So far, 2007 has been a particularly good year for the embattled DRDO. In a wide ranging interview, distinguished scientist and chief controller, R&D (SI), DRDO, Dr Prahlad, casts an eye over the challenges that lie ahead, by Rajiv Singh.
1. So far, the year 2007 has thrown up happy results for the DRDO. What significance do the successful tests of the Agni III, Astra, Trishul and the BrahMos hold for the country's missile programme?
Yes, many successful flight tests have taken place in the recent past. These tests are indeed significant, as the design, fabrication, development, integration and testing capabilities of the DRDO, and also those of its partner Indian companies, can now be said to be comparable with world-class technologies.
These tests have also shown that our teams are now capable of understanding the performance of sophisticated systems, analyzing failures and evolving solutions. The increasing sophistication has also increased the confidence levels within our own aerospace community significantly.
A significant offshoot of the successful tests is also the fact that there is now a heightened respect for Indian capabilities in the aerospace sector within the international community.
At an organizational level, these tests are also significant for the favourable impression that they have created in the minds of the public, and in the national media, about the DRDO.
2. With the recently concluded exercise 'Ashwamedh,' the Indian Army may perhaps have conducted its most tech-intensive war games ever. As war doctrines of the armed forces transform in line with the tech-intensive environment of modern warfare, how do you foresee the DRDO keeping pace with their requirements?
Ashwamedh is a tactical exercise of the Indian Army and the DRDO does not have much of a role to play in operational activities.
However, DRDO-developed and produced items, such as electronic warfare systems, the Arjun main battle tank and other communication equipment have been used in this exercise. They have performed well.
3. An aerospace command for the defence forces would appear to have been approved 'in-principle' by the Government. Could you outline some of the constituent elements of such a command? How far is the DRDO already down the road in terms of developing technologies and systems for such a command?
The Indian Air Force is spearheading the move to establish an aerospace command for the defence services. As such, an aerospace command would evolve only after obtaining the views, and concurrence, of all the three defence services, the para-military forces, the Coast Guard, the Department of Space, the Home Ministry etc.
However, the final confirmation for establishing such a command is yet to be received.
As of now, the DRDO has no role to play in the process of establishing a separate aerospace command.
4. All of DRDO's recent successes appear to have been in the aerospace sector. Could you talk about the efforts being made by the organization to develop systems in other sectors?
Though the DRDO's achievements in the aerospace sector, such as those with missiles and aircraft, appears glamorous and appeals to the mind of the general public, the DRDO has also made significant contributions in other disciplines.
There are a number of significant areas where DRDO developed equipment and systems have been accepted, and inducted for service, by the three defence services.
List of some of the important systems accepted for service by the defence services: -
- Electronic Warfare systems for the Army, the Air Force and the Navy.
- Ship and Submarine based sonar systems for the Navy
- Torpedoes for the Navy
- Radar systems for the Army, the Navy and the Air Force
- Bridging equipment and systems for the Army
- Parachute and arrester barriers for the three Services
- NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) equipment for the three Services
- Many products of Life Sciences for the three Services
- Materials for strategic applications
- Hyperbaric chamber for Navy
- Terrain data and intelligence for the Army
- Small arms and ammunition for the three Services
- Communication and C4I systems for Army
5. Former chief of Army staff, General Shankar Roy Choudhary, once had occasion to remark that he had placed the orders for the Arjun MBT to help expedite the process of industrialization of indigenously developed technologies. In the light of its performance during the recently concluded Ex-Ashwamedh could you talk about the Arjun MBT as a fighting system? From a historical perspective, could you also touch upon the issues that have been involved in making a system like the Arjun see the light of day?
The Arjun main battle tank (MBT) has been customized, and built, exclusively for the Indian Army and for Indian battlefield conditions. The Arjun MBT has a combination of unique features that make it a very powerful combat system. Some of these are listed below:-
- Superior firepower, using an indigenous 120 mm rifled gun as well as ammunition
- High mobility
- Excellent protection, thanks to the special steel and composite armour
- Hydro-pneumatic suspension for a smooth ride
- Modern gun control system, which provides fire-on-the-move capability even against moving targets
- Missile firing capability through the gun barrel
- Integrated Fire Control System
- Stabilised Thermal Sight
The Arjun MBT is now under serial production at the Heavy Vehicle Factory, Chennai. All the Tier II and III vendors have been identified, and cleared, for quality supply.
