Throwing the baby out with the bath water

17th May 2024
Throwing the baby out with the bath water
DRDO achievements:Clockwise from top left: Akash New Generation missile; Arjun Main Battle Tank; Light Combat Aircraft Tejas; Varunastra torpedo. / DRDO handouts

Against the background of sustained arms imports, the virtual dismemberment of DRDO recommended by an expert committee, has attracted sharp dissent by a galaxy of former   Indian defence science chiefs

Anand Parthasarathy

According to a study in March this year by  the Swedish think tank, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India remained  the world’s top arms importer for the period 2019-23.

Clearly this continues, in spite of India having established in 1958, a robust Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) which has since  grown to 50 laboratories and some 30,000 personnel, with the aim of achieving  a large measure of self reliance in her defence needs.

Strong  global arms  lobbies have been known to exert subtle pressures to tilt the balance in their favour from indigenous development. Successive governments have had to grapple with having to balance the need to develop, build and operate proprietary weapon systems, while  having to provide the best products to give Indian armed forces an edge  on the battlefield.  It is a delicate balancing act: but at least for  half a century, no one has questioned the DRDO’s central role in building domestic expertise into  military hardware and software  -- and  this trust  has seen dozens of major systems  from missiles to combat aircraft to naval  underwater weapons to battlefield tanks delivered by Indian defence scientists and  manufacturing industry – often overcoming denial of key components and  materials  by global vendors, when pushed by their respective governments.

So, it came as something of a surprise when the Ministry of Defence   set up a committee in August 2023 the under the chairmanship of K Vijayraghavan a former Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India on “Redesigning DRDO.”

This is not the first such committee. In 2020 a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence made some recommendations on reorganizing DRDO  and importantly highlighted its shortages in manpower and budgetary allocation which hampered reaching its full potential.

No representation from DRDO

But the 2023 panel was something else. The nine members included leadership of all three military wings, defence analysts, private sector representatives, some academics, an ISRO scientist, a finance expert -- but bizarrely no one from DRDO itself.  It is said to have submitted its report in January 2024 – but there was no official communication,  only some leaks  which allowed multiple media outlets to claim “exclusive”  insights.

Based on such opaque sources one  learned with astonishment that the committee had seemingly suggested the  virtual dismemberment of DRDO, cutting down the current number of 50 labs  employing some 30,000, into just 10 national facilities.  Even more drastically, the committee reportedly proposed that DRDO should stick to doing   the basic R&D for a system, and not undertake productization – even of a prototype.  Such production tasks should be entrusted to private sector and public sector units.

The journey of a defence system from the user requirement to initial design to development of subsystems, their integration into a military-grade product and a series of trials with the user arm  has always demanded the closest involvement of the developer – DRDO--  up until the identified manufacturing partner  is cleared by a  wing of the armed forces for series production.

‘Before  redesigning,  learn fully’

Tinkering with this template seemed so misconceived that   two respected former DRDO leaders – Dr K. G. Narayanan, formerly Director, Aeronautical Development Establishment, and Chief Adviser, DRDO and  Dr Vasudev K. Aatre  formerly Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister and Secretary, Department of Defence R&D,   felt compelled to voice their concern. They did this last week in an article, occupying almost a full broadsheet page, in the Bengaluru-based Deccan Herald, titled “Before redesigning DRDO, learn fully about it”.

Meticulously listing DRDO achievements over decades, they write: “One sees DRDO as a vibrant S&T organisation of long standing and a great track record of delivery, focussed on carrying out its mandate of helping the Armed Forces to become more and more technologically self-reliant and adapting itself to the new milieu of international cooperation, Indian private industry participation and creative interactions with the academia.”

“Despite all these contributions over the last three decades, one is not surprised to see an amount of discordant criticism of DRDO’s performance in the public space, unmindful of the actual track record.”

“One is surprised to see the measurable accomplishments of DRDO and the Department of Defence Production over the last five decades brushed aside casually as “some achievements.” Worse, the report relegates to an appendix  the presentation made by DRDO to the committee highlighting its achievements amidst the challenges  -- and distances itself from it.

“It is difficult to believe that any good review can come out of such adversarial attitudes” say the authors.

They conclude: “The recommendations of the committee on reconfiguring a scientific institution like the DRDO into 10 national laboratories, and other such statements, disclose a strong preference to pre-determined ideas, with little inclination to analyse the root causes of what keeps India in the top place in the global arms importers list for over a decade now.”

The implication was this: How can one country be a top arms importer and  a big indigenous developer at the same time?

Response from veterans

The article has seen unprecedented traction in the Defence R&D community. Till date some 16 have commented in support of the Deccan Herald article  -- and urged   rethinking the committee report.

They include Dr Bhujanga Rao Vepakomma, former Distinguished Scientist & Director General, DRDO: “I often observed that individuals from various lobbies, such as weapon suppliers and Indian businessmen, frequently criticised DRDO for inaccurate facts, all for their own vested interests.”

Ravi Kumar Gupta, former Director Public Interface, DRDO Headquarters:” In name of cleansing and revamping,  don’t throw away baby with tub water.”

Dr. J Narayanadas  who retired as Chief Controller R&D (Naval Systems and Materials): “The learned committee neither had members with in depth understanding of DRDO, nor have spent enough time to learn about it.”

HRS Sastry, Senior Naval Scientist: “If DRDO were to be dismantled, even successful methodologies once used by DRDO are most likely to be rejected by the successive entities.”

V. Chander former director, Naval Physical & Oceanographic Laboratory: “(The committee is) headed by only academia, with members affiliated to two stake holders (Industry, Customers) and a few from customer-less scientific organizations. How can two stake holders “detect and rectify shortcomings” of the third? What is so secretive that there was no member from DRDO?”

N.Divakar, former director of DLRL, Hyderabad: “DRDO hand-holds the production partners until the systems are properly inducted into the services. Defence services generally require product support for 10-15 years."
Will this high powered  backlash from people who should know best  have any effect? Or will this  oddball of a report be put into effect? Since the report has not been officially released, there is some wiggle room for government. They could do worse that use this to take in some learnings from within DRDO which they should have done in the first place.
This has appeared in NewIndiaAbroad