February 08, 2020
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No Bang For The Buck

An annual budget of Rs 4,000 crore, 51 hi-tech laboratories... Yet India's premier defence R&D organisation—DRDO—has little to show for it.

No Bang For The Buck
R. S Kumar
No Bang For The Buck
It was a cold, clear February morning when Wing Commander Ravi Khanna took off from Bikaner on a routine flight commanding the Jaguar squadron. He was preparing for the Maha Vayu Shakti 2004 air exercise, the first major one in the new millennium. Except that plane and pilot exploded in an angry fireball over the desertscape.

Now, an official court of inquiry (CoI) has identified a fuse as the culprit for the February 26 mishap. Of course, no one will be punished for the failure of the fuse. Yet, the inquiry into the air crash has for the first time held the Defence Research and Development Organisation's Pune laboratory responsible for the accident. The report, which was sourced by Outlook, recreates the incident in damning detail. Soon after takeoff, Khanna followed the lead aircraft in the squadron, flying at a distance of 13 km. His target located, Khanna released the bomb. In less than one-tenth of a second, the fighter pilot and his plane exploded.

The report blamed the FBRN-4I fuse, fitted on all 1,000-pound bombs used by the IAF. The fuse had inherent design deficiencies. It didn't have any "unsafe indicators" nor were its sensors functioning. This, said the report, was what caused the explosion. The fuse was designed by the Armament Research and Development Establishment, DRDO's Pune-based lab, which had copied it from an old Soviet design.

Thanks to the Jaguar incident, DRDO and its functioning have come under the scanner. Despite being India's 'premier' defence R&D organisation, DRDO has consistently failed to deliver. And it's not for want of infrastructure or funds, given its annual budget of Rs 4,000 crore and its 51 hi-tech laboratories. But set up in 1958 with the aim of cutting down on arms imports through indigenisation, it's this very objective that the DRDO seems to have lost sight of.

Almost half of this year's Rs 77,000-crore defence budget is earmarked for imports. In fact, the organisation's first major act in the new millennium was to approve a perspective plan from the services entailing defence imports worth Rs 1,20,000 crore for the next 15 years. Today, everything that matters in the Indian military is imported, be it the Russian main battle tanks, Swedish artillery, British aircraft carriers, Russian and German submarines, Russian and French fighters, Israeli electronic warfare systems or British jet trainers.

Its harshest critics describe the DRDO as a white elephant. Others see it as an organisation which begins with grandiose plans but ends up with just copying dated Soviet designs. Says former army chief Shankar Roy Chowdhury, "The biggest problem with the DRDO is that it is over-ambitious. There is no coordination between the DRDO and the users." Consequently, programmes are launched or prototypes are developed which are out of sync with the requirements of the services.

A special review in 2000 by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of DRDO's Vehicles Research and Development Establishment, Ahmedabad, says it all. According to the CAG, this lab developed a light tank the army did not need. The project was sanctioned in 1983, the army wanted it scrapped in two years. In 1993, the army reiterated its stand and the DRDO chief also recommended its closure. But it was only after firing trial rounds for two more years that the DRDO finally called a halt to the project. The CAG report noted, "The fact remained that R&D efforts and money were spent on equipment the need for which had ceased." The CAG also found 48.76 per cent of the lab's budget spent on salaries; with a ratio of 11 non-scientists for every scientist. In 10 years, from 1988 to 1998, only 18 of the lab's projects were completed, of which only four went into bulk production.

Two years later, in 2002, the parliamentary standing committee on defence reached similar conclusions. "It seems that sometimes priorities are missing," it noted."The poor conceptualisation and over-ambition in trying to make world-class products had sometimes resulted in delays and slip-ups in completion of projects which are vital for modernisation of the forces indigenously. The users—the army, navy and air force—too should share the blame because they pick up brochures abroad and insist the DRDO fulfil all claims made by foreign manufacturers."

There is much the DRDO lists among its achievements: the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme, the Main Battle Tank (MBT) Arjun, the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas, the Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) Nishant and the pilotless target vehicle Lakshya. But the army is hesitant to operationalise MBT Arjun and has instead gone in for Russian T-90s, while the LCA is still years away from completion. Why, but for fundamental support from ISRO, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam's missiles too would not have taken off. And even among them, it's just Prithvi, with a range of 250-300 km, that can count as a success; its naval version is yet to be perfected. In fact, as DRDO chief, it was Kalam himself who cleared the import of Barak missiles worth Rs 1,250 crore from Israel as a substitute. There is little therefore that can be said about its successes, but plenty about the DRDO's duds:

Nuclear Submarine Project

INS Chakra It was taken on lease from the erstwhile Soviet Union midway through the nuclear submarine project. But 30 years and Rs 7,500 crore later, India may still have to rely on imports.

