DRDO Chief S Christopher with Arun Jaitley, during his brief tenure as defence minister in 2017

by Pradip R Sagar

With the tenure of S. Christopher, current chief of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), coming to an end later this month, the race for the top post in the country's premier defence research organisation has begun. Christopher, who was given a one-year extension at the last moment in May 2017, though, is also eyeing another extension. But whether he will be second time lucky is unclear.

Hectic parleys have begun for the coveted post. The key players who are in the race to lead the DRDO include Sudhir Mishra, director general of BrahMos missile system division, and G. Satheesh Reddy, who is presently serving as director general (Missiles & Strategic Systems) and scientific advisor to the defence minister. Besides Mishra and Reddy, P.K. Mehta, who is currently heading the office of the director general of armament and combat engineering systems, is considered to be in the race to head DRDO, which has an annual budget of nearly Rs 20,000 crore.

According to sources in South Block, Reddy is the senior-most scientist in the organisation after Christopher. His name figured prominently last year also, but Christopher managed to get an extension at the last minute, meaning Reddy would need to wait for a year. Former defence minister Manohar Parrikar had bifurcated the post of DRDO chief and scientific advisor to the defence minister, which earlier used to be occupied by one person. Christopher is completing his tenure on May 29.

Mishra, head of BrahMos missile system division—a joint venture between India and Russia— is also among candidates vying for the top post in DRDO.

Mehta, who is heading the Pune-based cluster of armament and combat engineering systems, can be a dark horse in the race due to his proximity with top BJP leaders, sources claimed.

Christopher, who took over as the head of DRDO in May 2015, did his best to impress Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman by showcasing the work done under his leadership towards self-reliance in the recently concluded DefExpo in Chennai. A special pavilion under the 'Make in India' theme was inaugurated by Modi, in which all major equipment designed and developed by DRDO were showcased. Last year, Christopher had directed all the labs to remove his photographs, just two weeks before he was to retire. But only at the last minute, he was given extension for a year by the government.

DRDO has often been criticised for delayed projects, as most of its ventures, ranging from the Tejas light combat aircraft to long-range surface-to-air missile systems, have been repeatedly missing deadlines, with huge cost overruns. In the absence of self-reliance in defence, the Indian armed forces continue to be heavily dependent on imports. India continues to top the list of global importers of military hardware, with over 70 per cent of armed forces' requirements being met by foreign firms. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his first interaction with DRDO scientists in 2014 had sent a stern message to the defence research agency against their ‘chalta hai’ attitude.