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DRDO is not a lost cause, it can be revived

By M P Anil Kumar
April 09, 2008 11:21 IST
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The defence secretary headed a delegation to Russia in February to salvage the capsized Admiral Gorshkov deal and to mend the recent Indo-Russian bad vibes. Media reports speculated that India has agreed to pay up much of the fresh demand of $1.2 billion for the aircraft carrier Gorshkov (now INS Vikramaditya), and the additional bill would be negotiated soon by the two parties.

The Gorshkov chronicle

Let's revisit the imbroglio. The original deal India signed in 2004 was for $1.5 billion ($974 million for refitting and upgrading the partly-gutted ship, and the rest $526 million for 16 MiG-29K fighter jets and six Kamov-31 helicopters). Last November, in typical Putinesque brinkmanship, the Russians whimsically jacked up the price of Gorshkov by $1.2 billion. This came in the backdrop of their soft-pedalling on the Shchuka-B class (NATO name Akula) nuclear submarine deal.

The calculating Russians escalated the issue being cocksure that India would cough up after the perfunctory huffing and puffing were done with. For at least five factors:

1. The INS Viraat, the aircraft carrier presently in service with the Indian Navy, has already outlived its life and is held together by some glue that can come apart any time;
2. The Cochin Shipyard is into building an indigenous aircraft carrier -- the Air Defence Ship -- but an optimistic estimate is she will not be ready before 2015;
3. The navy needs the Gorshkov to fill this critical gap. Operating an aircraft carrier is a culture, and the entire fleet imbues the culture of operating around the carrier. Any break, you will lose the culture, which will then take years to regain. The navy cannot risk that;
4. India could have entertained ephemeral thoughts of buying the American carrier, the USS Kitty Hawk as a substitute for the Gorshkov, but we had already paid up for the MiG-29Ks and Ka-31s;
5. Both the countries deposit 5 per cent of the deal amount in a neutral bank just in case there is a breach of contract. Having pocketed $1.5 billion, the Russians stood to lose just $75 million if India scrapped the deal.

So the Russians knew we were ripe for extortion.

The Gorshkov was originally scheduled for delivery in 2008. Realistically, the refit will take three years, another year for sea trials and she will join the Indian Navy by 2012 at the earliest. Heavens forbid, if the Viraat breaks down before that, it will be a bodyblow to the navy.

Why did Russia downgrade its military ties with India? To wring out more moolah is an obvious reason. Haughtiness is another (a barrel at $100, the copious oil revenues have gone to head, which must be making them feel a cut above). Besides, the recent Indo-American footsie has not impressed Moscow at all. All straightforward reasons, but these do not add up for the Russian churlishness could jeopardise the cheek-by-jowl defence ties and imperil future contracts. Russia had much to lose in the long run.

I suspect Moscow has put the spoke at the behest of Beijing. (If the Washington-New Delhi footsie trots into a tango, one can expect a Moscow-Beijing collaboration to trip it and the realignment and hardening of adversarial faultlines.)

The Soviet and Indian navies had enjoyed convivial relations, and the Indian Navy acquired armaments that were inducted into the Soviet Navy. After the fragmentation of the USSR, the General Engineering Department mandated to represent Moscow in negotiating defence deals was shut down. In 2000, two federal enterprises, Rosvoorouzhenie and Promexport, were merged into the single entity Rosboronexport State Corporation, populated mainly by bureaucrats, technocrats and I believe old KGB warhorses.

Now the Indian government signs contract with Rosboronexport, the sole Russian intermediary for export and import of defence products.

That the arms merchants try to palm off untested/dubious weapons, resorting to even foul means, is no secret. Commander Nawaz Ahmed, an upright officer, was bumped off on June 19, 2003 during his morning constitutional in New Delhi. That's how ruthless the arms mafia is. To evade the tyranny of the arms moguls, the navy needs to revert to the old practice of inducting systems operated by the Russian navy bypassing Rosboronexport.

Since the Indian forces use predominantly Russian hardware, we don't have a menu of options on the table right now. The multi-billion-dollar arms purchases in the pipeline must be used astutely to make the Russians see reason. One only hopes that the defence secretary engaged his interlocutors in plain-speaking, and reminded the Russians that the bilateral defence ties have always been symbiotic, and unilateral disruption will hurt both.

A potential blessing in disguise?