It was in 1975 that then prime minister Indira Gandhi gave the go-ahead for the Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) project to develop an indigenous nuclear-powered submarine. But 30 years on and Rs 7,500 crore later, the DRDO's most prestigious project is yet to materialise. The latest projection is that the country will have a nuclear sub by 2008. But this could well be another case of "indigenous" technology with its vital equipment imported.

Controversy has dogged the project all along. There was even a move to refer it to the central vigilance commissioner in the late 1990s to investigate the "leakage of funds". Though serious allegations were raised, the project was too "hot" for the vigilance commission. In 1992, the CAG attempted an audit, but the report remained unpublished. This makes it the only major military project left unreported by the CAG.

The submarine project's 'top secret' label puts it effectively beyond scrutiny. Till 1983, funds for it were routed through various ministries—surface transport, shipping and atomic energy. An attempt in 1996 to get a techno-economic study done by eminent technocrats was scuttled, with the DRDO conveniently invoking the secrecy clause.

According to those involved with the project, lack of coordination and focus marked the ATV project out as a failure from day one. The first 10 years were wasted in debating what reactor would suit the vessel. The navy, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and the DRDO failed to agree on crucial issues. The navy was supposed to provide the design, BARC the reactor. Raja Ramanna, then the director of BARC and also the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, simply told the navy to keep off the reactor design.

The Soviets had informally offered India a fleet of nuclear subs way back in 1979. But the DRDO and the scientific advisors claimed it could be built indigenously. Says a senior official associated with the project, "Eight years later, in 1987, the Soviet offer was renewed. This time Ramanna and others at an apex board meeting said we'd produce it in no time. ..all that was required was to lease a Soviet vessel."

That happened in 1988. The intention was to copy the design and to train Indian officers to operate the indigenous version as soon as it was ready.All the manuals and detailed documentation were studied but nothing much came out of it. INS Chakra, as the leased sub was called, was a symbol of India's presence in the Indian Ocean till 1991.Thereafter, the lease lapsed.

When Kalam took over DRDO in 1992, the project was still plagued with reactor and design problems.His first deadline was 1995-96; extensions were given continuously. Then PM H.D. Deve Gowda agreed to pump in Rs 2,500 crore. The first trials were a scream—the reactor would not fit into the hull of the submarine! Soviet scientists had pointed to this design discrepancy earlier itself but, alas, too late. The DRDO design was based on the conventional battery-charged SSK class of subs and the reactor was a derivative of BARC's Apsara reactor. A patent mismatch.

For a while, the NDA government toyed with a proposal to lease two Akula class nuclear subs and to acquire technology through reverse engineering, with critical parts imported from Russia. The new proposals would keep the middlemen in defence deals happy and the DRDO 'proud' of building an 'indigenous' nuclear submarine. But the proposals haven't materialised.

Main Battle Tank Arjun

MBT Arjun "Officially handed over" to the army in August 2004 after 30 years and Rs 307.48 crore. Time overrun forced army to import T-90s from Russia. Also unsuitable for prime tank country.

Two months ago, defence minister Pranab Mukherjee "officially" handed over the first set of MBT Arjuns to the army. As the minister and his retinue left the venue, the tanks were promptly rolled back into the factory at Avadi, Tamil Nadu. The army said it was not ready to deploy it in a war theatre. This is the story of one of DRDO's biggest 'successes', a project sanctioned in 1974, expected to go into production in 1984, handed over to the prime minister in 1995 and exhibited at Republic Day parades since 1996.

The director-general of quality assurance has still not given the tank the clearance, a mandatory requirement before any weapon system is inducted into the armed forces. From the initial sanctioned budget of Rs 15.5 crore, the DRDO ended up spending Rs 307.48 crore for a tank which is useless to the army. A former project manager of MBT Arjun had in 1997 said he would never take the tank to war. The DRDO's failure obviously resulted in the country importing Russian T-90s at a cost of over Rs 3,000 crore. For all practical purposes, T-90 will remain India's main tank for more than a decade.

Arjun, senior army officers say, cannot be used in classic 'tank country'. At 58.5 tonnes, it cannot be ferried across bridges which lead to Hanumangarh and Suratgarh in Rajasthan, considered prime tank battlefields by military planners. Concedes Dr V.K. Atre, who retired last month as DRDO chief and scientific advisor to the defence minister, "Sure, it is a heavy tank and we will have to reinforce the bridges." But he defends the tank stating that "it can go over terrain few tanks can because of its power-to-weight ratio". But weight alone is not the tank's failure. In listing its major deficiencies in 1998, the CAG cited the lack of "accuracy of gun at battle ranges, mission reliability, lethality of ammunition bin, emergency traverse, etc".

