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December 17, 1999


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CAG drops a bombshell on DRDO

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Josy Joseph in New Delhi

Finally, it is the turn of the Defence Research and Development Organisation, the cash-rich developer of military technology and weapon systems, to answer some embarrassing questions.

An extensive audit of some of the important DRDO projects undertaken by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India for period ending March, 1988 has brought to light investments running into billions that are unlikely to yield desired results. Hidden away from the media glare and public scrutiny in the name of national interest, projects of DRDO have always been carried out in utmost secrecy.

Consider these findings of the audit:

* Though the DRDO has spent almost Rs 20 billion on the ambitious Light Combat Aircraft project, the Indian Air Force is currently looking for foreign alternatives. The Indian Navy too, having lost all hopes of getting a naval version of the LCA, is planning to acquire MiG-29s for a new aircraft carrier that is being built at Cochin.

* After spending several billions of rupees on building an Air Surveillance Platform and other related systems, the project is on the verge of being rendered redundant as the IAF and the navy are importing their own Airborne Warning and Control System.

* Development of the multi-barrel rocket launcher system (Pinaka) too has failed to meet the defence requirements and the time frame specified. A disgusted army is proposing to acquire Russian manufactured MBRL system.

* Add to this yet another humiliating failure: a two-decade old project to develop the Indian Army's main battle tank 'Arjun' has almost been shelved. The army is now planning to buy T-90s from Russia.

While the Arjun tank shame was already out, the CAG audit has thrown up several fresh questions about the achievements of DRDO.

True, in missile technology the organisation has made credible progress. Its achievements in nuclear technology too are well acknowledged. But then, it is a well documented fact that missile technology is among the most common and simplest of military technologies. In fact, Indian scientists were ready for the next round of tests in 1974.

According to the report, which was tabled in Parliament on December 14, the government has pumped in close to Rs 20 billion in the development of the Light Combat Aircraft without any major breakthrough.

"The LCA, which was scheduled to replace the ageing Indian Airforce fleet in nineties, is still at the development stage and is facing many uncertainties," the CAG has said. The LCA development at the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), Banglore, a subsidiary of DRDO "has been beset with delays for almost every vital component of the aircraft," the report says.

The project, initiated in 1983 is behind the schedule by almost a decade, and "as per present indications and the ministry's optimism, the LCA can not be expected to be inducted, if at all, before 2005."

Pointing out that a frustrated air force has lost all hope of inducting the LCA into its fleet, the CAG has said the IAF is seeking interim "measures to cover the shortfall in force level by upgrading the MiG Bis with the help of a foreign firm at Rs 2,135 crore."

The reports also points out that the development of airframe by ADA; multi-mode radar by HAL and Electronics and Radar Development Establishment; flight control system by Aeronautical Development Establishment; Kaveri engine by Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE); and digital electronic engine control jointly by HAL and GTRE "are all lagging behind the schedule with no amount of certainty about their expected date of satisfactory development and final cost of development."

Any of these "falling further behind or failing to meet the required quality is likely to jeopardise the LCA programme in terms of time costs."

The air frame model that the ADA is presently working on is "heavier than what has been specified in the air staff requirements and the aerodynamic configuration too is not acceptable to the air force. These (factors) are likely to affect the performance of the aircraft with reference to the qualitative requirements."

The cost too has overshot several times. The original estimate of Rs 5.6 billion has "overshot approximately four times to Rs 21.88 billion for the first phase of the project. Phase II is yet to be sanctioned."

The report says that the delay in the LCA programme has "compelled the air force to exercise other options to fill the gap in the force level. The Defence Ministry concluded a contract for upgradation of 125 MiG Bis with their manufacturer at a cost of US $ 626 million,"

A contract was also concluded in November 1996 for import of 40 Sukhoi-30s from Russia at a cost of Rs 61.30 billion to "minimise the adverse impact of delay in development of LCA on the combat force level of the Air Force."

The development of an Air Surveillance Platform, which would be capable of providing continuous, comprehensive and long-range air defence cover against low-level attacks, began 1985 with when a feasibility study was carried out. The study was completed in 1991 and the same year the government kicked off the ASP programme.

