Indian Military Issues: Progress through Debate
Wednesday, April 1, 2015
DRDO: an Organisation in Need of Life Support System (FORCE MARCH 2015) Major General Mrinal Suman
No organisation ever exists in a vacuum. It has to have a purpose, an objective and a mission. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is no exception. Its mission statement includes ‘design, develop and lead to production state-of-the-art sensors, weapon systems, platforms and allied equipment for our defence services’; ‘provide technological solutions to the services to optimise combat effectiveness and to promote well-being of the troops’; and ‘develop infrastructure and committed quality manpower and build strong indigenous technology base’.
It is apparent from the above that DRDO has been created solely for the armed forces. As it is funded through the defence budget, the relation between DRDO and the armed forces is akin to that of a service provider to the clients. Therefore, it is the satisfaction level of the armed forces that is a true measure of its performance. Although client satisfaction is an abstract concept and involves a multitude of factors, it is an effective tool to gauge how well the expectations of a client are being met – some of the vital factors being quality of product, timeliness of delivery and value for money (a function of quality and price).
The track record of DRDO is abysmal to say the least. It has never developed any equipment in the promised time-frame and conforming to the parameters. The history of three key projects undertaken by DRDO is a true indicator of the gross inefficiency that afflicts it. Work on the development of the main battle tank Arjun commenced four decades ago in 1974; the LCA project was undertaken in 1983; and the project for the design and development of aero-engines for combat aircraft was started in 1989. DRDO has fared miserably in all the projects. Time and cost overruns have exposed DRDO’s appalling failure.
The concept of client satisfaction becomes irrelevant when a client lacks bargaining power. The services are a captive client of DRDO. They are decreed to accept sub-optimal equipment. Ask any soldier and he will tell you that DRDO is the biggest fraud being perpetrated on the nation and is responsible for the current ‘hollow state’ of the Indian armed forces. DRDO is variously described as ‘a white elephant’, ‘a national liability’ and ‘an impediment to the modernisation of the armed forces’.
Resistance to Reforms
Perhaps the most striking attribute of DRDO is its ability to survive and thrive, continued non-performance notwithstanding. For decades, it is being damned for its gross incompetence and failure to deliver. Yet, it continues to expand its empire unabated. Formed in 1958 as a single unified agency to handle all defence research and development activities with 10 laboratories, it has grown exponentially to 52 laboratories in multiple disciplines. It employs over 5,000 scientists and about 25,000 other scientific, technical and supporting personnel.
To deflect mounting criticism for its failure to develop high tech systems, it has resorted to highlighting production of commonly available products with much hype and fanfare. It boasts of having developed 18.6 meters high self supporting masts and bullet-proof podiums. These items are so commonplace that they are being produced by numerous road-side workshops.
Whereas R&D means invention and innovation, DRDO operates at the pedestrian level of duplication and improvisation. It considers reverse engineering and indigenisation of imported equipment to be the real research work. No wonder it has earned the dubious sobriquet of ‘Defence Replication and Duplication Organisation’.
Worse, due to its failure to develop scientific disposition and nurture an environment of innovations, DRDO has diverted its attention to spreading its domain. A major part of its budget is expended on the creation of world-class auditoriums, convention centres, conference halls and hostels. In other words, DRDO remains overly occupied with non-scientific activities.
Despite all the flak, it continues to flourish. The budget presented on 10 July 14 hiked its allocation from the previous year’s Rs 10,610 crore to Rs 15,283 crore, thereby raising the share of DRDO from the earlier 5 percent to nearly 7 percent of the defence budget now. Most observers felt that such a hike was hardly justified. But then DRDO excels in the management of self-promotion stratagems. It converts every act of inquisition into an opportunity to promote its own interests.
It was in February 2001 that the Group of Ministers on National Security had, in their report submitted to the Prime Minister, had advised DRDO ‘to focus more on core technologies, in which expertise is neither available within the country nor can be procured from alternative sources’. Three reviews followed thereafter and have been recalled here.
- a) Censure by the Parliamentary Committee of Defence
The Standing Committee of Defence in its 14th Report had reviewed the functioning of DRDO. It expressed its unhappiness at the non-achievement of indigenisation targets and faulted DRDO for its failure to achieve self-reliance objectives.
The committee noted that scores of DRDO projects were plagued by time and cost overruns. It felt that delays cause suspicion on the capability of DRDO in the eyes of the users, the common man and intelligentsia. It opined that prior to accepting a development project, DRDO should sharpen its foresight to ascertain whether it could develop the required system within a fixed time frame and with available financial/technical resources or not.
