India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) is finally making progress with many homegrown projects. Often on the receiving end of time and cost overruns, DRDO has been kept on its toes by the Indian media, audit agencies, experts and the armed forces. Amidst all the brickbats and occasional bouquets, DRDO held firm, and slowly the products started gaining acceptance by India’s armed forces. India’s industries also came of age and showed increasing confidence in partnering with DRDO.

At the helm of DRDO’s affairs is India’s leading missile scientist, Dr. V.K. Saraswat, who is also the scientific advisor to India’s defense minister. “I am for international collaboration and don’t believe in 100% indigenous development, which is not possible in the current scenario. I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel. Development has to be collaborative,” Saraswat tells Anantha Krishnan M., Aviation Week’s Senior Aerospace and Defense Correspondent (India), in a one-on-one interview for the India Thought Leaders (ITL) series.

AW: DRDO’s journey in the last two decades has been very bumpy. Though it delivered some very critical systems and missiles, it still didn’t win many hearts in the country. The scene seems to be changing now and there’s a sense of transformation within the organization, mainly due to the Indian armed forces showing some confidence in your systems. What’s your take on the journey so far and the road ahead?

V.K.S.: We have been working on major multiple programs for a long time. Unfortunately, some time on the line, there was a certain amount of lack of confidence in our activities as far as the user was concerned. This percolated down the line into our system too. And the focus needed to complete programs like tanks, missiles, torpedoes and aircraft slowly started dipping. We were at the last 20% completion phase of various projects. This phase needs more time than what the initial 80% took and needed extra focus. This was the period, maybe for close to two decades until around 2005, [when] we found that the output was very fluctuating. This became a major sore point as the country and armed forces were concerned. The users thought we were not delivering. Actually, we were delivering, but never got the recognition. Then there was another thought spreading that DRDO was venturing into too many things. This was a very suicidal thought. I believe that while old programs will continue, we must take up new programs and develop related technologies for the same.

Hence, we decided to channelize all our energies toward the critical 20% of the phase in the last two years. We started initiating all programs in the maturity phase of [the] taking-off stage, including the Rustom UAV, long-range surface-to-air missiles, short-range surface-to-air missiles, medium-range surface-to-air missiles, Tejas Mk-II, Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle. By the time Tejas gets into the final operational clearance phase, we will launch all these programs, including futuristic main battle tank, next-generation torpedoes, new variant of Agni missile and an integrated EW system. The readiness to take off for all these programs will happen in the next one year. Once you start consolidating on this mode, you will find something or the other will meet the user requirement. When you do parallel processes, then you will be able to generate a continuous outflow which will fill almost all the gaps.  

AW: Do you think the production agencies in India are geared up to take much of the work and deliver the same on time?

V.K.S: It is a major cause of concern for us how to integrate the fruits of our work through production agencies. Since we are a developing country and our needs are not definitely in large numbers, we will have to do the production in phases. The country can’t afford systems and missiles in very large numbers, so we are not setting up mass-scale facilities. We will have to live with the current production facilities, which need to gear up to take the challenging task. Take the case of Tejas. The limited series production platforms (eight) are almost over, and the parallel work has to begin for the series production. We need a real lean manufacturing system in place to deliver the first lot of 20 Tejas on time in required quality and quantity. And then there’s an additional order of another 20 to execute. My assessment is that there should be much more effort from the production agencies to take the Tejas program forward.

AW: So there is a concern about Tejas deliveries?

V.K.S.: Yes. There’s a concern and at all forums we have expressed this. But now what we are doing is working with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) and its production centers. Whatever is required for the development activities, we have told them to keep it in the present form. And what is required for the production of Tejas, a lean manufacturing process should be in place. We must have good supply chain lines, good contractors (tier I, II) and state-of-the-art tooling systems. We should have excellent methods of contracting, monitoring, evaluating and integrating every work. While we have some of these in patches, HAL needs to consolidate all this into a great process. Some lessons are also coming from Sukhoi MKI production in Nasik, but there’s lot more required.

An efficient production method has yet to be put in place by HAL as far as LCA is concerned. Again, the configuration for the 20 will be different from the next 20. It is not like a repetitive production. Remember, India is manufacturing an indigenous fighter for the first time which is been designed and developed in the country. We have to still learn many things on real-time product improvement, based on the feedback from the user. As of now, it is not a production line which is well-oiled. We are talking to HAL and they have agreed to do their best. Only time will tell how much we were able to implement.

AW: Moving on, what’s the latest on the missile front?

V.K.S.: India today has done exceedingly well as far as missiles are concerned, ever since we consolidated the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program in 1982. This has led to India having tactical missiles, semi-tactical missiles and strategic missiles. We have missiles for virtually every platform. But missing from the kitty is a subsonic missile. The focus of DRDO in the next five years will be to build a subsonic cruise missile for multi-platforms. The work has already begun. Now we are focussing on major building blocks for the missile, which means engines. You will see a couple of jet engines being designed for missiles. We will begin work on loitering missiles. Track the target through a satellite and then launch the missile.

Precision-guided munitions, called PMGs, is another area we are focusing on. Today we are looking at launching multiple sub munitions from a low-cost rocket or a missile, which can be guided against each target. In three years time we will have some PGMs integrated with some of our missiles. This we are also planning for rockets.

AW: What are the new areas you have targeted in the coming years?

V.K.S.: The most neglected area is gun development, and we have already started work in this area. We don’t know why we have not necessitated any program in the country in this direction.

We are also looking at the future main battle tank (FMBT). We want to develop even the engine in India and have launched a national program involving private industries, academic institutions and DRDO. We don’t hesitate to have any international collaboration.

AW: Is the international collaboration only for FMBT engines or for other programs too?

V.K.S.: I am for collaborations. The whole idea is to accelerate our pace of development and avoid reinventing the wheel. I personally don’t believe in the 100% indigenous philosophy, which is the most impractical one. Today, if anyone wants complete homegrown products in critical areas, it is because of the lack of [understanding] of the dynamics of the market and a lack of understanding of what is global competitiveness. We should opt for realizing a technology with minimum cost and maximum efficiency. Low volume and large infrastructure cost-related systems should be made indigenous only under these conditions: a) they are totally denied to you; b) they are strategic in nature; c) the country cannot afford not to have it. Even our defense minister is very clear about it. He says we should have a majority of Indian elements in every homegrown program. If we are able to have 60-70% of indigenous content, then we are doing a great job.

AW: Finally, how is the DRDO revamp taking shape?

V.K.S.: We are making good progress. We are implementing 20 to 30% of the Rama Rao Committee recommendations on DRDO’s makeover. We have made some modifications. The papers for the Defense Technology Commission are getting ready. The complete decision-taking process has been decentralized, with lab directors being given more powers. With powers, the accountability has also increased. Delivery will be the watchword for DRDO’s progress.