Defence Industry

Proposed Reforms for DRDO: Debates and the Way Forward
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 16 Mar , 2024


Economic liberalization came in the defence manufacturing sector in 2001, 10 years after India decided to be a free market economy. The policy mosaic included 100% participation of private sector players in defence manufacturing and permitted FDI of 26% from global players. This was in sharp contrast to the socialist policy of 1956 of the then Prime Minister Nehru, in which military manufacturing, space, and atomic energy remained under the exclusive preview of the government. The DRDO was created in 1958 to pursue research in defence R&D and to reduce dependence on imports. From a fledgling setup, in the 80s under the stewardship of Dr Kalam witnessed the Integrated Guided Missile Programme (IGMDP) programme building a comprehensive range of missiles like Agni, Prithvi, Akash, and Naag. With 52 DRDO labs engaged in the design development of small arms, EW systems, tanks, Armed Vehicles, Sonar Systems, Missiles, and Command & Control systems; a team of 5000 scientists areengaged in 900 projects with 25000 support staff with a budget of Rs 23264 Cr in the year 2023-24. The Prototypes developed by DRDO are produced by defence PSUs and ordnance factories. DRDO is the flag bearer of Make in India in military manufacturing. But time and cost overrunsof many of these programmes and the low level of self-reliance achieved have been a recurring concern bedevilling DRDO. Several committees have been engaged to bring out the innards of the problems that ail the DRDO in the past like the Kalam Committee in 1992 and the Ramarao Committee in 2008. The latest committee is of Vijay Raghavan, who retired as a Principal Scientific Advisor, in response to the report of adefence parliamentary committee that 23 out of 55 high mission projects are running behind schedule. This paper aims to provide a pen-sketch of (a) recommendations of the committees in the past, (b) Make in India in Military Manufacturing, (c) the major recommendations of the Vijay Raghavan Committee (2024), and (d) the debates and the Way Forward

Kalam Committee (1992)

This committee with representatives from the three defence services had assessed that based on the equipment which are being built through indigenous design or technology transfer amounted to only 30 %. It set a target to improve the self-reliance quotient to 70% in a decade. It identified critical sub-systems where India has a deficiency of design and development capability, suggested building national facilities and strongly batted for Joint Ventures (JV) with Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) and joint design and development with global design houses. The critical sub-systems where the committee found India to be critically deficient were in the area of readers (AESA), seekers (passive and active), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), smartmunitions, and Aero-engines. The three deficient areas were propulsion, detectors, and weapons. While Missile programslike Prithvi witnessed substantial success, Agni showed promise, and programs like Akash, Trishul, and Naag faltered.Kalam envisaged the Brahmos Program through a joint venture with the Russians. These cruise missiles are possibly the best example of Make in India where export potential is substantial. Kalam also achieved a high modicum of success in the joint design and development of MR-SAM in collaboration with Israel. However, the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) program as a joint design and development production with Russia for developing a stealth aircraft did not succeed.

Rama Rao Committee (2008)

The Ramarao Committee highlighted the importance of greater involvement of the services in the programs being untaken by the DRDO to cut down on time and cost uncertainties. It also proposed a major structural change by suggesting that the research and development organizationshould function under the production organisation so that there is complete synergy between design and development and seamless technology transfer and there is single point accountability. It was particularly anguished by the delay in the development of the Kaveri Engine for the LCA aircraft because of the lack of synergy between the DRDO, ADA and HAL. While the government tried to ensure that greater service involvement is there in the DRDO programs, its suggestion to bring DRDO under defence production was stoutly resisted by the DRDO. Besides, the Ramaraocommittee’s recommendation to create a board of research for advanced defence science like the   Defence Advanced Research Programme Agency (DARPA) model of the USA was not accepted. It would be in the fitness of things to mention that the Kelkar committee in 2005 had suggested a public-private partnership and a level playing field between captive defence PSU and the private sector players, and the government had warmed up to the idea.

Make in India in Military Manufacturing

The Make in India campaign by Mr. Modi has defence manufacturing as a major subset where the government wants to improve its indigenization footprint, given the fact that India is the largest importer of conventional arms. This has come close on the heels of the strategic partnership model suggested by the Dhirendra Singh committee (2015) so thatthe monopoly of the defence PSUs is busted. As a policy, the government has foreclosed imports up to Rs 500 crores which is now being offloaded to indigenous players. It also introduced a major reform in the major ordinance factory setup by converting them to the public sector so they have greater autonomy and adhere to the quality, time, and cost requirements of the services. The SMEs are being encouraged as also the start-ups.

The Vijay Raghavan Committee

The Vijay Raghavan Committee has suggested that the focus of DRDO should be on high-end futuristic technology by associating academic institutions and start-ups and greater private sector participation. It suggests a major structural change where the DRDO will come under the PMO, as is the case with atomic energy and space. The PMO would be supported by a defence technology council (DTC) where the RM, and NSA, two from the field of academics and two from the industry will be members. This committee will decide on suitable players for specific defence technology. The DTC will be assisted by an empowered committee with the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and principal scientific advisor (PSA). The committee has also recommended the creation of a new Department of Defence Science Technology and Innovation to promote defence R&D in academia and bolster the start-up ecosystem. Most importantly, the DRDO’s role would be limited to research and development and not the development of prototype and technology demonstrators. The committee has also suggested that five national test centres should be set up where private players are also allowed to test their systems. It suggests that deep technologies like AI, Machine Learning,and Robotics should be promoted.

