Editor's Note: This is the second and final part of a two-part series of investigation on irregularities in the UAVs development program by ADE for forces as unearthed by a CAG audit

There are many other examples which the audit believes has been no less than huge disappointment for the user agencies as well as research and development scenarios in the country. The audit has also flagged two other important projects, UDAAN and PRAGATHI, further pointing out that expenditure incurred on them remain unproductive. The audit on Nishant UAV observed that phase-I of the project was completed in December 2015 and Phase-II was planned to be completed by October 2017

New Delhi: In December 2013, the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) under the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) decided to develop Autonomous Rotary Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (RUAV). The approval for the same came in March 2014 and Rs 10.69 crore was sanctioned for the purpose. September 2015 was fixed as the deadline for the completion of the project.

Interestingly, the ADE did not prepare any outcome realisation plan and there was no user agency in the executive board to monitor the project. Nevertheless, the deadline was missed but two months later in November 2015, it was decided to foreclose the project after incurring an expenditure of Rs 6.53 crore.

The test audit report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) enquired the reasons for foreclosing the project without achieving the goals which led to the entire expenditure on the project infructuous. The ADE in a response to the audit said the UAV was flown in manual mode only while it was required to fly in semi/autonomous mode and foreclosing was a decision taken by the executive board.

The ADE further argued that money was not wasted as technologies achieved during the project are utilised for a new project called ‘Naval Rotary Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (NRUAV).

Thereafter, the audit decided to examine NRUAV and found something more alarming. The proposal for NRUAV was submitted in July 2015 when RUAV was already on. The project worth Rs 16.45 crore with a deadline of May 2017, was approved in November 2015 with the assurance that the Indian Navy would allot one Chetak helicopter for instrumented flight and data recording. However, the navy backtracked.

In September 2016, the Integrated HQ intimated that the Indian Navy was not in a position to allot a helicopter and hence, it was decided to foreclose the project. But, in an executive board meeting in December 2016, it was decided to go ahead with the project with the involvement of the Indian Air Force (IAF) for converting a manned helicopter into a rotary UAV.

In September 2017, the scope of the project was re-defined from NRUAV to HELIDRONE project, stating that since Indian Navy foreclosed the project, the scope of the lead-in project needed to be redefined and re-appropriation of cost to be justified. In January 2018, it was decided that the project would be renamed as ‘lead-in project of HELIDRONE.’

In August 2018, a corrigendum was issued changing the objective of the project to the conversion of a helicopter of any class into UAV and the deadline was extended to November 2019. When the audit questioned these changes, the ADE said the Chetak being a helicopter of 1960s was left with much less operational life and now the revised scope will help develop the in-house capabilities for the conversion of any helicopter to rotary UAV. The audit, however said, if so was the case then ADE should have foreclosed the project without incurring any more expenditure and sought for a new project with a renewed objective.

“Instead, the project is being pursued with no definite objective and definite requirement. In view of this, utility of expenditure of Rs 5.66 crore (so far) incurred towards the project remains to be seen,” the audit report reviewed revealed.

There are many other examples which the audit believes has been no less than huge disappointment for the user agencies as well as R&D scenarios in the country. More than a decade ago, in April 2007, the ADE decided to design and develop a fixed-wing micro air vehicle, which could be hand-launched by a soldier. However, during the peer review meeting, no user representative from the armed forces was invited. Notwithstanding, the approval came in August 2007 with a total cost of Rs 13.68 crore to develop a ‘Man-Portable Fixed Wing Micro Air Vehicle’ with ADE as the nodal agency and National Aerospace Laboratories, Bangalore as the partner in the implementation of the project.

The project was completed in February 2011 and formal closure was announced in August 2015. According to the closure report, the project was successfully completed meeting most of the requirements and demonstrating that DRDO has the capability to take up similar class of vehicles. The audit, however, after examining the report said, the development did not materialise into any usable product. It even questioned ADE whether any firm’s order existed before taking up the project and whether any order was received from services or internal security agencies for the UAVs developed under the project.

"ADE stated that no order existed prior to undertaking the development of the item nor any order had been received for the product developed. The development effort of ADE was in isolation without analysing the requirement of the users. This resulted in the entire expenditure of Rs 13.19 crore being rendered unproductive,” the report said.