"ASP programme undertaken at a cost of Rs 6,080 million is running behind schedule by over three years and will be ready for demonstration only by the turn of the century. The main attributes of the technology demonstrator ASP being developed have fallen short of the projected requirements of the services in the area of endurance, speed, altitude and detection range," the CAG report has said.

"The ASP being developed is based on the rotodome approach, while the AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) which the government proposes to acquire soon, use array approach. The advanced technology of the imported system would render ASP being developed redundant," the audit has warned.

While the air force had pointed as early as in 1992 that the specifications meant for ASP were not likely to meet the air staff requirements, the defence ministry in February 1999 claimed the ASP "was not meant to meet the requirements of users but was aimed at demonstrating the technology by utilising the only viable platform."

However, the CAG report points out that the ASP "development programme was taken up as a first step towards the development of full fledged AWACS, the need for which was projected by the services in early 1980s."

Since 22 months would be required for the first demonstration of ASP after the primary radar was fully developed "the ASP would be ready for demonstration only by the end of 2000, provided all the sub-systems are ready by 1998." Even if developed, the ASP would "fall short of the qualitative requirements projected by the services way back in 1984. Moroever, the qualitative requirement of the services based on which the ASP programme had been launched would be outdated due to technological advancements in the field."

The air force had in 1996 finalised the import of first batch AWACS with technology transfer package leading to indigenous development of subsequent systems. The AWACS is "based on different platform which uses phased array inside a fixed rotodome," which is different from the platform of ASP. This too can render the ASP redundant.

The CAG has also termed "questionable" the wisdom of DRDO top brass to sanction the development of a second sub-system for ASP programme based on rotodome technology on HS-748 aircraft in May 1997 at a cost of Rs 100 million, when the IAF had already contracted AWACS for a different technology.

The story of multi barrel rocket launcher system (Pinaka) too is not very different. The Defence Ministry had in 1981 decided to induct regiments equipped with this launcher from 1994, but it still remains a distant possibility.

"Far from reaching the production stage, DRDO is yet to develop the various critical components of the system despite an expenditure of Rs 420 million against the original sanction of Rs 260 million and revised sanction of Rs 4,040 million. The re-revised expected date of completion of development is end 2000 with re-revised cost of around Rs 800 million," the report says.

Only seven out of the 29 general staff qualitative requirements had been met in the trials. Some of the qualitative requirements, which had not been fully met, viz range, area that can be neutralised, fire power, loading time of salvo and deployment time are crucial for the desired level of performance, the CAG has said.

While the development and selection of the launcher vehicle for the system is yet to be completed, the loader-cum-replenishment also yet to be approved despite splitting it into two separate vehicles. "The combined vehicle took up to 40 minutes to load one salvo in place of the designed four-five minutes," the report points out.

Further, the development of the command-post vehicle has also been delayed due to selection of an inappropriate chassis, which "did not match the mobility of the launcher vehicle." Thus, all the three important vehicles, necessary for launching the rockets, loading and replenishment and command had not been developed more than 11 years after the project was sanctioned.

Though there was a requirement of eight types of warheads for the rockets, the Armament Research and Development Establishment and High Energy Material Laboratory had developed only three. "Even out of these, one was not acceptable to the army," the report says.

If the army had Pinaka with it during Kargil, the casualties among the Indian soldiers could have been much lower, army sources believe. They said MBRL systems can pulverise an area of 500 sq metres in no time.

In the wake of Kargil, the army is reportedly going ahead with the purchase of MRBL systems from Russia. This could spell doom for Pinaka.

The story of MBT 'Arjun' is no different either. The controversy had hit headlines a couple of years back, and today the army is all set to finalise the contract for purchasing T-90 tanks from Russia.

Though no body in DRDO is ready to comment on the audit report, a senior defence ministry bureaucrat said: "They are trying to build from nothing. It will take too much of labour, too much of money, and may be a lot of time." He said CAG audit is a "very simplified way of looking at the complex set up of DRDO."

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