What is the link between New Delhi and Arlington county in the US? There are two, in fact.
One, they are polar opposites in terms of longitudinal position. New Delhi is located at 77 degrees East, while Arlington county is at 77 degrees West. Two, in 1958, Delhi and Arlington county became home to two organisations with similar mandates―the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in India, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in the US. Later, ARPA became DARPA after ‘defence’ was prefixed to its name.
DARPA and the DRDO functioned under differing conditions. By 1958, the Soviets had surprised the Americans by launching an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and the world’s first and second satellites (Sputnik 1 and 2). The US was compelled to accelerate military research and development. The new agency, said US president Dwight Eisenhower, would “prevent technological surprise” and “guarantee that never again would the US military be caught with its technological trousers down”.
And DARPA delivered. It developed many groundbreaking systems, including stealth technology for aircraft and military platforms, and precision weapons of game-changing proportions. It also gave the civilian world the internet, automated voice recognition and language translation, and the global positioning system.
The DRDO’s founding objectives were humbler. In 1958, India was a young nation that needed to be self-reliant in critical defence technologies and systems. The DRDO was seen as the answer.
Has it achieved the objective after 65 years? Not quite. While DARPA has become synonymous with excellence in developing new technologies, the DRDO has had, to put it mildly, a chequered journey. The government is now taking a hard look at its utility and track record.
The last time the government took a critical look at the performance of a major defence organisation was in 2017, when the Prime Minister’s Office asked India’s ordnance factories to furnish a report on their achievements from 2013 onwards. (Narendra Modi had become prime minister in 2014.) The directive led to a chain of developments that ultimately resulted in the overhaul of the factories.
The PMO’s attention is now on the DRDO―a behemoth comprising 52 laboratories and subsidiary units. “A recently formed committee is taking a very close look at the DRDO,” senior defence ministry official A. Bharat Bhushan Babu told THE WEEK. “It has a sweeping mandate―from organisational changes to enhancing the R&D work to handholding startups in the critical technology domain to collaborating with academia.”
Heading the committee is K. VijayRaghavan, former principal scientific adviser to the government. The committee has representatives of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, the defence ministry, the Indian Space Research Organisation, private industries, think tanks and academia. Apparently, the committee’s mandate includes submitting recommendations for sweeping organisational reforms in the DRDO.
The report regarding ordnance factories had led to the restructuring of the Ordnance Factory Board, the oldest and largest conglomerate in India’s defence industry with 41 factories and more than a lakh employees. The OFB was ranked 60 in the list of the top 100 defence conglomerates, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). In October 2021, months after the report was submitted, the OFB was restructured into seven public-sector corporate entities. The objective was to improve efficiency and accountability, deepen specialisation in the product range, and enhance quality, cost-efficiency and competitiveness.
Defence minister Manohar Parikkar had, in May 2017, put the performance of many public-sector organisations in the military domain under the scanner. “Natural habits die very hard―habits that have been followed for 50 years,” he said. “You find comfort in the cocoon. You don’t want to dig out.”
Parrikar said public-sector defence companies were not accountable for their performance. “Government only asks for one kind of accountability―there should be no wastage of money. Cost of opportunity is never calculated,” he said.
Many audit reports in the past decade have pointed out deficiencies in project management by DRDO labs. In a report tabled in Parliament in December 2022, the Comptroller and Auditor General pointed out the DRDO’s history of failures that included even “mission-mode” projects―high-priority projects that have “high outcome certainty, as they depend on technologies that are already available, proven and readily accessible”.
According to the CAG, there were projects that the DRDO declared as success even though they did not achieve key objectives. “In 119 of 178 projects,” said the CAG report, “the original time schedules could not be adhered to. In 49 cases, the additional time was in fact more than 100 per cent of the original timeframe. Overall, delays ranged from 16 to 500 per cent, and extensions for completion of projects were taken multiple times.”
Reforming the DRDO would be a more complex task than restructuring ordnance factories. The DRDO’s 52 labs and units employ about 30,000 people, including around 5,000 scientists. Headed by a chairman and the secretary of the department of defence research and development, the DRDO is divided into eight technology clusters, each headed by a director-general.
The DRDO’s failures over the decades have contributed significantly to India becoming the world’s biggest weapons importer. According to SIPRI’s latest report, India continued to be the top weapons importer with 11 per cent share of global arms imports in 2018-22.
The DRDO has indeed tried to adapt to changing times. Several labs have been closed down and work reallocated. For example, from 2018 onwards, work allocated to the Delhi-based Laser Science and Technology Centre was gradually divided between the Centre for High Energy Systems and Sciences in Hyderabad and the Terminal Ballistics Research Laboratory (TBRL) in Chandigarh. Later, TBRL was replaced by the Dehradun-based Instruments Research and Development Establishment.
Similarly, the DRDO has constituted a team of 50 scientists to focus on cutting-edge research in niche areas such as hypersonics, quantum technologies, big data analysis, algorithmic warfare, electromagnetic and directed energy weapons, robotics, lasers, and loiter munitions. “The 50 scientists are all under 35, and they have been handpicked to research and develop futuristic weapon systems, platforms and equipment for the armed forces,” said a source in the defence ministry. “An apex committee of seniors―experienced scientists and academicians―guides these young, brilliant minds who have been divided among five DRDO labs, each specialising in vital military implications in five key ‘cutting-edge’ areas.” The five labs―located in Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata―specialise in artificial intelligence, smart materials, and quantum, cognitive and asymmetric technologies, respectively.
But just to keep pace with the dizzying pace of developments in military technology remains a challenge for the DRDO. It is now up to the nine-member committee to look into whether it needs to go the OFB way―a complete overhaul to suit the country’s changing defence needs.