The secret world of DRDO

The Ministry of Defence has taken cognisance of an audit of India’s premier defence research agency that reveals failed projects, fund mismanagement, corruption and scandal.

Published: 02nd September 2012 12:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd September 2012 08:18 AM   |  A+A-

India is at war. Tejas fighters wheel over a smoke dark battleground, taking down enemy aircraft with their superior radar and missile capabilities. Lower still, Indian-designed helicopters are giving hell to enemy armour and troop formations with missiles and machine-gun fire. On the ground, mighty Arjun tanks lumber slowly across dunes, sure of their inpenetrable Kanchan armour even as they spew death through their 120 mm guns. Jawans crouch and advance with the tanks, firing three-round bursts from their INSAS rifles and lobbing bhut jholokia grenades at their foes. They are tireless, having imbibed performance-enhancing pills, and well-fed, having had spoil-proof parathas and self-heated packaged meals before battle.

This is what a DRDO dream looks like. However, a nightmare was revealed recently when Defence Minister A K Antony ordered the Comptroller General of Defence Audit (CGDA) to do a secret audit of India’s equivalent of the futuristic workshop of James Bond’s ‘Q’ — the Defence Research and Development Organisation that goes by the handle DRDO.

The highlights of the report are frightening. Here are some of them:

* DRDO has been developing equipment which is either sub-standard or have extended deadlines and additional budgets;

* Many of the projects have been sanctioned without the requisite government approval. Only 10 per cent of projects have come to the ministry for clearance;

* Corruption and nepotism exists in the upper echelons;

* There is an exodus of qualified scientists;

DRDO has challenged the findings but the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has taken cognisance of them. It will be ordering a review of the agency’s approval processes as well as that of the recent proposal to enhance the financial powers for DRDO chief V K Saraswat.

Waste products

Crores of rupees are spent on research that mostly flops

The CGDA audit findings raise serious questions on the capability of this defence outfit, which has an annual budget of Rs 10,500 crore. Established in 1958, it has a network of 52 laboratories nationwide, employing 5,000 scientists with about 25,000 support staff. But only 29 per cent of the products developed during the last 17 years are being used by the Armed Forces. The audit notes that in several cases, DRDO bought equipment from other companies after spending crores on R&D. For instance, the CGDA found that after spending two years and Rs 29.96 crore to develop satellite signal monitoring, DRDO ultimately bought the same from a public sector undertaking on a single tender basis for Rs 24.50 crore in April 2011. “If such technologies are indeed commercially available, where was the need of a development project by DRDO?” the audit asked. DRDO also spent Rs 6.85 crore to develop explosive detectors, which were offered to the army for Rs 30 lakh each. Foreign versions of these are available off the shelf for Rs 9.8 lakh per piece, a price that also includes repair and maintenance.

The CGDA report criticised the ‘joint development’ technology initiative of DRDO, calling it “import of older, foreign technology under the disguise of joint development.” The CGDA accused DRDO of promoting Israeli company M/S SCD without the mandatory formal transfer of technology  agreement. Commenting on a DRDO deal to develop a higher format uncooled detector, the CGDA said: “DRDO shall be financing the development expenditure of `19.90 crore by releasing it direct to M/S SCD Israel. Basically, instead of doing development itself, DRDO is funding a foreign agency’s development effort, that too, without any explicit arrangements being finalised about ownership of intellectual property generated from such financing,” noted the CGDA. “Neither the production agency nor the users — mechanised forces of army — have been kept in the loop,” the CGDA report says.

