Progress that We have Made in Defence R&D is Creditable, Says DRDO Chairman

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Dr G. Satheesh Reddy is Chairman, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Secretary, Department of Defence Research and Development (DDR&D), Government of India. Prior to his appointment as DRDO Chairman, he was Scientific Adviser to Defence Minister (SA to RM). From a young navigation scientist and System Manager he rose steadily and after his multiple significant appointments and decades of sustained contributions to Defence R&D, was elevated as Distinguished Scientist in Sep 2014 and was appointed as Scientific Adviser to Defence Minister in May 2015.

He holds the distinction of being inducted as Fellow of Royal Institute of Navigation (FRIN), London, Royal Aeronautical Society, UK (FRAeS) and Foreign Member of the Academy of Navigation & Motion Control, Russia. He is an Honorary Fellow of CSI & Project Management Association of India, Fellow of Indian National Academy of Engineering, IET (UK), Associate Fellow of American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics, US and many other Academies/scientific bodies in the country and abroad. For his distinguished contributions, Dr Satheesh received several prestigious international and national awards

Dr G Satheesh Reddy, Chairman, DRDO in a candid conversation with Ajit K Thakur, Editor, Raksha Anirveda details out on how his organisation has progressed over the years in developing various defence systems and platforms including missiles, how it is working with various stakeholders in achieving India’s self-reliance in defence technology and defence manufacturing. Excerpts:  

RA: DRDO, being a premier defence R&D organisation has dedicated itself towards enhancing self-reliance in defence systems. How does DRDO see its role evolving in this context, its achievement so far and the impact it has made to transform the Indian defence sector?

SR: Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) with its mandate to develop defence systems and products required for Indian Armed Forces has been the torch bearer of indigenous development of cutting edge defence technologies in the country. Technologies developed by DRDO are transferred to Indian Industries along with the relevant ‘know-how’ and handholding support for production.

Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) System

So far, DRDO has made the country self-reliant in defence systems by indigenously developing equipment such as Missiles, Fighter Aircraft, Tanks (Armoured Fighting Vehicles), Multi-barrel Rocket Launcher, Electronic Warfare Systems, Radars, Air Defence System, Naval Systems, Life Support & Survivable Systems and other world class products giving a quantum jump to India’s military might. Some major technological breakthroughs are Main Battle Tank Arjun Mk1 & Mk1A, Tejas LCA, Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar, Sonars for submarines and EW systems, AEW&C and Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS) etc. Recently demonstrated capabilities are ASAT, HSTDV, QRSAM, SMART, HELINA, MPATGM, Quantum Communication etc. are some of the major breakthroughs for the country. DRDO has successfully developed and flight-tested the long-range subsonic cruise missile. LCA Navy programme recorded significant milestone by conducting arrested landing and take-off from INS Vikramaditya.

DRDO is constantly encouraging industry participation through various policies and initiatives to leverage their strengths in production and manufacturing as well as tie-ups with Academia for technologies and applied applications

While developing various technologies and products, DRDO has facilitated development of a large number of private industries, which have become important part of domestic defence industry ecosystem in the country. A number of industry friendly policies have been initiated to support the indigenous development as well as manufacturing, like simplification of procurement procedures, faster execution of ToTs, handholding of industry, removing the royalty etc. The growth of domestic sector will lead to self-reliance, reduction in imports and thus making PM’s dream of Atmanirbhar Bharat a reality. DRDO is partnering with many academic institutes, research and development Startups, and the industry to work on advanced and futuristic technologies to make India self-reliant and transform the Indian defence sector. Several new schemes have been introduced to draw more youth to the defence sector. These include introduction of relevant courses at undergraduate and post-graduate levels, opening of nine centres of excellence for working in directed research for defence technologies and initiation of new schemes to provide paid apprenticeships for the students. 

RA: The indigenous Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) System for submarine after successful tests has reached the stage of maturity for fitment into target vessels. Similarly, the success of indigenous A-SAT missile programme (Mission Shakti), helped India enter the elite club and augment its deterrence capabilities. Both the achievements showcased DRDO’s agility and performance with precision. Kindly elaborate both on AIP and Mission Shakti.

SR: DRDO achieved a major milestone towards Atmanirbhar Bharat with the completion of full load long endurance trial of Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) for submarines of Indian Navy. This helps in enhancing the submerged endurance of the boat several folds. As compared to other types of AIP systems available, fuel cell-based AIP is unique as the hydrogen is generated onboard. It is capable of giving endurance of up to several days compared to a conventional submarine. The AIP technology is likely to make the submarines stealthier and harder to detect underwater as they will not be coming out of water frequently to get the air supply. The development of indigenous fuel cell-based AIP technology will help India move closer to becoming self-reliant in building its own propulsion system for indigenous submarines.