Fixed Wing Mini UAV (FM-UAV) project met a similar fate and remain grounded. This project’s objective was to cater to the need of the armed forces and paramilitary forces, although it has come to light that peer review of the project did not have any user representative during the meeting. The project was approved in July 2010 at a total cost of Rs 7.48 crore and it was completed in July 2012.

There are also no takers either in the armed forces or paramilitary forces for another project that was launched to develop a system for tactical intelligence-gathering operations. The project was completed in July 2015 at a cost of Rs 4.04 crore and closure report said the planned activity was completed successfully. The audit, however said, in contravention of the laid down rules, no feasibility study was carried out before taking up the project and even peer review carried out by ADE did not have any user agency on board. The report said: “No firm’s requirement existed prior to undertaking development of the item nor any order had been received for the product developed in 2015.”

The audit has also flagged two other important projects — UDAAN and PRAGATHI — further pointing out that expenditure incurred on them remain unproductive and perhaps there is doubt over effectiveness as claimed by the ADE. As per the closure report UDAAN, the ADE claimed that all objectives were met. However, while submitting the proposal for PRAGATHI, ADE stated that the six trial campaigns under project UDAAN were not sufficient to meet the objective. The ADE was questioned which of the two statements are true. It simply reiterated without providing details that objectives of UDAAN had been completed and hence the project was closed.

“Response of ADE is not tenable as the flight trials undertaken did not result in a usable product for the Armed Forces, necessitating more flight trials under PRAGATHI. Consequently, the expenditure of Rs.3.76 Crore incurred on the project was rendered unproductive as the project was closed without meeting its objective,” the report observed.

PRAGATHI was launched on the pretext that UDAAN trials were not sufficient. The project at a cost of Rs 20 crore had the main objective of developing upgrades of low and high-speed UAVs of armed forces. This project too, like many others, did not have any user agency in the executive board neither any detailed project execution plan was prepared by the ADE. The approval came in July 2013 with a deadline of July 2016. The audit said in the third executive board meeting held in December 2015, it was recommended for the closure of the project as per original deadline and surrendering the remaining funds.

“However, during a meeting held in March 2016 at DRDO Bhawan under the chairmanship of DG, DRDO wherein SA (Scientific Advisor) to RM (Defence Minister), DG (Aero) and DG (Arty) were also present, DG (Arty) clarified that Nishant and its variants were primitive and there was no suction seen from the field commanders. Instead, he advised to pursue Rustom-I in line with JSQR ( Joint Services Qualitative Requirement) issued by Army for short range UAV. Accordingly, DG(DRDO) instructed ADE to prepare Rustom-I as a strong candidate against the GSQR (General Staff Qualitative Requirement) of short range UAV by carrying out necessary procurement under PRAGATHI project and also extending its PDC (Project’s probable date of completion). In August 2016, DG (Aero) revised the PDC of the project from July 2016 to January 2018 with the revised objective of conducting 20 flight trial campaigns to evaluate and validate technologies,” the audit report said.

The test audit had enquired from ADE after the closure of the project on whether Rustom-I has since been upgraded/qualified enough to meet the JSQR of short-range UAV. In reply, ADE stated that they have submitted compliance matrix of Rustom-I with JSQR of short-range UAV, from which it was observed that there were QRs related to payloads, for which Rustom-I was yet to comply.

“Project was closed without complying with JSQR. Thus, expenditure of Rs.17.17 Crore incurred on the project was rendered unfruitful, as it did not result into a usable product for the armed forces,” the audit report observed.

A DRDO spokesperson, however, said the ADE has developed the Short Range UAV (Rustom-I) which can be produced for armed forces and paramilitary forces.

“ADE is tasked with the Development of Medium Altitude and Long Endurance UAVs. In this direction, the major programme TAPAS is undertaken by ADE. The first Indigenous UAV Nishant was inducted into Indian Army in 2014,” the DRDO spokesperson said.

An email questionnaire sent to the Director, ADE, seeking response on audit findings remained unanswered till the filing of this report.

The audit on Nishant UAV observed that phase-I of the project was completed in December 2015 and Phase-II was planned to be completed by October 2017.

“ In March 2016, ADE made a presentation to the Indian Army and requested to consider Nishant UAV with improved version as part of Phase-II delivery. However, Army clarified that Nishant and its variants are primitive and field commanders felt no need,” the audit report stated.

The audit also enquired from ADE whether any requirement has been received from the army or CRPF for the wheeled version of Nishant developed under the project. The ADE in its response to the audit said that ‘no requirement was received from either Army or CRPF till date.’