DRDO chief interview: “We must work today to develop the technologies of tomorrow” - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 10 February 2020

DRDO chief interview: “We must work today to develop the technologies of tomorrow”

At Defexpo 2020, the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) chief, Dr Satheesh Reddy, spoke to Ajai Shukla about the “Make in India” initiative. Edited excerpts:

Q.        How can multiple agencies -- the DRDO, defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs) private industry and academia function cooperatively in developing and manufacturing defence equipment?

In the “Make in India” programme, the role of the DRDO is to support industry with technologies that are, as far as possible, developed within the country. These technologies must be transferred to the industry so that they are not reliant on outside technologies. Most technology transfer that happens is “manufacturing technology.” There is very little transfer of “know how” and “know why”. In contrast, technology developed by the DRDO has been completely developed in-house and in the country. This has involved a knowledge-debate within academia, within R&D organisations and within industry. So the DRDO must focus on developing as many critical technologies as possible and transferring them to the industry.

Meanwhile, the industry’s role should not be that of a mere producer. It must upgrade skills from “build to print” (i.e. translate a blueprint into a product) to “build to specs” (translate product specifications into a blueprint, and thence into a product). That would take much of the development load off the DRDO, which can then concentrate on developing core technologies. Today, if we want to satisfy the armed forces, or to address the export market, we need to make systems that incorporate state-of-the-art technologies. So we must work today to develop the technologies of tomorrow, in order to become state-of-the-art.

India has been mostly a technology follower. Weaponry and products come to us and then, years later, we try to develop the technologies in those. That has to change, and we have to become a technology leader, or at least contemporary. I cannot sell a system that incorporates decade-old technology.

Q.        Given that we are technology followers, isn’t this going to take a long time?

No. In some technology areas, we are already very strong. For example, we already have all the technologies that are needed in missile systems. Today, we can develop any missile system that may be required. Similarly, in radar technology, we are completely self-sufficient. Even industry is equipped and experienced to support us in this field. We are also strong in fields like sonar, torpedoes, electronic warfare systems, airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) and artillery guns.

In building these systems we operate at the technology frontier. We are amongst the six or seven most advanced nations in these areas. So, in these areas, we should think innovatively about what will be required after five years and start developing that today. In five years, we could have a technologically leading, first-of-its-kind system.

Q.        Who should be responsible for this technology anticipation and planning?

It has to be a combination of R&D organisations and academia, with inputs from the armed forces.

Q.        Under someone like the DRDO chairman, or the Scientific Advisor to the Government?

We already meet regularly and talk to the armed forces for drawing up its LTIPP (long term integrated perspective plan). We also take feedback from academia about what basic research and applied research is under way, and we try and assess what shape the country is in terms of scientific and technological capability. We have not set up a formal body for this purpose, but we have prepared a technology roadmap in DRDO based on these discussions. Each of the DRDO’s laboratories has a technology roadmap and all of this comes together in the larger assessment.

Q.        In developing weapons platforms in India, traditionally DRDO has functioned as a systems integrator. Do you believe DRDO should concentrate on developing core technologies, while capable private firms take on the role of systems integrators?

Absolutely. The days when DRDO used to be systems integrator have gone. Already, some DPSUs have begun functioning as systems integrators and soon private industry will also do systems integration. We have brought in a concept called DCPP – development cum production partner. This involves selecting a private firm as the DCPP, who joins on Day-1 of the project and works and learns with the DRDO, which also benefits from the firm’s capabilities. The firm then becomes the manufacturing partner when the product goes into production.

Q.        But in the model you describe, DRDO seems to be the lead integrator…

No, the private firm is the integrator; the DRDO only oversees. The first time, it will be difficult for him to be the lead integrator. For example, in developing a new missile system, we would oversee the working of our DCPP. By the end of the development phase, the firm will have absorbed the technology and developed capability and experience. The DCPP also manufactures the system, so there is a smooth induction into service in large numbers.

Q.        With the DPSUs not having functioned well as production partners, is it time to give private firms greater opportunities as production partners?

I believe that DPSUs and private industry can co-exist. There is an excellent model for cooperation in the Akash missile, for which the military has placed orders worth Rs 25,000 crore. Bharat Dynamics is the lead production agency, but 85 per cent of the production value has gone to private industries as Tier-1, Tier-2 and Tier-3 suppliers.

Q.        But is private industry confined to the role of lower order suppliers?

No. The Akash missile has four sections and there are private firms that supply an entire section, fully integrated with all its electronic and mechanical packages. There is a tier-ised production chain that enables BDL to produce a significant number of missiles every month. So there is space for both public and private firms to operate. We cannot just close a DPSU. And, when we give the job of lead production agency to a private sector firm, there is a need to protect the Tier-1, Tier-2 and Tier-3 suppliers. Otherwise MSMEs will vanish.

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