Setting up a Defence R&D Commission will make little difference by way of increasing self-reliance in defence systems and equipment, but it will increase the autonomy of functioning of the DRDO laboratories

There is hardly any lecture or discussion on the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the Defence Ministry more broadly in which a call is not given for the setting up of a Defence R&D Commission “on the pattern of” the Atomic Energy Commission and the Space Commission. The rationale for such a proposal is that it would enable the DRDO to have steeply increased autonomy and more administrative and financial powers and, thereby, to be more effective.

However, those who so argue are rarely aware of the detailed organisational structure and managerial practices of the two existing commissions. This article is intended to bring out those structures and practices.

First and foremost, the Cabinet Minister for those commissions is no less than the Prime Minister himself. So, the chairmen of those commissions have direct access to the very head of government. There is not even a Minister of State in between. Where such a Minister of State has been brought into the picture, his only role is to lighten the burden of the Prime Minister in answering parliamentary questions and other matters related to Parliament. The commission chairmen meet the Prime Minister whenever they want to and also submit files directly to him/her. This gives both chairmen unrivalled power.

Second, the commissions are small and compact and the membership is at a very high level e.g. both the principal secretary to the Prime Minister and the cabinet secretary are invariably members of the commissions. As for scientists, not only is the chairman an eminent atomic/space scientist or engineer, but he is also the secretary of the executive arm of the commission concerned viz. the departments of atomic energy or space. The members (R&D) of the commissions are usually the directors of the largest or principal R&D centre of the atomic energy and space programmes respectively viz. the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC). To give the commissions the semblance of not being entirely “in-house affairs,” one eminent scientist from outside the atomic and space programmes is also made a member. But most often the scientist concerned has little detailed knowledge of the atomic or space programmes. So, the commissions are, in fact, wholly in-house structures de-facto.

Continuity till realisation

Third, and very importantly, exactly what projects the departments or R&D centres concerned should take up and how the entire atomic and space programmes should be structured in terms of goals, modalities, sequences, costs and time frames of realisation are defined by the chairman and the member (R&D) as an internal process. In other words, the programme goals are chosen and then attempted to be achieved by the same people. We thus have a situation of a “self-fulfilling prophesy.” There is no one to ask, for example, why there should be a Chandrayaan programme related to the Moon, or, the Mars mission and/or whether we, as a nation, should not set ourselves a different set of goals. This may be contrasted with the situation of the DRDO which has users external to it viz. the defence services and it is those services who define and set programme and project goals.

Success and failure

Fourth, as the goals of the atomic energy and space programmes are set totally internally, there is none to hold the commissions and departments concerned accountable for failures or project delays or escalations in project costs of a very large magnitude, e.g. the prototype fast breeder reactors in the case of atomic energy and the GSLV (Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle) in the case of space. In contrast, in the case of the DRDO, the defence service concerned and the Secretary (Finance) in the Defence Ministry call in such circumstances not only for project reviews but, on occasions, for project termination and the going in for the import of the weapon system concerned, quite apart from massive pillorying of the DRDO.

Fifth, in atomic energy and space whether one should go in for import or pursue further R&D on a badly delayed project is a decision taken by an entity that is both designer and developer and user rolled into one. For example, if Chandrayaan succeeds or fails, there are no external consequences or implications. However, in the case of defence systems under design and development by the DRDO in one of its laboratories, the consequences of success or failure have a direct bearing on national security and the credibility of the DRDO in the eyes of the Defence Minister and all other elements of the Defence Ministry.

Finally, and partly related, is the fact that the DRDO is doing its design and development under the overhang of constant lobbying by foreign suppliers, that the defence system concerned is either too complex and difficult for the DRDO to release or that the DRDO will need much more time to develop it, whereas they can supply the system to the defence service concerned practically off the shelf! Such a situation just does not arise in the case of atomic energy or space.

To sum up: setting up a defence R&D commission will make little difference by way of increasing self-reliance in defence systems and equipment, or changing for the better the relations between the DRDO and the defence services because of the fundamental dynamics of that relationship. What it can achieve, however, is to increase the administrative and financial powers of the DG, DRDO and the autonomy of functioning of the DRDO laboratories. Though a more modest achievement, it may still make it worthwhile to have a commission for the DRDO.

(Ashok Parthasarathi is former S&T adviser to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Secretary to the Government of India in several S&T departments.)

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