With a chaotic record of arms experiments and eccentric choices of spending money on pickles and automated idli and dosa makers  for aircraft carriers, the very reason for DRDO’s existence seems dubious. Says V K Mittal, a former senior scientist with the agency, “DRDO technology is almost two decades old. Two projects, namely Samyukta and Sangraha electronic warfare equipment, were partially inducted in the armed forces, but users felt these were outdated and more expensive than the latest  technology available.”  Meanwhile, the agency has developed many products that is meant for the soldier at the front: DRDO pickles made of semi-ripe berries and spices such as red chilli powder, cinnamon, cumin, cardamom, black pepper powder, and clovers, spicy potato parathas, instant kadhi mixes, cashewnut barfi, mutton vegetable korma, instant halwa mix, egg biscuits and instant upma mix are among its culinary achievements. The agency also successfully bred a region-specific hybrid goat using technology that mixed the genes of adaptive and meat traits through cross-breeding breeds such as Changthangi and Gaddi and Sirohi and Black Bengal goats. DRDO has also developed ‘Lukoskin’, a herbal care product for leucoderma and the performance enhancing drug Perfomax which is meant  to “improve physical and mental performance in high altitude and hypoxic conditions.” In true 007 style, it has also developed a car coolant that will not freeze in extreme temperatures. The crores of rupees wasted in innumerable half-baked projects add up to quite a sum. In a separate report by CAG in 2011-12, the DRDO is criticised for spending crores on random research projects. In 2011, out of 55 high priority projects based on user-requirements, only thirteen went into production. A modular bridge, being developed for the army was shelved in 2010, after eight years of experiments and spending Rs 21.46 crore. Six months later, Rs 13.25 crore was sanctioned for another modular bridge project. The initiative to produce next generation laser weapons was closed down within a month after equipment was procured.

“We are dangerously behind our adversaries. China is far ahead in indigenous technology in both tanks and missiles sector. DRDO’s claim of modern technology is too old when it is delivered to armed forces. It is a big disappointment”, observes security analyst Major General (Retd) Afsir Karim.

Flop wonders

Institutions without qualifications are promoted

Defence minister Antony had asked the CGDA to investigate after receiving complaints on suspected manipulation in DRDO contracts, undue favor to some external vendors, and irregular appointments in the agency which runs a vast network across the country. Its annual budget has no audit verified document to show what value has been generated so far through its technologies. Under a very personal cloud is DRDO chief V K Saraswat. The CGDA has questioned why he granted Rs 2.88 crore to a mathematics institute to develop a futuristic radar when its scientists are not even remotely connected with research relating to the project. Incidentally, Saraswat is the president of the institute’s governing body. The audit also stated that the institute lacked expert manpower, and started recruitment only after getting DRDO funds that were released without due diligence. A Dehradun scientific lab was granted Rs 14 crore to develop a communication link, while the institute headed by Saraswat was also sanctioned Rs 2.98 crore to develop the same technology — it doesn’t have even basic facilities like computers for individual researchers. “It shows that the radar development project is being split in different parts to avoid going to the ministry and users with a proper full scope development programme,” the CGDA said. The DRDO understandably refutes the findings. “These are only observations. The laid down procedure of audit was not followed, and it was issued without authorisation. It is a one-sided report. We will give a point by point reply of audit findings. DRDO has achieved several milestones and that nobody is talking about, ” retorted Dr Ravi Gupta, DRDO’s official spokesperson. However, the CGDA report says that DRDO has tried to camouflage its failures in the name of secrecy and national security.

Says Commodore (Retd) Uday Bhaskar, former head of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), “The Government is not willing to discuss the Rama Rao committee report that talks about reforming DRDO. It shows that they are not serious about the decaying of a government institution, which in the last 30 to 40 years has completely disappointed the users. Money is being spent without any effect on indigenous programmes. I will appeal to Indian Parliament to take this matter and discuss the issue.”

