The government has finally bitten the bait of restructuring and rejigging India’s premier defence research monolith, the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), following extensive restructuring and transformation of the Ordinance Factory Board (OFB). A nine-member committee has been appointed to assess and revamp the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) operations. Led by Vijay Raghavan, the former Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India, this committee includes representatives from the armed forces, the defence industry, ISRO and academia. The committee is tasked with generating recommendations to review and redefine the department’s role and align it with India’s futuristic technological requirements in the defence domain.
The other members constituting the DRDO review committee include Lt Gen (Retd) Subrata Saha, who previously served as Deputy Chief of Army Staff; Vice Admiral S N Ghormade, former Vice Chief of Navy Staff; Air Marshal B R Krishna, former Chief of Integrated Defence Staff; Sujan R Chinoy, Director General of MP-IDSA; Prof Manindra Agarwal from IIT Kanpur; Mahindra Group’s S.P. Shukla, President of SIDM; J D Patil from Larsen and Toubro’s Defense division; Dr S Unnikrishnan Nair, Distinguished Scientist at ISRO; and Ms Rasika Chaube, Financial Advisor at the Ministry of Defence.
The committee’s scope is extensive, promising a significant transformation of the organisation. The key areas it will address:
- Revamping and redefining the roles of both the Department of Defence (R&D) and DRDO, along with their interconnections, as well as their relationship with academia and industry.
- Enhancing involvement of academia, MSMEs, and startups in pioneering cutting-edge technology development.
- Creating strategies to attract and retain top-tier talent. It includes establishing a project-oriented workforce with effective incentive and dismissal mechanisms. The focus will be on stringent performance accountability and removing underperforming employees.
- Harnessing the expertise of Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) and foreign consultants and fostering international collaborations to advance groundbreaking and disruptive defence technologies.
- Modernising administrative, personnel, and financial systems to expedite project implementation.
- Streamlining the structure of laboratories and refining the process for evaluating their performance.
Reform: A Long-Awaited Step
The government’s decision to evaluate the operations of the DRDO and the entire defence research and production ecosystem has been a long-awaited step. The decision has been finally arrived at due to concerns about its lack of accountability and delayed research, as expressed by its end users in the armed forces. Critics allege the DRDO’s operational model resembles a government Public Sector Undertaking (PSU), which often regards the entire defence process – spanning research, development, and production – as its exclusive jurisdiction.
Established in 1958 with ten labs, the DRDO had grown into a monolith with over 50 labs It was initially envisioned to facilitate the domestic production of India’s weaponry needs. However, this objective has yet to materialise, and its production output has remained notably inadequate. This deficiency is clearly illustrated by India’s continued reliance on imports to fulfil most of its military requirements. The quality of DRDO products often falls short of expectations, leading to rejections by the armed forces. Additionally, DRDO projects are infamous for their persistent delays, causing substantial budget overruns. Moreover, many DRDO projects do not truly qualify as entirely ‘made in India.’
In 2019, a Parliamentary Committee noted that the DRDO’s performance fell short of anticipated standards and emphasised the need for a significant restructuring of the organisation. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has also reprimanded the DRDO for its lacklustre performance. Its inability to successfully conclude mission mode projects within stipulated timeframes resulted in substantial time and cost escalations.
Among the 175 projects scrutinised by the CAG, two-thirds encountered challenges in meeting their scheduled timelines, necessitating extensions ranging from 16% to 500%. These extensions were primarily attributed to frequent alterations in design specifications and delays in executing user trials and procurement orders. Often, extensions were granted after the originally set completion deadlines had already passed. The management of projects exhibited inefficiencies, and the consequent delays led to product obsolescence, ultimately requiring resorting to imports to address immediate needs.
The government had recognised the necessity for an overhaul for some time, and directives to initiate these reforms have now been issued from the Prime Minister’s Office, as disclosed by a source within the DRDO. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh conveyed last year that reforms were being introduced in the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) to bolster technological advancements.
