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New DRDO: An engagement with the military
Ajai Shukla in New Delhi
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June 02, 2008

This is the first of a four-part series on the DRDO, which has instituted fundamental changes in the way it will approach equipment development.

The success, last December, of the Defence Research and Development Organisation's Akash missile, which proved its ability to shoot down an enemy fighter 25 kilometres away, is a happy ending to a dismal tale. The Akash development programme, like others from the 1980s and 1990s, is a decades-long story of managerial and technological blunders, from which the DRDO is now drawing valuable lessons.

Under fire from the military and the media, and under scrutiny from a review panel set up by the defence ministry, the DRDO has instituted fundamental changes in the way it will now approach equipment development. In a series of exclusive interviews with Business Standard, top DRDO officials -- the chief controllers, who head its various divisions -- have outlined their new approach.

The most far-reaching change is an institutionalised forum -- called the Services Interaction Group -- in which the DRDO will work hand-in-hand with the military to identify the technologies, and weapons systems, which the DRDO laboratories must develop. The Services Interaction Group has already created its first "technology roadmap", which lists out the equipment the DRDO will develop over the 11th and 12th Defence Plan period -- from 2007-2017.

That roadmap took more than a year to finalise; the process began at the beginning of 2007. A DRDO sub-committee called the G-FAST (Group for Forecasting and Analysis of Systems and Technologies) began consulting with almost 50 DRDO laboratories across the country, to make a draft technology roadmap.

Meanwhile, the three services, working together in the headquarters of the Integrated Defence Staff, produced their technology wish-list. Then, through several sittings in the DRDO's headquarters, the DRDO and the IDS agreed upon a final technology roadmap, which the DRDO would implement.

Such cooperation is routine in countries where defence is planned systematically. In India, however, the DRDO has long been at loggerheads with the services, which have complained about not being consulted about equipment that they must eventually use.

This communication gap was glaringly evident in the Akash missile programme; after the DRDO developed all the Akash launchers, radars, and command systems, the army demanded higher mobility by fitting them into T-72 tanks.

The DRDO, having framed the Akash requirements unilaterally, was taken by surprise. Dr Prahlada, the DRDO's chief controller (R&D) explains, "It's not a joke to put the missile radar on a tank. It was a double challenge: having developed a cutting-edge radar, we then had to squeeze it into a tank, with all the problems of space, ruggedness, and high temperatures. You can't even put an air conditioner in a wheeled vehicle� So instead of 12-15 years (to develop the Akash), we took 20 years; just to make sure the army gets it on a tank."

But now, there's a joint process. The DRDO and the IDS have divided 100 of the most important technologies they need into three different categories:

Category 1:  Technologies that the DRDO will develop in-house. These are strategic technologies and systems, such as missiles, hypersonics, and unmanned fighter aircraft, which no country usually provides to another.

Category 2:  Technologies that the DRDO will develop in partnership with academic institutions. The CSIR, IITs, and universities will assist the DRDO with fundamental research, to overcome the DRDO's shortages of manpower and facilities.

Category 3: Technologies that the DRDO will develop with foreign partners, since they are beyond the capabilities of the country's existing scientific base.

This is the first time that such rigour has been applied to the procedure for identifying projects and deadlines. In committing itself in this manner, the DRDO is displaying a new confidence.

Senior DRDO scientists admit that they had traditionally avoided a joint roadmap because there was little certainty of being able to deliver on a project. If the project was successful, it would be brought to the user when it was nearly ready; if it failed, it could be quietly buried without any fuss.

Now, however, there will be transparency and accountability, and regular reviews of how long-gestation projects are progressing. Says Dr V K Saraswat, chief controller of missiles and strategic systems, "This is a consultative process and it doesn't stop. It is a continuous process. Every year we update it."

Part II: Technology first, weapons later

Part III: DRDO's plan for an eye in the sky

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