Vijay Kumar Saraswat, Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister, has headed the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) since September 2009. Starting his career with DRDO in 1972, with the development of India’s first Liquid Propulsion Engine, DEVIL, he has devoted a lifetime to developing defence technologies.
In this exclusive interview, Dr. Saraswat, whose four-year term as SA and DRDO Director General ends on May 31, talks to Vinay Kumar about the early challenges India faced in its defence research programme, its indigenisation, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), and how the gap with China is being closed in defence technology. Excerpts:
On the biggest criticism against DRDO — failing to deliver on time — and the resultant delay and cost overrun.
To understand this issue, you have to go back into history a bit, to the time when DRDO was set up in 1958 with practically no idea of what defence research [was].
[When] we started our first indigenous anti-tank missile programme in 1963, there was no industry in the country — private or public sector — that could have helped DRDO, [no] technology base [or] academic institutions of excellence. [There was] individual excellence in giants like Prof. Kothari and Dr. Sarabhai. But large-scale academic excellence needed for doing this kind of work was not there.
Between 1960-70, DRDO started building technology in radars, missiles, communication and materials area and, to some extent, electronic warfare. There was another parallel push in DRDO: we took up reverse engineering of products that our armed forces had at that time.
Until the 1970s, Indian private industry participation was practically non-existent. The only area where we were getting support was in the growth of BEL [Bharat Electronics Limited], HAL [Hindustan Aeronautics Limited]. Then came Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL). It was in the 1970s that DRDO really grew.
In 1980, when Mrs Indira Gandhi returned to power, she said DRDO should graduate to weapons system. It was her vision that led to inception of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP). It changed the complete structure and system of working at DRDO.
On the Prithvi and Agni missiles
We were to develop one version [of Prithvi] in seven years but we developed three versions in 15 years. Same thing happened with the Agni One, Two and Three programmes. Still, there were time and cost overruns because […] 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) […] clamped restrictions on us. The contracts we had signed with 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.
On delays in the development and production of the Arjun Main Battle Tank and Light Combat Aircraft (LCA)
Nearly three decades ago, the Arjun tank project was started and after that we started work on the 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-Mk.1 which is going to be produced. We are doing LCA-Mk.2 and also doing LCA-Navy which will be able to take off from and land on the deck of a ship.
Take Arjun Mark 2: we have made 66 modifications in three years. The first set of trials was over last summer, second set of trials is going to be held this year. We have demonstrated missile firing capability just 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 and academic support so these delays which used to happen earlier, the causes have been removed. [We also now have] the experience of doing large-scale projects, which [we did not have] in the 1960s and 1970s.
On indigenisation and increase in FDI limit
Today, DRDO has groomed 400 industries and has their support. We have galloped [ahead] in electronics. Semiconductor 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 semiconductors.
Today, if I want a rocket motor or computer, I can go to private industries. 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 are continuously increasing […] So we have to tie-up with [the international community] with extremely high investments.
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 limitations on 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 [the] required good technology. But there are fears that if we allow more, the process of indigenisation will suffer. I can say that [it will not]. 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 collaborations with Russia, France, Israel, and I can say that Indian R&D institutions and scientists are [second to none] with respect to their capabilities, [in] contributing to a 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.
On China and how India is closing the gaps in technology and how the private sector should not remain only a component manufacturer
The 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.
Our LCA today is a shining example, comparable to what China is producing in J-10. But our manufacturing capabilities in numbers are certainly lacking and that is where [the] gap has to be caught up. That is where private sector participation [should be considered]. An 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. Private sector should graduate to a lead system integrator and then certainly we can catch up with China in no time.
On future missile programmes
In the area of long-range missiles, our programmes are well defined. We are doing technologies that will be integrated with Agni V; we are also trying to look at ballistic missiles of different ranges in different roles. 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 at today is how to make sure that ballistic missiles reach their targets precisely.
Ballistic missile defence is our priority area which we are augmenting in a big way. Going from our interception capability of 80 km to 300 km, we also have the capability to take care in a limited manner of a sudden large number of missiles fired. Of course, 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. 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 km — one missile releasing about six to seven precision guided missiles which can home [in] on different targets. Our strategic requirement is almost getting met, and we are not in any kind of race in that area. There is no more a gap between the Indian missile and the western missile. Indigenisation has gone up from 30 per cent in the 1990s to 50 to 55 per cent now, and it needs to go further up to 70 per cent.
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