Vijay Kumar Saraswat, Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister, has been heading the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) since September 2009. Starting his career with DRDO in 1972 with development of India’s first Liquid Propulsion Engine, DEVIL, he has devoted a lifetime in developing defence technologies. A doctorate in propulsion engineering from Osmania University, he established facilities for design, production and testing of engines and relevant technologies for the missile applications.

As Project-Director, he steered the design, development, production and induction of the first indigenous surface-to-surface missile system Prithvi into the armed forces. He also oversaw the successful testing of missile on-board a moving ship with Dhanush, with a very high terminal accuracy. Under his stewardship, DRDO has embarked on a challenging, futuristic air defence programme that involves development of complex anti-ballistic missile systems, radars and integration of battle management resources into a national authority. He has also conceptualised and established facilities for development of micro and nano sensors for future avionics.

In this exclusive, freewheeling interview to THE HINDU, Dr. Saraswat provides an insight into manifold challenges which India faced while embarking on an ambitious defence research programme. He also speaks on various key issues like India’s indigenisation programme of defence production; need to raise the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into defence sector, involvement of private sector, missile programme and how India is closing gaps in defence technology with China. Here are

Excerpts from the interview:

On DRDO’s biggest criticism of failing to deliver in time, resulting in delays and time and cost overruns.

To understand this issue, you will have to go back to history a bit, the time when DRDO was set up in 1958 with practically no idea of what defence research will be. There was no defence technology at that time, DRDO was created from a set of institutions which were set up by the British for doing quality assurance and to some extent reverse engineering of products which were manufactured in British ordnance factories and brought to Indian ordnance factories for mass scale production. That was the scenario in which defence research started. Our leaders like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru realised that overdependence on equipment which was of British origin or was left behind as part of Commonwealth legacy was not adequate. They realised that there should be a push to defence research.

It was under the leadership of D. S. Kothari, the first Scientific Advisor, that a complete framework of defence research was set up. The vision of our own planners was very limited. They said that India needs only small things and not big things. So six or seven areas were identified which included missiles, material, electronic systems and so on. Many of these were derivatives of technological institutions of Britishers. Obviously, they did not have any background of defence research. Starting from that era, DRDO started building technologies.

Fortunately there was this public sector set up of Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) which had a collaboration with Thalys of France. It helped in converting the research of DRDO into production of mostly communication equipment for our armed forces.

Initially, it built some radars. Our armed forces were being equipped by acquisition of equipment which was either British or Russian because in late 50s and early 60s we had good equation with Russians. Indian equipment was in sporadic supply, in fact, it was hardly anything because we did not have any industry. Tatas and Birlas were into very mundane commercial production, Tatas had set up their steel plant. Inputs needed for manufacturing any goods were barely available in the country.

In 1963, we started our first indigenous anti tank missile programme which started here and was later shifted later to Hyderabad. In 1963-64, we started indigenous anti-tank missile programme. My predecessors had to assemble a nine volt dry cell to power the missile in the lab. The famous Exide which was making automobile batteries was not in a position to do anything. There was no industry both in the country private and public sectors that could have helped DRDO in doing anything.

So, industry non-existent, technology base not there, academic institutions of excellence not present but individual excellence was available in giants like Prof. Kothari and Dr. Sarabhai. But large scale academic excellence which is needed for doing this kind of work was not there.

Era of 70s

Between 1960-70, DRDO started building technology and this was in radars, missiles, communication and materials area and to some extent electronic warfare. This is our own technology. There was another parallel push in DRDO, we took up reverse engineering of available products which our armed forces were having at that time.

One is own technology development, and then through reverse engineering. These two processes were on at the same time. Until 70s the participation of Indian private industry was practically non-existent. The only area where we were getting support was the growth of BEL, HAL and then in 1968-69 came in Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL) which was part of a project which DRDO did although the project was shelved. There were 60 to 70 scientists who had soiled their hands in missile development and they were available to set up BDL. Right from the general manager to technician were from DRDO. It was in 70s when DRDO really grew, major emphasis was placed by Dr. Nag Chaudhary on missiles. While Atomic Energy Department was working for first nuclear explosion which finally took place in 1974, that was also the time when present crop of people like us from IITs, and Indian Institute of Science came around. These institutions produced about a hundred engineers and they were inducted into the system to work on technology development.

