Collaborations with foreign entities was there earlier as well, but essentially it was restricted to productionisation. Now we are talking from a position of some strength, particularly in design and system engineering, says Dr. M Natarajan, scientific advisor to the defence minister, and DRDO chief.
1. The defence sector is poised to enter into unprecedented cooperation with nations and corporations. How do you view the advent of such an era? What are the likely gains of such cooperation, and the pitfalls that we ought to guard against?
I am greatly excited about the possibility, opportunities of increased collaborations. Of course collaborations were there earlier too but essentially it was restricted to productionisation. Now we are talking from a position of some strength, I would say, in design and system engineering - so obviously this collaboration starts right with the possibility at the development stage itself.
The opportunities are indeed good because in a highly inter-dependant world it would be too difficult to simultaneously develop all the constituent technologies. For example, it could relate to propulsion- though you may be good in designing aero structures, aero-dynamics. You may have developed some capability in system integration, yet you may not be ready with the levels of expertise needed in propulsion technology in spite of having some manufacturing capabilities in license produced engines.
So, it's not in fact a handicap, if we team up with a partner country, or industry, to hasten your programme for development. For, then it is achievable in a shorter time span and also the overall maturity of the product is achieved to higher levels of satisfaction of performance.
The pitfalls, and this is equally true with certain types of sensors, as I mentioned this could be true of a sensor or a radar, or parts of a radar, because we can do signal processing very well in this country. We can do integration well, we can build an antenna, maybe the signal and data processor of electronic carriers or whatever it is could be sourced from other countries. So it gives you many opportunities to assess your own technology levels and integrate either at a modular level, or as a total module.
Now that depends on how much you are willing to compromise, and how much your collaborator is willing to part with. But, I think, as they see your competence and expertise to do such tasks, the willingness to cooperate increases because they see greater business opportunities, which is the reality of business.
Cushioning against the pitfalls is necessary since we must realise in today's globalised world, there are two distinct types of restrictions.
One is governmental - for whatever reasons, it could be you are not signatory to the NPT, or the MTCR, that is not in the hands of engineers that is the country's policy.
The second is also business compulsions - that certain levels of technology may not be parted with, till they see that if they don't part with it you could go to an alternate source.
The third is that if you continue to source certain parts, or modules, as part of technology package from another country it is absolutely essential that there has to be a guarantee of supplies for a certain period. Also, for a variety of reasons, such as new NSG regulations etc many countries want to sign end-user agreements with certain compliance requirements. It is necessary to check that those compliance requirements do not infringe with our rights to use the products we design, be it aircraft, or electronic warfare systems, in a manner most appropriate for our armed forces.
Not withstanding this, collaborative means, in my view, should be increasingly adopted, because that is the only way to do future business.
2. In an era of global recession, mounting development costs and decreasing orders at home for foreign companies, how should India approach the issue of cooperation with global entities in the defence sector?
As far as defence is concerned there are certain bottom line requirements, notwithstanding economic problems, which are based on a nation's security concerns - so the same logic does not apply, as in the commercial sector. But even that bottom line, as far as a country like India is concerned, is quite reasonable. Therefore, our partners abroad should find India an attractive partner.
The reason why we want to develop and collaborate is to keep the costs of the total supply chain at manageable levels, and also to maximise indigenous materials of construction and capability because these kind of products will require life cycle support over almost 25-30 years. It is not necessary that all these companies will remain in the same form for such long periods. So, we should have the ability - should something happen earlier than that - that companies get re-structured, or business plans get changed earlier than that, we have a back up plan and we are not put to any major hardships.
So, these are some of the pitfalls as I mentioned, but not withstanding that, economic considerations in defence will be secondary - though important - to the meeting the principal objective of armed forces requirements.
Obviously, we look for a win-win situation for both parties, where as you develop, the foreign partners also appreciate your capability to absorb higher technology levels. They had doubts about this earlier on whether we could actually absorb high technology and integrate it into a meaningful product. However, with the success we have had with LCA, electronic warfare - particularly our ability to integrate avionics eg: Sukhoi, recently, the MIG 27, which we have upgraded with our modules and the air force is extremely happy.
