Admiral Arun Prakash on DRDO, Obsolesence and Self-Reliance

I reproduce here excerpts from Adm Arun Prakash’s article Planning For Tomorrow’s Navy: The Challenges in Retrospect, written for the December 2006 issue of FORCE magazine on the unique DRDO-Navy symbiosis, DRDO’s shorsightedness, it’s obsession with technology demonstration rather than the urgent needs of the armed forces, and the dangers of standing off self-reliance:

The Challenge of Obsolescence

We were fortunate that the seeds of a self-reliant blue water Navy were sown by our farsighted predecessors when they embarked on the brave venture of undertaking warship construction in India four decades ago. Since then, our shipyards have done very well to have delivered more than 85 ships and submarines, many of Indian design, to the IN.

While the hull and even the propulsion machinery of a warship is meant to last for 2-3 decades, what naval planners dread most is the onset of obsolescence of weapon systems as soon as the ship is launched. This is a very real challenge because a ship may take anything between 6-8 years to construct (in Indian conditions), and since the imported weapons/sensors when nominated for fitment were already in service, they would be 10-15 years (or more) old by the time the ship becomes operational. Thus when the ship completes just half her life, the on-board systems are already over 25 years old and rapidly losing efficacy against contemporary threats.

The latest warship delivered to the navy, INS Beas, is stated to be 85% indigenous in content and this is indeed heartening news. But we must face the stark reality that the remaining 15% consists of weapons, sensors and combat management systems, which define the fighting potential of the ship. These systems not only constitute the most expensive component of a warship, but are also most susceptible to obsolescence and have so far remained beyond the capability of DRDO as well as the Defence PSUs to design or produce.

It is in a desperate effort to beat obsolescence that the Staff Qualitative Requirements (SQRs) are often pitched at levels considered ‘unrealistic’, and then not frozen till as late as possible. This has been termed as the classic struggle between what is termed the ‘good enough’ and the ‘best’.

Dependent as we have been, to a very large extent, on various constituents of the former USSR, our shipbuilding endeavours have remained hostage to their opaque, unresponsive and sluggish system of negotiations, contract and supply. This reliance introduces an element of grave uncertainty into the construction schedules and is the single most common cause for cascading time and cost overruns that we have faced in our recent shipbuilding programmes. While the MoF may well heap scorn on NHQ and MoD for what it considers ‘poor programme management’, they completely overlook the courageous leap of faith that the navy has taken by shunning the easier import option and going down the thorny road of indigenous warship design and construction.

Alleviation of this problem has been engaging the attention of the navy for a considerable period, and certain measures have been evolved to reduce its impact. For one, a hard decision had to be taken that the SQRs should be made more realistic, so as to accept current systems, which are ‘good enough’ to counter extant threats. As a corollary, on the day a unit (ship, submarine or aircraft) enters service, it would be assigned a date for a mid-life update or MLU a decade or more down the road. This period would permit adequate time for the ‘best’ contemporary systems to be developed and made available for the MLU.

The ultimate and the only acceptable solution is, of course, to become self-reliant and design our own systems, and that constitutes the next challenge.

The Hurdles to Self-reliance

If there is one lesson that the Indian armed forces should have learnt during the past few decades, it is about the hazards and pitfalls of depending on foreign sources for defence hardware (which invariably comes with embedded software). The days of ‘friendship prices’ are now well behind us, and no matter what the source, we are paying top dollar for everything that we buy in the ruthless international arms bazaar. We must remain acutely conscious of the fact that every time we contract a weapon system or platform of foreign origin, we compromise a little bit of our security because:

  • We become dependant on a foreign power for yet one more combat system/platform for its complete life cycle.
  • The equipment manufacturer will progressively keep hiking the price of spare parts and overhauls without any rationale or explanation.
  • The availability of product support (including spares) will keep declining, till it begins to affect our combat readiness.
  • Unless adroitly negotiated in advance, the software source codes will be kept out of our reach to hamper in-house repairs.

Apart from all these we have now repeatedly been witness to the disheartening spectacle of overseas defence purchases being used as political boomerangs and bringing the acquisition process to a grinding halt; thereby affecting the combat capability of the armed forces.

The obvious panacea for this serious challenge is to encourage our indigenous R&D as well as industry and to become self-reliant as soon as we can. The navy’s recently established Directorate of Indigenisation has made a good start by focusing on the local production of systems and sub-systems of the Scorpene and the aircraft carrier projects and the response from the industry has been most encouraging. But the path of self-reliance is neither easy nor free of pitfalls, as we have learnt from experience.

Over the years, our DPSUs have been manufacturing many systems under so called ‘technology transfer’ agreements with foreign firms, but these have resulted only in transfer of ‘screwdriver technology’ and the assembly of CKD or SKD kits, with little or no value addition. That is the reason one has rarely heard of a DPSU producing an improved version of a product after paying huge sums for transfer of technology.

At the other end of the spectrum, the DRDO has often struggled for years at great expense to ‘reinvent the wheel’ when technology could have been acquired quickly and more economically from other sources. Time overruns and performance shortfalls in many of our indigenous programmes have led to upsets in our force planning process and created operational voids.

