The new DRDO chief is optimistic on the progress of the LCA and missile programmes and keen on securing technology transfer and access to raw materials
Avinash Chander, chief architect of India’s Agni series of missiles, took over as Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister and Director-General of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) on May 31, succeeding V.K. Saraswat.
Dr. Chander, who played a key role in the successful development of the 5,000-km-range Agni-V, joined the DRDO in 1972 after graduating as an electrical engineer from IIT Delhi.
In an interview to The Hindu, the new DRDO chief speaks about key projects like the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), the future of India’s missile programme, denial of high-end technology to India and the need for increased R&D efforts. Excerpts from the interview:
On the LCA project
The LCA is going well. We said the Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) 2 will be completed by this year end. IOC 2 is progressing very well and in spite of bad weather a number of sorties have taken place. HAL team is working well along with the Air Force and a very well integrated operation is going on. We are very confident that IOC 2 will be completed on time. The Final Operational Clearance is slated for 2014-end. Meanwhile, production will start from this year onwards and we expect that the first aircraft will roll out in 2014. Right now, we have orders from the Indian Air Force for 40, in 20-plus-20 option. The naval version of LCA is also going on well, Prototype Version (PV) 1 and PV2 are getting integrated, and PV1 should be completed by this year end.
On the project’s cost overrun
The cost of LCA is a small fraction of what an F-15 costs. We have developed one of the lowest costing aircraft. We are confident that the LCA will be able to compete very well in performance as well as on cost basis with equivalent aircraft. It will be comparable to Gripen aircraft. The day we start thinking about LCA, you cannot start putting cost on it.
On the missile programme
Agni V is moving ahead. Agni IV and V both are going to be inducted in the next couple of years. We will be going for user trials of Agni IV which has a range of 4,000 km and Agni V which has a range of 5,000 km. Then we are going for Long Range Surface to Air Missile (LRSAM.) and its trials are going to take place in Israel very soon. Astra air-to-air missile programme is also going very well. Astra will be going for the Sukhoi SU-30 launch by this year end. Nag — we had very good tests for seekers also recently, we are confident that Nag will also be able to meet performance requirements of the users in the very severe environmental conditions of the Indian desert. We are also working on futuristic, new long-range surface-to-air missiles of 250 to 300 km range. We are working on multi-range missiles, also on short-range surface-to-air missile. The aim is to become globally competitive in terms of missile accuracy, lethality and range.
On tactical missiles like Prahar
Prahar will go for user trial shortly, this year. Prahar is a good [surface-to-surface] system with a range of 140 km. It will have an accuracy of two metres and that is a very vital addition. We are also enhancing the range of Pinaka rockets from the existing 40 km to 60 km for Pinaka mark II. Prahar will be the third layer to cover up to 140 km, which is a very potent layer.
Comparison with Chinese missiles
In terms of technology and performance, Indian missile systems are comparable with any other system in the world, including whatever our neighbours have — comparable and better also in some cases. Total variety and ranges of the systems are decided based on each country’s individual requirements, how they see the threat and their role in the global scenario. The extent of the arsenal may differ but what we have is comparable with the best.
On India’s quest for high-end technology
For high-end technology, nobody in the world will help you. We have to have our own initiative. This is one area where the country needs to give a lot more thrust. For example, the material gap — on metallic composites or carbon composites or polymeric materials, even sensors, rare earth materials — has been identified as the key area where we need to take up initiatives. Today we have become highly self-sufficient and capable in designing world-class systems whether it is radars, missiles, or sonars, but what we need to strengthen is the sub-system and the components, devices and the raw materials. For the Agni strategic system where we had no option to import, we have gone 85-per-cent indigenous. But similar things have to be done in other areas such as tactical missiles. We require tungsten and other materials which India does not produce. We have to take extra initiative in terms of investment and technology, infrastructure, knowledge generation.
On the role of private sector
Private sector is providing the infrastructure and in many cases they are joining hands with industries abroad but a lot more needs to be done in the private sector in the R&D department. If you see the industrial R&D in the U.S., it is almost 50 per cent of the total R&D expenditure, whereas in India it is very meagre part of it. And most of it is perhaps ceremonial.
On FDI in defence
Let good technology come in, there is no harm. We are not opening up just to get money.
On indigenisation and licensed production
In today’s globalised environment, we have to see what needs to be bought, what needs to be developed and what needs to have transfer of technology. You cannot afford to make everything yourself. It is neither viable nor cost effective in the long-term — and that is where the decision has to be taken.
For example, today in DRDO, if industry can make something, it’s a good thing. We don’t want to start developing [the same thing]. [We] can work on the next higher end products, the higher level of technology. The industry also has to see if something [it is developing] is commercially available at a cheaper price. Life-cycle costs are the critical part. It is not just one-time buying of one thing, the question is how are you going to support it and whether support will be available under all conditions.
For licensed production, if we are able to get good technology that is good. But if it ends with assembling and processes coming from abroad, then we have to see. Again, licensed production for MiGs helped in creating a large infrastructure base and today we are able to go for LCA and other things. To that extent, it has been very helpful. But if you look at the knowledge gained through licensed products, it is a matter of debate. I am not aware of any major system for which we have taken licensed production and then built on it and arrived at a better product. We keep building the same thing, we are not getting the knowledge to build a better system — that is why our licensed production methodologies have to be re-examined. China is doing intelligent reverse engineering and many countries have done that in the past. That is the way of moving forward.