R&D: Plethora of Committees
Before the formation of this recent committee, in 2020, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) set up a five-member committee led by V. Ramagopal Rao of IIT Delhi to overhaul the DRDO to meet ‘defence and battlefield needs’. It mirrored a prior initiative undertaken in 2007, when a similar Committee was instituted under Dr. P. Rama Rao, former Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology, to assess the functionality of the DRDO. The recommendations delivered in 2008 led to the consolidation of several DRDO laboratories and associated institutions into more manageable clusters, resulting in seven technology clusters, each overseen by accomplished scientists as their Directors General. The reasons behind the necessity to reevaluate this arrangement remained inexplicable.
No dearth of committees and task forces has been formed to address self-sufficiency in India’s defence needs. Notably, in 1992-93, a committee led by the late A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, during his tenure as DRDO head, developed a decade-long strategy to elevate indigenous production in defence equipment from 30% to 70% by 2005. Despite nearly two decades since then, India has persisted as one of the world’s largest importers of military hardware.
R&D Reforms Already in Motion
The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) currently has 45 laboratories across the country that are engaged in developing defence technologies covering disciplines like aeronautics, armaments, combat vehicles, engineering systems, missiles, advanced computing and naval systems.
“The move to enhance the efficiency of the DRDO is in sync with the government’s focus on cutting-edge technologies and boosting the domestic defence industry,” said a DRDO source, adding that several measures have already been taken to improve the functioning of the DRDO laboratories in recent times.
As part of the restructuring process, the DRDO has closed down three research facilities/laboratories and amalgamated their research areas and workforce with other institutions. The two laboratories located in Delhi, namely the Defence Terrain Research Laboratory (DTRL) and the Laser Science and Technology Centre (LASTEC), along with the Advanced Numerical Research and Analysis Group (ANURAG) situated in Hyderabad, have ceased to operate as independent entities. According to sources, this action, aimed at mitigating functional redundancies among laboratories sharing similar objectives, thus streamlining expenditure. It is anticipated that more laboratories will either be shut down or merged in the near future.
In January 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi formally launched five fresh DRDO Young Scientist Laboratories (DYSLs). These specialised labs will exclusively engage scientists under 35 and are tasked with advanced, cutting-edge, forward-looking technologies for military applications. Each laboratory is dedicated to a specific domain of spin-off technologies: artificial intelligence in Bengaluru, quantum technologies at IIT Mumbai, cognitive technologies at IIT Chennai, asymmetric technologies in Hyderabad, and smart materials at Hyderabad. The impetus for these laboratories materialised in August 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed that DRDO create avenues for young talent in India to excel and take on leadership roles in demanding scientific domains.
R&D Reform Should Focus on Issues that Inhibit DRDO’s Functioning
Over the past six decades, the DRDO has substantially contributed to developing essential weaponry and military platforms for all three branches of the armed forces. However, the DRDO requires a significant reevaluation to refine its objectives and enhance its delivery capabilities. However, there are numerous constraints under which the DRDO has operated, including international sanctions and inadequate funding. Over the recent years, its share of the defence budget has hovered around 6%, which pales when compared to the substantial funding allocated to counterparts in the US and China. Budgetary reductions have compelled the DRDO to scale down certain major initiatives. Despite these challenges, the DRDO has achieved reasonably favourable outcomes in specific domains, particularly in the realm of missile development. The DRDO has achieved groundbreaking advancements in guided missile systems.
Comprising a workforce of more than 25,000 employees, including 7,000 scientists, the DRDO has initiated a highly anticipated procedure to initiate comprehensive reforms. These reforms are oriented towards facilitating the creation of cutting-edge military weaponry and aligning with the government’s drive to enhance domestic production capabilities. However, limiting the DRDO’s scope exclusively to a narrower research and development framework is not the answer, nor is speculation about assigning a bureaucrat as the defence R&D department Secretary, a DRDO insider observed. Viewed holistically, the current status raises concerns about the country’s defence research and development. atmanirbharta calls for robust and progressive R&D capabilities. The perceived lack of professionalism and dependability within the DRDO, coupled with the pursuit of desperate solutions to its challenges, raises significant alarm. Instead, it is essential also to recognise that the military and other stakeholders have not consistently provided wholehearted support to the DRDO so far. These dynamics need to shift to enhance the effectiveness and productivity of the DRDO.