The PMO-driven initiative aims to rid India’s premier defence research agency of ‘redundant’ tasks and remodel it on the lines of the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency

With an aim to attain high-end futuristic technologies for future wars, the Union government has set up a high-powered committee, comprising officials from the ministry of defence (MoD), the three services, industry and academia, to redefine the role of India’s premier defence research agency, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). The DRDO, which has a budget of Rs 23,264 crore in budget estimate (BE) 2023-24, has often been criticised for delayed projects and cost overruns. Incidentally, the DRDO, with massive manpower and infrastructure, currently does not have any major new project in its hands.

The nine-member committee, headed by former principal scientific advisor to the government Prof. K. Vijay Raghavan, will submit its report within three months. Defence sources claim the move to revamp the DRDO is driven by the Prime Minister’s Office. The PMO is reportedly also considering bifurcating the post of DRDO chairman and secretary-research and development in the MoD. This is to ensure that the DRDO chief, with lesser responsibility, is able to devote more time and energy to defence programmes. The view is that a bureaucrat holding the post of secretary-R&D can manage administrative and financial tasks better than a scientist.

A top defence official said the DRDO should be focusing only on high-end futuristic technologies foreseen in air, ground, maritime and space systems. This would come at the cost of offloading some of its ongoing ‘redundant’ tasks, which perhaps the academia or industry can do. For several years, the DRDO was mandated to work to only meet the immediate demands of the armed forces and indigenise existing weapon systems even as other countries concentrated on future technologies.

As per the terms of reference of the Raghavan-led committee, while it will suggest inputs to maximise academia and start-up participation in the development of cutting-edge technologies, the panel will also look into the restructuring and redefining the role of the Department of Defence (R&D) and DRDO, as well as their relationship with each other and with the academia and industry.

Military analysts believe most of India’s defence manufacturing achievements are limited to the production of outdated tanks, guns, helicopters and weapons platforms, or the setting up of manufacturing units producing foreign weapons after technology transfer. However, the DRDO has done tremendously well in missile and radar technologies.

With this revamp, the Union government intends to follow the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) model of the United States for the DRDO. DARPA and DRDO were born in the same year, 1958. According to its website, DARPA works on the principle that the US should be ”the initiator and not the victim of strategic technological surprises“. DARPA is merely a funding agency with no laboratories or research staff, and all research is conducted through contracts with universities, industry and government R&D institutions. On the other hand, the DRDO has a staff strength of about 30,000, of which only 30 per cent are from the scientific community.

In the 2022-23 Union budget, 25 per cent of MoD’s R&D budget was earmarked for private industry, start-ups and academia. Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, while presenting the budget, had said that “private industry will be encouraged to take up design and development of military platforms and equipment in collaboration with the DRDO and other organisations through the strategic partnership model”. However, the DRDO has not been able to share its R&D budget with any academia.

Last year, the government opened the DRDO’s doors to private players wherein they could use government assets for projects, thus sparing them the need to invest in land, machinery or other support infrastructure. The Narendra Modi government has taken several measures to boost indigenous defence manufacturing, through initiatives like Aatmanirbhar Bharat, and boost defence exports. The MoD has set an ambitious defence exports target of Rs 35,000 crore by 2025.