Monday, 1 July 2013

'Unprecedented Number Of Our Systems On Threshold Of Operations': DRDO Chief

"I don't think there has been any other period in DRDO when we've had so many products lined up to enter service and prove themselves across different clusters."

The DRDO's new chief Dr Avinash Chander is right. He takes office at a time of perhaps never before activity in the organisation. Products and technologies seeded years ago will achieve maturity under his stewardship, and if everything goes well, most of those will enter operational service. Refreshingly, it isn't without caution and much-needed pragmatism.

"DRDO will have to scale itself up in a much much bigger way. That's where we will have a lot of internal re-engineering and a new paradigm of technology development involving academics in a much much bigger way," he tells me. "I see the next three-five years as a major milestone in DRDO. It's the first time a whole series of equipment will be fielded out of DRDO to the customer."

Dr Chander is keenly aware of the mindset battle he has before him. Armed forces have only tentatively begun to come around to indigenous equipment, as opposed to imports. "Aim is that products have to measure up to the user's confidence level, which in turn should result in a change in mindset in the belief in our indigenous capabilities. That's my topmost priority: to build confidence in our indigenous capability," the DRDO chief says. He then lists out the product priorities:

"It starts the LCA, which is our topmost priority. In addition, we'll  see the Agni IV and V inducted in the next two years, the first time we will be inducting strategic missiles with such long ranges together. We are also completing the Arjun Mk.2, with about 100 improvements. It has become a real mean fighting machine, ready to go. The user wants everything integrated and the user will be carrying out the trials. Our joint ventures and joint developments on LRSAM, MRSAM will go into production in this period. The SR-SAM project (with MBDA of France) will get sanctioned, and within four years, we will get into the production of that."

The inevitable question on private Indian industry comes up. As the spearhead of the Agni ballistic missile programme, Dr Chander has had a chance to work closely with private companies who build myriad systems on India's strategic weapons. "The DRDO is at a turning point where we have to re-engineer ourselves for the future," he says. "Indian industry is going to have a major role in the indegenisation process. For the first time I'm seeing the visibility of 75% indigenous content for our armed forces. I now feel confident we should be able to achieve that. As more investment comes into industry, programme and technology management skills will be a force multipler for DRDO. I have now a base where we can build much higher."

It's clear that the LCA occupies his mind more than anything else today, and rightly. "If I'm making an LCA, I have to design the computer, the actuators, practically everything in-house. But once this capability comes to industry, 50% of my load gets transferred to industry. I can find a value engineered product coming from industry. Time cycles will come down, quality will go up."

It's what Dr Chander says next that introduces a sense of promise to the new leadership at an organisation that's floated through its history with sometimes ludicrous promises, often failing to deliver, and always with serious consequences to the Indian taxpayer. Under Dr Chander, hopefully, things could begin to change.

Leaning back contemplatively in his chair, Dr Chander says, "Perhaps DRDO has been too optimistic in its time-frames. No aircraft has been developed from scratch to production in less than 18-20 years. It's a universal cycle across the world, including at companies like Boeing and Airbus. But our time-cycles are now coming down. In fact, for AMCA, when we take it up, the time cycle will come down to 12-15 years as against 20-22 years. As we deliver, the confidence of the our system will increase. Then this process of making a prototype, then engineering model, all this will change. Then you will have full trust of the armed forces and political system. If I am asked to make 200 aircraft, and is decided upfront today, you plan the industry and infrastructure growth. HAL is planning LCA production now, 10 or 15 years down the line, because now there is visibility of orders. But we are losing time in the process. If commitments are given right at the beginning, time cycles will come down. With these 8-10 products coming, we should be able to get the trust of our users."

Former President and DRDO chief APJ Abdul Kalam had harped often on a self-reliance index as an indicator of DRDO's success. I ask Dr Chander if he believes in it, and what he plans to achieve on that scale.

He says, "Self-reliance is a function of DRDO technology, our production base, our armed forces joining to take up indigenous products. All three are synergising well to make it happen. As far as DRDO is concerned, we are going to deliver LCA. If it comes into production, it means Rs 40,000 crore in the next 10 years. We want India to be ammunition import independent. We are working hard towards that. This will run in tens of thousands of crores. We are making big headway in radars. Our aim is that all future missile systems should have Indian radars. Many of these major steps are happening, as performance of our systems is seen to be better than imported weapons, we are confidence of being more suitable and acceptable. With that 75 per cent self reliance index is definitely achievable. More than that will not be economically viable. Currently the self reliance index is more than 50 per cent."

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