Dr S Christopher
Secretary, Department of Defence R&D, Chairman, DRDO
We are currently working on projects that are comparable to international standards and welcome new initiatives like ‘Make in India’, that will only help improve our work, says Christopher.
The secretary of Department of Defence R&D and chairman of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Dr S Christopher, talks to Biz@India about new initiatives and programmes while detailing the successes of current projects. He also, with the help of some examples, swats away criticism faced by DRDO.
How does DRDO see its role evolving in view of the government’s ‘Make in India’ programme? As private sector companies get into defence manufacturing, do you see this as an opportunity or a threat?
From the DRDO’s perspective, I will say ‘Make in India’ programme of the Government of India (GoI) is an opportunity. In a nutshell, it is a wonderful thing that should have happened earlier so we welcome it. Let’s assume what ‘Make in India’ can do. One, it can bring in foreign designs to be manufactured in the country. And two, Indian designs by any Research and Development (R&D) establishment, including DRDO, will also be manufactured in the country. Both cases are ‘Make in India’.
The first one, where the designs come in from outside, maybe that’s the scenario you might think is a threat to DRDO. However, let us look at the positive side and assess what benefits that can bring. It can bring in specialised equipment for manufacturing, along with a good amount of trained manpower. It can also bring in an entirely different work culture, new learning and new techniques. Probably, it can teach us some cost-cutting processes and maybe even checkpoints to avoid time overrun can be learned. Manufacturing ethics will be taught and new standards may be evolved. Overall a new modern manufacturing ecosystem will be created.
Today for DRDO design, we are also longing for such a modern and new manufacturing ecosystem. We can always use this as and when it is available to us. So, the new culture and new manufacturing will provide a huge paradigm shift as far as DRDO design is concerned. So, I look at it very positively and welcome this move.
Are you also seeking joint ventures with overseas defence manufacturers as part of design development and ‘Make in India’?
We have in the past had some joint ventures, like for instance, BrahMos, which is owned jointly between DRDO and Russian agency. We have 50.5 pc shares while Russia has 49.5 pc shares. We produce a supersonic cruise missile through this joint venture and it is the best of its kind in the world. We are also looking at a long term possible export to the mutually acceptable countries. As far as other systems are concerned, for instance, medium-range surface-to-air missile (MRSAM), we are conducting joint development (not joint venture) with the Israelis to produce a joint product. Otherwise, presently we do not have any immediate future plans for any such joint venture.
One of the basic criticisms of DRDO has been around the cost and time overruns of most of its programmes. What steps has DRDO taken to control this?
To answer the first part of your question, there were reasons for this. In the past, DRDO has faced unexpected technology denial regime, we took it as an opportunity and strived hard to develop many complex cutting-edge denied technologies. Sometime the requirements change during the course of development of a project. Consequently, in order to accommodate the additional requirements, delays occur. Hence, we are pushing spiral model for development, wherein new requirements are incorporated in the second or third version, rather than delaying the entire programme. In both measures I am sure, we are likely to control both time and cost.
But I would like to give an example, like for instance in case of Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AEW&CS), which is designed and developed by one of the laboratories of DRDO, Centre for Air Borne Systems (CABS) in Bengaluru – it has taken about USD 110 million for the entire design and development of each unit of that particular AEW&CS or should I say mini AEW&CS.
It has been designed and developed to look like and feel like the bigger AEW&CS in terms of all the functionalities and it is at par with any other international system. In fact, when compared with the Erieye, some of the features this system has are better, like air-to-air refuelling, which isn’t available in other AEW&CS like Erieye, which cost approximately USD 243 million. This is almost double the cost, though we have included development cost, which is also another point to be remembered. Thus, it isn’t necessarily true that all the time the cost is in absolute sense more. Probably initially when we started, we might have asked for lesser funds.
Continuing with the same example, we asked for approximately USD 100 million for each aircraft. In USD 100 million we were supposed to make three systems, but when we completed it, it cost USD 110 million. Even that in absolute sense with respect to the international rate is only half the cost. You must understand we didn’t even take any additional cost for development so the cost is not necessarily more.
Is there adequate collaboration between the users of the defence material (the armed forces) and the developers and manufacturers?
