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by Lieutenant General Anil Ahuja

A NINE-MEMBERS high-powered committee was established LATE LAST MONTH to evaluate the structure and role of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), as the Prime Minister was gleefully praising Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientists for the success of Chandrayaan-3. This is owing to a belief that India’s top defence research and development body is failing to deliver, is plagued by research project delays, lacks accountability, and is seen as a “impediment” (rather than a catalyst) to the growth of the capability of the Indian armed forces. Most critically, DRDO has failed to prevent India from holding the unenviable title of being the world’s largest weaponry importer.

Why DRDO can’t perform as well as ISRO or complete high-tech defence programmes like the US Defence Advanced Research programmes Agency (DARPA) is frequently questioned. Although the difficulties are legitimate, they display a limited knowledge of the functions played by these entities and their functioning environment. The DRDO may not be able to deliver even after restructuring following a review by this committee if the system of planning defence capability and Atmanirbharta (indigenization) are not addressed.

The ISRO was established on August 15, 1969. Through planetary exploration and space research, it aims to utilise, maintain, and advance space technology for the demands of national development. It creates launch vehicles, satellites, communication and remote-sensing projects, navigation systems, etc. to that aim. In essence, ISRO gradually expands its technological foundation (via collaborations or R&D) and organises missions based on the threshold reached, national requirements, and allocated finances. The initiative to pace the programmes rests with ISRO, which continues to operate in the same context.

The DRDO was founded in 1958 and currently operates a network of roughly 50 labs conducting research in many domains. However, the organisation works in a vague, ambiguous, and, to a considerable part, externally defined environment. Its goal is to assist India in becoming self-sufficient in key defence technologies and systems and to support the military in receiving cutting-edge weaponry in compliance with established standards. The requirements are futuristic —

Supporting the armed forces to develop indigenous capabilities for their operational needs of today would help them keep up with global emerging and crucial technologies as well as present ones. The difficulty is increased by the fact that there is no effort made in India to “define the contours of future multi-domain battlefields” into which we might be lured. These contours are up to the world’s technologically-advanced powers, one of which is right outside our door.

The battlefield of the future must be visualised at least 10 to 15 years in advance for the overall system to work. Following that, it is necessary to choose each domain’s priority and weighting in accordance with the defence strategy and warfighting doctrine. The services must roughly classify their needs as “immediate” (needed within the next two to four years), “near-term” (needed within the next five to eight years), and “future” (needed, say, within the next ten years). The items that are now on the market should substantially satisfy the immediate needs, and the systems that have already been conceptualised and created should handle the near-term needs. The DRDO, private industry/R&D organisations, or innovators are solely involved in this situation for future needs.

Therefore, the services or DRDO must determine the requirements 10 to 15 years in advance. The cancellation of the Five-Year programmes in mid-2016 put an end to a well-established system of generating 15-year Long-Term Integrated Perspective Plans (LTIPP) with equivalent Long-Term Technology Perspective Plans (LTTPP) of the DRDO and five-year capital purchase programmes. A 10-year Integrated Capability Development Plan for the services, which was developed as an alternative system in 2020, is still under development. Without it, DRDO operations and even the acquisition procedure continue to be ad hoc and focused on emergency procurement.

The difficulty increases since there are no effective strategic R&D structures outside of DRDO. Even in India’s major defence industries, there are no dedicated research laboratories or scientists who are part of the individual services, unlike the US system of Army, Air Force, and Navy labs; the academic community lacks a sufficient defence and strategic orientation at the moment; and funding is still modest. We still need to develop policies to share sensitive technologies and information with organisations outside the government, either internally or with foreign strategic partners.

The US Department of Defense’s DARPA is frequently cited as an example organisation for the DRDO to follow. The former, however, only operates in domains that go beyond the urgent needs of the US military and involve developing and ground-breaking technologies. Additionally, it only employs a core group of more than 200 workers and managers of specialised programmes who are hired from academia, government, and business on temporary contracts. A network of 200 defence laboratories, R&D institutes, and academic institutions handles the majority of the job. The organisation receives considerable funding for this. Such an external environment does not exist in our situation.

A strong system of long-term planning for capability development that is focused on meeting the demands of the future battlefield is essential to the operation of DRDO. Additionally, a precise distinction needs to be made between purchases for future projects and those for present operating needs, giving R&D, design, and development a lead time. In order to assign non-strategic programmes, a strong R&D framework must be established outside of DRDO in private sector and university institutions. All of this requires specialised funding from the defence budget, which is based on carefully thought-out guiding principles. Even the committee’s best suggestions might only be “half the job done” if these factors are ignored.

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