A great model for great projects - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 14 October 2013

A great model for great projects

There are lessons that the DRDO can learn from DARPA

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 15th Oct 13

The Defence R&D Organization (DRDO), which shoulders primary responsibility for developing indigenous defence systems and capabilities in India, consumes 5.1 per cent of the Indian defence budget, which amounts this year to Rs 10,600 crore. This is modest given India’s two-and-a-half front security environment (China, Pakistan and counter-insurgency), the Indian military’s size (world’s 3rd-largest) and our regrettable status as the world’s largest importer of weaponry (70 per cent of our needs). Over half this allocation comprises of revenue expenditure, spent on a sprawling establishment of 52 laboratories and some 30,000 employees, leaving a mere Rs 5,000 crore for development projects.

While wasteful, this large DRDO establishment has been essential for as long as industry has not had the capability, money or incentive to emerge as a serious developer of defence equipment, or as a comprehensive ancillary supplier. The DRDO was forced to blaze multiple technology trails alone, developing materials, components, sub-systems and entire systems that went into a first generation of Indian weapons platforms --- ballistic and guided missiles; the Tejas fighter; the Arjun tank; the Arihant nuclear submarine, etc --- which are entering service.

But with each successive Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) allowing a larger role, and even design funding, to an increasingly competent private sector, the DRDO must evaluate alternative models. Like elsewhere, private sector vendors should take up system integration, while the DRDO develops the science and enabling technologies that give weaponry a cutting edge.

A model for the DRDO, even if only as part of its larger role, is the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA systematically develops “disruptive technologies”, radical inventions that change the game rather than mere incremental developments, e.g. Mark II into Mark III. Over the years DARPA’s innovations --- including the internet, stealth technology, global positioning satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, and micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) --- have advanced the frontiers of military science, and catalysed multi-billion dollar industries in civilian applications.

DARPA’s success, as a recent Harvard Business Review article details, comes despite its tiny size (120 administrators in all); and relatively modest annual budget ($3 billion, or Rs 18,000 crore) that is dwarfed by the R&D budgets of US multi-nationals like Lockheed Martin and Boeing. DARPA selects its projects carefully, pushing the frontiers of science to solve real-world problems (e.g. GPS for navigation), or creating battlefield opportunities (stealth technology). There is energy, urgency and purpose in a project that feeds into a larger system being developed elsewhere. DARPA itself was set up during a moment of national crisis, when the Soviet Union’s surprise launch of the Sputnik in 1958 created an outcry over a “missile gap” with the Soviet Union. Since then, DARPA’s simply worded mission has been: “to prevent and create strategic surprise.”

How have so few done so much? By defining short-duration projects that must be completed in 3-5 years, and by assembling a temporary, mission-oriented team of top-drawer experts from diverse organisations specifically for each project. Setting a tight time limit is essential; a team of world-class experts cannot be assembled for long. DARPA’s approach gives it an edge over traditional research organisations with captive employees. And DARPA can change the group makeup rapidly as technological challenges are overcome and new ones arise.

Team leaders are carefully selected, fixed-term technical managers who understand that they are not spending lots of money on research in the vague hope that something good eventually comes out of it. Instead, their team must make a breakthrough innovation in a very short time, after which everyone can get back to whatever they were doing before.

Former directors say that the intensity, sharp focus, and finite time frame of a project attracts the top-notch scientists and engineers, who tend to collaborate closely in the quest for finite success.

Adding to DARPA’s agility and low cost is the fact that it has no laboratories of its own. Project researchers and scientists work at their respective organizations, getting together at least twice a year to review progress and objectives.

The DRDO would benefit enormously from DARPA’s approach to problem solving. Like all high-risk projects, DARPA projects encounter dead ends and surprises, but treat them as a tool for course correction. It does not insist on development milestones because that encourages adherence to a research path that might no longer be valid. If an approach is simply not working, DARPA shuts it down and shifts efforts to another path. Those who sign on to a project understand that their participation might end if the science doesn’t work, the pace of progress is not commensurate with other efforts, and ideas for how to make it work cannot be found.

Key to success is the project leader, who must be technically skilled and a natural risk taker, who can discuss a project with a military user, budgets with a finance man, a technical holdup with a researcher, and intellectual property questions with lawyers. DARPA leaders are typically in their early forties, and rarely have MBAs. Business school skills --- defining a market opportunity, framing a plan and then rigidly executing it --- count for little when a leader must constantly replan, change tack and move talent in and out of a project in flux.