Instead of collaboration, I’ll say cooperation. The designs take the lead as far as the programme or the project is concerned. Of course, user is always with us side-by-side. In major programmes, we call a small group of users as the Project Management Team (PMT). They are co-located with the design team and they discuss and provide necessary inputs on a daily basis. They also participate in testing and evaluation at each stage so that the final product is of their need.
Likewise, manufacturers sometimes as concurrent engineering are also identified right in the beginning so as to take into account the capability of manufacturing so that the design can adapt itself to suit the manufacturing methods. But procedurally, occasionally we get blocked from talking to the manufacturer right at the beginning. So, we are looking for means to overcome these hurdles.
When we do that I am sure we’ll have the manufacturer right from day one. There have been instances where we have identified appropriate manufacturers right at the beginning, due to previous knowledge about them, and in those cases, we have all the three cooperating with each other right from day one.
Towards the end of the product, yes there will be some issues not realised earlier by either of the three. These are occasions where testing methodologies take time. Otherwise, I will say, cooperation among all three is always there.
In what aspects of defence manufacturing do you believe DRDO is best placed to compete with the best in the world?
Are you getting adequate budgetary and administrative support to stay on top of the game? I believe instead of manufacturing you are asking about the DRDO designed products. I strongly believe that DRDO products are competitive, when compared to international products, both in the quality for the given time and cost, and the infrastructure available.
I have already given examples of AEW&CS, which are recently designed and developed and got inducted in services. I also brought out cost comparisons and pointed out the enhanced features of our products.
As regards the budget and administrative provision – budget can always be increased but at this point of time it is adequate. In addition to our budget, we also get funds from the users when user usable projects are delivered, for example, in the case of AEW&CS India, which we are planning to design and develop on Airbus 330, right from the first day user funded up to the extent of 80 pc of the project. Likewise, in the case of maritime multi mission aircraft, which is designed and developed for Coast Guard on Airbus C295, aircraft is being funded by the Coast Guard to the extent of 90 pc. So, you can understand that we do get funds, not only R&D fund directly from GoI but also from users. Thereby our budget is not at all deficient.
What are the focus areas for DRDO and your star programmes for the period 2017-2024?
My vision is that India will become a major exporter of defence products during this time period and DRDO shall transform into self sustained, profit making enterprise of GoI. My immediate concern will be induction of Astra missile system, which is in the final stages. We had gone through several trials and most of them are meeting all requirements. We are trying to cover entire envelope before we get ready to launch.
Followed by that we are also trying to mount programme for indigenous missile development meeting several other requirements of the services. The next would be our Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS), which are already designed and developed jointly with two manufacturers within the country and it has reached the prototype stage. We are trying to manufacture three more pieces of each and it will go through the entire trials and I’m sure we will be able to get it going successfully.
Another important programme includes the Nirbhay trials, which is also in good shape and we are expecting another four to five trials to be completed in the following years. You are aware that we have got an Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) Rustom programme that’s also taken off. The first flight is over. We’re improving the systems in various aspects, once that’s done, then it will be another product in the pipeline.
As regards AEW&CS India, which is a major programme, we are almost in the sanctioned stage. We also have several smaller programmes in life sciences. In the naval systems, we will be making huge sonar systems and weapons.
As Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) integration has begun, what are your plans to further develop the aircraft and its capabilities?
The LCA has been inducted as an Initial Operation Configuration (IOC) in 45th Squadron – Flying Dagger of Indian Air Force and a number of aircraft is rolling out. We have decided to go for the next version wherein we will have an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, as well as the Electronic Support Measure (ESM) system. With these systems, we’ll be completing the design and the manufacturing will start.
In the meantime, we have started weaponising aircraft, so for several systems we have completed trials including Beyond Visual Range missile (BVR) trials, so the present version itself is capable of handling the weapons.
Next version with new radar and other systems will have even more capabilities. In the long term, we are working on twin engine systems. Simultaneously we are working towards our engine programmes as well.
What would DRDO like to showcase at Paris Air Show 2017?
Unfortunately, we missed the bus in terms of Paris Show this year. We will not be able to show anything this time. We have showcased in the past our products like LCA and AEW&CS in the Bahrain International Airshow (BIAS). We will target for the next Paris Air Show and will come up and display some good systems.