The committee expressed its strong disapproval of DRDO venturing into fields unrelated to crucial defence research work and wanted it to concentrate on fundamental R&D for producing systems for strategic requirement of the armed forces. It suggested shedding of research work in the field of life sciences (food, agriculture, medicine, psychology, physical and allied disciplines) to other agencies.
Concerned at the disappointing performance, the committee suggested ‘a thorough review of its functioning and its organisational/structural set up, in order to identify the strength and weaknesses and to improve and strengthen the organisation to increase its efficiency to enable it to achieve organisational goals’. More importantly, it recommended constitution of an independent body of experts/professionals for defence research and development, on the lines of Atomic Energy Commission and Indian Space Research Organization.
- b) Kelkar Committee Report
The Kelkar Committee Report of 2005 also recommended that DRDO should fully focus on cutting edge technology researches. It faulted the then existing system of DRDO undertaking indigenous development in respect of all proposals categorised as ‘Make’. The Committee suggested an integrated approach involving users, Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the industry in the ‘Make’ procedure. It wanted DRDO to confine itself to projects requiring sophisticated technology of strategic, complex and security sensitive nature. It further recommended outsourcing of high technology research and development work to private sector on the lines of parallel development on cost-sharing basis.
Consequent to the acceptance of the Kelkar Committee recommendations, ‘Make’ cases were further sub-categorised in Defence Procurement Procedure – 2006, as follows:-
- ‘Strategic, Complex and Security Sensitive Systems’. These projects are to be managed through Defence R&D Board, following DRDO procedure and utilising DRDO funds for execution.
- ‘Low Technology Mature Systems’. These projects are to be treated as ‘Buy Indian’, albeit with minimum 50 per cent indigenous content.
- ‘High Technology Complex Systems’. In a generic sense, projects under this category should be identified as ‘Make’ cases. These are to be undertaken by the Indian industry. All upgrade programmes categorised as ‘Make’ will also follow this procedure.
As is apparent, the role of DRDO was considerably curtailed and restricted to the development of ‘strategic, complex and security sensitive’ systems only. Development of lesser systems was taken out of the purview of DRDO. With reduced mandate, a reduction in the bloated organisation of DRDO was expected.
- c) Rama Rao Committee Report
Consequent to the dissatisfaction expressed by the Parliamentary Committee and the acceptance of the Kelkar Committee Report, MoD set up a committee under the chairmanship of Dr P Rama Rao in February 2007 ‘to review the present organisational structure and to recommend necessary changes in the institutional, managerial, administrative and financial structures for improving the functioning of DRDO’. It was to be the first ever external review of DRDO.
The committee recommended the following measures:-
- Establishment of a Defence Technology Commission with the Defence Minister as its Chairman.
- Decentralisation of DRDO management.
- Making DRDO a leaner organisation by merging some of the DRDO laboratories with other public funded institutions with similar discipline, interest and administrative system.
- Engagement of an eminent Human Resource (HR) expert as consultant to revamp the entire HR structure of DRDO.
- Establishment of a commercial arm of DRDO.
In June 2009, a committee under the chairmanship of the Defence Secretary was tasked to study the committee report and the comments received from various stake holders; and evolve a set of acceptable recommendations. On the acceptance of the recommendations of the Defence Secretary by the government, restructuring of DRDO was announced by MoD in mid-May 2010.
The Art of Converting Adversity into Opportunity
As seen above, DRDO has been getting flak for neglecting its primary task of producing state-of-the-art equipment for the armed forces and squandering scarce defence budget on totally unrelated activities like producing ‘Namkeen Herbal Tea’, juices/creams and breeding angora rabbits. Appearing before the Parliamentary Committee of Defence, the then Defence Minister had conceded that ‘DRDO should mainly concentrate on high-end research, particularly in critical and strategic areas’. It showed that the government had agreed with the views of all the review committees that DRDO should not waste its efforts on non-defence fields.
One cannot help marvel at the dexterity with which DRDO has managed the complete gamut of much-hyped reforms. There is nothing in the approved restructuring plan to suggest that any thought has been given to improve R&D performance of the organisation. All critical recommendations made by the above mentioned committees have been ignored. On the contrary, DRDO has managed to have its way by making selective use of the recommendations to convert an adversity into a blessing to further its own organisational interests.