Mission Shakti or the ASAT mission was successfully conducted by DRDO on March 27, 2019 with a new Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) interceptor against a live orbiting satellite in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in a “Hit to Kill” mode. The interceptor missile was a three-stage missile with a “Hit to Kill” capable Kill Vehicle (KV). A low orbit of around 300 Km was chosen for the demonstration in order to avoid the threat of debris. It was technology capability demonstration. With the successful demonstration of ASAT, India has come at par with the elite club of US, Russia and China who possess the Anti-Satellite (A-SAT) Capability.

RA: With the success of LCA programme, India is confidently moving ahead for its next generation Jets- AMCA prototype and Tejas Mk2 (Design and Development). How much time it’s going to take and will it be ready within the specified timeline?

SR: The success of LCA programme is a collaborative effort, where Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), Bengaluru, under the Department of Defence R&D, Government of India, is the nodal agency for the design and development and HAL is the production partner with participation of DRDO and CSIR Laboratories, Public & Private sector industries and academic institutions. Now that the core technology is ready, it will act as a catalyst for several other projects that are lined up, to move faster.

Current Government policy is directed to reduce the dependence on import in defence system and to make the country self-reliant in manufacturing defence equipment. Policy initiatives like “Make in India” and “Atmanirbhar Bharat” have shifted the focus to development and production of indigenous defence equipment. Further, there is a push from the government to encourage private industries into major defence equipment manufacturers with vocal for local call

Tejas Mk-II is in advance stages of development. After completion of aircraft design, the detailed design activities are nearing completion. Manufacturing of long lead parts has already begun and the first prototype is on schedule for rollout. Since there are very few unknowns in the programme, activities are moving rapidly.

Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) is a 5th generation twin engine fighter aircraft in the medium weight category. The configuration of AMCA is frozen and the configuration design is completed. LCA-Tejas Programme has given a significant lead in building the aircraft and its technology development within our country. ADA is confident in taking the Design and Development activities to the next stage. The detailed design activities have commenced. Indian industries are already participating in the development activities like manufacturing of a full-scale model for stealth measurements. We are sure of meeting the set deadlines.

RA: Artificial Intelligence is gaining traction and is now being widely used in unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, the unmanned ground combat vehicle, and the unmanned submersible systems. Similarly, cognitive electronic warfare (CEW) is emerging as the technology of the future. How well India is progressing in these two areas? Provide an account of the work being done by DRDO in AI and CEW.

SR: DRDO laboratories in Bengaluru, like Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (CAIR) and Young Scientists Laboratory DYSL-AI are working in the area of Artificial Intelligence. CAIR has developed robots with various applications like Mobile Autonomous Robot System (MARS), Robot Sentry etc. The offshoot of AI development was applied during the pandemic for developing Smart Automated Management of Patients and Risks for COVID-19 (SAMPARC) and AI based non contact facial features based product named “Attendance Application (AINA)”. Some other important AI based systems that have been developed are Daksh Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), Knowledge Resources and Intelligent Decision Analysis (KRIDA), a system that aims to facilitate large scale military moves using extensive knowledge base and data handling, Robot Sentry or RoboSen which is a “mobile robot targeted at patrolling and surveillance applications in urban campuses” is going to be game changer in surveillance.

HELINA anti-tank missiles were launched from ALH Dhruv helicopter for evaluating missile capabilities in minimum and maximum range of 7 kms

Cognitive Electronic Warfare (CEW) refers to the use of cognitive systems like artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning to enhance development and operation of electronic warfare technologies by the defence services. A young scientist laboratory DYSL-CT at Hyderabad is working on cognitive technologies.

Using CEW techniques, autonomous decisions in response to changing situations can be made, and new and unknown radar signals can be dealt with. By using CEW techniques, a radar system would be able to perform its assigned task optimally by perceiving its operational environment, fine-tuning and adjusting its emission parameters, such as the pulse width, pulse repetition interval, and transmitter power etc.

CEW technologies are being integrated by DRDO scientists in the areas of image processing, face recognition system and explosive detection etc., which is a sure means of enhancing our security systems more effectively and comprehensively.

RA: DRDO covers wide spectrum of Defence Research & Development as per the requirements laid down by the three services. Yet it is perceived that it has not come at par with its world counterparts and it has been a challenge for DRDO to fix most of its programmes due to the cost and timeline factor and also to make itself more nimble towards innovation. Your comments.