All these are a clear pointer to a mastery of our capability and this should augur well for collaborative efforts. So any collaboration, I perceive, is a clear opportunity for a win-win situation, with economical prices and on-time deliveries for our armed forces.
3. What are the areas that we need to invest in, and nurture, for the future?
We have done pretty well in setting up production infrastructure across a number of disciplines - these could be aeronautics, combat engineering, electronics like Bharat Electronics for radar technology. But as we launch major programmes not only in the DRDO, but even within the industry by their own in-house R&D - there comes a very special need that if we have to shorten the time of development to induction from deliveries through production lines, then we have to pick up all the skill sets required for engineering development for manufacture - which almost has to run concurrently from the time you begin developing your prototype.
The is a pre-requisite which factors in the manufacturing infrastructure likely to be available, or augmented, in the process consistent with the volumes that the armed forces may need. So, economic issues do come, also investment and funding issues, but above all it is a process that adds value to the design process in manufacture over and above what the R&D fellows could have done.
R&D engineers, or scientists, are essentially demonstrators of technological capabilities through a demonstrated prototypes. While it will justify the purpose for which the prototype has been instituted, and it will demonstrate very successfully the key functionalities expected of such a system, it may yet not be adequate as a reliable product for sustained operation by the armed forces. This is to be the value added by a dedicated engineering development team.
Unfortunately we had not paid attention to create such teams in the industry. But now even in the automotive sector as you know such teams have been created to develop motorcycles every 12 or 18 months, and cars in two years. So, hopefully we should be able to roll out in less than five years. This is however a huge investment in terms of highly qualified engineers who migrate from system design or system engineering to engineering development and eventually going into production. Some will come from testing and evaluation and others from piloting or flight test engineers from real operations in the air force.
When all these minds integrate this is a unique churning process which will refine the product from all angles and makes sure that the end product as it rolls out of the production lines are increasingly acceptable to the customer. You are also able to bring in online changes in production consistent with their suggestions. Sometimes it may be superfluous but still customer is sensitive to such suggestions. He wants to see it implemented because it gives him a comfort.
These are the capabilities we need to acquire considerably. I am talking in terms of translating prototypes into hardware, which is a skill set we need to certainly develop. We need to invest in these tools, notwithstanding the development of design tools.
Secondly, it is also necessary for us to upgrade our own design tools and facilities through virtual modeling and digital mock-ups as we gain strength. This will enable us not to waste time and resources, cutting down on materials, but to go through a walk through module and get as much close to user demands in terms of operational requirements or functional needs, and to that extent the design has a much better hold, right at the design stage itself - rather than building a prototype and waiting for it to be developed.
But all this is easier said, though in the design phase and in the skill sets that we have in mathematics and computers with software companies we may be able to achieve these far more speedily even somewhat realistically. But this has to be integrated with practical field experience of constructers. If constructers cannot manufacture as per your quality standards, then there is a problem - so process engineering is an equally important area we need to invest in.
Finally, at the technology levels, we need to build sufficient capability with regard to our bottom line - say in, propulsion systems for missiles, fortunately that is an area that we have done extremely well- but the propulsion system of aircrafts we cannot use in cruise missiles - there are compulsions it cannot be used. Technology from the commercial sector can't be uses as there are end-user agreements, which will not allow this to happen. We know we can modify commercial aircraft technology for military aircraft, but commercial sector agreements will not allow this to happen.
So there is a problem, as mastery is important - so propulsion becomes important, sensor becomes important, and these two areas the country needs to dearth of funding as the private sector is ready to invest in these areas. What is required is a greater understanding of the developmental process, the difficulties involved between the armed forces, developmental agencies, including DRDO, and agencies, including R&D centres in industries, and the industries themselves who should take collectively these decisions.
These investments are extremely high quantum investments and they should be optimally utilised, when invested, through targeted output, which should be systematically integrated into our ongoing and future designs.
This is an evolving process, it will happen - there is an increasing awareness of these requirements. It might also be that the armed forces might buy three different missiles with three different seekers, three different propulsion systems with three different aerodynamics because one is for the air force, one is for the army and one is for the navy - yet they may do an almost identical job. All this, because one found it convenient at one point of time.