By 2009, a total of 124 tanks will be produced and delivered. Further orders may be made for the tank by the end of 2007.
6. With a sub-surface version of the BrahMos reportedly ready for testing, and one for Agni-III already being talked about, questions naturally arise about the 'platform' that India will field to launch such systems? Isn't it time that the defence establishment was more forthcoming about the Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) project? Could you elaborate on this issue?
7. As compared to larger enterprises, how well is the country's small and medium sector represented proportionately in the country's defence projects? What is the level of commitment that they have shown towards R&D work? What are the benefits that they have derived from taking up piece-meal DRDO contracts and how far have these contracts helped them in building up in-house capabilities?
Some 800 small and medium sector companies are part of a national network involved in the development, production and delivery of components, modules and sub-systems for defence sector projects. About 40% of DRDO's budget, and 10% of the ministry of defence (MoD) budget, reaches the small and medium sector industries.
Out of 800 companies, at least 200 are highly committed, enthusiastic and techno-savvy companies that have already made a mark, not just in the defence sector, but also in other sectors of the Indian market.
Around 100 of these companies are already under contract with multi-national entities, partnering in programmes related to development and production. Many of these companies have already begun production work for their foreign partners, mainly on the strength of technology acquired through their interactions with the DRDO earlier.
8. What kind of R&D and manufacturing capabilities have the country's defence PSU's, such as HAL, BEL, BHEL etc built up over the years?
Most of the public sector companies have an R&D setup of their own, which are mostly involved in aiding the main manufacturing activity of the company. Mainly, these units are involved in resolving design, up-gradation, modifications and manufacturing problems of their parent units.
They also work on new products as per the requirements of the main company.
Sometimes, they provide the interface with DRDO teams for proper transfer of technology.
9. What kind of an opportunity awaits big players from the country's private sector in the defence sector? Do you think the big boys in the private sector have shown any inclination to prepare themselves to play a role in this area, leaving aside a honourable exception or two?
The ministry of defence is trying to identify big companies that can become lead system integrators, and also take responsibility for serial production. These industries will be termed as Raksha Udyog Ratnas (RURs).
A committee under the chairmanship of Mr Probir Sen Gupta, former Secretary (Defence Production) has forwarded its recommendations on this matter to the ministry for consideration and acceptance.
The RUR concept will provide an opportunity for the big players to play a very major role in the production of defence systems.
In addition, the ministry of industries has also certified more than 30 large size private sector companies for the production of certain specific defence systems. These companies have been provided licenses for the manufacture and production of items for the ministry of defence. Even here, these large companies have an opportunity to contribute to the security of the country.
10. The 'offset' regime, when and if it comes into play, should likely see the induction of technologies and capabilities into the country. Could you elaborate on how you foresee such a 'regime' developing?
A considerable amount of discussion has taken place regarding the offset mechanism, and how such a provision can be leveraged for the induction of new technological capabilities into the country.
Initially, offsets may be used by companies for the manufacture and assembly of defence systems within the country. Eventually, the arrangement will be expanded to include technology packages. DRDO has already drawn up a list of technology gaps that exist within the country that needs to be addressed at the earliest.
An integrated approach by the MoD is likely to emerge, which will leverage offset provisions for the benefit of the country.
11. The involvement of the private sector in defence related contracts and projects also raises attendant issues, such as future acquisitions of these companies by others (even foreign ones), sale and transfer of technologies, patents, confidentiality of contracts etc. Could you touch upon these issues?
The Government of India is addressing the issue of merger and acquisitions of Indian companies by foreign MNCs and trying to evolve certain protective mechanisms. These mechanisms will take care of all eventualities where critical, and strategically sensitive, companies need to be protected from acquisitions by other entities.
Currently, necessary clauses to protect the interests of the ministry of defence are being incorporated in the MoU's and contracts.