In the 1970-80 decade, DRDO technology grew in all spheres. there were giants like Prof. MGK Menon and Dr. Raja Ramanna who had become Scientific Advisers. I was responsible for manufacture of liquid rocket engine. The first Indra One radar came in that period. Prof. Narain Rao had built jammers and even at that time participation of industry was limited to public sector but DRDO could not survive purely by interacting with only public sector. Two private sector industries started working with DRDO. There was this Prof Janardan Rao who came from the U.S. and set up a small unit. When I was doing liquid rocket engine programme I needed electro pneumatic system for testing. Under a shed in most abysmal condition, he was trying to do most sophisticated and advanced technology with whatever money he got from the U.S. He built the electro pneumatic system for me that enabled first liquid rocket engine testing possible. If it was not there, I would not have been able to test. Like that there were hundreds of such scattered stories where we could trigger small and medium Industries.

At the same time, Department of Space and Atomic Energy were also having similar experiments. It was an era when a good number of medium and small scale industries came up. What handicap we faced in 60s of assembling our own dry cell had vanished and as a result of that some good products came, communication sets came, good radars also came. Indra One radar was given to our armed forces. People thought it was a never ending process. Time required was enormous; we did not have the advantage of the global eco system. India had missed the industrial revolution and it did not have an industrial background but had embarked upon an ambitious defence technology programme which at that time was ahead by leaps and bounds in foreign countries who were already flying missiles and aircraft and developing new technologies but India was only using systems imported from various countries.

India also did not have the advantage of the licensed productions which were signed during 50s and 60s during the socialist pattern of governance in which large number of public sector units were set up. They could not contribute to technology development as all of them were licensed production agencies. They were continuously going from one licence to another. DRDO, Space and Atomic Energy none of them could benefit from licensed production culture which was prevalent in India. We had to do technology development by ourselves.

80s saw DRDO graduating to weapons system

In 1980 when Mrs Indira Gandhi returned to power, she said DRDO has spent a lot of time now and the country had started asking the same questions which are being raised now. We had completed small programmes. Mrs. Gandhi said that time has come for you to consolidate. We had four technologies going on in DRDO – surface to air missiles, new generation anti-tank missile and also as part of Dr. Nag Chaudhary’s vision we were planning to do a long range ballistic missile that has led to development of propulsion technology in DRDO. I fired 30 tonne liquid rocket engine in 1974 and it was all being developed and so when Mrs. Gandhi saw all this, she said it is time for you to graduate to weapons system.

With her vision and induction of Dr. Arunachalam as Scientific Advisor and Dr. Abdul Kalam as the Director of DRDO, she entrusted the task of building missiles for the country and that gave birth to IGMDP --the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP). It was not only given projects but it changed complete structure and system of working of DRDO. When we analysed reasons for delay, one of the issues which came out was that we did not have the availability of large scale production of indigenously developed products. We were doing licensed production but we did not know how to produce in terms of quality and quantity the indigenously developed products.

Her vision reflected into a very potent management structure. IGMDP’s three-tier management system – development, production and risk taking facility. She said production facilities of the country would be augmented and the programme was having the necessary funds and the risk taking capability that in case these projects failed this infrastructure would not be terminated. That vision led to the growth of HAL, BEL and BDL.

In this long journey of developing our defence sector, you will see that delays took place due to non-availability of products. It was during Mrs. Gandhi’s time that our public sector developed risk taking capability and BDL, HAL, BEL took on production of IGMDP systems.

In 80s, we set up aerospace division of HAL, it was set up when I was doing the Prithvi programme. We also first developed the airframe of Prithvi missile and the division was set up at a cost of Rs. 46 crore. At that time ISRO was setting up PSLV integration programme, so we joined hands and this led to upgradation of production, capacity to take risks and also monitoring and management of variety of institutions in the country was set in.

