by Pradip R Sagar

On an unusually warm Monday evening, the country's senior-most defence scientists were constantly checking their WhatsApp messages. It was almost 5 pm, and the last day of the outgoing chief of DRDO, S. Christopher, was coming to an end. However, there was no official word on who his successor would be—the government had failed to find a suitable candidate to succeed Christopher.

As the clock struck 5 pm on Monday, P K Tripathi, secretary in the Department of Personnel and Training, issued an order, assigning the additional charge of chairman DRDO to Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra for a period of three months.

Despite the stop gap arrangement, however, India's premier defence research organisation, which has an annual budget of close to Rs. 20,000 crore, remains headless.

Christopher, who was given a one year extension by the government in May 2017, was also eyeing another extension. South block sources claim that proposal to grant him a six-month extension was moved by the ministry of defence about a month back. But the appointments committee of cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, believed to have sent back the proposal and asked for a panel of shortlisted candidate for the top post. The search committee, headed by the defence minister, is still working on to finalise the names of suitable candidates.

Three key players were in the race to lead the DRDO. Sudhir Mishra, director general of BrahMos missile system division; G Satheesh Reddy, director general (missiles & strategic systems) and scientific adviser to the defence minister; and P K Mehta, director general of armament and combat engineering systems, were considered front runners for the post.

This is not the first time that the DRDO has been kept headless. A similar situation happened in January 2015 when the government abruptly decided to remove the then chairman of DRDO Avinash Chander. On November 28, 2014, Chander was given an 18-month service extension to head the DRDO till May 31, 2016. Later, the government decided to cancel his extension, and the then defence secretary R K Mathur was given additional charge to look after the DRDO. Former defence minister Manohar Parrikar defended government decision to cut short Chander's tenure saying they are looking for someone young to head the DRDO, as at that time, nearly a dozen of its top most scientists were on service extension after retirement.

DRDO has often been criticised for delayed projects, as most of its projects, ranging from Tejas Light Combat Aircraft to long-range surface-to-air missile systems, have been missing repeated deadlines with huge cost overruns. In absence of self-reliance in defence, Indian armed forces continue to be heavily dependent on imports. India continues to top the list of global importer of military hardware, with over 70 per cent of armed forces requirements are met from foreign firms.