In India today the DARPA model would face government and organisational inertia. But when the defence ministry understands that R&D expenditure must be accounted for; and when the DRDO assumes the role of R&D leadership rather than R&D ownership, defence R&D will enter a trajectory that might support an Indian DARPA. 


  1. Stop looking for 'models' to justify the baneful existence of the DRDO and your favourite - HAL. The only thing required for the indigenous armaments industry to grow is accountability. Make the people - actually the civil servants, in the DRDO and DPSUs justify their existence instead of indulging in petty inter-organisation politics and the results will speak for themselves.

    And lastly, Please don't be so obviously biased that you are now to be considered one of the foremost 'paid corresspondents'.

  2. @ Anonymous 15:29

    Make no mistake, I'm not just a "paid correspondent" but a highly paid one. That's because I'm really good at what I do.

    Dimwits like you who don't even know how to spell correspondent, will never be paid to write. And that's assuming you know anything about the subject... which you obviously don't.

  3. That was the fit reply to the Anonymous 15.29 !!!

    I think it makes a lot of sense for DRDO to adopt this pentagon model.

    In a conventional research approach as we have in DRDO , there is a high risk of complacency due to lack of accountability. The absence of strict time limits for R & D projects promotes the same apart from rendering the projects ( even if it turns out successful) useless due to obsolescence.

  4. Ironically, the director of DARPA is Indian- Ms Aarti Prabhakar.

  5. @Anonymous 15:29

    DRDO and HAL has done a commendable job in all their projects, with the lack of funds for the projects and minimal technical expertise. Do you think the people working for DRDO cannot get a job in IT industry. They can easily find a high paying job.

    yes there has been delays, what about USA's F-35? So Lockheed Martin doesn't have accountable people? Its the expectation we got from DRDO and HAL as well as poor capability analysis from HAL is the reason for the delays. We should have built a 1st generation aircraft successfully before trying to build a 4th generation aircraft.

    Also when our Officers from the army are ready to put mud inside the Arjun Tank, when it is undergoing trails to favor the foreign tanks. That's how corrupted our people from the Government as well as many men inside the army. They will not buy anything indigenous. So what is your opinion on our indigenous missile development? Why it is successful. Answer is simple because nobody exports missiles. If you want to blame, you should blame the government, some Indian army officials and IAF's obsession towards buying foreign toys. reply if you can answer.

  6. DARPA uses universities for their research projects. That won't work out here because, our universities are overloaded with other activities.

    Actually, DRDO, ISRO fund university projects. But if you look at those projects, funds are peanuts and you know who work for peanuts. And you would know the end result as well. Only if they raise the funding, it would be attractive for brainy ones to look at it instead of industry funded projects.

  7. Sir, the key here is what you mentioned, DARPA doesnot own its own labs. People assemble for a project and leave when it is done. Project takes priority and there is no lingering once it is done. But we have a long way to go to reach when we could even contemplate something like DARPA. Because things move so slow in India, by the time a project gets its way the technology would have become out dated. And not to mention we donot have a sense of invention, but takes pride in innovation (the inevitable jugaad), nor is inventions considered worthy in our tradition. Inventions are considered crazy not given incentives, and the geniuses flock for developed countries. Just ask a common man, he will believe in magical cures of fever but will opt to stay out of proven medicine if possible. But the current surplus generation of engineering graduates might take us to invention, as at least a few young guys might dream of something inventive (rather than innovative) and then DARPA style might be a great idea. But sure it wont happen overnight, may be this decade.

  8. Ajai sir can you tell me from where we can get these experts for a short time
    as per my knowledge DRDO still has the cream(engineers & scientists from the pioneer institutions of India) but progress is below par
    I think one thing is missing Accountability (we always read about experts but we dont talk about those who do nothing)
    we have more than 7000 scientists in DRDO but still our most of the main projects are going no where
    & article needs to be corrected Sputnik was launched on
    4th of October 1957

  9. Ajai sir can you tell me from where we can get these experts for a short time
    as per my knowledge DRDO still has the cream(engineers & scientists from the pioneer institutions of India) but progress is below par
    I think one thing is missing Accountability (we always read about experts but we dont talk about those who do nothing)
    we have more than 7000 scientists in DRDO but still our most of the main projects are going no where
    & article needs to be corrected Sputnik was launched on
    4th of October 1957

    Neeraj Verma

  10. Finally, Ajai sees light at end of the tunnel. Now hopefully the Indian Govt, either brings forth an extraordinarily visionary leader who can privatize the defence sector landscape or transform existing setup to reflect contemporary models, such as DARPA, crowd sourcing...
    As noted by Ajai, it's the project leader that matters, not the scientist. Unfortunately for India, the caliber of our political case has been so decadent that there hasn't been a good leadership since the days of Independence movement. Even among them some were rotten, especially Gandhi-Nehru combine. The only one with some dignity and pride was Netaji Bose. How to play spoils and sacrifice national interests for selfish gains was demonstrated to future politicians by Gandhi. No wonder the whole basket is rotten. The moment we seek foreign recognition for our work, we are doomed to be laggards. We need to be trend setters not trend followers. Unfortunately not very many Indians imbibe this spirit.