Decision makers at that point in time asked me why delays were taking place. I said that maximum delay took place in procuring the materials and equipment for doing the product and which is 40 per cent of the time of the production cycle. The then Expenditure Secretary Mr. Ganpati said that you should not follow the typical process of getting quotations and he said that when you deal with public sector units all your contracts should be on the cost plus basis whether it is BDL, BEL or HAL. He fixed that 12 per cent will be profit and said that HAL cannot take more than that. In today’s parlance, I cannot even think that something like this will happen and IGMDP worked on this pattern and this aggressive decision making enabled a good ecosystem for R & D and which got converted into production.

On Prithvi and Agni Missiles

We were to develop Prithvi missile’s one version in seven years but we developed three versions in 15 years – first of 150 km range, second of 250 km and the third naval version of 350 km range when fired from the ship, yes we took 15 years but we developed the complete system. Same thing happened in Agni One, Two Three programme. But still time and cost overruns were there because when IGMDP was planned we had planned to import some material. We had to import some materials for Prithvi which was first fired in 1988 and Agni in 1989 and then MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) which was brewing all this time clamped all restrictions on us. All the contracts which we had signed with all companies were not honoured and these companies took back everything. Everything was denied to us, this denial caused us a lot of delay and whatever we needed had to be designed, developed and produced by us.

From 1989 to 1997 was a harrowing period. There were restrictions imposed on India and for things like getting Magnesium supply and Servo valves for launch vehicles, we had to struggle and later produce our very own. At that time, Tamil Nadu government’s TIDCO helped in making Magnesium slab from ore. Though technical problems had been solved by first launches of Prithvi and Agni missiles. Now these problems are not there, Today, India produces its own servo valves not only for missiles but also for launch vehicles and many other industrial purposes. What was a critical technology in 1988 is no more critical, new technologies have come. A lot of liberalisation has taken place but the fact still remains that critical technologies which are required are not available to us. For example, we still do not have access to high end computer processors and we have to make do with Intel core system. I cannot get a high end computer and I have to start building it for my missile right from the chip.

On delays in development and production of Arjun Main Battle Tank and Light Combat Aircraft (LCA)

Nearly three decades ago, Arjun tank project was started and after that we started work on Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). These got delayed mainly due to denial of several technologies to us and lack of industrial support. We have done LCA-LCA MK.1 which is going to be produced. We are doing LCA-MK.2 and also doing LCANavy. LCA Navy will be able to take off and land on deck of a ship. We are building all facilities for a short lift, short take off, short landing, all that we are doing. Arjun Mark 2, we have made 66 modifications in three years. First set of trials are over last summer, second set of trials are going to be held this year. We have demonstrated missile firing capability just about a month and a half back.

LCA MK 2 is now a reality on the drawing board because we are in a position to get industrial support and academic support so these delays which used to happen earlier, the causes have been removed, the eco system is much more friendly than ever before. Experience of doing large scale products has also come to us which was not there in 60s and 70s.

On Indigenisation, where India stands today? Increase in FDI limit.

Today, DRDO has groomed 400 industries and has their support. We have galloped in electronics. Semi-conductor technology and high end computing chips were denied to us by the West but we have gone ahead and we are putting up a state-of-the art foundry for manufacturing semi-conductors.

Today if I want a rocket motor I can go to Godrej or Walchandnagar or to BDL. Today if I want a computer I can go to private industries and hundreds of them are available. I can give specification of a launcher to at least ten industries in this country who can manufacture one. If I want a system integration, my public sector units can do that whether it is HAL, BDL or BEL, they can do overall lead system integration. Still there are gaps and these gaps are continuously increasing because in areas of electronics technology has galloped. What was 8086 computer of Prithivi with 64 kb memory is now into gigabytes of memory. So, we had missed that completely, our semiconductor technology is lagging behind. At least R & D should have gone into it but we were denied all semiconductor equipment and machinery from the West.

