For far too long, there has virtually been no accountability within the defence management system to ensure that our fighting forces are equipped with the proper weapons and systems to handle the complex security challenges facing the country. The resultant state of modernization of our armed forces today is therefore cause for alarm. Many major weapons system projects under the Defence Research and Development Organization of the ministry of defence have been stagnating for over a decade or more. Not surprisingly, a recent report by the parliamentary standing committee on defence has been highly critical of the functioning and performance of the DRDO.
Based on its recommendations, the government has now formed a committee to carry out an independent review of the DRDO. The unfortunate fact is that the laudable aims of self-reliance and indigenization have been so misused that, for years, the DRDO and defence public sector units have always had the first call on any operational requirement that the services may project. As numerous examples have shown, these organizations have readily accepted the commitments but rarely delivered. While the armed forces continue to face the adverse operational consequences, no one has been held to account. With 5,000 scientists, 25,000 other scientific, technical and support personnel, 51 laboratories and an annual budget of around Rs 5,000 crore, the DRDO’s vision — as spelt out on its website, of “making India prosperous by establishing world class science and technology base and providing the defence services decisive edge by equipping them with internationally competitive systems and solutions” — has remained an elusive vision.
The genesis of the parliamentary committee’s ire has been the DRDO’s inability to deliver on the many vital projects that are at hand and the absence of any accountability for gross time and cost overruns. While the composition of the review committee has been announced, one is not aware of the terms of reference. In all fairness, while there is much that the DRDO needs to answer for, both to the armed forces and the tax-payer, it would be unfair to limit the committee’s charter to just reviewing the DRDO. If indeed the spirit of the exercise is to inject efficiency and accountability into the entire system of modernizing the armed forces, then every organization that plays a part in the process needs to be reviewed for its contribution to this sorry state of affairs.
It is understood that both the MoD and the DRDO were firmly opposed to the concept of an independent audit and review. That the alternative view has prevailed indicates that, in keeping with the prevailing spirit of transparent and merit-oriented decision-making, the government is not willing to treat the DRDO as a holy cow. In furtherance of this spirit, one hopes that the terms of reference of the proposed committee will not be limited to the DRDO alone but will extend to the other holy cows that must also share the burden of this state of blissful neglect of national security.
We need to ask ourselves why we have allowed the DRDO to become an omnibus organization, which is involved in activities as diverse as basic research, at one end of the spectrum, to designing and developing complex weapons systems like main battle tanks and light combat aircraft, and on occasion even indulging in pre-production activities. This, when there exist large defence production units with integrated design and development departments, whose primary task is precisely to undertake these latter activities. In the event, the DRDO falls between two stools and has been unable to fulfil, through research and development, what should have been its primary function. That of ensuring that the Indian armed forces are technologically prepared and operationally relevant in the ever-evolving technological and security environment. While the former would be a function of the research being carried out and the advice provided to the MoD and the armed forces, the latter would be through applied research where technology can be developed, commercialized and transferred to the defence industry, which would then apply it to weapons system development.
This brings us to the defence industry, which consists of both defence public sector units and the ordnance factories. Here one must differentiate, between the navy and the other two services, because the former has been far more successful in indigenous design and production; possibly because it still runs its own design department, and shipyards have largely been headed by serving or retired naval officers. The rest of the defence industry has been more interested in keeping its production lines going rather than aggressively contributing to design and development of futuristic weapons systems with applied technology inputs from the DRDO. The industry is far more comfortable with licensed production, with no risks and assured production orders. With the services as captive customers and prices of products artificially fixed, the system is not conducive to a competitive and dynamic culture, where providing the armed forces with technologically current weapons systems at competitive prices carries a premium. This culture has several negative fallouts. It leads to the stagnation of the industry’s own design and development capability, thus making it reliant on further licensed programmes. There is no backwards push to the DRDO to come up with technologies, which can be commercially applied, to future weapons system designs or for weapons system upgrades. And finally, such an industry becomes lethargic and is incapable of competitiveness in the international arms market.
At the end of the day, it is the armed forces that are the ultimate users of the final products of indigenous research, development and production. In any healthy commercial organization, the customer is king. It is only in the existing defence management system that the customer is actually the slave. He is made to feel apologetic about futuristic requirements to meet his operational needs and is often accused of aping foreign sales brochures. He is dubbed as pro-import when he is not convinced that indigenous claims are realistic. The ministry of defence sits in judgment over technical and operational issues, for which it lacks professional expertise. Often it rules in favour of claims made by the DRDO or the defence PSUs, driven by the lofty ideals of self-reliance and indigenization, but, one suspects, also to take the easy route, as the alternative involves imports and the bogey of arms dealers, et al.
The armed forces have only themselves to blame for this pitiable plight. Service leadership, possibly because of a false sense of patriotism, has found it politically correct not to openly criticize these fatal systemic flaws. The few that have voiced concern have done so either in a muted fashion or on the eve of shedding their uniform. In this age of rapidly advancing technology and equally rapid obsolescence of weapons systems, the need is for integrated teamwork across the spectrum of research, applied research, development, testing, operationalizing and productionizing. With so much at stake, the services have also not shown any enthusiasm to establish functional technology and systems commands with delegated authority to work alongside the DRDO and the industry. Part of the existing problem is precisely the absence of such a mechanism.
This brings us to the holiest of holy cows, the MoD. It commands all the authority with no attendant accountability. It stands as arbiter of disputes between the services and the DRDO or the defence industry, without possessing the requisite technical or operational expertise. No incremental delay or cost overrun can be permitted without the sanction of the MoD, yet no questions are asked of it. If indeed the nation aspires to take its place in the forefront of defence technologies, to become a force to reckon with in producing weapons systems to equip its defence forces and to compete in the international market, then it is the entire defence management system that must come under scrutiny, not just the DRDO. Scrutiny not only of performance, but the charter, organization, decision-making hierarchy, authority and accountability within each of the organizations is vital.
Unless we are willing to broaden the charter of the proposed committee to encompass the above weaknesses, the spirit and purpose of our review will not be served. A valuable starting point would be to task the College of Defence Management to produce classified management case studies on the main battle tank, the light combat aircraft and the Trishul missile projects. These studies can form the basis of the ‘terms of reference’ for the proposed committee. The committee will then have its work cut out.