  11. Well said, Colonel!

  12. Bravo Ajai!

    Please send this article to all the DRDO and MOD and also the think tanks in different political voice.

    Having seen some DARPA projects, and the DARPA model, I am amazed at the model's efficiency. Recruit the best professors, energetic PhD/Masters/Under Graduate students to do the research, hand over the research to a private organization to productionize.

    Please expand on this article, and send 1000 copies to MoD, Congress, BJP, DRDO.. Ill pay for the postage.

  13. very well written Ajay...
    India has these kind of leaders only things missing are
    1.Attitude 2. Honesty 3. Rational 4. Self belief
    5. Trust
    Missile program, ISRO, Submarine , aircraft carrier Development proves that we can do these.

    Now, MOD does not trust private industry, Army does not trust Arjun tank, Airforce does not trust IJT or Tejas, Armed forces do not trust MOD and this the country is the looser.

    Ajay..can you please,give your view about the Rafle deal status ?

    Also why we are not creating complete Drone squadrons in parallel with Tejas developments.

    Drones can be very effective and used for surgical strikes in disputed places.

  14. Missile program, ISRO, Submarine , aircraft carrier Development proves that we can do these.

    Now, MOD does not trust private industry, Army does not trust Arjun tank, Airforce does not trust IJT or Tejas, Armed forces do not trust MOD and this the country is the looser.

    Ajay..can you please,give your view about the Rafle deal status ?

    Also why we are not creating complete Drone squadrons in parallel with Tejas developments.

    Drones can be very effective and used for surgical strikes in disputed places.

  15. I worked with number of ex HAL and DRDO engineers. There were highly educated. But were brain dead, they only repeat what they can read or have been taught. They made silly mistakes again and again. If they were told to do something they would do it but showed no initiative. Its not about being just smart but thinking out of the box and being driven to succeed.

  16. Sir just inform us about the success rate and budget of DARPA.

  17. DARPA model is good but won't suit us straight away. Many pre-tier reforms would be needed first. MoD is structured more like UK MoD than US DoD. British DSTL and Australian DSTO models would serve us best.

    DRDO was originally based around the structure of UK's DERA, which was then 1 part privatised (QinetiQ), 1 part merged with related companies (vickers, BAe systems etc.). And what remained was renamed DSTL and restructured somewhat along DARPA lines.

    So we should basically

    1. Merge ADA, CABS and NAL with HAL and then privatize.

    2. Merge CVRDE with HVFs. Then separate into a different land systems company and then privatize it.

    3. Merge ARDE with all arms and ammunition factories. Name this XXX Ordnance companies and privatise it.

    4. Privatise whatever else is left of OFB after the above 3 steps. Except the 3 Defence Clothing factories that should close down.

    5. Merge GTRE with BHEL. BHEL should become analogous to a General Electric /Rolls Royce / Mitsubhishi Electric/Siemens/SAAB sort of company with a wide portfolio ranging from gas turbines, power systems, aeroengines and marine propulsion to railway traction systems, electronics and medical devices etc. In Fact BARC and NPCIL could also possibly merge with BHEL since companies like GE and RR make nuclear reactors too.

    7. Merge LRDE and possibly CABS with BEL. BEL should then aim to be something like Raytheon/THALES. They can even take up the long debated indigenous microprocessor project venture into civilian applications. Could really revolutionize electronics industry here.

    8. I don't know what naval research stuff (navy ship design bureau) exists in our country but they should be merged with MDL. GRSE and CSY should just be sold off.

    9. Now, whatever remains of DRDO should be structured into several research groups that oversee research in their respective fields. Only the very cutting edge and disruptive technologies. They should try and do most of their research in India's academic institutions like IITs, IISc and universities. Doing research in an isolated lab somewhere does not help anybody.

