National securities and defence capabilities of a country are highly dependent on technology. A typical defence research and development organization provides technologically superior equipment’s to its armed forces to defend and protect its country in home and abroad. India has a large and growing defence budget which is the fifth largest in the world. However, the country remains in 2nd place in defence imports which reflects its lack of indigenization of the defence industry.
The DRDO was formed in 1958 and is the R&D wing of the Ministry of Defence, with a vision to empower India with latest technology-based state of the art defence equipment’s and a mission to achieve self-reliance in defence technologies and systems. The DRDO has had many successes like the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme, Main Battle Tank, Light Combat Aircraft etc. However, the failures of the DRDO outnumbers its successes.
Lack of a strong and robust defence industry is a matter of grave concern. An indigenous defence industry is a vital requirement for India taking into consideration its security environment and strategic objectives. Self-reliance which began after independence remains an elusive dream for India. And self-reliance in defence manufacturing has become one of the key objectives of the Department of Defence Production. For the same purpose, the Department has focused on reducing dependency on imports and indigenization of the items being imported. Government has setup various organizations to achieve these goals. Defence Research Development Organization (DRDO), defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs), ordnance factory board (OFB) and private organizations all play crucial role in indigenization of defence industries.
The DRDO is the R&D wing of the Ministry of Defence, with a vision to empower India with latest technology-based state of the art defence equipment’s and a mission to achieve self-reliance in defence technologies and systems.
The DRDO was formed in 1958 from the amalgamation of the then technical development establishments (TDEs) of the Indian army and the Directorate of the Technical Development and Production (DTDP) with defence service organizations (DSO). The DRDO in the 1970s graduated itself to large-scale military systems development programmes from small scale weapons and equipment development projects. Until then, India acquired its military technologies from foreign sources and undertook limited indigenous developments. A defence technology ecosystem in the country was set up to strengthen India’s position and to secure national interests for which India needs a strong and technologically advanced defence force. This paradigm shift unfurled a renaissance in defence R&D in the years that followed. With Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam at the helm, the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) was envisaged to attain self-sufficiency in the field of missile technology. The IGMDP ignited the imaginations of the scientists and its scope and scale took the country by storm and the world started looking at India as an ‘Emerging Regional Technology Power’.
The IGMDP was followed by other projects such as Main Battle Tank, Light Combat Aircraft, Airborne Early Warning and Control System, indigenous submarine, Artillery Rocket System, Radars, Electronic Warfare System, Assault Bridges, and underwater systems. These projects were huge boost to the nation’s self-reliance and defence preparedness. Dr Kalam imbibed a high-end research and development initiative in DRDO laboratories despite the technology denials and control regimes enforced by the developed countries.
Today DRDO is a network of more than 50 laboratories which are concentrated in developing defence technologies on a wide range of equipment’s ranging from aeronautics, armaments, combat vehicles, missiles, advanced computing, naval system and electronics. The organization is backed by over 5000 scientists and about 25000 other scientific, technical, and supporting personnel.
In 2019, the DRDO decided to grant free access to patents to the Indian industry of technologies to give a fillip to the ‘Make in India’ programme and boost indigenous defence production. The DRDO is presently working on developing direct energy weapons or DEWs among the next bunch of military technologies. DEWs such as laser based, or microwave based high power can quietly disable enemy drones and missiles without leaving physical debris. Also, apart from its current fighter plane projects – the LCA and advanced medium combat aircraft or AMCA- India would also look at pilotless hardware such combat drones that fly in tandem for surveillance or attack.
Given DRDO’s existence for the last 62 years one most obvious question that comes into mind ‘has the defence R&D infrastructure in India been able to deliver and truly augment the country’s military technological capabilities?’ The success stories and the moments of pride gradually subside as one looks at the failure of DRDO which easily outnumbers its success. Self-reliance in India has remained an elusive dream and this is evident in the defence sector by the large defence imports making India the second largest arms importer in the world. One of the most basic requirements for technological upgradation is that there should be sufficient budget available. DRDO’s share in the defence budget is only 4% which is too inadequate. In comparison, USA and China spend 12% and 20% of their defence budget on research and development, respectively and Israel has an annual allocation of about $5 billion.
Low budget often leads to time overruns usually leading to cost overruns. The DRDO has often been criticized for cost and time overruns. There are also a host of other reasons for cost and time overruns. These include ab-initio development of the state of the art technologies, non-availability of trained or skilled manpower in respect of ab-initio development projects, non-availability of required infrastructure or test facilities in the country, technical complexities of system design leading to major mid-course redesigning, non-availability of critical components or materials and the denial of technologies and sanctions by the technologically advanced countries. Other reasons cited include enhanced user’s requirements, changes in specifications during development, an increase in the scope of work, extended and long-drawn user trials, failure of some of the components during testing and trials and so on.