Smart nations pounce upon the subterranean opportunities beneath every crisis. We too must. The Gorshkov experience must impel us to refocus the spotlight on the Defence Research Development Organisation and how to resuscitate it, its abysmal past notwithstanding. The indispensability of home-grown defence research and development needs no emphasis. The only way out of this murky world of global arms bazaar is by shaping a prolific DRDO -- a reborn DRDO fitted with a new compass for the hard course correction.

DRDO, an unspectacular flashback

Now into the fiftieth year, DRDO was envisioned with self-reliance as its war cry, but it has been out of its depth hitherto and it is largely responsible for the ill/under-equipped armed forces and its tardy modernisation.

The DRDO, called DODO in jest, is a behemoth with 50 labs, 5,000 scientists and 25,000 employees. Success stories have been few and far between despite having 440 projects under its belt. Though it has produced duds after duds, it manoeuvred to thrust them down the throats of the armed fForces through political pressure.

Here, it will be instructive to study the behaviour of two departments under the same government. In July 2006, the launches of DRDO's Agni III and ISRO's GSLV flopped. ISRO had notched up 11 successive, successful launches of PSLV and GSLV preceding this GSLV plunge. The ISRO chief came upfront, pledged to look within and bounce back.

The DRDO, predictably, waffled first and then tried to brazen it out by claiming Agni III was a partial success! Mind you, Agni is an official carrier of the Indian nuke. What's partial success? The missile with nuclear payload can nosedive, midcourse, into its home territory itself? This example testifies what's wrong with the DRDO and what's right with ISRO.

To sum up, the DRDO is not a lost cause and it can be revived if there is governmental will to reform and reshape it.

Though well-catalogued, an enumeration of DRDO's bombed products bears repeating. The Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme, its flagship undertaking, was launched in July 1983. A whole generation of Indians grew up reading press releases claiming the 'successful' test-firing of such-and-such missile by the DRDO boffins. A quarter century on, the government has shelved the IGMDP!

And after 25 years of 'successful' test-firing, how many have entered service?Just one; the short-range surface-to-surface missile Prithvi inducted into the Indian Army. Ever since, the army has not ceased grumbling about its imperfection.

The multiform strategic surface-to-surface missile Agni, which has never been tested on a land target for validation, is still what it was in 1983 -- a wonderful idea, not a dread-arousing missile. The rest of the brood -- the anti-missile system Trishul, the medium-range amphibious surface-to-air missile Akash and the anti-tank guided missile Nag -- had become a national embarrassment.Good riddance.

The Tejas, the Light Combat Aircraft, is today ridiculed as the Last Century Aircraft! Its CV boasts of being an indigenous craft but it's nothing more than an Indian bodywork housing a cache of foreign systems! The tragedy is that the LCA is already outdated... and it has still years to go before it can enter squadron service!

The DRDO had embarked on developing a Weapon Locating Radar (modelled on the Cymbelline mortar locating radar) but came a cropper. All along, the DRDO kept scuttling the army's attempt to acquire foreign WLR. Once the DRDO admitted its inability after much dilly-dallying, the US reportedly showed an inclination to offer its AN/TPQ-37 Firefinder system but Pokharan II happened and they slapped sanctions instead.

Consequently, the army fought the 1999 Kargil conflict without WLR. This DRDO nonchalance cost us several soldiers. Being India, the DRDO was never called to account.

The so-called main battle tank Arjun continues to give the army sleepless nights. Then there is the misfiring multi-barrel rocket launcher Pinaka, the unmanned aerial vehicle Nishant...

In spite of the unmissable cachet of failure, a few spirited souls defied the tide to script triumphant quests. The Naval Physical and Oceanographic Laboratory based at Kochi has given the navy undersea acoustic sensors (hull-mounted sonars APSOH, HUMSA, HUMVAD & USHUS) for both warships and submarines.

The Defence Avionics Research Establishment based at Bangalore has kitted the IAF Sukhoi-30 MKI, Jaguar, MiG-27 and Hawk-132 jet trainer with its avionics suites. Joint ventures with foreign countries have helped in the production of systems like the world-class BrahMos cruise missiles. With little or no budget and time overruns.

Audit and accountability, the first step to redemption

The DRDO chief wears three hats: Director general, DRDO, secretary, DRDO and scientific adviser to the defence minister. Whose job is it to enforce accountability?The government, the secretary to be precise, but the DRDO chief doubles up as the secretary!So no questions asked. If a project comes to the government for approval, the DRDO chief wears his secretary hat and sanctions what he himself recommended! No questions asked.

