By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 26th March 17
In 2014, when Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi attended the annual awards ceremony of the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO), he jolted the self-congratulatory annual function by insisting on timely delivery and innovation.
Criticising what he termed the DRDO’s “chalta hai” (lackadaisical) attitude, Modi placed it under a scanner that led in early 2015 to the exit of Avinash Chander, then the DRDO’s well-respected chief.
Two and a half years later, that reformist impulse has vanished, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) no longer demanding performance from a DRDO that functions much as it did in 2014. On Friday, Defence Minister Arun Jaitley, distributing annual awards to a DRDO, expressed happiness that “the DRDO is becoming an important instrument in the effort for self-reliance.”
This effusive praise came even though none of the three “indigenous products” handed over to the navy on Friday were path-breaking developments. The USHUS-2 submarine sonar system was only an improvement on the USHUS-1 that was fitted a decade ago in the navy’s Kilo-class submarines. Similarly, the “ring laser gyroscope” based navigation system has also been around for years.
Given this modest delivery, it appears incongruous that Jaitley awarded fifteen DRDO scientists with the “Scientist of the Year” award.
“The DRDO cannot treat incremental improvements to its own systems as breakthrough triumphs. Continuous improvement should be a matter of routine for DRDO systems”, says a serving navy admiral.
Nor is the navy impressed by Myanmar’s order for $37.9 million worth of the DRDO’s advanced lightweight torpedoes (TAL). It is hardly a secret the TAL is modelled on the A244S lightweight torpedo that Italian company, WASS, supplied the Indian Navy.
In 2014, Modi had tellingly criticised the communication gap between scientists who remained ensconced in their laboratories, and the soldiers on the borders. The PM wondered why the DRDO could not deliver simple but crucial items in a soldier’s personal gear, bringing down the weight of a water bottle from 300 grams to 150 grams, or developing lighter boots to reduce fatigue.
Yet, today, with the soldier’s personal gear as cumbersome and poorly designed as ever, Jaitley lauded “The role of those [scientists] who remain faceless and work in some important field.”
In 2014, Modi had suggested the DRDO empower younger scientists, starting with manning five of its 52 laboratories exclusively with scientists under 35 years of age. Yet, only lip service is paid to empowering younger scientists.
The PM had also criticised the DRDO’s endemic time delays in delivering equipment. He directed that, instead of re-inventing the wheel by designing indigenous versions of equipment already in service in advanced militaries, the DRDO should develop futuristic equipment before advanced countries did so.
Yet, the bulk of what DRDO works on --- such as the Tejas fighter, unmanned aerial vehicles, warship systems, artillery guns, the Arjun tank, etc --- all constitute equipment that has been in service worldwide for decades.
DRDO chief, S Christopher, claimed that the defence ministry had cleared orders of DRDO equipment worth 2.56 lakh crore rupees; with one lakh crore worth of orders cleared in the last two years alone. In fact, “clearing” a procurement is a preliminary step of the acquisition process, with the majority of clearances never actually resulting in an order being contracted.