Project black hole

DRDO has been spending fresh money on its own failed projects

The CGDA accuses the DRDO of functioning in a non-transparent manner. “There is no comprehensive database to find out the details of projects sanctioned for execution by the DRDO and how many has been declared as successful,” it said. Antony was also informed that DRDO has been operating as an authority unto itself, bypassing the MoD where many crucial expenses are involved: the agency comes under the ministry and its main objective is to develop a modern technology base and equip the defence forces with internationally competitive systems and weapons. During 2009-2010, DRDO sanctioned 702 projects costing above `50 lakh but only 102 research projects were referred to the ministry. The audit body also questioned the grounds on which DRDO authorities sanctioned new projects in the name of completing failed projects with questionable changes in scope to avoid ministry’s nod. For example, DRDO took up a project for development of counter mine flail (CMF) for T-72 tanks at a cost of `8 crore in December 2002. CMF is a device that creates a safe passage through a minefield by deliberately detonating land mines in front of the vehicle that  it is mounted on. Army HQ revised the requirement in 2004, but DRDO continued with the old parameters and in 2008, the product failed tests. In spite of this, it was not closed and in February 2011, another new project costing Rs 49.85 crore was sanctioned for the same CMF project.

Armaments apart, the DRDO has been splurging 10 per cent of its annual budget on construction of offices and auditoriums. CGDA also indicted DRDO for unauthorised sanction of Rs 49.15 crore to develop a vehicle testing facility in Pune — mainly for civilian use — disregarding approval rules.

“There is a lack of transparency and accountability in the name of defence research. For decades, DRDO has been promising a lot to the armed forces but have failed to deliver. The top brass should be made accountable. Unless this happens, money will be squandered away on technologically outdated projects and the armed forces will be cheated,” says Mittal.

Meanwhile, there has been a huge exodus of scientists from the agency. Last year, 86 scientists took VRS. Says Gen Karim, “The functioning of DRDO is improper. In the next five years, the difference between our adversaries and us would be glaring. The MoD is not serious about reforming DRDO. A national blueprint is required for this.”

The swadeshi trap

Unplanned indigenisation leads to losses and aborted projects

In this situation, how efficacious are the agency’s multimillion-dollar projects? India purchases arms worth $6.9 billion from the US, making it America’s second largest defence client after the Saudis. The Congressional Research Service’s annual survey of global arms sales written by Richard Grimmett and Paul Kerr says India is fast upgrading its equipment from its Soviet-era arsenal. In late 1993, a committee headed by then Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister and DRDO chief APJ Abdul Kalam had set the goal of 70 per cent of indigenisation in weapons production by 2005; DRDO has not moved beyond the 30 per cent it had reached in 1995. The passion for swadeshi is the principle behind the money being spent by the Indian government on DRDO. But most of DRDO equipment malfunctions or the projects themselves are yet to take off or are delayed, sucking in more and more money.

Rifle recoil: The mass produced INSAS rifle, meant to be the main rifle for the Indian Army has been known to malfunction in extreme conditions. The first known debacle was on August 7, 2005. As the evening shadows grew longer at the Royal Nepal Army’s Pili camp in western Kalikot district, about 550 km northwest of capital Kathmandu, Maoist fighters massed silently outside. The roads connecting the camp that housed about 200 soldiers — mostly employed in the construction of a new highway — had been mined. A little before 6 pm, over 1,000 Maoists attacked the camp. Armed with INSAS rifles, the Nepalese soldiers fought back, but in vain. By 4 pm, the Maoists had captured 100 soldiers, and executed 40 of them. Nepal blamed INSAS malfunctions for the disaster: “The rifles are okay if you fight for an hour or two, but are not appropriate for long battles. If we had  better weapons, our casualties would have been much less,” said a Nepal government spokesman. In November 2011, the Ministry of Defence issued a tender for 66,000 assault rifles to replace the INSAS. The MoD wanted the new rifles to be able to switch calibres between the small, high-velocity 5.56 mm rounds the INSAS fires and the devastatingly powerful 7.62 mm rounds of the older FAL rifles.