But are we economically in a position to invest in three different technologies of seekers, three different propulsion systems, and three different airframes - its not viable. It is not viable to develop different constituent technologies for different systems. So we have to realise that homing onto one particular seeker, which may not be ideal for all combinations - but is largely acceptable to all three services, which makes such investments possible in the context of the Indian economy. So this kind of conventions in thought processes, and this kind of compliance in design, would be a pre-requisite to succeed.
4. Do you think as a nation we are equipped with a holistic outlook towards defence and security related matters? What would be your thoughts on this issue?
Security is a global topic today. Things are so rapidly changing. It's a dynamic situation. There are people who think that the conventional wars have been fought and now war will take on a new dimension of low intensity conflict and possibly in an extreme, and a non-occurring event, of a holocaust and we are oscillating between the two situations. So certain dimensions of security situation will have to be managed politically and diplomatically.
The armed forces are there with certain levels of forecasts. I am sure they are honing up their methods of augmenting intelligence etc., but a large group that still believes that we can't keep our conventional systems below a certain level and each country has to determine what are those levels? To that extent, yes, resources will get divided between how much you invest in your strategic systems, if you perceive dangers in those areas and for a country like India, which is facing low intensity conflicts almost at a daily level how do you apportion money in those areas.
There are issues related to the human dimension. So, as you know we also deal with life science products and technologies to keep the soldiers fit under those conditions. The intermediate segment, which mostly gets debated, aircraft or tank or electronic warfare. But scientists and technologists speak of technology across a wide spectrum of these products - because they have an innate sound mechanical design etc.
So all this calls for networked management. Just as banking has become accessible and easy from any where in the world, similarly communication, surveillance, information flow are getting networked on a much larger scale within each armed force and between armed forces and also the intelligence network. To that extent the elementary modules are there with us, in some form or the other. We have even done a CCQ base, a command control configuration system for artillery but with limited scope within a certain artillery regiment or command.
But such networks have to expand in a much bigger dimension.
These are systems integration challenges of large networks - how to ensure secrecy of your information flow, video transmission, intra or internet communication and also wireless and other forms of communication. Maybe multiple communication methods can be fused. So these are all capabilities that we can work on
. CARE is a laboratory which is onto this kind of job but it has not really taken off in the expected dimensions.
If US is eyeing India to cooperate, if not totally in some areas, it would demand networked information across continents too. These are the challenges we have to overcome by building the capabilities for the future.
Just like IT power has been a boon to business; it can be harnessed here in a big way so that platform deficiencies can be more than overcome through such integrated operations. This is a skill set that we all need to sit down and discuss and chalk out a course of development - how much is a legacy system, how much is current, how much will be futuristic, each country will have a different pattern. It is not easy for another country to offer you this. They can offer you the modularity of doing such an operation. But essentially the physical process of module integration - factoring these strengths of legacy, current and futuristic systems that you will be acquiring or building yourself is essentially what you have to do.
Therefore I see immense scope and since we've made good headway with other ait companies- it will happen progressively.
Therefore in case of marginal deficiencies we need not get unduly alarmed. If you look within DRDO, the laboratory has developed battlefield surveillance radar at LRDE. It can see up to 7-10 kms a man walking either night or day, or a truck. Now the same thing, an electro optics payload is made by LRDE, Dehradun and someone else could've made an infrared seeker or a millimetric wave seeker. Now that could be used as anti-collision device in a locomotive or as a sensor.
When you integrate such sensors, perhaps you have a surveillance system. Progressively you don't have to keep people in the Siachen Glacier but they can be seated in bunkers and keep watching over a vast area. This can be integrated to an alarm system so that even if he falls asleep someone can wake him up alerting him.
This will also have to be coupled with rapid air lift capability should you sense danger.
Opportunities exist in plenty like coastal survey of the 7500 km of coastline. It is humanly impossible to plant men at every half km. We can integrate acoustic sensors also for the purpose as our laboratory NPOL Kochi has demonstrated. Since the opportunities are immense, it is only our imagination and innovativeness and creativity that will determine the strides we take.
