which is, what he calls, “the absolute must for accountability.” And, two, the brisk introduction of the private sector into the fold of defence R&D to take away the burden of prototype production.

Calling for the immediate implementation of the incentive list for scientists — from sharing royalty to increased travel allowances — Aatre says the “Damocles’ Sword of imports” should not be allowed to hang over scientists engaged in fundamental research. Finally, and probably most importantly, “DRDO should stop making exaggerated promises.”

The aspect of talent retention is severely underestimated. Even President A P J Abdul Kalam, who headed DRDO through the ‘90s and saw first-hand the initial exodus of scientists to the newly booming IT sector — over 1400 have left in the last decade — said on November 11 in Ahmedabad: “We should work for the creation of a science cadre, with a clear mission and goal, well-defined growth path, and attractive salaries.”

But better remuneration is just one side of an intricate polygon of reform that DRDO admitted in June to be working on. The other crucial aspect is DRDO’s involvement with the services. The Navy, the smallest of the three armed forces, has the best depth of relations with DRDO but the less said about the Army and IAF, the better.

Experience has shown that programmes in which the agenda is set by senior serving officers, as in Navy’s avionics and sonars, have always performed with the greatest prudence — delivering on time, and cutting away losses when viability was severely undermined.

In June, as a start, the Standing Committee on Defence directed the DRDO to draw up a list of unviable projects that could be terminated.

But there is a consensus that synergy with the services is one way out of the present mess. Says Gen Shankar Roy Choudhary, former Army chief and member of the Standing Committee on Defence: “Coordination and interaction need a great deal of improvement. DRDO should make sure that officers from the services are part of design teams, and not looked upon as outsiders. Even today, they are accepted very reluctantly. I tried to do my bit in my time as Chief, but somehow it did not work out. This should be an immediate area of reform.”

Choudhary’s recommendation is an echo of what was officially proposed by the Defence Ministry’s Task Force on the “Reorganization of Higher Defence Planning”: a three-star serving officer should head the steering committee of DRDO programmes and the Armed forces personnel embedded with these programmes be recognised as integral members of the DRDO design team. None of this has been implemented yet.

New Defence Minister A K Antony, who received a three-and-a-half hour presentation on the DRDO on October 29, five days into office, told The Sunday Express, “In the few weeks that I have been here, I have realized the need for big changes. We need comprehensive reforms in this area to keep with changing situations. Over the next few weeks, I will be looking at this aspect in great detail.”

Consider what one of emerging India’s pioneers in industrial R&D, Biocon chairperson Kiran Mazumdar Shaw has to say about DRDO: “Every research establishment in the country needs to be reformed. Defence is one area where we need a high level of innovation. Enough is not being done and the DRDO is no exception to this. There is no modern approach at all,” she told The Sunday Express. “They should be focusing on every emerging technology and the application of new technology. At present, there seems to be only imitative effort. A lot of the research is ineffective. We need reforms in defence research that capitalise on innovation. Good talent needs to be attracted to these organisations.”

In DRDO’s journey from its fetters, it cannot ignore the private sector. The total volume of work undertaken by the private sector since May 2001 amounts to Rs 6,976 crore out of total capital acquisitions worth Rs 95,145.28 crore. Private sector potential in defence R&D is therefore enormous and mostly untapped.

On September 19, members of the Parliamentary Standing Committee received a compilation of the capabilities of just two private companies. Their capabilities officially declared as everything from weapon-launch systems, sea mines, submarines, fire-control systems and special materials to deep water technology, tracking radars, even space applications.

Atul Kirloskar, chairman of the CII’s National Committee on Defence, which played an integral advisory role to the Vijay Kelkar Committee on reforming self-reliance and procurement, told The Sunday Express: “With DRDO, there is a large opportunity to work on technological issues. Raksha Udyog Ratnas, or private sector systems integrators will be certified next year and will be able to make quotes. The new procurement procedure also includes a Make category. There are opportunities waiting.”

In a sense, few would know this better than Lt Gen S S Mehta, formerly Western Army commander and now Director General of CII. He said, “With growing similarities between civilian and military R&D, it is essential that Defence R&D evolve a collaborative structure which adapts to the rapidly changing technology eco-system.”

The journey to a weapons development system like in the US or Europe is still, quite certainly, decades away. But with shifting paradigms, the blurring of technological boundaries and a whole new element to the meaning of self-reliance, the essence of DRDO’s revitalization will be in accepting that the past is just that. The past.

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