New area of photonic system has come. If I have close tie ups with international community in these areas the pace with which this gap has to be filled will never be achieved. So we have to get tie ups with extremely high investments. A good foundry will cost two to three billion dollars, we need to have it. In my view, joint ventures (JV) and stress on indigenisation is the core of our strategy to move forward. But JV cannot come up with the limitation of FDI. If you want to get really good technology, it will not come with 26 per cent. It should be raised to 48 to 49 per cent so that we can get required good technology. But there are fears in the minds of people if we allow more than that the process of indigenisation will suffer, I can say that indigenisation will not suffer because Indian R&D is not so weak today that it cannot compete with the R&D in the world.

In the last 10 to 15 years I have worked in international collaboration with Russia, France, Israel, and I can only say that Indian R&D institutions and scientists are matching one to one with respect to best of their capabilities to contributing to JV or absorbing from there the right technology. This is not going to be teacher and taught relationship. This is going to be a relationship at par. Our research base and eco systems are strong enough to grow further with these partnerships.

We learnt how to do professional management of development of large systems using multiple agencies and bringing all of them in terms of time, technology coherence and in terms of joint motivation to achieve the goal has been learnt by this organisation. And this is unique feature of three departments -- DRDO, ISRO and Atomic Energy.

These are the only three departments who are in a position to do this kind of large system, development which you will see still lacking in other departments.

On China and how India is closing gaps in technology; Private sector should not remain only a component manufacturer

Only gap which exists between China and India today is in terms of large scale manufacturing capability. As far as technology is concerned, I can only say in defence we have come very close to China. Take missiles, our reach and accuracy is comparable. Today we have no problem.

Our LCA today is a shining example of comparably what China is producing in J-10. Our LCA is today fourth generation plus aircraft. But our manufacturing capabilities in numbers are certainly lacking and that is where gap has to be caught up. That is where private sector participation and a trustworthy platform and ecosystem which will bring private sector as an agency that is as competent, as good, as patriotic and as nationalistic should be considered. That ecosystem should be provided to private sector to come in whether it is shipbuilding, missile building, torpedo building or submarine building. We should not allow private sector to remain a component manufacturer. We should let them graduate from sub system manufacturer. Private sector should graduate to a lead system integrator and then certainly we can catch up with China in no time.

On future missile programme

In the area of long range missiles, our programmes are well defined. We are doing technologies which will be integrated with Agni V and then we are also trying to see the ballistic missiles of different ranges in different roles. We have already been strategic roles but there are tactical roles of ballistic missiles emerging. War is not going to be just across our boundaries, it will be in far off places and across continents. So what we are looking today how to make sure that ballistic missile reach precisely like China has done today anti-ship ballistic missile, we have plans to convert some of our ballistic missiles to take on pinpoint mobile targets.

Ballistic missile defence is our priority area which we are augmenting in a big way. Going from our interception capability of 80 kms to 300 kms, we are also having the capability to take care in a limited manner of sudden large number of missiles fired.

Of course you cannot handle infinite missiles coming; there is no answer to infinite missiles. If somebody is launching 24 missiles at the same time, we should be able to handle it, Our emphasis is on missile development programme and going for cruise missiles, like you saw the launch of Nirbhay last time. And we have to perfect that system.

In the case of ballistic missiles, we are trying to get precision guided ammunitions being released from a mother missile for shorter range like 300 kms. One missile releasing about six to seven precision guided missiles which can home on different targets. Our strategic requirement is almost getting met, and we are not in any kind of race in that area. We may cover strategic requirement based on our threat perception. Tactical arena requires precision guided missiles, cruise missiles, short range missiles. Prahar missile is going to be given to artillery for short range targets of about 100 kms plus. Accuracy of our missiles is less than 10 metres with various weights and volumes. We were denied certain facilities like good sensors and we developed our own navigation system and we are in a position to play with weight and volume. There is no more gap between India missile and the Western missile.

We are shrinking slowly to reasonable numbers and managing with our indigenous capability. Indigenisation has gone up from 30 per cent in the 90s to 50 to 55 per cent and it needs to go further up to 70 per cent.

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