That is why I care for the young scientist.
5. Because of the nature of their work, organisations of strategic importance, such as the DRDO, tend to be rather insular and not very open to the public gaze. While this may be good in some ways, it can also leave the field open to motivated campaigns and public relations disasters, which the organisation may find difficult to counteract. What would your thoughts be on this issue?
The subject you have raised is very relevant. Committed scientists in general are resistant to being exposed to the media. I remember when Agni 3 failed and many newspapers called it a disaster. On the spot when the failure took place, I was in company of the then raksha mantri Pranab Mukherjee because for a minute I could see the feeling of many of the young scientists involved. So being the department head, I can't afford to show a sad face. One newspaper immediately ridiculed it and said it was a failure.
The minister said it went upto 18 km and was therefore a partial success. Even that was ridiculed in one newspaper. So what is required is to cut down the needless hype. Second if any developmental effort nobody can guarantee success even with best of efforts there will be failures. Failure is an integral part of the development process and of success as well. I believe failure is the first few steps towards success. All successful programmes have gone through a failure cycle. Nothing to get alarmed but the way it gets hyped sometimes disturbs the scientist. And a missile like Agni cannot be tested in an auditorium. It has to be tested in a field and therefore open to the public.
But a non-technological person just cannot appreciate the nuances of development and very few journalists are actually clued in to these specific technologies to appreciate them. I must also admit that even I am to that extent a poor communicator. Fortunately we have a very powerful personality among the CC R&Ds I have as my board of directors, Dr Selva Murthy, who is a lively distinguished scientist and a life science person who understood this drawback very early and has set up a public interface with Dr Suranjan Pal who is our person there.
Over the last 2 ½ years we have disseminated quite a lot of information to the media without jeopardizing security levels. So we will continue to open our channels without giving out operational details.
So the disclosure cannot be compared to the ISRO eg: the Chandrayaan, a mission for peace. Even we wouldn't attack any body but in case of an attack we should be able to protect ourselves.
Even then we can't disclose everything to make the task of breaking in easier for the opponent. This is a constant debate as we are spenders of public money we are responsible to divulge broad details and changing the focus from projects to the technology involved which we will be focusing on in future. Whether the propulsion is used by Agni 1, 2 or 3 will depend on what the armed forces need at a particular point and what the country needs. And all these products are possible only if we have capability in propulsion, aerospace materials, metallic and non metallic, composites similarly your ability in navigation, carbon composites or other composites for re-entry.
But there will be cases where even technologies cannot be disclosed because of the implications. We can speak at a macro level but not at a micro level of specifications. I would like to place on record through you to the entire nation that it is not that DRDO does not want to be open to that extent. Sometimes it is not fair on the part of the public to expect everyone from the scientific community to be so articulate. Because innately they are silent workers. And the success of an organisation like DRDO rests on the silent sloggers than loudmouths.
6. On a personal note, can you describe what it entailed working for such an organisation at the time of your joining? How are things different now?
I think you are asking the question to the right man and in some sense the wrong man. Right man in the sense I am a home grown product. I joined DRDO way back and never dreamt that I would be the scientific advisor but here I am in this chair and slowly my terms in coming to a close. Secondly I may not be the repository of knowledge to comment on DRDO. Yet I would say we have traveled miles. There are always miles to go. As targets keep shifting, your milestones keep shifting.
The transformation that I have witnessed is; in the 70s we didn't have the courage to think of systems. Perhaps that was not the mandate either so we were contended with some science and technology development or learning processes of some intricate technologies - also some very very incremental value additions, not of very high value but of a more utilitarian value. But the boldness to embark on the major technologies came in the mid-'80s. The '71 war gave some propulsion in that direction to think of and in 1974 the Pokhran added to the restrictions.
