Rediff.com – News-Special Part- I
‘How long should we wait?’
DRDO is responsible for indigenising and constantly upgrading the country’s weapons and equipment inventory and related supplies. But the dilemma has always been to determine the correct balance between make or buy.
The Kargil Review Committee Report
Make. Or buy?
That has been a longstanding issue between the DRDO and the Services. The former complains that the armed forces make impossible demands. The Forces say the DRDO has failed to develop the frontiers of defence technology. And that its claim to produce anything and everything has virtually strangulated critical defence exports.
Experts say it was in fact the collapse of the Soviet Union that drove home the urgency to reduce dependence on external suppliers and rely on indigenous defence production. “Thus over the years, the DRDO has been volunteering to produce virtually anything for the Indian forces. The result is that it has now accumulated nearly 1,000 projects. The DRDO does not have the capability to accomplish some of these,” says Rajendra Mohan, an independent defence analyst in Hyderabad.
According to Mohan, the DRDO promises to make anything for the Forces simply to keep many of its laboratories running. “Or else, some of the labs would have already been shut,” he points out.
Experts like Mohan argue that the very method of calculating the indigenisation content of defence development and production is a matter of debate. Over the years, the government has set up 10 committees under the Department of Defence Production to identify the scope of items such as aircraft, electronics warfare systems and armament. Based on their reports, the government had been claiming for more than a decade that the self-reliance and indigenisation content will be brought up to 70 per cent before 2000.
The core point as per this plan is minimising imports and inducting indigenously designed and manufactured systems. The stress was on increased research and development and the DRDO was the agency to implement it.
But last year, the government — after a thorough review of the DRDO — admitted that the indigenisation level still remained at only 30 per cent. It then quickly created a Self Reliance Implementation Council, chaired by then DRDO chief and now scientific advisor to the prime minister, Dr Abdul Kalam. The Council’s aim is to take indigenisation to 70 per cent by 2005. But many believe like all other DRDO targets, this deadline would also slip.
DRDO scientists claim they have made significant achievements on indigenisation and in their efforts to meet the requirements of the armed forces. They include flight simulators for aircraft, 68mm reusable rocket pod, brake parachute for fighter aircraft, mini remotely-piloted vehicle, light field gun, a new family of light weight small arms systems, charge line mine-clearing vehicle for safe passage of vehicles in the battlefield, and illuminated ammunitions for enhancing night fighting capabilities in their list of achievements.
The DRDO has also developed a cluster weapon system for fighter aircraft, naval mines, next generation bombs for high speed aircraft, low-level tracking radars Indra-I and II for the army and air force, light field artillery radar, battlefield surveillance radar, advanced ship sonar systems and torpedo launchers.
“Our biggest success and pioneering work has been the testing five nuclear devices during May 11-13, 1998 in the Pokhran range,” claims a DRDO scientist.
In collaboration with the Department of Atomic Energy, DRDO in fact designed, tested and produced advanced detonators, ruggedised high volt trigger systems, interface engineering, systems engineering and systems integration to military specifications for the nuclear blast.
“Like the nuclear bomb project, several high-technology projects are in various stages of design and development. Therefore, it is ridiculous to allege that we are a useless bunch of scientists for the armed forces,” the scientist adds.
Indeed, the problem is that for years DRDO has been enmeshed in several high-technology projects that no one really knows when the armed forces will be able to induct.
“DRDO has been acting like a dog in the manger. The agency has considerably torpedoed our efforts to import state of the art equipment because it has been boasting to make every available defence equipment that we demand,” an army officer says angrily.
For instance, he says, though the defence ministry sanctioned competence build-up projects for the multi-barrel rocket launcher Pinaka in the 1980s, DRDO is nowhere near accomplishing the target. The delay has forced the army to continue to depend upon their existing outdated system, whose range is much less compared to that envisaged for Pinaka.
Concerned about terrible delays in some of the vital projects, the army, the air force and the navy are these days asking just one question: “How long should we wait?”
For the Forces, these projects are lifelines. They include India’s indigenously built surface-to-air missiles Trishul and Akash which were to have replaced the Russian-supplied OSA-AK and Kvadrat systems in 1990. Then there is the most ambitious multi-role fighter, the light combat aircraft, the indigenous production of which DRDO has been grappling with in the last 17 years.
The main battle tank Arjun, incorporating state-of-art tank technologies with superior fire power, high mobility and excellent protection has been developed by DRDO. But the army is unhappy with its performance.
There are growing concerns among the Forces, and politicians and defence experts about the terrible delays of the DRDO and its ability to keep promises. For at stake is not just the concept of indigenisation, but a huge investment of more than Rs 150 billion that the government has made for the last two decades on various projects. Would the money be completely wasted?
“Weapon systems face obsolescence very fast. So the DRDO will have to either give up some projects or reorient its functioning,” says Mohan.
Yet, DRDO has been mouthing the political platitude of indigenisation by postponing the deadlines of LCA, Pinaka, Trishul, Akash, nuclear submarines and several types of electronics warfare systems for the army, air force and navy.
The Kargil conflict last year exposed the chinks in DRDO’s armour. None other than Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee echoed the Forces’s worries when he told DRDO directors on August 6, 1999: “Technology needed for mountain warfare is to be given the highest priority.”
But the biggest worry for DRDO is not the bureaucratic delays and sanctions, but the Indian air force. Faced with diminishing number of its ageing fleet, the IAF holds DRDO responsible for promising to deliver the LCA before year 2,000, thereby considerably upsetting many of its aircraft acquisition plans.
Suspecting that DRDO will never deliver the LCA, the IAF has now embarked on an ambitious project to upgrade 100 MiG-21 aircraft.
Despite the heavy odds, DRDO still remains confident that it will roll out the country’s first indigenous aircraft before 2002.
“We will induct 200 LCAs into the Indian Air Force between 2003 and 2010,” Dr Abdul Kalam told a group of aeronautical scientists before he handed over DRDO’s charges to Dr Vasudev K Aatre.
But there aren’t many who believe that promise will be fulfilled.