The story of this short-lived rifle epitomises the drift in the way the DRDO works, and also between it and the armed forces. The DRDO took a decade to design the INSAS. A few years later, it was supplied to the Army throughout the later half of the 1990s. But the Army did not put all its eggs in the desi basket; it bought 100,000 AK-47s from Bulgaria in 1995 for its frontline units in Kashmir. The INSAS began rolling off the lines soon after, at a cost several times that of the Kalashnikov. When war broke out in Kargil in 1999, INSASs jammed; the transparent polymer magazines cracked. Its ammunition-conserving three-round burst went virally fully automatic. An oil spray glitch was detected. By 2002, the Army had ordered the Israeli Tavor 21 rifle for its special forces and the Galil for its snipers. This year, the Special Forces will induct US-made M-4 rifles, the Vietnam-era M-16’s newer version that US soldiers now use in Afghanistan. “DRDO products are half imported and half prepared here, which is dangerous. Defence is too serious business to be left to one party. It is the user — our armed forces — who will decide which product is useful. DRDO cannot claim success of a product sitting in the workshop,” says Gen  Karim.

Air disaster: In the early 1980s, the Indian Air Force was over-reliant on Soviet-made MiG-21s, which would be phased out, beginning in the mid-90s. In 1984, the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), a national consortium of over 100 defence laboratories, industrial organisations, and academic institutions with HAL being the principal contractor, was created specifically to manage the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme. The DRDO was to develop the plane’s flight control system, hi-tech radar, and engine. DRDO delivered on the flight control system. However, the radar was the one that was to be developed by Ericsson and Ferranti Defence Systems Integration for the Gripen, a topline Swedish fighter plane. DRDO decided to develop the radar at home, and started in 1997. In 10 years, cost escalations, delays and other serious problems grounded the project, which is now being developed with help from the Elta group, an Israel Aerospace Industries subsidiary. Kaveri, the engine of the LCA — christened Tejas by former PM Atal Behari Vajpayee — was to be developed by the Gas Turbine Research Establishment, Bangalore using prototypes made by General Electrics, USA. By 2003, it had to be abandoned for an upgraded version of the GE engine used in the prototypes selected to power the first pre-production Tejas. The Kaveri had, in the meantime, failed high-altitude tests carried out in Russia, and by 2008, was officially declared unsuitable. GE was selected to provide 99 engines that were even better than the ones used in the first LCAs. Mysteriously, 15 actuators of the aircraft that were part of the LCA’s integrated flight control system went missing in December 2008  from Heathrow, London. The Tejas has flown, and well, but with an Israeli radar and American engine. The Kaveri programme alone cost the nation about Rs 2,800 crore over 23 years; the cost overrun of the entire LCA programme is estimated at about 3,000 per cent.

Tanked hopes: It took 35 years to make India’s main battle tank Arjun. In 1974, DRDO’s Combat Vehicles Research and Development Establishment at Chennai started designing the tank expected to be ready for war in 10 years. The Arjun was to weigh 40 tonnes with a 105 mm main gun. By the time it was finished in 2000, the tank had grown in size to 58.5 tonnes with a 120 mm gun that can fire rockets. In terms of cost overrun, the Arjun is the champion of delay and drift: it has cost 20 times the initial estimate to make an Indian tank with a German engine.  It is so big that ordinary Indian rail wagons, the ones that have been transporting our older Soviet- and British-origin tanks had to be redesigned to accommodate its bulk. Military planners say bridges will collapse under Arjun’s weight. The Army and DRDO have been at loggerheads over the Arjun. Field tests have varied wildly: some have given the Arjun a junk rating, and others say it’s the best thing to have happened to the Armoured Corps. The tank is a ‘jugaad’ queen. South African howitzers have been mated to its chassis to make a self-propelled field gun that DRDO calls Bhima. The army will, at last, add to its ranks about 250-odd Arjuns, and 1,000 T-90s. The next Indian tank, the Futuristic MBT, may well come from a joint initiative with Russia.

As the MoD prepares to review DRDO’s financial procedures, the news is not all bad on the achievement front. Last week, the 350-km range surface-to-surface Prithvi II missile was successfully flight tested at the Integrated Test Range, Chandipur in Odissa. Saraswat, a multitude of rings embedded with various stones flashing on his fingers celebrated by feeding laddoos to the army commander present. However, the question for him is, after the ministry’s review, what’s for just desserts.


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