Defence Industry

Defence Research : India's Achilles Heel
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Issue Vol 25.3 Jul-Sep 2010 | Date : 06 Oct , 2010

While India seems well set on the path of becoming an economic power house, this castle is being built on shifting sand. India remains vulnerable as ever to the rouge nations in our neighbourhood and manipulating super powers (both existing and aspiring). India displays its utter dependence on matters of defence on borrowed plumes on the occasion of every Republic Day parade on 26th January.

Bulk of the equipment on display is of foreign origin. In matters of developing new weapons India has fallen behind countries like Brazil, South Africa and of course China, her regional rival and competitor. Even if one is to discount Pakistan with its screw-driver technology, even a tin-pot dictatorship regime like North Korea has bettered us in missile development.

DRDO-UCAVIt is indeed wrong to think of defence research in isolation from the general problems associated with scientific research in India. In fact one of the causes of defence research lagging behind is this artificial divide between general research and defence research. The high walls and fences surrounding all Indian establishments are more than symbolic of this lack of interaction and connectivity between the two fields. The lack of connectivity between universities and research lab is another example. India may not be an island nation, but its scientific establishments surely are! It was indeed sad to hear the Defence Minister of India say that he intends to give priority to ‘indigenisation’, if this is the aim of a rising economic power in 21st century, then even God cannot save us.In India, defence research has come to mean ‘reverse engineering’ — dismantling an imported product and then copying it. Great emphasis was also paid to ‘import substitution’ or indigenisation of components of imported products. In addition, most of the emphasis has been on licensed production and transfer of technology. All this gave an illusion of scientific prowess. This approach ensured that there is no incentive to creativity. This killed the initiative of scientists to create anything new.

A soldier by the very nature of his profession is conservative when it comes to new technology. Even a great leader like Napoleon rejected steam ships and submarines “¦

The syndrome can best be understood when we see the spectacle of Indian factories year after year churning out MiGs, SS 11 B-1 wire guided anti-tank missiles and small arms that use technology that is 40 years old. License agreements prohibit any innovations and improvements. So when a newer Sukhoi-30 or MiG-29 or homing anti-tank missile comes on the horizon, we again import the technology and begin ‘license’ production. After all this we blame the aeronautical and other engineers from our IITs for being unpatriotic and migrating to the developed world!

To compound the above follies, we then created public sector monopolies and banned all private industry from so-called ‘strategic’ sectors like aviation or arms production. There has been some improvement of late but it is still a case of too little and too late.

The final folly was to make the armed forces the ultimate arbiters of defence technology. A soldier by the very nature of his profession is conservative when it comes to new technology. Even a great leader like Napoleon rejected steam ships and submarines when presented to him by the American Robert Fulton. The Emperor did not believe that ships without sails were possible. British historians credit the survival of their country against the threat of Napoleonic France to this short-sightedness.

The centralised, bureaucratic DRDO that lacks accountability then completes the circle.

There are three facets of the problem faced by the defence research in India. First is the peculiar civilisational apathy and mindset that is unique to India, second is structural and organisational weaknesses and third is political vested interests and corruption.

All nations and civilisations have a peace constituency, but nowhere is it as dominant as in India. The Sanskrit saying Yato Dharma, Tato Jaya (If we are righteous, then victory will be ours) best sums up the Indian thought.

Civilisational Flaws

Indian civilisation is essentially pacifist in nature. This is despite the fact that the essence of ancient Indian philosophy is the Bhagvat Gita, that has the Kurukshetra War of Mahabharata as a backdrop. Two factors seem to have contributed to this, one was that since most wars were internal conflicts, the Sages strived to keep the wars limited to armies and second was the influence of Buddhism/Jainism in later periods of Indian history.

All nations and civilisations have a peace constituency, but nowhere is it as dominant as in India. The Sanskrit saying Yato Dharma, Tato Jaya (If we are righteous, then victory will be ours) best sums up the Indian thought.

