The DARPA's mandate is the development of emerging technologies for US military, while in DRDO emerging technologies often do not receive prominence with decision-makers and stakeholders. At DRDO, research is conducted through contracts with academic institutions, private industries etc. DARPA is explicitly mandated to achieve transformational changes in military technology.

DRDO has done reasonably well in making country Aatmanirbhar in areas like missiles, radars, sonars, underwater systems, fighter aircraft, battle tanks etc.

Research and development in defence is one of the prominent discussion points in the pursuit of Atmanirbharta in defence. Defence research and development has various aspects, and various processes and mechanisms are adopted to achieve success in various arms of the ecosystem. India's DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) and USA's DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) are related to the defence research albeit in different spheres of activities.

Many attempts were made in the past to draw a superfluous comparison between DRDO and DARPA, which did not delve into the details of the research philosophies and goals of the two organisations. While it is easy to draw judgement with superficially visible events, the devil lies in the details. A brief introduction to the goals and charter of two organisations becomes imperative before the comparison is unfolded for other operational aspects.

Department of Defence R&D wing of India's Defence ministry is entrusted with the development of defence technologies and systems with a mission to achieve self-reliance in critical defence areas. DRDO is the largest organisation under this R&D wing which has been mandated to undertake defence research and development for meeting the weapons and technological requirements of India's defence. The main thrust is on design and development of state-of-the-art weapon systems and equipment in accordance with requirements laid down by the three Services.

Salient Laboratory Network

DRDO is a network of laboratories deeply engaged in developing defence technologies covering various disciplines like aeronautics, armament, electronics, combat vehicles, engineering systems, instrumentation, missiles, radars, sonars, advanced computing and simulation, special materials, naval systems, life sciences, training, information systems and agriculture.

DARPA is a US Department of Defence (DoD) agency which works on breakthrough concepts and technologies broadly relevant to national security. DARPA comprises approximately 220 government employees including nearly 100 program managers, who together oversee about 250 research and development programs.

DARPA works with academic, corporate and governmental partners to create new strategic opportunities and novel tactical options, with a focus on the nation's military services. DARPA recruits program managers from the top of their fields from academia, industry and government agencies for limited stints, generally three to five years. DARPA has special statutory hiring authority and alternative contracting vehicles that allow the Agency to take quick advantage of opportunities to advance its missions. These legislated capabilities have helped DARPA to execute its missions effectively.

In earlier comparisons made by various authors, these details have often been omitted. Most of these comparisons are flawed and the authors have carved their opinion from newspaper reports or based them on unauthentic information from publications. It is apparent that comparing DRDO with DARPA is akin to comparing a basket of fruits with a single fruit, howsoever juicy and sweet.

Since there have been too many comparisons in India between DARPA and DRDO, it is the time to do a deep dive into their mandates and highlight some key facts about the two organizations. It is pertinent to understand that mandate, scope and operations of both the institutions are clearly not the same. Any conclusion should be based on sound research of structure and functions of both organizations and through interaction with personnel involved in the systems.

From a vantage point, it is absolutely necessary for one to study and understand the complete defence R&D ecosystem of both the countries. In the US, USD (R&E) supervises all defence research and engineering, technology development, technology transition, appropriate prototyping activities and unifying the defence research and engineering efforts of the Defence R&D framework. The functions of approximately 200 Defence Laboratories, R&D Centres/Technology Centres including headquarter offices are distributed under Army, Navy, Air force and USD (R&E). Under this system established by the US, laboratories directly under armed wings of defence are manned and lead by the scientific personnel along with service personnel. Agencies such as DARPA, Defence Innovation Unit (DIU), Missile Defence Agency (MDA) and Space Defence Agency (SDA) are controlled and monitored by USD(R&E).

DRDO's Mandate

DRDO was established with the primary mandate of empowering the nation with defence technologies required for the defence of India and a mission to achieve self-reliance in critical defence technology and systems. In short, USD (R&E) plays a role equivalent to Secretary DDR&D in India. The defence laboratories under armed forces, FFRDCs (Federally Funded Research and Development Centres), UARCs (University Affiliated Research Centres) and 4th Estate can be compared to some of the DRDO labs and centres. Hence DRDO is mandated to cover a much broader spectrum of activities when compared to a singular unit DARPA.

DARPA's Mandate

The primary mandate of DARPA is the development of emerging technologies for US military to achieve superiority over adversaries. Emerging technologies constitute only one part of DRDO's mandate and often do not receive prominence with decision-makers and stakeholders in view of the demands for current system design and limited funds. The research and development performed by DARPA is not generated out of felt military requirement. Whereas, DRDO's primary focus is on technology and systems for the needs conceived by the armed forces.

Since inception, DARPA has been responsible for executing pivotal investments in the field of futuristic cutting-edge technologies of relevance for security of the nation. DARPA handles specific projects and focuses on smaller networked systems to bring surprise to enemy rather than developing complete aerial, land or naval systems and weapons. DARPA carries out investments only on new ideas up for experiment and with finite timelines and focused outcomes, even if that requires phased development. DARPA does not fund design and development of operational systems. Its mandate is to develop proof of concept prototype which is further developed or commercialized by US research labs or industry. There are no deliverables involved. As mentioned earlier, in the USA, systems and weapon configurations are developed by various laboratories under the aegis of armed forces with USD(R&E) as part of DoD with the main lead as industry in most cases. The defence industry ecosystem is very advanced to support and fulfil the defence requirements.