There fore there were compulsions and the shortcoming was also recognised at the industry level. There were one or two products but not across the board from some asci generators and incremental value additions to suddenly thinking big to aircrafts. We had an inadequate base for these and infrastructure to meet the technology levels worldwide was lacking. Many tasks had to be taken up concurrently and it is true of many nations, not only India. It is mostly the case with first generation products like battle tanks, electronic warfare system, aircraft or submarine, which went into at least two decades. But I am sure the second generation will grow up very fast considerable effort has gone into learning and also by those who while learning have gone through bitter experiences. This has helped mentor the youngsters to improve their take-off.
This process has significantly improved over the years.
We had to set up the infrastructure, the workshops, machine tools installation, we had to design and manufacture tooling.. With these you produce parts and integrate them. When you find test infrastructure inadequate then you commission and build that up. So you can see that virtually in every area whether it is combat engineering or electronics or aero spheres people have gone through setting up of fabrication facilities, infrastructure facilities for test and evaluation and building up of human resource in design and each of these functional areas and also the field tests and evaluation.
Like Rama, 14 years we had to go to the deserts of Rajasthan taking along a 60 ton tank because we didn't have a test facility. It might have looked crazy but that was the only way we could've accomplished at that time. Now we have far more advanced simulation techniques it's available where we could check out but then it was so. Something like the folding landing gear of the aircraft but it runs only 100 km. Somebody would say it is a failure because it can run only 100 km but the fact that it runs 100 km means that it has features like high temperature seals which can be worked upon for longer distances. Now we have with honing completing buffing finishing we can get it to run longer. Slowly the technology progressed from 400 450 and then to 1500. Today we are guaranteeing 4500 km almost the life of the tank. The chrome plating, honing process including the honing sticks was the intermediate innovations.
See how the technology improved with value addition at all levels seats got developed and But we can't now work like we used then. Because every project will take its own sweet time maybe 25 30 years. That's why there is a need to network a large number of small medium and specialist companies. You need systems integrators, engineering developers whether it is outsourced expertise or in-house expertise; you also need test and evaluation expertise through rigs and through field tests and above all you need service people as an integral part of your team for final field evaluation.
The whole gamut of activities that takes a design from a computer to the field, the DRDO and other industry partners have learnt. We have crossed many thresholds and reached a level at which we are looking at developing light and medium combat aircrafts and further the UC aviator at a later date. Like that in every area in combat engineering we produced Arjun tank but the problem was using the modules of electro-optics an entirely new concept was configured to use on T72, T90. It's another thing that the army has not yet taken to it but it was done in a record time of two years. The original turret took about 8 years for us to develop. So you can imagine the speed and how one development feeds 10 others. We have recently developed a rotary wankle engine for ostensibly for Nissan 55hp. The beauty is that it runs 8000- 10000 rpm, one could couple a constant frequency integral drive generator with it and get power out of it. Some can be used as an APU. Even if doesn't get sold in a shop it can go into other applications. For every successful design there can be multiple uses based on your ingenuity, creativity and imagination, how you package it, we need to develop this brand of engineers too who are product multipliers cashing on available technologies.
Such skill sets are also to be learnt in our industry. How to capitalise on somebody else' development. DRDO is a treasure house of technologies. Just like data mining in the IT industry we have to do technology mining for this industry. Our own scientists might not be able to but industry engineers will be given access to mine through technologies available with DRDO that will benefit the nation at large.
Cost is not the issue because it is paid for by the government. So at this point we are finally at a position of strength where collaborating companies take us seriously and Embraer, EADS, Eurojet for aeronautics and other world leader are talking to us now. I think that is a good sign.
At the personal level I am immensely happy for two reasons but I think it is a God given gift. though I have been associated with the Arjun tank and been taking all the beatings ...I have also been involved with LCA willy-nilly right from the beginning but now I am involved with some submarine constructions. What more can one expect in a lifespan from 25 -60 years, if you have been distinctly fortunate to deal with such a wide spectrum of technologies including electronic warfare, radar etc. The levels of satisfaction with which I lay down my office is unmatched and cannot be matched with money.
The challenges in future developments are so intense, opportunities are so immense, my advice to the youngsters is even if you choose a greener pasture change after 10 years. Because your most productive age 25 -35 is ideal for the DRDO and you stand to gain a lot from it. Most of the armaments we see have been produced by committed souls.