Warfare soon degenerated to righteous methods- Dharma Yudha, thus leading to stagnation in means (weapons), tactics and strategy. This worked well as long as the clash was within the subcontinent, but when faced with outside adversary armed with better weapons and intent on total war, and not war as contest of valour, the Indians had no answer. But the mindset is so deep rooted that even in the 21st century these notions continue to hamstrung realism while dealing with security threats.

Average Indians would want even their armed forces to be non-violent and somehow defend the country without bloodshed, wanting to eat an omelette without breaking eggs so to speak.


This mindset also heavily influences the scientific talent and institutions in India whereby any research linked to defence is both looked down upon and actively discouraged.

Historically, India was at the apex during the agricultural epoch of the history of mankind. Since having reached the very top of agricultural economy, whole attention was towards perfection of existing technology and skills. Is it any wonder that weapons like swords, bows and arrows, mace and spear, seen in the Mahabharata era around 1500 BC, were also the mainstay of armies of Shivaji in 17th century- a period of 3000 years.

Thus there was no incentive to be inventive and all benefits and profits were seen in refinement of existing skills. In no small measure, this gave rise to birth based ‘caste’ system where son followed the profession of his father. It was practical. There were several exceptions and peoples changed their professions but the norm was to follow traditional way of life. Most of India’s so called castes are actually professions- carpenter, barber, blacksmith, goldsmith, doctors, farmer et al. The disastrous result of this feudal approach was that war was seen to be an activity exclusive to warrior caste, with the rest of the society being a bystander.1 Despite its huge population, in all its major wars fought, the Indian armies were generally numerically inferior to the invaders. The only exception to this rule was the wars fought by the Marathas and the Sikhs, where there was mass mobilisation. Feudal Europe was in similar state before the Napoleonic concept of ‘nation in arms’ revolutionised warfare. Europe changed but India continued on its earlier path.

The social stagnation and Brahmanism where the intellectuals or soldiers became hereditary also created a gulf between the artisans and theoreticians. This phenomenon is common to many Asian civilisations. It is this separation of thinking from skills that led to technological stagnation and India missed the industrial revolution. In the Indian context at least, this baneful aspect of Brahmanism, ie disdain for manual work or dirtying one’s hand, continues. The delinking of shop floor workers and scientists/engineers is no where as pronounced as in India.

The result of this weakness of agricultural civilisation was that it was regularly overwhelmed by Pastoral People with the same weapons as they were hardier. It is a historical truth that produced its own effects in further weakening of the country. For instance the Jazil (a large calibre musket) and war rockets2 were in use by the Indians as early as the 18th century and could have possibly turned the tide against the British, but there was very little attempt to improve these. No effort was made to build bigger rockets or tie several together for greater effect. Launching rockets using iron tubes could have similarly made them accurate- but there is absolutely no evidence of Marathas or Tipu Sultan having tried these improvements/innovations.

The technologically innocent staffs at the service headquarters consult glossy foreign magazines, look at the adversary nations armaments and formulate requirements “¦

In more than one sense this Indian philosophical and civilisational weakness is the mother norms of all root causes that plague Indian advances in defence technology. This in turn explains the rational behind the other two weaknesses ie organisational and political and therefore needs a clear understanding.

Dr Sri Nandan Prasad, who has spent a life time in study of military history has put it succinctly that the most potent and deep acting source of military weakness are the Indian ethos itself.

“Rooted in an attitude of anti-predatory universalism (Vausdheva Kutumbakam or mother earths family that includes all living beings), contemplative passivity and inherent moderation, the Indian psych presents almost an antithesis to total war.”

He compares various battles between Indians and foreign invaders and between two Indian rulers and concludes that while the former were total war the later were continuance of politics and diplomacy with an odd day or two of violence, almost as an interlude.

Indians are yet to understand the true nature of international politics/threats.

“The Indian achieved universalism and transcendental cognition thousands of years before the world was ready for it: the Indian has paid the price for thousands of years. He has lost battles but may win the war, unless the war ends in a nuclear holocaust.”3

“¦ the armed forces have been sacrificing lives to conserve equipment. Lives are cheap, equipment costly and unavailable.

