DRDO testing its latest Quick-Reaction Surface-To-Air Missile

DRDO projects are victims of massive time and cost overruns, plus there's a trust deficit between them and the armed forces. These issues need fixing

The ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis has thrown up several lessons for various countries and will have large scale implications on the global order, both in terms of military as well as economy. As far as India is concerned, the war has made clear the importance of having indigenous defence systems because despite all efforts, India is the biggest defence importer in the world with a bulk of the purchase from Russia.

With the Russian-Ukraine conflict, several technologies have come under focus, including the Man Portable Anti-Tank Guided Missile (MPATGM) and armed drones. India’s own programmes display a sad state of affairs. The MPATGM was originally conceptualised in 1980s as part of the Integrated Missile Development Programme and has been under development since 2013 and is yet to be fructified.

Meanwhile, India’s armed drones program – Rustom – was slammed by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in a 2020 report, which noted that keeping end-users in dark, poor planning and flouting of standard operating procedures hurt Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) projects.

Helicopter-launched Nag missiles have been under development since 2012 and are yet to be inducted into the Services in spite of multiple extensions in probable date of completion and cost revisions. Induction of Quick Reaction Surface-to-Air Missiles has also been facing inordinate delays in the Army while the Air Force received the first regiment of Medium Range Surface to Air missiles only last year, the contract for which was signed with the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in 2007.

The defence ministry has taken a number of steps to usher in a culture of indigenisation. However, the recent focus on research and development (R&D) is what will benefit India in the long run

Reviews of Indigenous Programs

Over the last one-and-a-half months, there has been a systematic and concerted review of India’s indigenous defence outlook. This includes a series of meetings involving top security officials in the government, including the Service Chiefs and Vice and Deputy Chiefs of the three Services.

The government is seriously looking at ways to promote research and development, and one of the primary areas of focus is the working of the DRDO. It is understood that the forces have also given several inputs on the need to revamp the DRDO — something that has been talked about in the past but without much success, including by a parliamentary panel as early as 2019.

As per the latest report by the CAG, DRDO faces a shortage of 180 scientists and has, surprisingly, deputed 38 of its scientists in civil works — an area that is already over-subscribed.

Starting with only 10 laboratories in 1958, DRDO has grown into a giant organisation with a vast network of 52 laboratories and establishments spread across the country. Sadly, since Independence, it has not been able to produce a single technologically contemporary or futuristic platform or capability for the Indian Armed Forces on its own. Sources in the armed forces say that in order to prove its technical expertise, DRDO “has heavily advertised ‘proof of concept’ demonstrations of prototypes of various weapon platforms with no thought given to their mass production and adoption by the clientele for whom they have been apparently designed”. A number of groups, including Kelkar, Kargil and Rama Rao committees, had been appointed to suggest recommendations, but very few were implemented.

There is no doubt that the DRDO must research into niche and emerging futuristic technologies with a view to producing them on scale and making them adaptable to the Armed Forces warfighting methods rather than focus on making Meal Ready-to-Eats, clothing, Leh Berry juice and now, in the midst of the pandemic, Personal Protective Equipment and hand sanitisers.

DRDO currently has 52 labs, 26,000 personnel with a budget in excess of Rs 3,000 crore. DRDO’s funding is 6 per cent of the defence budget and 20 per cent of the entire R&D expenditure within the country. Despite this, the institution regularly complains about lack of funding and unfairly compares its state to the United States Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which neither has a captive market nor government-owned and heavily manned establishments.

In its latest report, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence has said that in comparison to defence funding in countries such as the US, Russia, and China, “our Defence (R&D) spending is very less”. There is no doubt that DRDO has had good success in strategic defence systems but has failed miserably in designing tactical defence systems — a mainstay of the armed forces.

Many in the armed forces argue that our indigenous strategic defence systems have ridden piggyback on the success of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)’s programme.

Trust Deficit Between Forces And DRDO

DRDO projects are victims of massive time and cost overruns and there is a huge trust deficit between them and the armed forces on account of inordinate delays, quality and other issues.

While DRDO blames the Services for frequent changes in the GSQRs, (General Staff Quality Requirements), the time delays are so huge that well before DRDO develops the prototype, the equipment has become obsolete, thereby forcing changes in the GSQR. This then becomes a vicious cycle, sources explained.

DRDO has also been accused of readily accepting and launching projects without conducting proper feasibility studies. For many projects, DRDO simply does not have the funds, human resources or even technological capability to warrant such studies.

Once begun, there is an absence of structured peer reviews and inadequate mechanisms for short-closure of projects, even when their non-viability is evident to all professional observers. These ‘going nowhere’ projects foreclose the possibility of import of similar systems in many cases, and lead to serious operational gaps in the inventory of the armed services, sources say.

It is alleged that DRDO initiates a large number of projects without even informing the Services who the end-users are. In a number of projects, it has also extended timelines and financial limits without the involvement of the users.

Sources said 7.62 mm LMG, Mounted Gun System, 600 HP engine, Perimeter Surveillance and Response System are technology demonstrators initiated without involving the Services

Way Ahead For Defence And Research

DRDO must streamline its perennially mushrooming establishment and outsource administrative functions to reduce non-scientific manpower. For increasing the stake of the armed forces in the DRDO, and to keep end-user requirements clearly in focus, all science and technology and Technology Demonstrator projects must have the clearance of the Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee or the Chief of Defence Staff.

DRDO labs involved in items available off the shelf like clothing, agricultural products and now hand sanitisers must be closed. Senior one- and two-star General Officers from the Armed Forces should be deputed to the DRDO through mutual consultations, as both advisers as well as interlocutors with the Armed Forces, in respect of major projects.

A system of rewards and bonuses must be introduced for achievers, and non-performers must be weeded out through legally enforceable measures.