R. Ramachandran

Notwithstanding the delays, cost-overruns, and apparent failures in some of the major projects, the DRDO's achievements are creditworthy given the levels of funding and the available scientific manpower.

OF LATE, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has come under severe criticism in the media, sections of which appear to be in a campaign mode. The Government has also decided to set up a committee to review its functioning. Before getting into any detailed scrutiny of the DRDO's projects, it is important to have a proper understanding of the research and development system in the defence sector, its relation to the national science and technology system, its place in the country's overall industrial base, and the importance for the armed forces.

For the last ten years, the DRDO's budget has been 5-6 per cent of the total defence budget. The 2006-07 defence budget stood at Rs.89,000 crore of which the R&D component was Rs.5,454 crore. (The country's total defence R&D expenditure includes investment by industry. This is about 8 per cent of the DRDO's expenditure nearly all of which is by the public sector units.) It is, therefore, somewhat strange that there is often talk of a lack of defence preparedness and modernisation of the armed forces due to the DRDO's failure to meet the Services' needs.

Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that the money spent on the DRDO is a total waste. How is a mere one-twentieth of defence expenditure responsible for the apparent vulnerability of the armed forces to perceived threats? Or more precisely, compared to Rs.500-1000 crore of annual defence procurement based on DRDO technologies, imports have been around Rs.10,000-12,000 crore. (The current annual budget for capital acquisitions for defence is about Rs.35,000 crore.) Surely, the nation's defence ill-preparedness cannot be attributed to the "wasted" 2-3 per cent of annual procurement. Why is there no political or media focus on the 90-95 per cent of the annual defence expenditure and the manner in which it is being spent?

One of the basic problems in the organisation of the country's defence is that threat perceptions are not based on any systematic analysis by the Services of the geopolitical and the geostrategic environment in the country's neighbourhood and a comprehensive technical assessment based on that of medium- to long-term operational requirements of weapons and systems. Any demand placed on the national defence R&D system should reflect such an assessment. Unfortunately, many of the Services' demands would seem to be derived from foreign vendors' sales pitches what have come to be termed BBC (Best of Brochure Claims) in DRDO circles and their lobbying network of arms dealers, agents (very often ex-service personnel), and middlemen operating in the country. As a result, system specifications (which constantly keep changing) placed on defence R&D would seem to mirror not the actual dynamics of the security environment of the country but the dynamics of technological evolution of the global defence industry, which the DRDO is expected to realise fully.

From this perspective, there would seem to be little appreciation by the nation's executive and the Services of what a DRDO scientist, writing in India's National Security: Annual Review 2001, has referred to as the "Triple Trap" the country is increasingly facing: "What is developed abroad will not suit our new [defence] requirements; what is suitable will be denied; what is not denied will be unaffordable." The article added: "It is not adequately recognised that the dimensions of the scientific, technological and manufacturing effort that is needed to break out of this `triple trap' are so large that the entire S&T and the advanced manufacturing infrastructure of the country is barely up to the task."

Strong civil industrial R&D efforts, and increased manufacturing capability, are necessary to sustain a good defence technology base. To understand the national R&D scenario, in particular in the industrial sector, and to locate defence R&D in that perspective, the following figures would help. Although defence accounts for the highest share (18.3 per cent in 2002-03) of the national R&D expenditure, the total national spending as a fraction of GDP/GNP is only around 0.8 per cent, which is low compared to even countries such as Brazil and China, let alone developed countries. More importantly, the industrial R&D effort is a mere quarter of the total R&D expenditure, as against nearly two-thirds in industrialised economies.

As a result, the ratio of non-defence industrial R&D to defence R&D expenditure (as per 2002-03 figures) is only about 1.13 as compared to over 4 in the developed countries. Moreover, much of this meagre industrial R&D expenditure is concentrated in pharmaceuticals, transportation, and chemicals, which are of little assistance to the defence sector. The above factors naturally have implications for the country's ability to exploit the defence R&D efforts fully. For instance, the absence of an appropriate industrial base forces the DRDO to import raw material, components, and subsystems that go into a given product, whose exports, given the nature of the systems being developed, are either embargoed or are subject to a time-consuming licensing process. This often forces the DRDO to develop all the necessary major high-tech components and subsystems from scratch leading to delays and cost escalations.

The fact of the matter, however, is that, far from being a waste, investing in defence R&D has contributed significantly to national defence despite the many constraints. The value of indigenous defence items based on the DRDO's R&D and delivered to the Services during 1985-2005, according to estimates, is about Rs.14,800 crore. This includes armaments (43 per cent), missiles (30 per cent), electronics including avionics (22.5 per cent), naval sensors and weapons, armoured vehicles, engineering equipment, food, textiles and other combat wear, and life sciences products. Further, firm orders exist for Services-approved items, valued at Rs.11,900 crore, to be supplied by 2010. These include the first 20 Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) for the Air Force and 124 Arjun Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) for the Army. The value of DRDO-developed items in use by the Services by 2010 would thus be nearly Rs.26,000 crore, not insignificant by any measure. All these systems have been accepted by the Services for induction after extensive user trials and stringent threshold levels of acceptance in the post-user trials production phase. According to the DRDO, often problems of technology transfer due to limited engineering and production capability in the domestic industrial sector make the latter phase particularly difficult.

It is also instructive to know broadly how DRDO's budget of over Rs.5000 crore actually gets spent. About 35 per cent of the budget goes towards the priority activities of the DRDO, which are the development and implementation of strategic systems that include nuclear weapons and long-range missiles such as Agni. About 18 per cent goes towards salaries of the 7,000 scientists and 12,000 technical staff, and about 12 per cent towards works and maintenance of infrastructure. About 5 per cent goes towards funding research projects in universities and institutions. That leaves only about 30 per cent exclusively for the development of technologies, systems and products spanning the whole S&T spectrum, from agriculture to aerospace.

This effectively means that only 2 per cent of the defence budget is available for developing systems such as the MBT, electronic warfare systems, missiles under the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP), a range of radars, avionics, armaments, and combat engineering equipment. All these have been developed at much lower costs compared to international prices. These have also resulted in DRDO capability in a broad range of militarily critical advanced technologies. Notwithstanding the delays, cost-overruns, and apparent failures in some of the major projects which are not entirely due to the DRDO's shortcomings the above achievements are creditworthy, given the levels of funding and available scientific manpower.

Moreover, the true significance of the above achievements can be better appreciated if one realises that one cannot really put a value to the DRDO's efforts in the development of strategic weapons and systems. These are systems that cannot just be imported from anywhere or developed in collaboration with any country. The production value of these systems is not a true measure of the real impact of their development. Equally significant is the DRDO's contribution in ensuring continuity of supplies of components in the face of changed politico-strategic situations, embargoes, and sanctions.

The intangible benefits of nurturing a sound defence R&D base, which has self-reliance as an essential element, cannot be over-emphasised. This will, in the course of time, lead not only to spin-offs into the civilian industry but also spin-ins from the civilian industry into defence technology development in the form of cost-effective off-the-shelf components and subsystems. A strong domestic R&D base also provides the requisite expertise for evaluating imports of high technology systems, which today forms a significant fraction of India's defence acquisitions. But, most importantly, the challenging nature of developing complex defence technologies also provides the necessary attraction and encouragement to youngsters to look upon S&T as a career option, which is essential for advanced technology development across disciplines not just in defence.