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How DRDO failed India's military
Bharat Verma
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January 15, 2008

The difference between India's failure against Pakistan's success in their respective missile programmes is based on the purist mindset of the Defence Research and Development Organisation to develop indigenously all complex weapon platforms and Islamabad's intelligent alliance with China and the approach to achieve its goals 'by any means, fair or foul'! While Pakistan was pragmatic in its approach, India was merely pompous.

Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that India's Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme has been finally shelved. This marks an unceremonious end of an ambitious technological misadventure by the DRDO -- country's premier defence R&D agency. For nearly two-and-a-half decades, it doled out mere promises to the country's armed forces -- delaying their much- needed modernisation plans.

The armed forces were forced to resort to off-the-shelf 'panic buying' whenever they realised that the strategic balance was tilting in favour of their adversaries. Besides missiles, there are other equipments such as the Main Battle Tank Arjun, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Nishant, Light Combat Aircraft Tejas, INSAS rifles which have been thrust on the end users despite unsatisfactory performances during trials.

In the bargain, the military lost 25 precious years and the taxpayers' nearly Rs 2,000 crore by keeping the IGMDP programme under wraps to hide its inefficiency from the nation.

Even when the IGMDP was embarked upon, many pointed out that to successfully complete such a high-end technological programme, foreign collaboration would be needed. But the DRDO's obduracy prevailed and the programme dragged for so many years.

It is wasteful to try and 'reinvent the wheel', but that is precisely what the DRDO backed by New Delhi did for all these years -- trying to develop every system and sub-system indigenously and ending up developing practically nothing of substance.

The IGMPD started in 1983 after India failed to reverse engineer a Russian missile in the seventies, with A P J Abdul Kalam as the head. However, 25 years later the DRDO missiles remain off target. The army cannot rely on Prithvi, a battlefield support missile, unless technological issues affecting its launch readiness are resolved. Trishul, the quick reaction anti-aircraft missile, turned out to be a dud and is now being resurrected with the induction of foreign technology as a stopgap arrangement for the air force, till the Spyder missile systems from Israel finally arrives. Meanwhile this delay for the navy meant importing Israel's Barak missile. While Akash, the medium range surface to air missile with 27-km range, had its first user trial in end 2007, Nag, the anti-tank missile with 4-7 km range, is yet to begin user trials.

Meanwhile, the air force with depleting fleet of obsolete Russian SA-3 Pechora and OSA-AK missile systems, is in a quandary as to how to plug holes in its air defence system in the western sector as the DRDO has failed to deliver.

AGNI �I and AGNI-II with a range of 700 km and 2,500 km respectively, have been tested five times, which is inadequate to generate confidence in a nuclear capable missile. The end users of these ballistic missiles are army and the air force with 8 and 24 missiles in their arsenals but lack confidence in the quality of the product even as AGNI-IV is readied for trial in mid-2008 with a range of 6,000 km.

The tacit admission of the DRDO's inability must not be limited to the missile programme alone; a review of all projects under its aegis is needed for a reality check and course correction. The DRDO fault-line primarily is a result of lack of accountability, focus, and failure to develop scientific disposition.

The director general of DRDO wears three hats. He is also, secretary defence R&D and scientific advisor to the defence minister. These three inter-linked hats on one individual destroy the basic principal of accountability. Therefore, he is not answerable to anyone.

DRDO scuttled a contract that was on the verge of being signed by India in 1997 for the import of a Weapon Locating Radar as the latter promised to produce it indigenously within two years. Due to this negligence, the Indian Army could not neutralise Pakistan's artillery fire effectively in the Kargil conflict and suffered heavy causalities. Of course, the DRDO to date is not in a position to produce WLR and ultimately India bought it from the previously selected producer in 2003. In my view, DRDO should be held directly responsible for these unwarranted war causalities.

The DRDO actually produces in its Tezpur laboratory orchids and mushrooms, identifies the sharpest chili in the world with pride, while its lab in Pithoragarh develops hybrid varieties of cucumber, tomato and capsicum. It spends merrily from the defence budget on developing new strains of Angora rabbits and 'Namkeen Herbal Tea'! DRDO by indulging in such irrelevant activities lost its focus and sight of its primary responsibility.

Instead of building a scientific temper, DRDO from its inception indulged in empire building, spending a major part of its budget on world-class auditoriums, convention centres, conference halls, and hostels, while neglecting research work.

To remove DRDO's fault-line, New Delhi should rapidly transform India into a low cost, high end R&D centre of the world without neglecting its manufacturing sector. Fairly ideal demographic conditions exist along with favourable geo-political factors whereby international actors are willing to invest, as well as, set up shop in India. To maintain their technological lead, the West finds India as a logical destination for their defence industries, both as a potential market and also a base to develop low cost high-end research projects.

On the other hand, we need to leapfrog as well as piggyback technologically, as reinventing the wheel is not necessarily an answer to the yawning technological gap that exists between the western countries and India. Therefore, there are synergies that should be exploited. Enormous mutual benefits can occur to both, if New Delhi can develop itself as a world-class R&D centre and a global hub for manufacturing sensitive military equipment.  

Due to the rapid march of technologies and huge costs involved in R&D, no single player is in a position to deliver next generation weapon systems. Whether it is Boeing, Lockheed Martin, DCN, Airbus, or HDW -- all of them sub-contract different assemblies and sub-systems globally to the most competitive and competent companies. The other interesting trend is the formation of trans-national consortiums of nations and companies to manufacture superior platforms like the Euro fighter or the Euro copter. The game, thus, is global as it is not feasible for a single player to manufacture or develop each item.

In the development Sukhoi SU-30 MKI, the major player was the Russian corporation IRKUT but without the help of France [Images] and Israel, the fighter aircraft could not have developed the decisive technological edge that it displays. Therefore, India needs to shed its inhibitions, diversify, and form international industrial alliances to leapfrog technological gaps, boost export revenues from its military industrial complex, and leverage this strength as a strategic asset in Asia.

In any case, defence technologies become obsolete by the time a country can reinvent the wheel. Therefore, radical shifting of strategic gears to a more advantageous position by opening up the field to private sector will stimulate self-sufficiency. Companies like Tatas or L&T can enter into joint ventures and where necessary import CEO's and employ foreign scientists to kick start complex projects.

In fact, to improve performance of the Public Sector Units there should be competitors making fighter aircraft, missiles, and warships in the corporate world. Such farsighted policy shifts will improve India's self�sufficiency in the shortest possible time frame. This in turn, will increase the stakes of multi-nationals in India's well being and marginalise sanction regimes.

The Indian Foreign Office took 58 years to grudgingly acknowledge the criticality of military diplomacy in international affairs. If DRDO can appreciate that a technologically advanced and vibrant defence industry is equally critical for India's security and its global aspirations, we will not replicate this mistake. In other words, it should be made to realise that it solely exists to support the armed forces and not vice versa. Therefore, New Delhi should force ruthless accountability, create focus and development of scientific temperament within DRDO and ensure fruitful collaboration with the Indian and international private sector, instead of permitting them to fritter away the defence budget on irrelevant and peripheral activities.

The writer is editor, Indian Defence Review. e-mail:

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