Organisation and Structural Impediments

In 1947 immediately after independence India went about building institutions of learning in field of science and technology. The Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) made a name for themselves as many of its alumni went abroad and made major inventions/discoveries. Research laboratories were set up to deal with each branch of science. These were created in splendid isolation from existing universities and had no linkages with students, teaching or industry. It was a sort of bureaucratic job of doing science ‘10 to 5’ on daily basis. Advancement was based on seniority with very little accountability. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), was set up on the lines of these national laboratories with an added clause that since they were to do ‘defence research’ all their activities were cloaked in secrecy with not even modicum of accountability.

The recruitment of personnel to man these institutions followed a similar bureaucratic norm. With low wages (compared to private sector or abroad) and stagnant promotions based on seniority, the DRDO never really attracted talent. The talented graduates of the IITs voted with their feet and migrated to the West. In any case there was very little cross fertilisation and co-operation between these institutes and defence research.

dhanushEssentially like in economic development, India adopted a Soviet style ‘Command’ model for scientific activities including defence. To compound the folly, India also created a separate defence industry in state sector, in isolation from other industries. This was in addition to earlier existing Ordinance factories that manufactured arms and ammunition. In short India created a model of state monopolies from research to development and manufacture. Like all such monopolies, it was an inefficient model that consumed resources but produced very little out put. The armed forces, the sole consumers, were out of loop for decision making, administration or accountability. DRDO is an independent empire. The DRDO activities fitted the classical Parkinson Laws on bureaucracies where the work expanded to suit the time available.

The typical decision making loop went about something like this,

  • The armed forces made threat assessments based on inputs from external affairs ministry, intelligence agencies and its own assessments.
  • Based on the threat assessments it worked out the kind of force levels and equipment that is needed to counter these threats.
  • These demands were then placed to the political head for considerations.

The DRDO came into picture at this stage and would be charged with fulfilling the needs. To justify its existence and get budgetary support, the DRDO often made tall promises and accepted impossible qualitative requirements and deadlines. In reality the process works in even more bizarre fashion. The technologically innocent staffs at the service headquarters consult glossy foreign magazines, look at the adversary nation’s armaments and formulate requirements that would give us a superior system. Thus the so called qualitative requirements often ended up with marrying the Russian ruggedness with Western sophistication and would demand a system that defies laws of science.

The inability of the DRDO to deliver is virtually preordained and leads to the demand by the forces for imports. It is easy to criticise the forces for their inability to promote and encourage indigenous research and development and opt for imported systems. But it must be remembered that the job of the armed forces is to defend the country and not promote indigenous research. Generally a compromise is worked out that sanctions limited imports to meet minimum needs and simultaneously continue with the DRDO effort. This has had one terrible consequence, forever concerned with shortage of equipment; the armed forces have been sacrificing lives to conserve equipment. Lives are cheap, equipment costly and unavailable.

A slight variation of the above scenario is agreement for licence production or the latest buzz word-offset… ie making some parts of the equipment in India. In all these permutation and combinations, where is research or development?

Vested Interest and Corruption

Some time in early 1970s, as the Indian policies lurched to left, open donation to political parties were banned. But political parties need funds to fight elections and there is no public funding of candidates in India. It is a well observed fact that huge amounts are spent in each elections ye the source of these funds remain a mystery. The defence deals are ideal for kickbacks and fundraising since the amount involved are huge, in billions of dollars and the transaction can be kept hidden from public on grounds of security. It is reported that Indians hold the largest deposits in Swiss banks estimated to be in excess of $ 800 billion or more. It may well turn out that the largest chunk of these funds are defence kickbacks and are possibly held by political operators. The reluctance of the govt of India to make any serious efforts to either track down these funds or get them repatriated, tells its own story.

The vested interest in import of defence equipment makes sure that there is little incentive to reform the system of defence research and development since that would undercut a major source of political finance. Thus the vicious cycle of dependency continues. In this game there appears to be a consensus amongst the political parties across the divide for no serious effort was made to reform the system even when the current opposition party was in power.

The politician can get away with this crime since as mentioned earlier that the common man is least interested in matters of defence except in times of war. The politicians also believe that it is a risk free approach since many of them are pacifists who abhor war and conflict. In fact the general atmosphere in the country is such that it is easy to hoodwink people and pass of inefficiency in defence as desire for peace. George Washington’s famous saying that if you want peace be prepared for war, has not many takers in Gandhi’s India.

The research component of the DRDO should be separated and attached to various and IITs and its newer avatars. This will help to fulfill the original conception of the IITs as MIT (of the USA) like powerhouse of generating technology and not graduate producing factories “¦

In 1991, India abandoned the earlier ‘licence permit raj’ and embraced major economic reforms that brought in private sector in to main-stream and encouraged competition. India reaped the fruits of this development and its economy has been consistently growing at 6 to 7 percent per annum, nearly double of the earlier much derided ‘Hindu Rate of Growth of 3.5 percent’. Yet it would be fair to say that these winds of change have hardly been felt in the defence sector. If one is to be reminded that close to 40 percent of national budget is devoted to defence, this inaction is strange to say the least. This again reinforces the point that vested political, bureaucratic and corrupt interests have kept the defence sector from much needed reforms. Given the perilous security situation that India finds itself in today, surrounded by failed states and object of machinations by a rising super power, this inaction could well cause us to lose our freedom, again.

An Action Plan

The picture painted in this article may well appear to be excessively gloomy, but the situation is indeed ripe for major change and leap to revolutionise our age old weakness. We are fortunate to have a squeaky clean Defence Minister, our private sector has come of age, we have a world class IT industry and a skilled manpower that has shown our prowess in making world class products at the lowest cost.

But to reap the benefits of our assets there has to be clear understanding of role of innovation, research and development. The three are distinctly different functions and one of the major drawbacks of our system has been to centralise them under the DRDO.

Let us take the issue of innovation and incremental improvements in existing products, be they small arms or aircraft or any other platforms. The need is to breakup the DRDO monolith and attach the personnel dealing with say small arms to the production factories. Here they must work in close co-ordination with the shop floor workers and engineers. A direct link must also be established between the manufacturers and users. For instance we introduced (finally) the INSAS (Infantry Small Arms System) that has been under trial since the late 1980s. One is yet to see an improved version of the same even after a decade. This will considerably shorten the time of productionising the newer versions.

The issue of research is more difficult to resolve. Thomas S Kuhn, 4the American philosopher of science in his work on scientific revolution, emphasizes decentralized structures. In India we copied the Soviet model and created vast scientific bureaucracies with hierarchical institutions. It is time research activity is diffused and decentralized to universities and other learning institutes. Only at the level of production process is centralization needed. The research component of the DRDO should be separated and attached to various and IITs and its newer avatars. This will help to fulfill the original conception of the IITs as MIT (of the USA) like powerhouse of generating technology and not graduate producing factories as they have become today.

Research organisations need to be built around project-based contract employees with a bare skeleton permanent staff. Generous funding, constant movement between teaching and research and tax breaks can cater to the financial security of scientists. There is no substitute to enforcing accountability.

Most scientists get just one big idea in their career. Innovators like Thomas Alva Edison are exceptions. When we recruit people for permanent jobs we are in effect carrying on the burden of unproductive individuals for decades. Not just that the individual is unproductive, s/he also blocks the way for new talent, blocks new ideas. Little wonder the permanent staff at our research establishments has turned national and defence laboratories into mortuaries of science.

Research organisations need to be built around project-based contract employees with a bare skeleton permanent staff. Generous funding, constant movement between teaching and research and tax breaks can cater to the financial security of scientists. There is no substitute to enforcing accountability.

Another major positive change that has taken place is that after the nuclear deal with US, India is finally our of the international dog house as far technology is concerned. The private sector has all this while (except some brave exceptions and the nation needs to be grateful to them) shied away from defence field for the fear of being black listed and suffer losses in other business. Since soon this would end, an active private sector participation is to be expected. This will offer the much needed competition to the defence PSUs (Public Sector Undertakings). Many of these industries have excellent facilities and workforce, they should be freed from excessive control and permitted to get into other areas of interest, why can’t they become like the General Electric or Siemens?

A word on rewards for work is appropriate here. In India we have made it a habit creating icons out of science managers rather than genuine scientists. Awards and rewards given under the general term of ‘contribution to progress’ — a most unscientific and vague term — are a norm. Thus, one finds the science mafia perpetuating itself under the guise of ‘eminent scientists.’ We must have a clear-cut criterion of quantifiable and identifiable achievement before any award is given.

An IIT alumni writes,

“Being an IITian myself, I can assure you that IITs are one of the best organisations in terms of intellectual capital but are miles behind in terms of research work. In fact, it is the failure of Indian politics which is the root cause for the brain drain which occurs every day. The best brains from the IITs prefer to go abroad and do research. I think the people in power really need to develop a futuristic vision instead of looking at short term gains of winning some election by providing some reservation. It is a good thing to be proud of Haragobind Khurana, Chandrashekhar and Amartya Sen but what is he more important is to ask ourselves the question: Why did we lose such brilliant personalities? I think we should try to hold on to the talent in India if we are planning to become to one of the economic superpowers.”

There is often a lament that country ‘X’ is not prepared to give you technology. It must be clearly understood that technology transfer is clear two way traffic- unless we have something to give, we will not get anything. A better way to generate new ideas was suggested by this author at a national seminar in IIT Delhi in Oct 2000. The armed forces should invite the final year students on visits to their establishments, experience the life of soldiers (sailors and airmen) and also see the equipment. Let them then carry out their final year projects on some new idea they generate. Given the brilliance of Indian mind, I am sure if implemented we would soon begin to generate cutting edge technology of our own.

Final words on the issue- two recent news items mirror the concerns that have been expressed earlier. A news report of July 5, 2010, quotes that the Indian Armed Forces have issued a global RFI (Request for Information) for procurement of UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles) on the lines of the American Predators5. I wish to share an experience with the readers- it was in 1979 while on a tour of Bangalore from Staff College that we were shown a drone or unarmed aerial vehicle under development- it is now 2010 and even 31 years after it yet to see the light of the day.6

Why can’t the IT majors, small engine manufacturer and ADA, (Aeronautical Development Agency) get together and mass produce the UCAV ? They need not have a range of 100s of Kms, and as a beginning could just have ability to drop grenades or simple bombs!


  1. Irvine William, ‘The Army of Indian Moghals: It’s Organization & Administration’, Luzac & Co, London, 1903. p. 194. Irvine desscribes how the peasants continued to till his land non-challantly, while nearby a momentous battle was being fought that decided the fate of his country. Sadly very little has changed as far this mindset is concerned.
  2. Sen SN, ‘The Military System of the Marathas’ London, 1928. p 133
  3. Rajwade VK (Ed), ‘Sources of Maratha History Vol. II’ Bharat Itihas Sanshodhak Mandal, Pune 1900.
  4. Letter No 192. An account of battle of Panipat by Nana Fadnavis. These are original documents in Marathi.
  5. Prasad SN (Ed), ‘Historical Perspectives of Warfare in India Vol. X Part III’ Introduction, pp 41–42. Project of history of Indian science, Philosophy & Culture, Centre for Studies in Civilization Publication . New Delhi 2002.
  6. Kuhn Thomas S ‘The structure of Scientific Revolution’, University of Chicago, 1970.
  7. The Times of India, July 5, 2010, p. 7, Pune Edition quoting a report datelined New Delhi.
  8. The Times of India, July 6, 2010, p. 8, Pune Edition quoting a report datelined New Delhi. The Tejas LCA (light combat aircraft) is yet to be operational 27 years after the project was launched.
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Anil Athale

former Joint Director War History Division, Min of Defence. Currently co-ordinator of Pune based think tank 'Inpad' that is affiliated with Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.  Also military historian and Kashmir watcher for last 28 years. He has authored book ‘Let the Jhelum Smile Again’ and ‘Nuclear Menace the Satyagraha Approach’ published in 1996, and ‘Quest for Peace: Studies in Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies' as a Chatrapati Shivaji fellow of the USI.

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