So much so that Parliament's public accounts committee which looked into the CAG report was categorical that no R&D benefit was derived out of the Arjun project even 26 years after it was sanctioned. In 2000, the committee had said that "the delay in development and productionisation of MBT Arjun was attributable, to a considerable extent, to deficient project management and monitoring.Underlining the need to review the existing institutional mechanism for management and monitoring of the project".Needless to say, vital components like engine, fire control system, transmission unit, tracks, thermal sight and night sight were all imported and that too in the early 1980s.

Now, the army is only prepared to use the tank to train its personnel. The limited series production of 124 tanks would thus imply a colossal waste of money. But Dr Atre believes the project has "given us the capability and the confidence to develop better tanks.We have made major strides in self-reliance in defence technology". Sure. The next-generation tanks have already been imported.

Guided Missile Programme

Akash Part of the Rs 2,000-crore Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme, the missile is still awaiting development trials after 20 years. It’s also yet to prove its mettle against multiple targets.

You could call the Agni and the Prithvi surface-to-surface missiles reasonable successes.But the lack of progress in the smaller missiles vexes the army and the navy because they desperately seek a missile cover which the DRDO promised long ago. Trishul, Akash and Nag, part of the DRDO's surface-to-air guided missile programme, have already consumed RS 2,000 crore—and they are yet to be delivered.

In fact, the DRDO went so far as to promise a Rs 6,000-crore anti-ballistic missile defence system in 1998. The presentation was simple, an arrow drawn towards the Rashtrapati Bhawan and another arrow intercepting the first one. Politicians were impressed because Delhi's safety has always been selfishly given exaggerated priority. But the service chiefs opposed this grand idea pointing out that even superpowers have not yet produced any credible missile umbrella against ballistic missiles.

Rather than ballistic missiles, what the army was looking for was a replacement for its ageing Kvadrath and Strella missile of the '60s vintage. The navy wanted a surface-to-air missile for its frigate, INS Brahmaputra. With the DRDO failing to deliver, the navy had to finally go in for the Israeli Baraks.

Light Combat Aircraft

Sanctioned in 1983, the Light Combat Aircraft (Tejas) was to replace the MiG-21 fighters. But 21 years down the line, that seems an even more distant possibility. After an investment of nearly Rs 5,500 crore, the parliamentary standing committee in 2002 noted considerable cost and time overruns in the LCAs. One valid reason for the delay was the US sanctions on critical components, including the GE-404 engines which were to power the Tejas.

Simultaneously, the DRDO began work on an indigenous engine called the Kaveri. However, just last week, the Kaveri engine had another setback when it failed at a height of 18,000 feet while being tested in Russia. With delays in the programme, the IAF is desperately looking for 126 Mirage 2000s to make up for the lack of the Tejas. While addressing the media on October 6, prior to the Air Force Day, Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy had said, "The LCA is going a bit slow and I have asked the DRDO for a mid-term quality review of the Kaveri aero engine to accelerate its development. Since there will be a delay, we will have to get other aircraft and we are awaiting government approval."

Remotely Piloted Vehicle 

RPV Nishant Sanctioned Rs 35 crore initially, 14 years down the line, the army has been forced to scale down nearly 20 original parameters.

Hailed as India's first Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), Nishant was first conceptualised in May 1990.Sanctioned by the government in October 1991 with an initial budget of Rs 34 crore, it is far from induction by the Indian army 14 years later. It is understood that the army had to waive off nearly 20 parameters it had set in the original quality requirements framed in 1990. In short, it was waiving technical specifications it had set 14 years ago! Meanwhile, much foreign exchange has been lost as all three services have sourced their UAVs from Israel.

So, if we all know what is wrong with DRDO, why isn't someone setting it right? Some would say this is how the powerful arms import lobby would like things to remain. As they see it, as long as India sources its defence requirements from the international market, they're in business. As for arms-exporting countries, it is important that the developing world does not become self-sufficient. The US has to export one fighter plane for every plane inducted into its air force; in France, the ratio is 3:1. This explains how important DRDO's failures are to exporters. But arms exporters and middlemen alone aren't to blame. The bigger goons are the corrupt politicians and bureaucrat, who collect kickbacks.An incompetent DRDO, it suits them just fine.

Saikat Datta And Rajesh Ramachandran

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