In a recent path-breaking initiative the navy and DRDO have signed a tripartite agreement with Israeli industry for the joint development by Indian and Israeli scientists, and subsequent co-production of a futuristic weapon system for our destroyers of Project-15A. The development cycle of the systems and delivery schedule of the system is planned to coincide so that these front-line ships would be commissioned with a weapon system, which is contemporary, and state-of-the-art worldwide.

An inherent conflict of interest arises from the fact that the DRDO tends to devote much greater resources to technology development and demonstration than to the urgent operational needs of the armed forces. This has often resulted in a mismatch between our critical needs and the priorities of DRDO; driving us towards the import option. There is obviously a need for much better alignment between the aims and objectives of DRDO and the operational missions of the armed forces. In 2004, the navy had drawn up, mainly for the benefit of DRDO, a 20-year Roadmap attempting to forecast the technology requirements that its operational commitments would demand in all three dimensions of maritime warfare. It would be appropriate for the DRDO to take such requirements into account and plan its budget outlay in consultation with the Service HQs.

While the media has recently had a field day lambasting the DRDO (using an equal mix of hyperbole and facts), the navy has traditionally maintained a symbiotic relationship with this organization through the three dedicated ‘Naval’ laboratories to immense mutual benefit. The fact that today the navy deploys DRDO designed sonars, radars, torpedoes, mines, ESM, ECM and communication systems, is ample proof of this. We are also funding and supporting the development of the LCA (Navy). However, we have only scratched the surface of the problem and have considerable ground to cover in the arena of self-reliance.

In this context we need to clearly understand that India’s claim to being a great power or an industrialized nation one day, will ring hollow unless we can acquire the competence to design and build our own ships, submarines, fighters, tanks, missiles and satellites etc. We also need to accept the likelihood that the first attempt at each of these undertakings may be flawed or even a failure. But had we never attempted to produce a fourth generation fly-by-wire fighter, an advanced light helicopter, a main battle tank or an intermediate range ballistic missile (or had we abandoned the projects half-way) it is unlikely that we could have bridged the huge resulting technology gap ever thereafter.

Therefore, a sensible and pragmatic option for the Service HQs today may be to accept the Tejas, Dhruv, Arjun and Agni in their present versions (with certain shortcomings) and dub them ‘Mark I’. Then the Services should demand that the DRDO produces “Mark II” versions of each of these systems and insist that those meet or exceed the SQRs in every respect.

12 thoughts on “Admiral Arun Prakash on DRDO, Obsolesence and Self-Reliance”

  1. Golden words from the Admiral. Just goes about to prove that it is possible to produce quality defense systems locally if the services have the right mindset.
    Kudos to the IN.
    But then I don’t expect this from IA and IAF in the near future.
    There answer for the issues with DRDO is already there,but then the IA & IAF which is blind mentally cannot be expected to implement it.
    And yes the great Indian Media is always there to help IA & IAF’s “always import” cause!

  2. I would be honoured to the utmost, if my post is read by Admiral Arun Prakash.

    His article is extremely ‘mind-blowing’, insightful and which is strengthened by a near unmatched and stupendous literary prowess. Besides of course, it gives civilians like me an glimpse into strategic thought that is present at the highest positions of the armed forces and Indian Navy in particular.

    His forcefully settled viewpoint, that for India to be a military superpower, a robust indigenous arms industry is the only pre-requisite, should become a tenet and must be the cornerstone of defence policy. Foreign nations don’t export weapons to make India a superpower; they do so to only profit. They’ll keep their latest weaponry for their own forces, whereas slightly older hardware is further utilized to generate income by exporting it to developing Banana republics (which I hope India does not become).
    He also rightly mentions that purchase of foreign arms makes India dependent on the foreign country for the entire life-cycle of the hardware, makes India at “mercy” of prices as fixed by that country and also susceptible to sanctions, bad supply of spare-parts etc.

    The ‘leap-of-faith’ as descibed by Admiral Prakash in investing and dedicating resources (in his words) ‘to tread the thorny road’ to indegenize weapons hardware is in my view, deserving of a salute.
    It is this confidence in DRDO that has also kept the morale of DRDO high, besides having given them an opportunity to further their technological frontiers. This is because as long as a system like Arjun is “stuck” in the evaluation “dilly-dallying” only, work cannot be commenced on the next generation of battle-tank technology.

    Admiral Prakash has also very clearly clarified the misconcept that transfer of license production by way of SKD and CKD kits does NOT amount to Transfer of Technology. In my view, he is probably the first chief of any service at any time to have such bold view. He has devised a new and an apt term called “screwdriver technology”, which best describes license production rights and which does not amount to ToT.

    But the most accurate statement and one which I hope that the ever-critical media also registers is, and I quote, “But had we never attempted to produce a fourth generation fly-by-wire fighter, an advanced light helicopter, a main battle tank or an intermediate range ballistic missile (or had we abandoned the projects half-way) it is unlikely that we could have bridged the huge resulting technology gap ever thereafter.

    I cannot elaborate further on these words. Mr. Aroor, I think that the above must be acknowledged by you in its entirety. In your terms, it may be similar to become an editor of a newspaper in a language that you may have just learnt for a few months.