The approved restructuring plan makes interesting reading. In addition to setting up the new Defence Technology Commission, decentralisation of DRDO management is to be achieved through the formation of seven centres based on functionalities and technology domain of laboratories. Each centre is to be headed by a Director General. The present Director General of DRDO is to be re-designated as Chairman, DRDO.
Leaving aside token shedding of three laboratories, not a single measure suggests any radical reform. Net result of the above restructuring is nil. On the contrary, seven new posts of Director Generals at centres have been created, making the organisation more top-heavy and bureaucratic. Every centre will now have a Centre Headquarters with subordinate staff and secretarial support. Director of a laboratory will not be able to approach DRDO Headquarters directly as another link in the form of centre has been interposed. Decision- making will get further delayed.
Mastery of Survival Technique
It is indeed surprising that an organisation that consumes considerable national resources, delves in mediocre research work, fails to upgrade defence technological base in the country and impedes modernisation of the armed forces can survive for the last six decades. More shocking is the fact that the government is fully aware of the failure of DRDO to deliver but is unable to muster enough courage to force reforms. DRDO adroitly uses the catchphrase of self-reliance for the furtherance of its own agenda.
The secret of DRDO’s continued survival and expansion lies in the patronage that it cultivates. It keeps key functionaries happy through extensive networking. Many consider DRDO to be the ‘bankers to MoD’. Due to the flexibility of its procedure, DRDO is in a position to oblige other wings of MoD by providing facilities from its sources. DRDO is often asked to bear expenditure for many events under the façade of becoming co-sponsors. To silence criticism from the armed forces, it has started dangling the carrot of post-retirement employment as adviser/consultant to senior service officers, especially the Vice Chiefs.
Another aspect that needs mention is the prevailing ‘Old Boys Club’ culture. No one ever retires in DRDO. Persons who contributed little during their active service life are allowed to subsist on the defence budget for years after retirement as well. Extensions and re-employments are routine. Although it prevents infusion, retention and blossoming of young talent, DRDO hierarchy remains totally unconcerned.
One marvels at the deftness with which DRDO has withstood all the criticism heaped on it by various committees. Instead of succumbing to their pressure, it has cleverly exploited their reports to consolidate its powers further and create additional vacancies at senior levels.
DRDO has earned the dubious distinction of being India’s most inefficient, sloth and wasteful organisation. There is hardly any other organisation in the country that has failed the nation so very appallingly. Many consider DRDO to be beyond redemption and suggest it’s winding up. But that will be an imprudent step. Neither the massive infrastructure built over the years nor the technical pool gathered should be wasted.
The new government has already displayed its resolve to improve matters. It has removed DRDO head. Now is the time to crack the whip to force comprehensive reforms. As mandated in the new procurement procedure, DRDO should be forced to concentrate exclusively on strategic, complex and security sensitive systems, especially those which are likely to be circumscribed by denial regimes. DRDO must never forget that it exists exclusively for the development of defence technologies.
It should be made a leaner and focused body. All laboratories engaged in unrelated activities must be shed. Manpower policies must be corrected to acquire a younger profile. No one should be granted extensions. Young talent must be retained through better career prospects and freedom of professional pursuits. As desired by the Prime Minister, some laboratories must be headed by bright young scientists.
Additionally, DRDO must be subjected to performance audit regularly. It should be held responsible for the claims that it makes. Certain failures and delays are inherent in all R&D works and must be accepted as justified risks. However, DRDO must not be able to get away with tall claims which it knows are totally outside the realm of possibility. Finally, a strong accountability system is indispensable. It not only raises the bar of efficiency but also breeds a culture of responsibility.*****
A highly qualified and experienced officer, General Suman commanded an Engineer Regiment in the Siachen Glacier area and was awarded the gold medal for being ‘the most outstanding engineer of the year’. He was the Task Force Commander at Pokharan and was responsible for designing and sinking shafts for the nuclear tests, for which he was duly honoured by the President of India. He superannuated in 2003. He heads Defence Technical Assessment and Advisory Service of CII and has also been directing their much acclaimed Defence Acquisition Management Courses, both in India and abroad. Being the first Technical Manager [Land Systems], he was closely associated with the evolution of the new defence procurement mechanism. Today, he is considered to be India’s foremost expert on myriad aspects of India’s defence procurement regime and offsets. He is a prolific writer and his articles are regularly published in a large number of journals. He is regularly invited to address various chambers, industrial delegations and seminars in India and abroad. He is often consulted by the policy makers. His views are also sought by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence.