India should focus more on indigenous defence production to reduce import in the defence sector, and to become self-reliant in technology

The Government aims to take the Indian economy to $10 trillion by 2030, and it believes, defence is one of the sectors that can help in contributing towards this. Echoing the same views, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is working towards the same to make this a reality. With a network of 52 laboratories across the country and over 30,000 employees, it is one of India’s largest and most diverse research organisations.

Controlled directly by the Ministry of Defence, DRDO feels the country should focus on more indigenous defence production to reduce import in the sector and should become self-reliant in technology. But the approach towards indigenisation since independence has yielded limited results. It has largely resulted in policy capture by public sector undertakings in the name of indigenisation. The net result is that the domestic industry is incapable of meeting India’s defence requirements and is embroiled in license production as far as the key technology is concerned. 

The Breakthrough

It would be unfair to deride the institution without talking about their breakthroughs, and in fact, the best in the world of science and technology, in some of complex technological challenges of the 21st century. Especially in Defence, the assimilation of such breakthrough in forming into the workable application is another crucial thread that scientists have to grapple with. For such breakthroughs, it is also a fact that the DRDO has not received the emphatic applause from the various corners that it actually deserves.

DRDO Chairman and Secretary Department of Defence R&D G. Satheesh Reddy proudly points out: “A-SAT, Ballistic Missiles, Ballistic Missiles defence Systems, Radars, Sonars, EW systems, Torpedoes are state-of-the-art systems and not World War II systems. DRDO has always and will continue to engage on cutting-edge technologies. All the stakeholders have always appreciated the efforts of DRDO. Incidentally, in all of the above systems, we are one of the six countries in the world to develop such capability.”

DRDO has developed several ballistic missiles under its Integrated Guided Missile Development Program (IGMDP), includes missiles like Prithvi, Trishul, Agni, Akash and Nag. The latest in this series is the successful testing of nuclear capable the Agni V missile. Earlier this year, DRDO successfully tested new generation anti-radiation missile (NGARM), which is capable of destroying enemy radars that can be launched from various altitudes. The DRDO is testing Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV), which will have speed at in excess of Mach 6, while using atmospheric oxygen as oxidiser. The DRDO’s role in developing multiple weapon platforms and systems for INS Arihant, India’s first nuclear ballistic missile submarine, is commendable.

The Fallout

Even after 60 years of the DRDO formation, India still imports a large share of its defence equipment. In the year 2018-19, India is the world’s second-largest importer of defence equipment, accounting for 13 per cent of the global total, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The DRDO’s list of successes is short -- primarily the Agni and Prithvi missiles. Its list of failures is much longer. The Kaveri Engine is indeed on top of that. It would cost indigenous fighter aircraft a great deal. The Indian Air Force (IAF) itself is looking for some 400 next generation fighter aircrafts. Navy has its own good number -- some 200 combat aircrafts and in the context of Indian Ocean, along the greater shift of the naval supremacy, it is more than needed. Building the required thrust for the engine that could indeed be at the heart of 5th generation fighter aircraft should have been taken off. Delays in AMCA and dumping of joint collaboration program with Russia turned clumsy and messy. That cost the IAF a lot as it had to start from scratch. The CAG report also revealed that not all technologies developed by the DRDO were suitable for the armed forces. The three services have rejected 70 per cent of the products developed at the Armament Research and Development Establishment (ARDE), Pune, in the last 15 years, costing Rs 320 crore because the products did not meet their standards and requirements.

Costly Affair

The DRDO’s capital allocation is mere 6 per cent of the total defence budget and that also includes the cost of maintenance and other administrative expenditure. This is grossly inadequate, especially when the need should be for financial commitment to the Technology Perspective and Capability Roadmap (TPCR) after deliberations between the scientists and the defence services. Fact that no nation gives away its cutting-edge technology, the Centre should treat the DRDO as its No. 1 priority. It is tricky situation. One side, the government has to spent $42 billion in procuring technology from overseas and a few domestically assemble, on the other, it harp on the assimilation of indigenisation up to 70-75 per cent by 2025. But the defence puts the total sum for the DRDO far less than desired. At 6 per cent of the total budget (Rs 18,000 crore), it halts many futuristic program.

As DRDO Scientist & Former Chief Controller R&D W. Selvamurthy points out: “A minimum 12-15 per cent is what is required for India in its quest for indigenisation.” Under the head, it goes into maintaining the entire infrastructural empire of the DRDO spread across India. That is a huge cost which takes way substantial chunk. Reddy said: “The cutting-edge technologies are not available at any cost. They are acquired hard way through the persistent efforts of the scientific community of the country, and the government is well aware of this.”

It may be recalled that the government had set up a committee on 08 February 2007 chaired by Former Secretary, Department of Science and Technology P. Rama Rao to review and suggest measures to improve the functioning of the DRDO. The committee was mandated through its terms of reference to review the present organisational structure and to recommend necessary changes in the institutional, managerial, administrative and financial structures for improving the functioning of the DRDO. The Committee submitted its report to the government on 07 February 2008. The structural part of the DRDO is indeed the problem. Even the official agrees on the breadth and a scope of the functioning of the DRDO. But so far the committee’s recommendations have been implemented abysmally, gerrymandering the core of the problem. The DRDO is far from reaching the operational efficiency of similar organisations from across the world given the size and scope of work. But it does not have the same scope of budget as mentioned above.

Selvamurthy has served four decades in the institution and has been a deft hand in some of the key technological breakthroughs of the DRDO. Talking about such issues, he pointed out that the DRDO should be put on track like the ISRO as Commission and be place director under the Prime Minster Office. The ISRO’s model is often brought back under discussion whenever the obvious comparison takes place. And, truly, what is the most pertinent thing for an emerging nation like India which is to bring the thrust on the R&D in defence - a number one priority. Pointing the same question, Reddy said: “Yes, I am aware of such debates. But first, give me some time to set my house right.” Some change is visible and the DRDO is definitely gearing up for the further challenges. The DRDO has taken some steps in the direction as it is considering long-term contracts with the Indian information technology vendors such as TATA Consultancy Services to build software solutions for defence projects, shifting its strategy of awarding deals to the lowest bidders on short-term projects. The doors for the private industry or individual are opening fast.