    Mr. Aroor, I may please request you to know from Admiral Prakash that whether it is true that he was in favour of purchase/joint development of a 60Km SAM system from Israel, and whether that was in place of an indigenous proposal of a SAM system from DRDO.

    Thank you.

  3. abhiman, the question is not whether Admiral Prakash backed the DRDL-IAI-Rafael tripartite SAM programme (also called the Barak-II or Barak-NG), but that it happened at all. The 60-km SAM was independent of any indigenous medium range SAM programme (if one even exists). the deal was signed in January 2006 just before DefExpo 2006. as admiral prakash said, it was an ingenious formula. keep the technology on the cutting edge but be flexible on how you get it. this particular development deal has both sides and the assurance of missile technology spin-offs for DRDL which hasn’t yet contributed a single SAM to the Indian arsenal. In fact, a large share of technical manpower from the erstwhile trishul programme has been diverted to the Barak-II programme. and finally, the range is not officially 60-km. i hear it could be as much as 90-km. the trishul programme will now be resurrected by MBDA which will help build the Maitri LLQRM family for the three services with three-beam guidance that DRDO could not rectify.

  4. Abhiman, Admiral Prakash has read your post-comment, and here’s his reply: “Regarding the issue of the 60/90 km SAM. This system will not displace anything the DRDO had to offer. In fact the proposal was approved by MoD only after the DRDO certified that they would stand to gain from infusion of technology in 2-3 key areas.

  5. Shiv,
    DRDO had rectified the issue with three beam tech for the guidance of trishul. Trishul was designed to be a cross service missile. It failed to work as a anti-ASM. It’s three beam guidance was not able handle ASM targets.
    On a later stage I guess DRDO moved on to ABM with “numerous” Trishul test as a smokescreen.

  6. Abhiman, I’d broken the story about the long-range SAM programme when i was with the Express in February last year. I reproduce it here for convenience:

    Shiv Aroor
    NEW DELHI, FEBRUARY 6 In an indisputable sign that Indo-Israeli defence ties have matured, the governments of both countries have signed their first-ever joint weapons development contract to design and produce the Barak-II next-generation air defence missiles for warships.
    After 17 months of complex inter-government negotiations, the deal was concluded on January 27 but kept under wraps for ‘‘political reasons’’, sources said. The Barak-II will be jointly developed by the Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI), the Barak programme’s secondary integrator Rafael and by the Hyderabad-based Defence Research & Development Laboratories (DRDL), with the two countries splitting the approximately $330 million kick-start investment.

    DRDO sources told Express, ‘‘It will be based on the original Barak, but we will work together for longer range, a more refined seeker, a long-range target-tracking system, better downlinking capabilities and possibly a new propulsion system and payload capacity.’’ In a phased manner, the Barak-I and the Barak-II missiles will replace the ageing Russian OSA-M and Volna RZ-31 missiles still in operation on most Indian warships. Navy sources pointed to the inherent advantage of the Barak family’s digital systems over the analog computers that guide the Russian missiles.

    The Navy has expressed its satisfaction with the Barak-I’s performance and has given its full support for the next variant. Israeli efficiency is also a factor as compared to the traditional delays of dealing with the Russians. The joint-development offer was first made by Israel when Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash visited Tel Aviv in July 2004.

    After a meeting of the Joint Working Group on December 24 that year, the Navy was asked to present its case, which culminated in the Cabinet clearing the agreement earlier this year. Nine Indian warships, including INS Viraat and the three Delhi-class destroyers, already have the 10-km range Barak-I system purchased in 2003. The government also cleared the purchase of seven more Barak-I systems two months ago.

    The new variant, to be developed over three years, will be built for a targeting range of at least 50 km. Barak systems are configured to defend warships by automatically intercepting incoming sea-skimming missiles, aircraft and UAVs using a digital radar.

  7. the barak-II is a great idea, and a great business model. this reminds me of something called Project Nirbhay, which was started under VK Aatre of DRDO, which basically envisaged a long-range cruise vehicle, which ultimately got shelved. it has apparently been re-started now. in fact, DRDO has communicated to the MoD that apart from a hypersonic vehicle, it is also working on a long-range cruise vehicle. let’s see what that is! meanwhile, the advanced air defence (AAD) anti-ballistic missile launch is coming up in first week of june. we have to look out for that!!!

  8. That odious jerk is just reproducing whatever has been printed in Force. And selectively copy pasting as usual to push his agenda. Note how he he coolly avoids highlighting what Prakash says about the media witchhunt and tries to push what the Admiral says to further his own agenda. What a shame that we have to suffer such egotistic bombastic fools in the media.

  9. Shiv, why don’t you put up the whole article from Force instead of selecting it for us. Don’t underline stuff you obviously want us pushed down our throat, leave that to our own intelligence. Or are you suggesting we are dumb???

  10. anon, your point well taken. i didn’t use the first half of Admiral Prakash’s piece because it was more historical perspective there. i was in two minds about the italics and underlinings, but you’re right — it definitely is a little condescending. will remove them when i have a spare moment!

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