The day after he relinquished charge as chief of the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO), Avinash Chander had a freewheeling chat with Business Standard. He, however, declined to address questions about the government’s controversial termination of his contract only days after renewing it for 18 months. Edited excerpts:
What lies ahead for you?
I have a cooling-off period of one year, in which I will not be accepting employment in any field relating to defence. However, I could get a job where there is no linkage with DRDO – teaching in a university, for example. Hopefully, I will contribute somewhere. The ‘Make in India’ initiative offers opportunities for people with experience and knowledge.
It is noteworthy that the government has not chosen a successor to you.
Not really. They will probably set up a search committee who will find my successor. Until then, the defence secretary will temporarily fill the post.
There has long been a proposal to trifurcate the three important posts that the DRDO chief holds – head of DRDO, scientific advisor to the Raksha Mantri, and secretary (defence R&D). Do you believe your successor might hold only one or two of those posts?
I don’t believe a change is warranted. This is a bogey that has been going around – that the DRDO is over-centralised since the chief holds too many posts.
The Rama Rao Committee (on DRDO re-organisation) strongly recommended the three posts remain vested in a single person. The Naresh Chandra committee had recommended separation but not trifurcation. The government will have to take a call.
The other two scientific departments (space and atomic energy) have no such separation. The space commission chairman also heads ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation). There is no separate advisor for space matters.
One cannot segregate tightly-linked functions – one person running the organisation, another advising the minister, and a third doing administration. There will naturally be points of difference between them. Is the (defence) ministry prepared and equipped to then choose?
The DRDO has been criticised for delays and poor quality.
The DRDO’s performance is being invariably judged by events of a decade ago. When people talk of delays, they cite the light combat aircraft and the Arjun tank, both of which have been delivered. We need to get out of those historical references and realise the current position, which is that the military has ordered Rs 1.7 lakh-crore worth of DRDO-developed equipment.
Today, DRDO takes only four or five years to move a system from drawing board to delivery. Take software defined radio, which involves cutting-edge technology. Within three-and-a-half years, our Defence Electronics Applications Laboratory, Dehradun, developed the system and offered it to the user, who finds its performance better than his demands.
Likewise, our Electronics Research and Development Establishment, Bangalore has developed better, and cheaper, radars than many imported systems. The Weapon Locating Radar and Ashlesha (low-level radar for mountains) for example.
Shouldn’t the military be pushing these projects?
Yes, they should be demanding and pushing for the products. The forces and the DRDO must jointly plan future equipping: what must be indigenised, what should be imported; what is the short-term perspective and the long-term need. How can we involve the private sector? For example, in the Advanced Towed Artillery Gun system, the DRDO is cooperating with the private sector. Similarly, the Astra class of air-to-air missiles can easily be built by the private sector. So, we are looking for a production partner in the private sector.
The private sector can also build combat-ready systems like the Akash surface-to-air missile (SAM), since they are much freer to develop export markets. Our DPSUs (defence public sector units) are not structured to do that. They have been too inward-looking and order-oriented.
The problems of export permissions remain. Defence exports have been hindered by our “peace-loving” foreign policy rhetoric.
That is in our own hands. What is so indefensible about defence export? We don’t intend to violate the Missile Technology Control Regime or some other regime. Deploying ethics in this matter is very peculiar. If it is moral to import weaponry, how can it be immoral to export it?
India’s shift from international weapons sanctions to a position where the world is trying to sell us weaponry is a big change for the DRDO.
For the DRDO, this is a driver for change. It will have to come out of its comfort zone of developing weaponry that is already available on the international market. It will have to shift to cutting-edge technologies.
The DRDO has demonstrated its readiness to move to a higher technology plane. The Astra missile, for example, is a world-class air-to-air missile in terms of its range, accuracy and capabilities. It is comparable or better than most of the missiles international vendors are offering us.
But are the users happy with these DRDO products?
The air force is extremely happy with the Astra. After the missile is tested next month on a live target, it will go onto a fast track. Similarly, the army says that with the supply of DRDO’s Akash and Akash-2 surface-to-air missile, they are dropping the planned import of a short-range surface-to-air-missile (SR-SAM). What remains to be done is to demonstrate to the services that these products can be built in large numbers, in good quality, and without delay. The production agencies must give them that confidence.
Transferring R&D into production has always been a bottleneck.
Precisely. DRDO has been advocating that a production agency must be guaranteed a big order, even while a weapons system is being developed. Of course, that order will be placed only if the weapon is developed successfully. But a firm order will encourage the private sector to invest and to participate in the development. It will also bring down the induction time cycle; we have been advocating that the first prototype itself should be built by the production agency.
But selecting your production agency gets mired in procedure. The ministry of defence (MoD) does not want to nominate a particular company…
We make the rules, don’t we? Somewhere, the government has to take a decision. There are no more than 5-10 private companies are capable of participating in development and building in large numbers. They can all be asked to quote. Even nominating a particular company should not be a problem, providing you are distributing orders to all of them – one to the Tatas, one to Larsen & Toubro, etc – and you are open about it. Once these companies establish themselves, start making them compete. Then it becomes survival of the fittest.
Do you see any signs this is happening?
There is a much stronger impetus in MoD to make this happen. The procedures are being simplified to make it easier to participate and there is a dialogue with the industry. It will certainly happen because there is no other way.