Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called upon Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to speed up projects and advance delivery schedules. He has said that India can be world leader in defence technology and show the way forward to the world.
These are very high expectations and there is nothing in the DRDO’s past performance to generate such great hopes. In fact, the record of this organisation is extremely dismal.
There is no accountability and it has never been put through a science audit, in spite of repeated demands.
On the urging of the parliamentary committee on defence, a revamp of DRDO was carried out. Nothing much happened, except for some cosmetic changes, which are of little consequence.
We continue to import even low-technology equipment where over 70% of weapons and equipment is imported. Think of the outflow of foreign exchange and the jobs lost.
While the Prime Minister is unaware of the DRDO capabilities and potential, but surely, Arun Jaitley, the part-time defence minister, who has been in Parliament for a long time and is expected to have paid attention to debates on defence matters, ought to know better and, therefore, should have briefed the Prime Minister to lower his expectations from this organisation. In the past, these false hopes of delivery by DRDO have kept in limbo the deployment of private industry in this field.
The DRDO budget has been 5% to 7% of the defence budget with allocations for major projects such as LCA, Arjun tank, etc being over and above this budgeted figure. Much of this amount has gone into civil works. If any proof of this lavish expenditure is required, one need go no further than have a look at the DRDO office complex at the rear of South Block and then of course see Sena Bhavan as well.
Those in the ministry of defence (MoD), who exercise control over DRDO, are blissfully ignorant of what defence equipment is all about. In weapons, they can’t tell a gun from a howitzer, and in engines, a cam shaft from a crank shaft. Projects can hang fire for decades while those responsible for these continue to move up the promotion ladder and so do those of the MoD who control them.
There is little understanding and mutual confidence between the DRDO and the defence services. The Prime Minister is aware of the disconnect, and that is why he impressed upon the DRDO to involve user in the development of military weapons and equipment.
The DRDO never spells out its technological status in relation to the equipment to be developed. With the result, GSQRs are prepared without proper interaction with the DRDO, but keeping in mind what is already in the market.
The DRDO never seeks the scaling down of the GSQRs to a level at which it can handle projects, in the full knowledge and belief that the project can be dragged on endlessly and that no one will be called upon to account. Once a project is taken on, complete secrecy prevails and service officers posted with these establishments are kept out of the loop.
The DRDO in stand-alone mode has achieved little and will not be able to meet the future needs of the armed forces. It has shown little skill and capability in the field of even reverse engineering of comparatively simple equipment. This is legacy of the Nehruvian policies of entrusting all this to the public sector (DRDO in this case). Since then vested interests have opposed any change in this moribund policy.
When the USSR broke up, some governments of east European countries offered to shift state-of-the-art defence industries to other countries. India spurned these offers, while China took two thousand scientists and some of the defence industrial units. In India, there is a politico-bureaucratic nexus which has successfully thwarted such moves, for obvious reasons. There is so much money to be made in imports, the Augusta helicopter being the more recent example.
However, the government did go in for military technology cooperation with the Russian government and later with some others for joint development of cutting-edge defence technologies. So far, this has been a one-sided affair, ending, essentially in transfer of technology and the attendant cost.
Measures to be taken
If the new government is to make a positive impact on the future indigenous development of defence technologies, production of such equipment within the country and its export, it need shed the hope of achieving this with only the DRDO efforts. It needs to consider some of these measures:
Close down those establishments of DRDO which are busy re-inventing the wheel, and those whose tasks can best be done in the private sector. Get it out of the control of the MoD. Equally do away with most of the defence ordnance factories. Pass on production of such equipment to the private sector.
It is DRDO component grouped with the navy that has performed well. This has essentially been due to direct control that the navy has exercised over this component. Of the three establishments, one is always commanded by a naval officer and the other two have a number of naval officers on their establishment. Thus a series of projects have been successfully completed: some on their own and some others as part of collaboration with certain foreign companies. Nuclear submarine is one such example.
Restructure the MoD as an integrated organisation, consisting of bureaucrats, defence services staff, scientists and financial experts. It would ensure better coordination, cutting out duplication and triplication of work, improved efficiency and speedy decision-making. Integrated defence planning and defence technology development have become an inescapable necessity. Such a step will be opposed, tooth and nail, by the bureaucracy but it is the political executive which must take the final call.
Implement the Arun Singh Committee report, as accepted by the cabinet, and adopt the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) system. The DRDO needs to be placed under the CDS, which will result in mutual confidence and better interaction with the services and bring in efficiency and good performance.
Pending adoption of the CDS system, DRDO’s various establishments need to be grouped with the army and IAF on same lines as for the navy.
If we are serious in attracting high-tech equipment manufacturing companies to collaborate with Indian companies, then the FDI limit will have to be increased to 51%. The FDI limit of 49% announced by the finance minister was perhaps on the advice of the babus and urgings by others with vested interests. The Prime Minister during his forthcoming visit to the US must throw open invitation to American defence industry to establish manufacturing facilities in India, in collaboration with Indian companies.
Unless the above listed steps are urgently taken, and the status quo broken, the Prime Minister’s expectations of India developing high-end defence equipment and becoming self-sufficient in this field and being an exporter of such equipment will remain a distant dream.
(The writer, a former deputy chief of army staff, is commentator on security and defence matters. The views expressed are personal)