The government-appointed K. Vijay Raghavan committee for restructuring the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to develop high-end technologies for future warfare submitted its report to the government two months ago. The DRDO headquarters is supposed to get back to the government in three months.

Only time will tell what happens next. But it may be recalled that the corporatisation (which should have actually privatised) of the Ordnance Factory Board, and the 41 Ordnance Factories under it took three studies over a number of years. Then too, all that happened was their conversion to Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) with the same management, same workers and the same work culture.

Not surprising, facing criticism for poor output, the Advisor to the Defence Minister was forced to say last year that these DPSUs be allowed some time. How much time, only to get their act together?

In a report tabled in Parliament in December 2022, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) had pointed out the DRDO’s “history of failures.” These included even “mission-mode” high-priority projects that have “high outcome certainty, as they depend on technologies that are already available, proven and readily accessible”.

According to the CAG, there were projects that the DRDO declared as success even though they did not achieve key objectives. “In 119 of 178 projects,” said the CAG report, “the original time schedules could not be adhered to. In 49 cases, the additional time was in fact more than 100 percent of the original timeframe. Overall, delays ranged from 16 to 500 per cent, and extensions for completion of projects were taken multiple times.”

Minister of State for Defence Ajay Bhatt in a written response to a query in Rajya Sabha on February 22, 2023, said "as on date, the DRDO is working on 55 mission mode projects out of which 23 projects are delayed".

The CAG has periodically pointed out DRDO’s delayed projects, cost overruns, sub-standard products and product costs higher than the same products available off-the-shelf in the open market. The DRDO’s failures over the decades have contributed significantly to India becoming the world’s biggest weapons importer.

Despite the much vaunted indigenisation or ‘Atma Nirbhar Bharat’ in Defence, the latest SIPRI report states that India’s arms imports increased by 4.7 per cent between 2014–18 and 2019–23, making it the world’s biggest arms importer in 2019–23 with a 9.8 percent share of all arms imports.

The DRDO’s failures span from its inability in provisioning a state-of-the-art assault rifle, aero engine for jet fighter aircraft to a state-of-the-art unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for the Armed Forces. This is despite the UAVs high importance in the battlefield observed in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, Ukraine, Red Sea and arming of China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA). This has resulted in India depending on foreign procurement with the Israeli Searcher, Heron Mark-I and Mark II drones largely making up for the requirement of almost 150 UAVs in this category.

Faced with criticism and the spectre of restructuring, the DRDO has gone on the offensive. Sponsored media and articles are blaming the Army for delays in projects like the Futuristic Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV) and Arjun Mk-1A. One sponsored article claims that the ‘Army has always given step-motherly treatment to the DRDO by favouring the Russian T-90 tank over the DRDO’s Arjun Tank (sic).’

It further says that the Arjun Tank Project could suffer another “devastating delay” thanks to Army's decades-long reluctance to back it. The reason being given is Germany shutting down the production line of the German-made 1400 HP MTU MB 838 Ka-501 V10 diesel-engine, powering the Arjun Mk-1 tank.

Here the question is did the Army ask for the German diesel engine for the Arjun Mk-1 tank? Why could the DRDO not produce the required engine? What about aero-engines? How many decades have the Kaveri engine taken and with what end results? Shouldn’t DRDO be ashamed that the J40 Jet Engine by Indian startup ‘DG Propulsion’ has successfully clogged one-hour endurance test already. What about the finances and man-hours wasted on the Tapas BH-201 UAV?

A perpetual DRDO crib is Army GSQRs “asking for the moon”, as well as subsequent changes in the GSQR sought by the Army. Closer scrutiny would indicate that the Army’ GSQR is based on global developments in the defence sector, certainly not science fiction. If the DRDO feels this is asking for the moon, this should be pointed out at the very beginning rather than grabbing it with both hands by green horn scientists to avail development funds.

A second alternative for the DRDO is to study the GSQR and propose a workable ‘interim’ prototype and the final ‘prototype’ giving time schedules for both. As for the Army seeking subsequent changes in GSQR, shouldn’t this be viewed in the backdrop of rapid technological changes and DRDO projects taking decades to fructify. Also, the Army’s projections to the DRDO can hardly be equated with that of the Navy which is a smaller service.

The cold truth is that the DRDO is the biggest hindrance to privatisation, the latter being the need of the hour in order to speed up self-reliance. Privatisation in the defence sector is catching up but far from the required level. The DRDO is adept at taking over inventions in the private sector, aside from other reasons, mass production facilities for financial profiting.

The services, however, continue their efforts in concert with private players. For example, Army is currently working with 340 indigenous defence industries for fructification of 230 contracts by 2025, which entails an outlay of Rs 2.5 lakh crore.

Admittedly, the DRDO has shown sporadic sparks of brilliance, the hallmark being the missile’s development, for which the credit must go to President APJ Abdul Kalam. At times, fate has also played its role. The Akash Missile System developed as a replacement of the Russian Kvadrat to provide mobile air defence cover for mechanised forces failed miserably during trials.

It could not negotiate even small sand dunes and could not take on slow-moving helicopters either. Therefore, it was given to the Air Force as part of a layered point air defence in conjunction with other air defence systems. Later, it was later introduced in the Army as well.

In addition to its main agenda of suggesting ways to reform the DRDO and create an indigenous defence production ecosystem, the K. Vijay Raghavan committee report also recommends a larger role to the private sector in defence, limiting DRDO’s role to research and development without being involved in developing prototypes or technology demonstrators.

Also, any production and further development should be done by selected private players or public sector undertakings. Hopefully, this will be followed in real earnest because the governmental defence-industrial set up nexus with the bureaucracy is well entrenched. The DRDO is the hen that delivers golden eggs, also contributing to whichever political party is ruling.

Lt General PRAKASH KATOCH is a veteran of the Indian Army. Views expressed are the writer’s own.