January 21, 2015

For the sake of India's security, our defence R&D capabilities need a major shake-up


The evidence of failures in our Defence R&D and manufacturing eco system are myriad. 
A country that has a proud aviation heritage spanning several decades is forced to buy trainer aircraft from Switzerland, a country otherwise known for chocolates and watches!
The Navy is given an aircraft carrier – almost a decade behind schedule and billions of dollars over-budget. 
When delivered it also lacked any air defence systems, as the PM reportedly found out when he first visited it! 
The Tejas fighter aircraft takes 30 years and we are still counting as it is still being putting through its paces by HAL. 
We have still to have successfully design an Indian jet engine to power our fighters! 
On the other end of the spectrum, soldiers have to sometimes buy their own shoes and uniforms because what’s produced by the Government Ordinance boards are substandard. 
I can go on and on! 
India faces some of the biggest challenges that any nation faces in terms of its security. 
We have a porous coastline and borders along with the embrace of several neighbours that are determined to cook up a constant stew of terrorism and keep the country on the boil! 
Keeping our country secure is critical for our economic development and growth. 
But to do so in the current inefficient way of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) product development and acquisition is unsustainable and unaffordable! 
Finally, questions are being asked and solutions being sought to breathtaking amounts of money being spent on imports over the last several decades, that still leave our forces under equipped and under-prepared. 

That the MoD needs a real shake up is stating the obvious.
Fundamental changes are required in planning, procurement and contracting. 
Most importantly it is the R&D and manufacturing segments that need real restructuring – especially given the Government’s ‘Make in India’ focus. 
The MoD’s Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) and its doctrine of research need a rethink. 
The MoD’s manufacturing and domestic capability also need a rethink and re-architecting. 
It is obvious there’s something really wrong if a country that could design jet fighters way back in the ‘60s isn’t able after 30 years, to get the Tejas fighter jet deployed. 
In fact, we are now having to negotiate a $25 billion dollar deal with France. 
The concept of centralised labs like DRDO that are distant from commercial manufacturing and product companies are a relic of the past. 
There is no modern technology eco-system where product development is separate from the manufacturing units, as an ivory tower with little or no accountability!

Technology development and product development in today’s age need to be integrated – both from a point of view of product and solution development, as also from a commercial cost standpoint. 
That the DRDO head must be also the Defence Minister’s scientific advisor, creates a holy cow around the DRDO and perpetuates an inefficient monopoly, in innovation and design. 
That a deep restructuring of the DRDO is required is obvious to many, including those in the DRDO who are impatient with the culture of ‘Government R&D’. 
Technology and development need cultures of risk taking, exploration and innovation! 
The current DRDO is a far cry from that as can be seen by long delays and cost overruns in projects! 
For those who argue that R&D and design don’t belong in the government sector, I present to them ISRO’s world class accomplishments. 
Imagine if DRDO was in charge of R&D for ISRO and ISRO was simply the launching entity. We would still be worrying about launching our first satellite! 
The DRDO structure harks back to the days when there were technology embargos against India and DRDO was the way to channel technologies from friendly governments. 
The restructuring and the new DRDO must start with a separation of the DRDO head from the scientific advisor to the Defence Minister’s role. 
DRDO itself must be made into different labs – that specialise in specific critical futuristic technologies. DRDO needs to be right-sized and focus only on technologies. 
Conventional product technologies should be moved into DPSUs as their R&D wings like BEL, BDL, HAL etc. 
DRDO must also seed and encourage private R&D labs for joint ownership of Intellectual Properties (IP). 
The DRDO finally must be driven by commercial considerations. 
Like most design labs, their measure of achievements should be the number of Intellectual Properties they can create and sell to various companies DPSUs and private companies – Indian and foreign. 
Because the test of a technology development is how it is adopted by commercial product/ platform companies. 
Simultaneously, the network of Defence PSUs must be restructured and overhauled. 
Their status of Navratnas notwithstanding, they have to be transformed into modern, cutting edge technology companies.
Their government linkages should give them advantages vis-a-vis access to capital but everything else should be as is for other capability driven companies in the country. 
This restructuring of DPSUs is critical to creating a starting point for the ‘Make in India’ strategy.

From this form of restructuring and leadership can emerge a new energised DRDO – a new entity called DRDO labs perhaps – at the centre of an energetic ecosystem of innovation and creativity in the security space in our country. 
This is vital for all young engineers and scientists, looking to build careers in science and technology. 
This changed DRDO, along with revitalised and reorganised DPSUs, and the energies of the private companies (domestic and foreign) are the three building blocks to Make in India successful for the defence and security sector! 
Changing the DRDO head should be the beginning of a process of restructuring and reform if the Narendra Modi Government and, especially Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, want to shake up the defence and security sectors as part of transforming India for its future.

Daily mail/The writer is a Rajya Sabha MP

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