There is a time in the life of many a business establishment — and a marriage — when the realisation dawns that things are not working. The only options are to close shop or get a divorce. Government behemoths are a tad different, but even then, we think the time has come for terminating the already estranged relationship between the country’s armed forces and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
Since the armed forces cannot, and should not, do without a defence research organisation, the option of shutting shop is not there. But divorce and remarriage is a distinctly desired option. The way to go is to dismantle the organisation as it exists now, spin off its laboratories to defence public sector units, and reconstitute its core. What should result is a lean and mean defence science set-up that will provide conceptual inputs and funds to private and public labs to service the needs of the armed forces and the country.
This may seem to be a harsh solution. But in my view, it is an absolutely necessary one. Two years short of its 50th anniversary, the DRDO’s record is not just shabby, it is a disgrace. The annual budget of the 25,000-strong outfit has risen from Rs 500 crore in 1988-9 to nearly Rs 5,000 crore today. Yet there is not a single major or minor product, barring an excellent sonar system and the INSAS rifle, that has found usage in the armed forces. In sum, the Indian armed forces have been forced to do with less, and suffered more, because of the inadequacies of the DRDO.
The jawans in Kashmir were compelled to design their own steel plated patka, or headgear, in place of the helmet, which is awkward in insurgency firefights. The paramilitary devised their own light armoured vehicles, and the DRDO’s heavy steel bulletproof vest was no less cumbersome than medieval armour. For 20 years, the armed forces have been tackling improvised explosive devices and mines. But the DRDO has only recently, after 9/11, discovered robotic systems to do the job.
A great deal of the responsibility for this rests with A.P.J. Abdul Kalam who was the head of the missile development programme from 1982 to 1992, and then the chief of the DRDO till 1999. During this period, the DRDO made it a practice to claim that it could provide services in, and make any product related to, aeronautics, armaments, electronics, combat vehicles, engineering systems, instrumentation, missiles, advanced computing and simulation, special materials, naval systems, life sciences, training and information systems. So while DRDO budgets grew exponentially, the armed forces were forced to do without products because they were either interminably delayed, or never performed anywhere near the claims made by the DRDO. The result has been that the country’s defence system has suffered from several dangerous gaps during the last decade and a half.
The Agni missile that you see on parade on Republic Day is nothing but a mock-up model; but you won’t see that written on the placard. The DRDO claims the Agni as its great success. Yet the reality is that the tardy programme — whose only useful launchers are made by the Isro — is not yet a fully operational system. At least not good enough for the missile to have been tested on a land target — a vital requirement for a mature product.
The Arjun tank that is being displayed for the past 15 years is not a dummy. But it has come into limited service in the army riding on the back of a political fiat. For the second time in its history, the army has a tank it cannot allow, in good conscience, to be sent into battle in a real war. Its antiquated rifled barrel main gun cannot fire missiles, and is not optimal for fin-stabilised anti-tank munitions. Worse, the Arjun’s sophisticated (German origin) pneumatic suspension system is fed nitrogen gas through pipes that are, to put it delicately, not protected by its armour, and hence even small-arms fire can bring the 58-tonne monster to a grinding halt.
On Kalam’s insistence, the government would have shoved this down the army’s throat as the Main Battle Tank (MBT). But in the early Nineties, Pakistan acquired some 300 T80UD tanks and the army put its foot down. Like the T-90S — which is now our MBT — the Pakistani tank has a very effective tandem-warhead missile that can be fired through the gun tube and can knock out an adversary tank well before it can bring its tank gun to bear.
The third case where DRDO delays cost the country dearly was in the case of the artillery location radar. After having promised to make a system based on the British Cymbelline, the DRDO failed. By the time they acknowledged it in 1998, the US, which was offering its AN TPQ/37 system, had put an embargo on India. The result was that the army had no means of locating Pakistani artillery units during the Kargil war of 1999.
The fourth case is the one under current discussion — the Trishul missile. In the late Eighties, Kalam had promised that the air defence of a new class of Brahmaputra-class ships of the Indian Navy could be provided by the Trishul, which he said would be able to down aircraft, as well as in-coming anti-ship missiles. The naïve navy, which had had a major success in a DRDO-designed sonar, accepted this. But when the frigates started coming up, there were no signs of the Trishul. For two years, anti-aircraft protection was given to these expensive ships through hand-held missiles that infantry-men or guerrillas use. Things would not have changed but for the Kargil war when the navy was compelled to point out the needless risk it was taking of sending a fleet to battle-stations without adequate protection against Pakistan’s very potent French- and American-supplied anti-ship missiles.
Even today, the country’s air defence system is severely hampered by the DRDO’s failure to produce the Trishul and Akash surface-to-air missiles. All vital areas across the country, as well as combat formations and the naval fleet, are protected by a multi-layered air defence system. The first layer is fighter aircraft of the IAF, which seek to either destroy enemy air bases or shoot down their aircraft when they enter our air-space. If these aircraft get through, they hit the second layer, which has Surface-to-Air Missiles (Sams) with ranges from 2-30 km. Since the Seventies, Soviet-origin missiles — with specific variants for the army, navy and air force — did this job. The Trishul and Akash were designed to replace these systems beginning from the mid-Nineties. It is now 2006 and the missiles are not there, which means 50 of our cities and industrial zones are more vulnerable than they should be to air attack, as are our armed forces.
In 1996, the government had grandly announced that Kalam would chair a “Self Reliance Implementation Council” that would take the level of indigenous equipment in the armed forces from 30 per cent to 70 per cent by 2007. By that time, just months away, the target is far from being achieved, even though Kalam will have finished a term in office as President of the Republic.
The time has come to make painful choices. The continuance of the DRDO in its present form will not only not reduce India’s painful dependence on foreign weapons systems, but will also leave critical gaps in the country’s ability to defend itself. The culture of bureaucracy is so deep in the DRDO that mere restructuring or overhaul will not yield any result. The time has come for surgery, and a drastic one at that.