Services Demand, DRDO Delivers

DRDO has been envisioned to design and develop end-to-end solutions and systems ranging from bullets to battle tanks, small arms to intermediate range ballistic missiles, ballistic missile defence systems, submarines and fighter aircraft. DRDO is a unique organization mandated to deliver a product as demanded by the services and also work on the development of advanced and emerging defence technologies. DRDO has been dealing with highly complex projects requiring development of complete weapon systems and platforms with the constraints of developing defence technology industrial ecosystem of the country and with much financial constraints. The products developed by DRDO are subjected to rigorous testing and numerous trials in extreme conditions and diverse terrains by the services. Numerous DRDO efforts are invested in the complete ordeal of long drawn tests along with the manufacturer and armed forces. Though a tough ask, DRDO has gained invaluable experience in a wide range of activities involving design, development, analysis, quality, reliability, certification and deployment aspects of a large number of defence systems.

Often DRDO has been criticized for high project cost, mismanagement, delayed timelines and sub-optimal performance. The critics always quote "Kaveri" project as an example. But one should note that DRDO was directly tasked to build an engine of a fighter aircraft in a timeframe that even the US and Europe would find challenging. This also involves state of the art, complex and sophisticated technologies and test facilities not available in the country at the time of sanction. Maturity of industry and materials has been another impediment in taking up this complex design task which was largely taken up by the industry in many other countries. The initial investments have been from the government agencies not only for defence but for the civil and commercial applications also, which is a major driving factor across the world.

Flawed Comparison

To bring out few more aberrations about the comparison, it is well understood that DARPA's mandate is huge technology innovation and the success of innovation is attributable to huge academic and industry infrastructure the US has. Production and operationalization of the developed technology is exercised by a fully developed defence-industry ecosystem in the US.

DRDO is often tasked to provide end-to-end solutions for a totally new project. In conventional understanding, the responsibility of defence R&D is to develop technologies. Converting it into a functional equipment depends on the services through an indigenous production source.

DARPA is explicitly mandated to achieve transformational changes in military technology to outplay adversaries whereas bulk of the effort of DRDO is spent on incremental technological advancements to bridge the current capability gap.

Though it is named as Defence Advanced Research Projects agency, it does not perform research directly. The research is conducted through contracts with academic institutions, private industries etc. DRDO conducts research directly for the development of defence technology and co-ordinates with private industry and academia in development of defence technology as per the laid down targets.

There is stack difference in the investment portfolio of US Defence R&D and Indian Defence R&D. R&D budget of India is meagre compared to that of the US. The budget allocation for Department of Defence in the US is $773 billion which works out to be more than Rs. 61 Lakh crore, whereas India's total defence budget is Rs 5.25 Lakh Cores. The budget for Indian Department of Defence R&D (of which DRDO is only one part) is approximately Rs. 21,300 Cores. Compare this with the defence RDT&E allocation of USA, which is approximately USD 130.1 Billion (approx. Rs 10 Lakh Cr). The budget of DARPA alone in FY 2022 was USD 3.868 Billion (more than Rs 30,000 Cr). This allocation of RDT&E of US MoD does not include the investments in cyberspace activities, S&T, AI and microelectronics etc, which are given separately.

Surviving On Meagre Means

Even with meagre financial resources, DRDO has done reasonably well in making country Aatmanirbhar in areas like missiles, radars, sonars, underwater systems, fighter aircraft, battle tanks etc. Recent export order of Brahmos from Philippines and the news items regarding shortlisting of LCA Tejas by Malaysia and other countries has started showing India's homegrown technical prowess in defence technologies and systems.

In DRDO, a moderate kind of DARPA functionality is mandated through Futuristic Technology Management, Extramural Research, Research Boards and to some extent directly by laboratories. This has been given impetus in last one decade, albeit with limited funds. Various research boards specializing in the areas of life sciences, armament, aeronautics and naval technologies have been catering to specialized research for DRDO programs.

Technology Development Fund (TDF) has been launched in last five years to encourage research through industry. Technology management in DRDO is profusely promoting an ecosystem comprising of DRDO-Industry-Academia Centres of Excellence in various academic institutions across the country, various R&D institutions, private industries and academia at large. The goal is to create new strategic opportunities and novel tactical solutions through a vibrant interlocking ecosystem of diverse collaborations. This setup provides funding to research projects and programmes in academic institutions and industries to undertake development of technologies relevant to defence applications. The funds are disbursed in Grant-in-Aid mode to collaborating institutions and as per procedures laid down under the rules of government of India.

Defence R&D budget of the India is grossly inadequate to conduct research in advanced areas like hypersonic systems, ballistic missile defence, quantum technologies, AI and robotics, cognitive technologies, directed energy systems, secured communication, long-range surveillance and superiority in underwater, aerial and space domains. A noteworthy point is that project-wise funding of DARPA is not known. However, each DARPA challenge carries first, second and third prizes worth two, one and a half and one million US dollars.

Developing an ecosystem of defence technology akin to USA is a process that develops with the advancement of defence industrial ecosystem of the country. DRDO under the aegis of Secretary Defence R&D, has taken up expansive work in bringing up multiple industries in conducting translational R&D, through its policies of transfer of technology, development cum production partner, development contracts, technology development fund scheme and other similar instruments.

As industry began maturing for incremental R&D, DRDO has opened the gate for translational R&D by industry and academia. As this effort matures, DRDO may open the gates for transformational R&D by industry and academia. It is about time that adequate attention is given to provision of financial and technical resources, scientific skills and vibrant defence research ecosystem in academia and industry environment specific to the country rather than comparing it with something which is not even a comparison.