Quite clearly the report suggests that SA to RM should be a fringe player in defence R&D and the private sector under the watch of the PMO, CDS, and NSA would drive the design, development, and production of major weapons, systems, and platforms. The committee has concluded that 60% of the delays in DRDO is due to internal issues and the absence of required technology, while around 18% are due to the armed forces changing their qualitative requirements frequently.

The Debates

The major resistance to the proposed reforms in DRDO is the suggestion to place the DRDO under the PM as in the case of atomic energy and space. The insiders feel that unlike the closed system in ISRO and DAE where both design development and production are taken up by them, in the case of DRDO the prototypes are built by the DRDO but produced either by the Defence PSUs or ordinance factories. Besides the suggestion that DRDO should disentangle from the development of prototypes and technology and concentrate onbasic research and development goes against the general drift of the DRDO for applied technology. Nearly 80% of the DRDO budget is spent on prototype development, with the balance spent on basic research.    Be it the Missile program, LCA, Main battle tank, LCA or EW systems, prototype development, and technology transfer have been DRDO’sbread and butter.

Many observers believe that the Vijay Raghavan committee is heavily influenced by the DARPA model of the USA which was set in 1958. This organization is responsible for the development of emerging technology for use by the military.  To its credit, it has developed the PC, the internet, stealthtechnology, GPS, Drones, and Weather Satellites and lately, the COVID-19 Vaccine. DARPA functions with a very small component of scientists and contracts out core functions to universities, industries, and government R&D institutions. Unlike the DRDO where close to Rs 23264 crores areinvested by the government, the US government does not make any allocation to DARPA for developing emerging defence technology.

The Way Forward

It would be seen from the foregoing that any attempt to replicate the DARPA model would be far-fetched and illusionary. The suggestion to involve the private sector and academia in a bigger way is most welcome, as the present DRDO structure is highly bureaucratic and tries to protect its inherent inefficiencies. The suggestions to put DRDO under the PMO should be seriously considered as it will provide the PM with a closer look at the emerging defence technologies, the capability of adversaries, and the need to improve our indigenous military industry capability. In any case, our missile program is very closely linked to the Department of Space and the Department of Atomic Energy and they should form the trinity under the PMO. The Vijay RaghavanCommittee must be complimented for suggesting this fundamental change in the organizational structure.

It must be remembered that DRDO’s pursuit of niche technology is seriously hamstrung by our lack of investment in R&D, poor academic foundation in our universities and IITs, and denial regime for critical technologies. Except for IIT Kharagpur which has a Centre for Naval Design Technology we do not have a single university where specialized defence technology is being pursued as a career by the students. The Subramaniam Committee in 1964 after the Chinese debacle had rightly observed that India couldn’tsuccessfully design and develop a Gas Turbine Engine as its academic institutions didn’t have the necessary academic wherewithal. It had rightly suggested that we should go for technological collaboration with global engine houses instead of making grandiose claims to develop gas turbine engines indigenously. The failed Kaveri engine program is a testimony to the prescience of the Subramaniam Committee.

The critical technologies thumbnailed by Kalam Committteein 1992 still elude DRDO in a substantial measure. He had rightly suggested that the way forward for India is to go for JV’s with foreign OEMs where both private sector players and India’s DPSUs can be collaborators. He was also prescient that given our inadequate design capabilities in niche technologies, we need to have joint design and development collaboration with reputed global design houses. A truly knowledge economy believes in producing out of indigenous design.  Sadly, the Make in India campaign is not fostering that process but trying to protect indigenous manufacturersfrom potential competition from superior foreign suppliers by building a tariff wall. Instead of bolstering free trade and globalization, India is turning the clock back on globalizationby protecting indigenous players from global competition. Be it DPSUs or DRDO, India’s biggest lament is that instead of improving value addition or indigenous design capability, they have become integrators of subsystems. This is where China has stolen a march over us in terms of its global value chain addition. This lack of design and development capability in critical technology can be surmounted by establishing appropriate design institutes and investing in IITs and important academic institutions and design and development collaboration with reputed global design houses. We need to up our antennae on R&D investment of only 0.8% of GDP to at least 3%, which most developed countries do. Besides, close to 80% of R&D funding is done in India by the government, while the private players invest substantially in countries like the USA and France. The earlier we put in place Kalam’s vision of self-reliance through JVs and Design and Development (D&D) collaboration, the DRDO will never spring on its heels and pave the way for higher self-reliance and a credible Make in India in military manufacturing.  


English Releases. (2005, April 5).; Ministry of Defence.

English Releases. (2010, May 13).; Ministry of Defence.

Kalam, A. P. J. A., & Rajan, Y. S. (2002). India 2020: A vision for the new millennium. Penguin Books India

Raghvan, V. (2024). Vijayaraghavan Committee on DRDO Revamp. Ministry of Defence.

Singh, D. (2015). Committee of Experts for Amendment to DPP-2013 Including formulation of policy framework. Ministry of Defence.

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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

Prof (Dr) SN Misra

was previously Joint Secretary (Aerospace), Ministry of Defence, Government of India.

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