Eight systems ‘transferred’ by defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, but DRDO had already handed them over at different periods since 2012.
An elaborate ceremony to ‘hand over’ key technologies by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to the industry at India’s showcase defence show seems to have been an exercise in futility, given that know-how for almost all products had already been shared in the past.
A big event at the ongoing ‘DefExpo’ near Chennai was the transfer of eight technologies to the private and public sector by defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The ceremony Wednesday aligned with the theme of the show that aims to project India as a defence manufacturing hub that is gearing up to even export products.
However, a closer look at the technologies that were officially handed over at the function presents a different picture. Several of the systems named are already being manufactured by the industry after a transfer of technology and the others were “handed over” or inducted at ceremonies in the past.
This is a familiar old story that has afflicted DRDO for decades — a mad rush to showcase “achievements”, even if it means cloaking the fact that most development programmes have undergone massive delays and cost overruns.
Two days before the show, for example, a failed test of the quick reaction surface-to-air missile meant that the armed forces — which had foregone imports to wait for the indigenous version — would have to wait longer for protection against air attacks.
In her speech at the expo, Sitharaman gave the example of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to make the point that India can unlock the military and aerospace manufacturing sector. Despite being the custodian of government-funded defence research in India, DRDO unfortunately has not been able to foster the industrial ecosystem needed to make India a manufacturing hub in the sector.
A detailed look at the futile ceremony of handing over major technologies to the industry this week gives strong clues. Almost every technology has been handed over in the past, some are even being manufactured and are already in service.
Identification of Friend or Foe (IFF): At the ceremony, DRDO handed over this technology, needed to distinguish friendly combatants from the enemy during combat, to three companies – Data Pattern, Alpha Design Ltd and Bharat Electronics Limited.
However, the Indian companies named had been chosen for the project as early as 2012. As this report elaborates, then DRDO chief V.K. Saraswat, who is now a member of the NITI Aayog, presided over the event. Incumbent DRDO chief S. Christopher was also present at the 2012 event when this was announced, as he was at most, if not all, subsequent events.
Sonar Dome: This technology was transferred to Keneco Pvt, Goa, at the ceremony by Sitharaman. Interestingly, the Sonar Dome transfer makes its presence felt at the second consecutive Defence Expo.
In the 2016 edition, the same product was showcased as an example of Make in India. Then defence minister Manohar Parrikar had “flagged off” the first dome in Goa at a formal ceremony.
“Manufacturing technology was successfully transferred to M/s Kineco, Goa, who have now joined a select band of companies worldwide with this capability,” the official release from March 2016 reads.
Heavyweight Torpedo Varunastra: According to DRDO, technology for this torpedo fitted on board ships was transferred to Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL) at DefExpo.
Now, the Varunastra torpedo has already been inducted by the Indian Navy. It has been in production with BDL and is being bought in fairly large numbers, with India even looking to export it to friendly foreign nations.
In June 2016, Parrikar handed over the torpedo to the Navy, even telling DRDO that it should place a team with BDL to sort out any production or technology issues, as this report captures.
ASTRA Missile: Technology for this air-to-air missile was handed over to BDL by the minister Wednesday as well. The new generation missile is designed to replace Russian imports in the future and has been tested extensively.
In August 2017, then defence minister Arun Jaitley inaugurated the manufacturing facility of this missile at BDL’s unit in Bhanur as this report says. This facility would have been commissioned only after technology transfer agreements were in place.
HUMSA – UG Sonar & ABHAY Sonar: Both technologies were listed separately as being handed over to Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) at the DefExpo ceremony.
While Abhay is designed for smaller platforms like patrol vessels, the HUMSA UG is an upgraded version of the in service HUMSA with most Indian Navy platforms.
Again, these two systems were handed over to the Navy at a formal event in the capital in November 2016 by then defence minister Parrikar, as this official press release says.
With DRDO leaving much to be desired, a way forward is to encourage defence research in the private sector – where it makes commercial sense. A good beginning for this is in the new defence production policy that promises a Rs-1,000 crore funding for start-ups that will develop cutting-edge technologies in the defence and aerospace sectors in 2018-22.
The plan is to hold hackathons on specific problem areas and work with the industry to find solutions. Another scheme — Innovation for Defence Excellence (iDeX) — aimed at setting up Defence Innovation Hubs across the country, is also a step in the right direction. Unless defence research moves out to the private sector — sans sensitive strategic technologies – unlocking India’s potential as a military manufacturing hub will remain a distant dream.