DRDO, the giant firing blanks
C Uday Bhaskar | January 20, 2015,
New Delhi: The unceremonious sacking of DRDO chief Avinash Chander on January 13 well before the end of his current tenure and the shabby and graceless manner in which it was done was further compounded by the statement of defence minister Manohar Parrikar that even he came to know of this decision only through the media although he had recommended it earlier to the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet. It was suggested that the services of the DRDO chief were being abruptly terminated since the government wanted to induct someone younger from within the organisation “with an urge for development.”
The Delhi grapevine refers to sordid intrigue and factional rivalry within the DRDO for this seemingly arbitrary and impetuous decision. However the manner in which the highest levels of governance — in this case, the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet — are being perceived in the public domain brings little credit to the Modi government.
The relatively new defence minister has every right to appoint a new team, for the DRDO chief also functions as the scientific adviser to the minister. However, given that the NDA government had in November 2014 approved Chander’s extension till May 2016, announcing the sudden termination of his tenure reflects poorly on the texture of higher defence management. The fact that Chander is a highly respected professional and deemed to be the ‘missile man’ who delivered the Agni and recipient of various honours including the Padma award testifies to his professional competence in an unambiguous way.
Paradoxically the defence minister’s intent — that the DRDO needs a review and shake-up — is more than timely but the fact that he chose to effect it in this manner may be counter-productive to the organisation.
Set up in 1958 along with the departments of atomic energy and space as part of the Nehruvian blue-print for the scientific and technological development of India, the DRDO began with 10 laboratories and is now a large enterprise with over 50 labs.
The mandate of the DRDO was to enable the Indian military in enhancing its operational capability, especially in areas where such technology from foreign sources was either unsuitable, denied or unaffordable — what former DRDO Emeritus Scientist Dr V Siddhartha refers to as the ‘triple trap’.
The DRDO had to navigate through this adversarial domain with limited fiscal, HR and technological assets and its 56-year record is mixed and muddied. The more visible success is in the strategic domain where the Indian nuclear deterrent was enabled to a large extent by the scientific and technological eco-system nurtured by the ‘trimurti’ – the atomic energy-space-DRDO combine.
There are other areas such as sonars, radars and electronic warfare where the DRDO has enabled the armed forces but the disappointment is with larger platforms such as the main battle tank, the light combat aircraft and the Trishul anti-missile defence system.
In each case, the DRDO promised more than it could deliver and consequently prevented the armed forces from importing the inventory sorely needed for maintaining appropriate operational capability. While time and cost overruns in such projects are the norm in other countries as well – DRDO has not been able to win the trust and confidence of the user – the Indian military and has often played the role of a dog in the manger.
The case of the failed Trishul surface-to-air missile is particularly deplorable and reeks of deliberate obfuscation by the DRDO with fabricated aspersions leading to an FIR being filed against the political and naval apex in 2006. The trust deficit between the military leadership and the DRDO is deep and bitter and Admiral Arun Prakash, former Naval chief, charges the institution with “intellectual dishonesty.”
The strategic management of high technology is a complex managerial domain and is mediated as much by tangible scientific and technological acumen and capacity, as also by national culture and the collective effort to strive for excellence. India while blessed with considerable individual excellence in these domains has not burnished its manufacturing capability across the board.
The first gunpowder factory was established in India in Ishapore in 1787 and a gun and carriage manufacturing facility in 1801. Allied operations in southeast Asia during WW II provided a tremendous boost with the setting up of ordnance factories and aircraft-overhaul facilities in India. Instead of capitalising on this sound foundation, post 1947 and the debacle of 1962, the higher national security apparatus was unable to nurture an eco-system that would ensure something as basic as an Indian-designed personal weapon.
Nothing demonstrated this failure better than the eventual rejection of the DRDO-designed Indian Small Arms System (Insas) by the Army. Consequently more than 50 years after 1962, India, which has a uniformed constituency of almost two million (military, para-military and police), does not have appropriate indigenous design and manufacturing capacity to equip its soldiers with a modern personal weapon.
This void is a stark reflection of the poverty of astute higher national security management; successive governments from Nehru to UPA-II have proved unable or unwilling to redress this bleak reality. Here the combined spectrum of the politician, bureaucrat, general and scientist is culpable for having taken the easy option — import or make do with the inventory deprivation.
Progressively India’s military import bill rose and the UPA government set up the Rama Rao-led Task Force which carried out a detailed review of the DRDO and made valuable recommendations — the central one being to focus on select hi-tech weapon systems deemed critical for the military. This report has not been tabled in Parliament or discussed and remains under wraps.
An objective and empathetic structural review of DRDO is imperative and apart from improving HR by inducting young blood — as Prime Minister Modi has directed — the entire eco-system of national design and manufacturing endeavour that includes the private sector and academia needs to become willing stake holders. This is a mammoth task and warrants perspicacious political direction.
Dramatically sacking the DRDO chief is more symbolic than substantive as regards infusing institutional vitality.
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