12. Attracting and retaining technical talent in any field is already a global problem. Reports would suggest that the DRDO has suffered considerable attrition in terms of 'brain power' over the past few years. Could you clarify what impact such attrition may have had on the functioning of your organization? How do you intend to address the issue?
As of now, the DRDO is inducting about 500 scientists every year. Though it loses about 100 of these numbers by way of attrition, it still manages to carry out most of its activities as far as design and development work is concerned.
There are, of course, some pockets where the lack of specialists is being acutely felt. In these areas we are also accessing talent from the private sector to fill up the gaps.
On many occasions, DRDO scientists work with private sector companies engaged in activities of a similar nature, such as those in signal processing, image processing, computational aerodynamics, structural design and analysis, heat transfer, mechanical design, antenna design, digital computers, micro controllers etc.
With private companies assuming greater responsibility, and picking up tasks of increasing complexity, DRDO is able to manage its activities.
DRDO is already allowing the ministry of defence to place direct orders with companies for technologically matured and less complex defence systems under the MAKE clause of the Defence Procurement Procedure.
Thus, companies are now sharing DRDO's workload right from the design and development stage.
13. Briefly, would you comment on the status of the Akash and Trishul SAM systems, their features and effectiveness?
Akash SAM System
Akash is a medium range, mobile, multi-target handling, air defence, surface to air missile system. With the successful completion of the development work and the flight-testing phase, the system has now been offered to both the Army and the Air Force for user trials.
The first phase, in which the functionality of the system was tested, has been completed near Bangalore. The second phase, in which the system's mobility and certain other functional efficacies are to be verified, is being conducted at Pokhran in the month of June 2007. This will be followed by flight trials at Balasore in July 2007.
Both the Army and the Air Force are expected to confirm orders, once user trials are over. These orders will pave the way for the induction of the Akash Weapon System
Trishul SAM System
Trishul is a low-level, quick reaction, short-range, surface-to-air missile system, which has completed all development work with respect to flight trials. The Air Force has been requested to order certain quantities so that the complete development and manufacturing effort gets utilized.
Considering that Trishul's development took much longer than what was planned, and also, given the fact that the Army, the Air Force and the Navy had to meet their immediate needs, the import of foreign missile systems was allowed to cater to their operational requirements.
The Indian Air Force, being a large customer, has agreed to induct a certain minimum number of the Trishul system for its air defence activities.
14. The massive revamp and acquisition drive by the defence forces has resulted in a sudden influx of global arms majors into the country and it would be easy to argue that a systematic effort is under way to undermine the country's indigenous R&D effort and ease the path for foreign contractors. How would you address such an issue?
Definitely, various foreign companies in the country are vying to capture the Indian defence market and do as much of business as possible. This is natural, considering the fact that the global defence market is shrinking, and the fact that India is a leading importer of defence systems.
However, the stand taken by the ministry of defence is that a country of India's size, and importance, cannot continue to depend on foreign designed and produced defence systems eternally. The country has to rely on indigenously designed, developed and produced defence systems which would ensure that the security of the nation will remain assured under all circumstances and geo-political situations.
In addition to strategic areas, there are critical defence systems, such as electronic warfare systems, network centric operations, air defence and missile defence, surveillance system etc. where it is mandatory to have these systems designed and integrated indigenously in order to ensure utmost secrecy, confidentiality and security.
This message has reached all sectors of the MoD.
15. Inevitably, there is a need for collaboration and purchase of defence related systems and technologies from other countries, if we are to leapfrog some stages, and save on time. If so, what kind of a collaborative environment is the DRDO looking at? In particular, what are the collaborative projects where work has already been initiated or very likely to start?
Brahmos is the first major effort in collaborative R&D. Such efforts are going to increase in quality and numbers. The Government of India has also entered into understandings and agreements with many countries around the world, and defence cooperation is one of the important chapters.
In fact, most of the future defence systems would have some foreign collaboration, either at the sub-system or system level during design, development and manufacturing stages. Such cooperative activity can also lead to export to third countries.
The leading countries in such cooperative activities with India are Russia, Israel, France, USA, the UK and Germany