Thursday, 29 May 2008

The DRDO revolution: A new engagement with the military

(Part 1 of a series on the DRDO's new approach to technology)

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 29th May 08

The success, last December, of the Defence R&D Organisation’s Akash missile, which proved its ability to shoot down an enemy fighter 25 kilometers away, is a happy ending to a dismal tale. The Akash development programme, like others from the 1980s and 1990s, is a decades-long story of managerial and technological blunders, from which the DRDO is now drawing valuable lessons.

Under fire from the military and the media, and under scrutiny from a Review Panel set up by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the DRDO has instituted fundamental changes in the way it will now approach equipment development. In a series of exclusive interviews with the Business Standard, top DRDO officials --- the Chief Controllers, who head its various divisions --- have outlined their new approach.

The most far-reaching change is an institutionalised forum --- called the Services Interaction Group --- in which the DRDO will work hand-in-hand with the military to identify the technologies, and weapons systems, which the DRDO laboratories must develop. The Services Interaction Group has already created its first “technology roadmap”, which lists out the equipment the DRDO will develop over the 11th and 12th Defence Plan period, i.e. from 2007-2017.

That roadmap took more than a year to finalise; the process began at the beginning of 2007. A DRDO sub-committee called the G-FAST (Group for Forecasting and Analysis of Systems and Technologies) began consulting with almost 50 DRDO laboratories across the country, to make a draft technology roadmap. Meanwhile, the three services, working together in the headquarters of the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), produced their technology wish list. Then, through several sittings in the DRDO’s headquarters, the DRDO and the IDS agreed upon a final technology roadmap, which the DRDO would implement.

Such cooperation is routine in countries where defence is planned systematically. In India, however, the DRDO has long been at loggerheads with the services, which have complained about not being consulted about equipment that they must eventually use. This communication gap was glaringly evident in the Akash missile programme; after the DRDO developed all the Akash launchers, radars, and command systems, the army demanded higher mobility by fitting them into T-72 tanks.

The DRDO, having framed the Akash requirements unilaterally, was taken by surprise. Dr Prahlada, the DRDO’s Chief Controller (R&D) explains, “It’s not a joke to put the missile radar on a tank. It was a double challenge: having developed a cutting-edge radar, we then had to squeeze it into a tank, with all the problems of space, ruggedness, and high temperatures. You can’t even put an air conditioner, like in a wheeled vehicle… So instead of 12-15 years (to develop the Akash), we took 20 years; just to make sure the army gets it on a tank.”

But now, there’s a joint process. The DRDO and the IDS have divided 100 of the most important technologies they need into three different categories:

a. Category 1. Technologies that the DRDO will develop in-house. These are strategic technologies and systems, such as missiles, hypersonics, and unmanned fighter aircraft, which no country usually provides to another.

b. Category 2. Technologies that the DRDO will develop in partnership with academic institutions. The CSIR, IITs, and universities will assist the DRDO with fundamental research, to overcome the DRDO’s shortages of manpower and facilities.

c. Category 3. Technologies that the DRDO will develop with foreign partners, since they are beyond the capabilities of the country’s existing scientific base.

This is the first time that such rigour has been applied to the procedure for identifying projects and deadlines. In committing itself in this manner, the DRDO is displaying a new confidence. Senior DRDO scientists admit that they had traditionally avoided a joint roadmap because there was little certainty of being able to deliver on a project. If the project was successful, it would be brought to the user when it was nearly ready; if it failed, it could be quietly buried without any fuss.

Now, however, there will be transparency and accountability, and regular reviews of how long-gestation projects are progressing. Says Dr VK Saraswat, Chief Controller of Missiles and Strategic Systems, “This is a consultative process and it doesn’t stop. It is a continuous process. Every year we update it.”


Anonymous said...

A good beginning, though a bit late.

Thanks, Ajai for such wonderful and educative write ups!

Shiv Aroor said...

great. can't wait to read the rest! keep them coming, colonel!