The other issue of concern is that even the successfully developed indigenous projects of DRDO have a fairly large import content. For example, the import content in LCA Tejas is 40%, 55% in MBT Arjun, 30% in Anti-Tank Guided Missile Nag, 67% in Airborne Early Warning & Control System and 60% in Long Range Surface to Air Missile project. One of the main reasons for such high import content is DRDO’s policy on reverse engineering looking for latest technology and manufacturing state of the art equipment. However, the DRDO should be given their rightful due for successfully developing strategic weapon systems such as Surface to Surface Missiles- Prithvi and Agni, Advanced Technology Vessel- Arihant Nuclear Submarine, and the Pinaka Multi Barrel Rocket System.
Technology access apart from reverse engineering and those developed by DRDO are usually in the form of transfer of technology (ToT) by foreign original equipment manufacturers. However, ToT comes with its own limitations like not being upgraded to the next generation and the hard reality being that no original equipment manager would will ever part with the complete technology and will certainly keep back the critical part to ensure future dependency. Further, it has also been experienced that ordinance factories and the DPSUs in majority of the cases have not been able to either absorb the ToT successfully or the ToT lapsed without even being utilised. Also, in a few cases the ToT based manufacturing had to be stopped due to recurring defects.
The 2011 CAG report revealed that not all technologies developed by DRDO were suitable for use by the armed forces. The report revealed that the three services have rejected 70 percent of the products developed because the products did not meet their standard and requirement. In 2005, the DRDO had set itself the target of producing 70% of country’s defence needs. However, the production hovers at less than half of the target at around 30%. Hindustan aeronautics limited could not rectify simple design faults in the HPT-32 basic trainer aircraft, forcing the Indian air force to import propeller driven trainers. Such failures are leading to less reliance on domestic technology and faith on import products.
Also, DRDO has neither been able to attract the best talent in the country nor retain the trained and experienced manpower which eventually gets picked up by the corporate world. Attractive financial packages and career incentives can help DRDO in forming a strong base of scientific and engineering knowledge. Another important requisite is the user interface of DRDO which is too inadequate, because sanctioned appointments of officers from armed forces who form the vital source of user input lie vacant.
Finally, the economics of the defence industry does not follow the normal rules of economics. This is due to several reasons, firstly, it is difficult and, in some cases, impossible to manufacture armaments in large numbers to benefit from economies of scale. Secondly, the defence sector is a monopsony i.e. there is only one buyer- the Indian armed services. This leads to further market distortions. Thus, there are frequent monopolies in the defence sector. And thirdly, new entrants in defence manufacturing are inhibited by high capital costs, and carefully guarded intellectual property rights.
A country’s presence at the world stage is recognized by its predominance in the fields of science and technology (S&T) and the breadth and pace of innovation. Properly designed S&T workforce is the best conduit of innovations. DRDO must focus on globalisation of DRDO’s S&T by preparing scientists and engineers and positioning them in the nation S&T and global S&T community. This would certainly make DRDO visible and establish its credentials at the world stage.
The DRDO should have a determined commitment for self-reliance in defence technologies. DRDO must identify few mega projects in the lines of IGMDP, LSA, MBT etc. which meets national aspirations and help in “Make in India”, finally leading to “Atmanirbhar Bharat”. Strengthening the nascent eco-system of innovation will help in attracting foreign investors and bring in technology transfers. Besides foreign investors, MSMEs must be nurtured to support DRDO’s commitment to provide cost effective technology to the armed forces and ward off foreign acquisition for good. Since ordnance factories and DPSUs form the main defence industrial base it is but logical to consider them as assets and make the optimum use of these entities by undertaking structural reforms to make them efficient and enable them to compete in level playing field with the private sector.
DRDO must also drive maximum from civil and academic partnerships by prioritizing incubation centres in the private sector and provide them with basic infrastructure, training and access to manufacturing and test facilities. These facilities will probably add to the R&D needs which at present may not be fulfilled by the current resources of DRDO. These facilities should also be located outside the DRDO laboratories to provide management flexibility and attracting and retaining high-quality scientists.
A larger point that should also be discussed is “Should DRDO look beyond the Indian armed forces?”. The answer to this question is ‘yes’. DRDO should consolidate its position and become as brand “DRDO” like ISRO, NASA, DARPA, IITs, IIMs, Samsung, Apple etc. Becoming a brand will bring visibility, credibility, confidence and acceptance of the organisation. Further DRDO must also ponder on how it can contribute to expanding India’s knowledge economy for the Indian masses, economics, social and political resources? And what is its contribution to global peace and security?
Defence ministry has recently declared embargo on import of 101 items beyond the timeline indicated against them. The list includes artillery guns, light combat helicopters, assault rifles, corvettes, radars, wheeled armoured fighting vehicles, transport aircraft. This is a good move to push Atmanirbhar Bharat. The following items contracts will be placed upon the domestic industry within next 6-7years.
It’s imperative for India to reform and uplift its defence sector based on the fact that it is placed in a highly hostile nuclear power region. In addition to technological reforms that are needed, armed forces should build organic capabilities for design and development from within or else the problems plaguing the defence manufacturing industry would persist.