SR: DRDO has been carrying out R&D activities in self-sustainable technologies for our Armed Forces. The enormous achievements of DRDO have put our country in select club of nations possessing technological capabilities like hypersonic missile with a scramjet engine and A-SAT technology. Presently, India is ready to take up the challenge of developing any new technology in defence indigenously with the scientific ecosystem developed by DRDO. Development of systems like MBT Arjun Mk I fighter jet initially had technological challenges which demanded arduous efforts. However, DRDO has developed its expertise over the years and is now upgrading these systems to new generation with advanced features. The expertise and experience developed over the years is being used for new warfare technologies like development of combat UAV with advanced and complex features, swarm drones, artificial intelligence, cyber defence, quantum communication, computing and advanced smart materials etc. It must be appreciated that DRDO has been doing its R&D amid a huge void of any other institute or industry doing R&D in the defence sector, unlike other big industrial nations where private houses not only invest huge capital in the same but run consortiums in conjuction with other countries and institutions. Apparently, this handicap has not been appreciated by our defence community as well as think tanks and hence a misplaced perception. In fact, I feel the progress that we have made is creditable.

RA: What steps are being taken by DRDO to create a robust and vibrant ecosystem in Defence R&D and production in collaboration with DPSUs and Indian Private sector companies? Do you think that Indian defence sector is well positioned now to see the start and experience competitive and collaborative R&D play between DRDO and the private sector players?

SR: DRDO currently aims to concentrate on futuristic and cutting edge defence technologies. DRDO does not enter and work in the areas where DPSUs and Indian private sector companies can develop products for defence forces. DRDO has opened up test facilities to the industry and today we have more than 1,800 partner companies working for various projects. Our endeavour is to have no imports of missiles, radars, sonars, torpedoes, armaments and early warning systems etc., where we have achieved self-reliance.

With the help of DRDO’s various initiatives and ToTs, a number of private companies have been transformed from simple fabricators to defence and aerospace manufacturers. We are aiding the industry by offering our technologies for early realisation of products and at the same time providing our R&D facilities.

DRDO also providing support to technological Startups through the Technology Development Fund (TDF) scheme. A policy has also been introduced for identifying Development cum Production Partners (DcPP) on a competitive basis from both private and public industry for development of systems to involve industry from initial stage of development. Measures are taken to waive off ‘Performance Security’ for development contracts as major step in aiding the efficiency of the industry. Indian defence sector is very much ready and enthusiastic about increasing collaborative R&D activity with DRDO.

RA: What’s your vision to position DRDO as a futuristic R&D organisation amid stagnant budget and little room for executing the big ticket research projects? How do you plan to bring in the result-oriented change despite budgetary constraints?

SR: As compared to the previous year’s defence budget allocation, this year witnessed an increase of 4.78 lakh crore which includes capital expenditure worth Rs. 1.35 lakh crore. This is the highest ever increase in the capital outlay for defence in the last 15 years. The capital allocation for DRDO has also been increased.

Thus, the way government is supporting with additional funding, budget was never a constraint for development of critical equipment. Our scientists are dedicatedly working towards progressive enhancement of self-reliance in defence systems and also enhancement of R&D infrastructure and capability of the country. Our vision is to make the country self-reliant and independent of foreign technologies in critical spheres and also to build a reservoir of expertise in the most sensitive scientific and technological areas of defence systems.

DRDO is also working on the large development programmes like AMCA, LCA Mk II, long range Radars, advanced missile technologies, Arjun Mk II etc, towards meeting the user requirements. DRDO is constantly encouraging industry participation through various policies and initiatives to leverage their strengths in production and manufacturing as well as tie-ups with Academia for technologies and applied applications.

RA: According to DRDO’s many critics, jet/aero engine has been the biggest failure of DRDO. Do you agree with the viewpoint? What is the current status of jet engine/aero engine development programme? Do you think that international collaboration with global OEMs for joint co-design and development is imperative to ensure success?

SR: While developing aero engine, a number of milestones have been achieved. There is nothing like failure in technology development. Aero engine development is a complex process. It requires entire ecosystem of academia, industry and R&D to develop aero engine of high thrust category. With the development of Kaveri engine, certain level of technological maturity has been achieved in the academia, industry and R&D institutions of the country for some categories of aero engines. Institutional collaboration is one of the options available to work and hasten the development. Today, we are in the advance stages of developing an indigenous engine for Nirbhay – Long Range Sub-Sonic Cruise Missile. Kaveri dry engine is also getting tested for unmanned aerial vehicles. Some ground tests are being done and other tests are scheduled as per plan. These developments can be extended to marine applications also.

The naval prototype of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas seen taking off from INS Vikramaditya

RA: There are some limitations that seriously haunts our recent policy measures and initiatives in context of innovation and indigenisation in our defence sector. In your opinion, what steps are required/ being taken to fix these for making significant substantial progress?

SR: Current Government policy is directed to reduce the dependence on import in defence system and to make the country self-reliant in manufacturing defence equipment. Policy initiatives like “Make in India” and “Atmanirbhar Bharat” have shifted the focus to development and production of indigenous defence equipment. Further, there is a push from the government to encourage private industries into major defence equipment manufacturers with vocal for local call. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has released a list of 101 systems which will be barred from import and have to be produced indigenously. We must produce state-of-the-art home-grown weapon systems rather than importing them from outside.

