by Pradip R Sagar

The Narendra Modi government has undone one of its own major defence sector reforms. Soon after it had come to power, the Modi government had bifurcated the posts of the chief of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and of scientific adviser to the defence minster for better efficiency and ease of functioning. Now, both posts are vacant.

The last scientist to head the DRDO, S. Christopher, retired on May 29, and the government has not yet found a scientist to succeed him. So it has asked the defence secretary, an IAS officer, to also function as head of the prestigious body of defence scientists.

And two months ago, the term of Satish Reddy, scientific adviser to the defence minister, ended. The post has been lying vacant since.

Earlier, the director of the DRDO also used to function as scientific advisor to the defence minister. As many as 12 eminent scientists had held the post, including such illustrious names as A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, V.S. Arunachalam, V.K. Saraswat and Avinash Chander. Under their stewardship, the prestigious body with nearly 8,000 defence scientists—and having an annual budget of about Rs 20,000 crore and about 50 laboratories—developed a host of ballistic missiles, Light Combat Aircraft, Arjun battle tank and hundreds of critical weapons systems and components, which are not even available for import.

After the Modi government came to power, it first granted an extension to the then DRDO chief-cum-scientific adviser Chander, who was to retire in November 2014. The extension was for 18 months, but less than two months later, the Modi government abruptly cancelled the extension, sent Chander packing, and asked the defence secretary R.K. Mathur, an IAS officer, to function also as DRDO chief.

The then defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, defended the Modi government's decision to cut short Chander's tenure, saying that the government wanted someone younger to head the DRDO, as at that time, nearly a dozen of its topmost scientists were on service extensions after retirement.

Subsequently, the Modi government bifurcated the posts. The DRDO chief's job was given to aeronautics scientist Dr S. Christopher, while Dr Satish Reddy, a missile scientist, was appointed scientific advisor in May 2015, both for two-year terms. When their terms expired, the government gave both of them one-year extensions.

Finally, Christopher's tenure expired on May 29, on which day he demitted office. The post has since been held as an additional charge by Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra, an IAS officer, for the period of three months.

Reddy's extended tenure ended on June 4, and he has since gone back. The post he held in Delhi, that of the scientific advisor, “has since been lying vacant, and no fresh order for extension of his service or naming his successor has come,” said an informed source.

There is a buzz in the defence ministry that Reddy, who is also director general (Missiles & Strategic Systems) is being considered for the post of DRDO chief. Other names being considered include P.K. Mehta, director general of armament and combat engineering systems; Jillelamudi Manjula, currently posted as the director general, electronics and communication systems and Sudhir Mishra, head of BrahMos.

There is also speculation that the Modi government is toying with another experiment—of merging the posts of secretary, Research and Development( who is also chairman, DRDO) and secretary, defence production. But the 'IAS lobby' is learnt to be pushing for the move because the defence production secretary's job is held by an IAS officer.