  18. Shuklaji,
    Surely creating an agency like DARPA in India is worthwile. But practically this can't be implemented in India. The reasons can be sorted down-
    1. In India for every project or rather in every thing bribe is involved. So while selecting projects there is huge chance of selection of project based on the party which gives more bribes & not good tech.
    2. Implementation. Despite of several shortcomings highlighted by CAG,MOD in defence forces, none of them have been attended. Its sure the recommendations of Indian DARPA will also be neglected.
    3. Middleman. Its impossible to jump the middle man & do any contract with OEM. They are the main spoilers. The actual purpose of the organisation becomes useless.
    4. Now who will drive the DARPA. The same Gandhian politicians with no strategic thinking will be made the responsible persons.
    5. Active participation of private companies have been neglected from the beginning. Its not possible for PSU's to make everything starting from satellites,subs to knives.
    6. Here there is no coordination or synchronisation between OEMs,forces & vendors.
    7. Project secrets are very much vulnerable in India and often get disclosed during snooping activities.

    Lastly its impossible to separate politics whether internal or external from any organisation in India.

  19. @Broadsword

    You're in business because I'm still in the Army.

    Three years more to go and a couple more, then we'll see whose is a highly paid correspondent and whose just a 'paid corresspondents'.

  20. Sir,

    Why do you think there is such a major shortage in IA officers? We have seen an increase in the number of reported fights between officers and Jawans, what is the cause of this?

  21. In India, the scientific and research culture has been lost. What lingers around is just a superiority complex - I'm the boss and since I'm the boss I know everything. 'Lending an ear to what the person sitting in the opposite seat' is something that our bureaucrats, senior scientists and learned professors must learn. I have met all these above to get support for my doctoral research.

    But none shows any interest. Those who show interest are very very few. Anybody! Anybody take a research proposal to our great IITs and try to get support for your projects! Then you'll realize the truth of mine. It's not just only me having this experience -one individual. There are thousands like me.

    The best way to bring results in our nation is to squeeze the leader - Punish heavily for the project's failure and reward heavily for project's success. Like the COs of the formations thrown out for incompetence, non performing senior scientists heading projects and CMDs of DPSUs must be thrown out.

    Col. Shukla has brought things out clearly. God! At least we have one Col. Ajai Shukla writing sensibly in this domain for entire India.

    Thanks colonel!

  22. @ Anonymous 14:56

    You're a laugh! You're challenging me anonymously!!

    If you had any confidence in yourself, you would post under your own name. But the problem with that is... that you would then have to make good on your promise.

    Let's have a name. And let's see where that name is five years hence.


  23. I think this suggestion has come up before and it did not make sense then and I feel it does not make sense now.

    The DARPA model works because it feeds of a large network of basic research in the US university system, a network of entrepreneurs who seem to be able to access a large capital base in US society.

    The top echelon of DRDO i.e. all those people you see gathering periodically in that large hall in Metcalfe House, are exactly like DARPA in terms of what they try to do - but as there is no such capital base in India, and as there is no such pool of knowledge in India's universities - so the effectiveness of this Indian "DARPA" is limited.

    Rebranding DRDO won't do anything meaningful.

    I think what many in the Indian military want is a small team capable of producing disruptive technology to service the rapidly evolving and complex battlefield needs of the forces.

    It may be possible to form such "tiger" teams and use them to solve difficult problems under fire, but this is not something that can exist as a canned approach. It is something that will happen spontaneously out of existing teams in various organisations.

    A lot of the organisations in the defence industrial community (in India and elsewhere) were created fifty years ago. These entities are poorly suited for the challenges of the modern battlefield.

    Obviously something is needed, but it is not rebranding imo...

  24. The employees of DARPA are not political appointees. If an immigrant, a US born child of an immigrant, or a naturalized citizen can show high level of competence, talent and flare for the defense organization, they get the job. Ms.Prabhakar, the director of DARPA does not let her name do the talking. Her success is measured in number of new, and innovative products improving the US defense, military capabilities, and control of terrorism. Almost every month, one or new advance is mentioned in the local newspapers about DARPA designing, or improving an existing project. DRDO has been a politically burdened agency. Too many " chiefs and not enough Indians" seems to be the rule. Thousands of Indian born researchers are working in US universities designing innovative products. Many can be used for the defense applications. It is my suspicion that the GOA has ZERO interest in these technologies, possibly because it would mean no more money for the DRDO to spent. Unfortunately this approach has lead to mega millions spent on " junk" and redundant technology, or projects running 30 years behind. Eventually costing the nations billions more in importing 70 percent of the defense equipment. The military officers in charge of evaluation, and procurement have a field day filling their pockets. The ministers collect their share from the same!


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