Thus, the DRDO has always been spoiled with funds and power. Here's more immunity. Even if a spoilsport rakes up inconvenient queries, the chief quickly wears the third hat -- scientific adviser -- and scotches the thorny poser by suitably 'advising' the defence minister. This DRDO magic thumbs its nose at every canon of accountability. Needless to add, different worthies must man these three posts for the sake of accountability.

Rigorous audit has been an anathema to DRDO. No wonder then that the Vijay Kelkar Committee report on reforming defence procurement has become fodder for termites. Regular 'internal audit' and periodic 'functional review' by an independent body are reportedly the two top recommendations of the Kelkar Committee.

Undo the 'Kalamity'

The venerable former President A P J Abdul Kalam headed the IGMDP and presided over DRDO and its ancillaries till 1999. He enjoyed carte blanche authority and nobody -- not even nosy auditors -- disturbed him. Considering the resources he had at his beck and call, like Midas the king of Phrygia, he could have turned everything into gold, maybe even gems.

It may sound graceless but the patriarch must bear the responsibility for the DRDO cult of overselling itself and vetoing the armed forces. The Kalam legacy needs to be jettisoned forthwith.

A charter for DRDO 2.0

Policy mavens have proposed numerous reforms/solutions like synergy with the end user, innovation, attract and retain talent, equitable remuneration, involvement of the private sector, downsizing, etc. These are but vanilla reforms. What the DRDO needs is drastic overhauling, and templates are readily available.

In July 2001, the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency -- the British equivalent of DRDO -- was carved up into a semi-private enterprise called QinetiQ and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. The ministry of defence is the majority shareholder in the profit-making QinetiQ. Since its flotation and listing on the London Stock Exchange, QinetiQ solves defence and security problems that involve science and technology. And makes money.

DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is an arm of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the development of new technology for use by the military. It is decentralised with eight offices, 240 employees and an annual budget of $3 billion. It doesn't own research infrastructure, usually outsources research and development through universities and private labs. DARPA is credited with contriving marvels like the Global Positioning System, the Internet and Unmanned Systems.

Band-Aid solutions will not suffice to create DRDO 2.0. It needs drastic systemic transformation, like:

  • The deadwood and paper tigers must be handed out VRS en masse, and restructure it into a lean set-up. It has to be converted into a company with strategic business units as its core and a business model to sustain both volumes and profits. And this company, like QinetiQ, must be listed on the stock exchange.
  • As for acquisition, the primary priority of the services should be the private sector. The DRDO must be approached as a solutions provider only when the private sector is unwilling or incapable.
  • Fundamental research is the domain of the universities, IITs and the various public and private laboratories, not the DRDO's. It must either hire researchers from the industry or outsource it to the universities and labs. It must undertake in-house research and production of only strategic and hush-hush systems, denied technologies or something that will provide substantial savings through indigenisation.
  • The trick is to make DRDO compete for orders. Once you make them sweat, results will ensue. The present practice of the government decreeing the forces to buy DRDO lemons has to be thrown overboard.
  • Cutting edge military technologies are difficult to master. So, the path ahead is paved with collaboration and outright purchase of systems and subsystems. The planned 'joint development' of a quick reaction missile system to blast low-flying fighters and missiles, and the beyond visual range air-to-air missile Astra is a case in point. As the cliche goes, it's pointless to reinvent the wheel. The crux is the defence forces must be armed with the best weapon systems -- Indian or foreign.
  • DRDO 2.0 must ideally come under the Integrated Defence Staff headquarters, and naturally be made answerable to the stakeholders.

The eight-member panel headed by P Rama Rao -- former secretary, science and technology -- submitted its take on DRDO reforms to the ministry of defence last month. Though the committee's report is still under wraps, given Rama Rao's grounding, one need not be a clairvoyant to second guess his counsel: Nothing revolutionary nor creative, make DRDO more bureaucratic and thereby more unresponsive.

But one hopes the big daddies of South Block and DRDO will realise why radical reforms are so crucial, for national security is at stake. Defence Minister A K Antony is undoubtedly seized of the crunch but does he have it in him to grasp the nettle and press ahead with resurrectional surgery?

M P Anil Kumar is a former fighter pilot.

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M P Anil Kumar