VS Arunachalam. ex-boss DRDO, on “Zero for DRDO”; Karnad’s response

Former head of DRDO, Dr VS Arunachalam’s reaction to my article “Zero for DRDO” — “In Season of blame, a defence” published in the Asian Age, May 09, 2013, below:
This, I fear, is the season of bashing the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), because it’s a time when our defence services project their wishlists for the latest in weapon systems and arms merchants from all over the globe flock to Delhi peddling their wares. Some of their products may still be on the drawing board and some may have grown old awaiting a buyer, readying for a graceful retirement.

No matter, blame the DRDO for delays, poor performance in trials and lack of manufacturing base and opt for imports.

From 2005 to 2013, the total value of items approved for induction by the Defence Acquisition Council is Rs`1,16,293 crore. These were products, systems and equipment based on technologies developed by the DRDO. Add to this another Rs 40,939 crore — the value of items for which orders have been placed by the services in these eight years — and the total comes to Rs`1,57,232.crore.

In a recent Edit page piece in The Asian Age, Bharat Karnad gave a “zero” to the DRDO (Zero for DRDO, April 26). However, if we go by the statistics, the grand total works out to 10 zeroes preceded by 150! Zero is too basic an Indian construct to be so casually used.
How good are our systems? One has only to talk to our Air Force pilots to assess the performance of Tejas. They are enthusiastic about its handling qualities and the glass cockpit that is yet to appear in any other operational fighter. Many years ago, Mr Karnad wrote a piece along with Stephen Cohen — not a friend of Indian R&D — in the Illustrated Weekly of India, mocking our indigenous aircraft programme, calling it “unsafe at any speed”.

They should be relieved to know that Tejas has done over 2,000 flights without any incident and flies like a gazelle even at supersonic speed! I can cite similar stories on other systems — Brahmos, radars, and armour — that have all become technical successes. These successes have also led to two challenges. From the West it is difficult to acquire the know-how for strategic and other state-of-the-art systems. Sometimes we get a black box with no options to study their designs, and often not even that. We have to develop these indigenously, and this takes time, often beyond initial projections. This is true not only of DRDO but other scientific organisations in India and abroad. Inspite of these difficulties we have to persevere. India’s security is not only dependent on military but also on our proven capabilities in science and technology. Often our leaders return from foreign trips pleased by the recognition India gets for its scientific progress. The late Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao told me with pride that some foreign leaders were more conscious of our growing prowess in science and technology than the size of our military hardware.

It’s often forgotten that the DRDO is just one component of a large supply chain extending from design to large manufacturing. Reported failure in manufacturing — to meet the numbers and/or quality — can often be attributed to many weak links in the supply chain. For instance, we have not invested in building a large manufacturing base either in the public or the private sector. Our manufacturing base is built for the Seventies when there were a few large R&D projects or indigenous designs to produce, and not for the present decade when there are so many missiles, radar and battle tanks competing for production.

Another component that’s missing in this supply chain is a translator. Manufacturers do not speak R&D language, and this leads to difficulty in transforming research designs into manufacturing protocols. The Russians overcome this problem by setting up design bureaus in manufacturing centres, while Americans have dynamic pilot production facilities before embarking on large-scale production. They also nurture large number of small boutique facilities manufacturing components and systems. India should adopt a similar interface and avoid tasking R&D straight into production. This will reduce the delay one experiences when a design goes for manufacturing.

Also the nation’s economy has grown to a level that we should not distinguish between private and public sectors. All this will, of course, depend on our services opting for more indigenous systems and doing away with our self-inflicted ban on exports. If properly planned and structured, defence manufacturing along with infrastructure building can become the driver for India’s next Industrial Revolution. McKinsey estimates that even one per cent increase in GDP from these sectors can generate over three million new jobs and create unprecedented demands for better education and job-relevant training.

Whenever there is a review of DRDO, there is a temptation to recommend splitting the job of scientific adviser to the defence minister from the secretary of the department of defence research and development (DR&D) and separating director-general research and development (DGR&D) from the other two. We should resist this. The scientific adviser is the only person with access to higher echelons in the political structure and is thus able to brief them on the challenges and opportunities in the field of science. I can cite a list of strategic projects that came into being because of the access and recognition that the scientific adviser enjoys in the government.

The writer is a former head of DRDO and also scientific adviser to the defence minister
Bharat Karnad’s response, published in the Asian Age, May 11, 2013:

In the 2-part 1985-86 piece I had written alone , not with Steve Cohen as Mr. Arunachalam mis-remembers, I had said the following: Because of the time-gap between the terminated Marut Mk-II project and the LCA startup, India would have to begin from scratch; that by the time the LCA entered squadron service it would become obsolete, technology-wise and in terms of vulnerability to advanced anti-aircraft missiles; and, if ADA-HAL had to begin from a zero baseline that they skip the combat aircraft stage altogether — the technological trends were clear even then that the era of manned aircraft was ending — and initiate a project for a family of versatile remotely-controlled pilotless vehicles for strike and surveillance missions instead, which would be a future-oriented programme, involving more cost-effective use of scarce manpower and financial resources. I feel particularly proud of my take on RPVs/UAVs/drones 26 years ago.
Word-limitations compelled excision of what I also said, namely, that I have been one of the most vocal propoenents of the Tejas LCA and indigenous military products generally in my writings — just look up the categories in this blog — and even pleaded that Rafale be scrapped, and the Mk-II version of Tejas be pushed in mission mode (Scrap Rafale, Viva Tejas!”). It is therefore a strange, even laughable, charge Mr Arunachalam lays against me that I’m prompted by foreign vendors. Obviously, the ex-boss, DRDO, has not been following my writings as avidly as he’d like his readers to believe. The real villain in the LCA case as I have pointed out is HAL, not ADA (within the DRDO ambit) as much.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, civil-military relations, Defence Industry, DRDO, Europe, Great Power imperatives, Indian Air Force, Military Acquisitions, South Asia, Technology transfer. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to VS Arunachalam. ex-boss DRDO, on “Zero for DRDO”; Karnad’s response

  1. Shail says:

    Possibly the first time that I agree whole heartedly with Shri Karnad

    • I P SHARMA says:

      It is a fact that scientists of DRDO have climbed the ladders in career and got PADMA AWARDS but projects slogged for decades. Well done DRDO scientists. In contrast how space and nuclear programmes have been successful. there is a need for deep self introspection.52 DRDO labs, 39 Ordnance factories,8 DPSU,s have slogged to deliver.Needs a deep thought.

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