Express Investigation: Delayed Research; Delayed Organisation – Part – Seven
DRDO gets it right when it works unlike DRDO
Posted: Sat Nov 18 2006, 00:00 hrs
NEW DELHI, NOVEMBER 17:
For all its defences against non-performance, the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO), ironically, has only to look within for ready templates of distinction. Programmes that have met targets are an isolated few but they worked well because their ethic symbolizes a fundamental breakaway from the tedium of the larger organisation’s default approach. Self-reliance, a term battered by DRDO’s track-record on showpiece programmes, shines beneath the hood in the Navy’s sonars, avionics and electronic warfare systems on IAF fighter aircraft and missiles developed under corporate foreign joint ventures.
The first two were developed on time because of the labs linking up with the armed forces right from the initial stages and, significantly, leadership that keeps young scientists on their toes. The latter, because international partnerships mandate a more professional approach to programme completion.
One of the most successful DRDO laboratories is also one of the least known, tucked away silently in the Trikkakara suburb of Kochi, fomenting applied research and technology to give the Navy real self-reliance in critical sensor systems.
The Naval Physical and Oceanographic Laboratory (NPOL), the only DRDO lab to win both the Silicon Trophy and Titanium Trophy for excellence, has, in the last two decades, given the Navy an impressive 87 per cent self-reliance in acoustic sensors for warships and submarines. All Navy warships, including foreign ones, as a result, are fitted with DRDO sonars like the APSOH, HUMVAD and HUMSA, and the Navy does not need to import. Now, it is putting its finishing touches to the USHUS sonar for the Navy’s Kilo-class submarines and the Mihir dunking sonar for HAL’s Advanced Light Helicopter, all well within their projected timeframes.
Vice Admiral Madanjit Singh, formerly the Navy’s Southern Commander at Kochi, said, “The NPOL’s success is from user involvement right from the word go. The steering panel is headed by a serving Naval commander who sets the agenda, efforts between the DRDO and Navy are joint.”
VK Aatre, former NPOL director who went on to become DRDO chief, agrees. “When I was there, we could not distinguish between designers, Navy personnel and production engineers,” he said. “We shared an excellent rapport. The difference here was that the user was part of the design team.”
The lab’s current director V Chander, an IIT-IISc alumnus, has espoused applied research like no other DRDO establishment, working not for idealistic invention, but delivering quality, fool-proof sonar systems to the Navy. How?
First, he’s rechristened the HR cell as People, Academics, Research & Training. He’s made sure young scientists get to spend time with the Navy for extended periods of time rather than labour away only in their laboratories. Third, he’s made sure that the level of involvement with warships and the Navy is so high that projects are either completed or prudently foreclosed before despondence and lassitude can set in.
Vice Admiral Singh, as DG Defence Planning in 2000, recommended to the Task Force on the Reorganization of Higher Defence Planning, that the country’s R&D labs be rationalized on the lines of NPOL. What ensued, another story entirely, was a turf war that saw the idea quietly dissipate. Another area where DRDO has shone despite itself is avionics and electronic warfare systems for IAF fighter aircraft.
The IAF’s most advanced fighter, the Sukhoi-30 MKI, flies with avionics developed by the Defence Avionics Research Establishment (DARE) in Bangalore, and has proved so good that the new British Hawk advanced jet trainers and the license-produced units of the upcoming contract for 126 foreign fighters, will be armed with DARE avionics and electronic warfare systems.
For now, in addition to the Sukhois, these arm IAF Jaguars and MiG-27s which, combined, have over 30 DARE electronic systems, including mission computers, electronic warfare suites, laser rangers and multifunction advanced cockpits.
A testimony to DARE’s work: in 2003, the Royal Malysian Air Force ordered radar computers worth Rs 21.15 crore (75 per cent of DRDO’s officially declared export value of Rs 27.93 crore) from DARE for its Sukhoi-30MM fighter fleet, and is interested in buying more.
Air Marshal JS Gujral, formerly IAF Central Air Commander and Deputy Chief in charge of acquisitions, feels DARE has done an excellent job in a world where such technology is simply too advanced to share. “DARE’s projects have succeeded also because of deep interfacing with the IAF. They have maintained a high mark in defence output and timeframes compared to DRDO’s other not-so-successful ventures. Across the board, the avionics and electronic warfare systems by DARE match up with the best in the world. The IAF has been very happy with what they have provided us,” Gujral said. DARE Director RP Ramalingam said, “DRDO has realized that if there is a WW III, the winner will be the side that can best control the electromagnetic spectrum, and has therefore placed India as a competent force in the world map of avionics.”
Foreign joint ventures, on the other hand, have compelled DRDO to put out more realistic predictions on time and cost. The BrahMos missile project, which began development in 1998 as a corporate joint venture with Russia and resulted in a world-class cruise missile that other countries now want to buy, was completed in just six years at a cost of Rs 667 crore – no time and cost overruns.
Similarly, the new generation Barak-II surface to air missile for the Navy, being developed by DRDO in a JV with Israel, is officially to cost Rs 2, 606.02 crore and be ready by May 2011, a far more realistic predictive frame than any other missile project under the indigenous IGMDP.
The defence sector does not have a policy for foreign direct investment, but DRDO open to joint ventures with foreign partners. No wonder then, that on June 7, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence said, “BrahMos model should be followed in other projects also. Private sector should be given more opportunities in defence production and user participation should be encouraged from R&D stage.”