Our thrust would be on developing an ecosystem, where there is a total focus on integration and innovation and to become a defence exporter. DRDO will be responding ably to the future war fighting requirements of the tri services with advanced technologies

To boost the indigenous defence ecosystem, DRDO has released a list of 108 defence systems and sub-systems which will be manufactured exclusively by Indian industries. We have also opened our test facilities and over 450 patents have been made available free to industry so as to extend our support to the indigenous manufacturers and developers.

A number of policies have also been promulgated to encourage and support the indigenous manufacturing and development such as faster execution of ToTs, handholding of industry, removing royalty etc. As already stated, support to Technological Startups with the provision of Technology Development Fund (TDF) is a big step empowering the Indian R&D.

RA: Despite having the talent and expertise, India hasn’t been successful in its indigenous UAV programme as compared to Turkey and others. How can DRDO reverse this trend in near future? Kindly provide insights.

SR: Like elsewhere, in India too, we have an ecosystem for development of advanced UAV. DRDO has developed various UAVs like NISHANT, LAKSHYA, ABHYAS etc. DRDO laboratory Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), Bengaluru is working on many UAVs. A dedicated test range for flight testing and evaluation of UAVs has been established at Chitradurga.

Besides, our laboratories CAIR and R&DE(E) are also working on development of various kind of robots and the young scientists’ laboratories are also working on the technologies required for UAVs and robotics. A MALE (medium-altitude long-endurance) UAV with an operating altitude of 30000 ft, endurance of 24 hrs with EO and SAR payloads is in advanced stage of development. It can carry a variety of payloads as per mission requirement. Designed to perform intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance missions for Indian Armed Forces. Its mission requirements are to provide continuous wide area coverage and yet be able to identify small targets. Abhyas is a low-cost expandable aerial target for practice firing by Armed forces. It has enormous potential. Apart from this, many Startups have been nurtured by DRDO to take up this challenge and develop advanced UAV systems for both surveillance and combat operations.

RA: DRDO has proposed Light Tank for the Indian Army’s Mountain Corps. What is the USP and Delivery Timeline If It Gets Acceptance?

SR: Indian Army’s need for light tanks has been there ever since we phased out
PT-76. It is even more critical now, not only for mountainous and high altitude of Northern area but also the marginal terrains of Rann & Siliguri corridors. DRDO has worked out the configuration and other possible parameters and other requirements of Indian Army and is continuously in talks with industry partners to develop a light or medium-weight tank that could be used in areas as mentioned. The proposed light tank for the Indian Army will be fitted with High Altitude Operable Power pack (Engine + Transmission) and will be capable of firing multiple ammunition. This tank may be called as “highest altitude operable tank. It is possible to meet the time lines as required with the industry partnership.

RA: India ranks 52nd in global innovation index and contributes to only 2.7 per cent in the global R&D. India accounts for only 1.4 per cent of the global arms trade and in the top 100 arms exporting companies, only three Indian companies find place in the list. What do you think of the weakest point in our R&D sector that restricts our indigenous project not getting substantial platform within our industries along with India’s emergence as a prominent player in global arms trade? Tell us more about your next generation technologies and future defence manufacturing programs including few important statics/outlays for 2021-2024.

SR: Defence PSUs have been traditionally nominated to produce weapon systems because required infrastructure for large scale integration was not available in private sectors till a few years ago. The integration requirements for weapon system are capital intensive; which was one of the deterrence for participation of private industries in these fields. However, with the ‘Make in India’ policy more and more private industries are willing to invest. We will be offering our technologies to industries for an early realisation of products and also to support R&D facilities in the industries. I am optimistic about the weapon systems being produced by the private industries in near future.

We are working on the cutting-edge technologies, which will be required for futuristic weapon systems. DRDO is concentrating on research in advanced technology areas like Artificial Intelligence, Smart Materials, Quantum technology, Asymmetric technologies and Cognitive Technologies. A number of activities pertaining to various systems like AEW&C, AMCA, Guided Pinaka, Radar systems, Missile systems, Underwater unmanned systems are planned. Many more new innovations are lined up for the decade like Next Gen Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), LCA AF Mk II, long range Radars, advanced missile technologies, Arjun Mk II etc. Our scientists are working jointly with academic institutes on futuristic technologies like cyber security, space and artificial intelligence. We plan to strengthen our manufacturing base by enabling Indian industry through their involvement as partners. We would be engaging them as the development-cum-production partner from the beginning of the project. This will help in easy transfer of technology and will cut down the development cycle time. Our thrust would be on developing an ecosystem, where there is a total focus on integration and innovation and to become a defence exporter. DRDO will be responding ably to the future war fighting requirements of the tri services with advanced technologies.

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