Anonymous said...

better late than never.. all i would say is

"Der aaye durust aaye"

Ankur said...

"It’s not a joke to put the missile radar on a tank." Lol.

Beautiful. Why is it that when it comes to institutions like the DRDO, we are only ever cautiously optimistic about positive developments?

The DRDO has lived quietly for a long time. Now it is time for it to learn from mistakes. And it will be all the better for it.

Thank goodness that the system now seems to be self-rectifying, thanks to tireless efforts by journalists like you, and also the ire of the end customers (who are *finally* being forced to take on equipment that they knew fully well they would have to induct).

Will be watching this space with close interest, Sir! Cannot wait for article #2.

Anonymous said...


i was part of a team that worked on the akash, and you couldnt be more wrong when you say the drdo took a unilateral decision to put the rajendra and akash systems on the bmp, not t-72. such important decisions are never taken unilaterally, but the services are involved.

i was very much there when the army asked for the bmp and not the t-72 on the grounds that it was cheaper and lighter and would be more deployable. later, they changed their mind, when they found that the bmp based systems couldnt accompany the fast moving strike corps and would need more vehicles per battery.


Ajai said...

Hi Subbu,

Thanks for that input. I was briefed by a very senior DRDO official about what I wrote. And I spoke after the article came out... they never contradicted that point.

But let me check some more; you're probably right if you say you were there.

Do email me at if you're uncomfortable with posting on an open forum.



Anonymous said...

The Artillerry has chosen Arjun Chasis for (BHIM) 155 tracked gun. It went like a piece of cake - no issue of mobility, reliability etc. Why not use Arjun Chasis as standard chasis even for mounting rajendra and other radars. weight is no problem as Arjun turret is 18 ton class. Space is no issue as it can comfortably accomodate all that reqd for Radar and Akash miissile. Common platform - powerful, latest technology and all upgrades on Chasis will directly benefit. + with increased numbers cost benefit also will be there. It is surprising that DRDL+army looked for a chasis outside outside when they had the solution on hand within DRDO. Now see one is groppled with wrong decision of underpowered chasis - started with BMP to T72 and may be T90 and .... The chasis is afterall a mobile carrier. for want (poor choice)of a good chasis, the "good missile" is facing the acceptance problem. Somewhere the failed to "thinkthrough" the process. Hope they learn from their mistakes and don't repeat in future.

Anonymous said...

isn't ankur that silly guy who got conned by a smart chap who disguised as ajai?

silly-ankur said...

Yes exactly, it is ANKUR who's that silly guy.

Unfortunately he removed his comments and even begged ajai to remove that entire topic because he was so embarrased; and didn't want anyone to read it. Ajai threw some mercy his way and had it removed.

In fact his grandmother told me that he almost commited suicide for making an utter fool of himself!!

He's an 'empty vessel' that makes the most noise. thats why no matter how horrible ajai's article is, he's be the first to praise.


Abhiman said...

Mr. Shukla, I disagree with your view that a communication gap led to the Akash being configured for a BMP instead of a T-72. This, in my view, is a "thinly veiled" attempt to absolve the Army of the "blunder" of 11th hour changes.

It is impossible that since 1986, not once did the Army even inquire or know (from ANY source) that the Akash was being configured for a BMP. The Akash has been trialed before the Army representatives since the mid ninties till December last on a BMP-1 IFV chassis.

If the implication made by you is that the Army "shied" from communicating this to DRDO so as to let the main work get complete, then it too is not a plausible argument, as the Army had over 2 decades to communicate this to DRDO.

Hence, in the Akash issue the Army is solely responsible for the delay. Unfortunately, the Army gets blame neither from a "liberal" media nor from the defence ministry. Their opinion is that the onus of finding out what the Army wanted rests with DRDO;; however, they are unwilling to acknowledge that the Army, which was observing the Akash's development for 23 years and which suddenly "changed it's mind" to a T-72, is not at fault.

Thank you.