Interview with Dr Avinash Chander, DRDO Chief and Scientific Adviser to Defence Minister
The new Narendra Modi government gave the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), a major vote of confidence in its first budget by substantially hiking both the revenue and capital resources available to India's premier weapons development agency. However it is understood that this hike is also intended to help DRDO complete existing projects and pave the way for future programs many of which will be pursued in mission mode. The idea is to create a substantial military industrial complex in India which not only caters to domestic requirements but also dovetails with India's wider geo-economic strategy with respect to manufacturing exports and job creation. DRDO today is being asked to not merely catch up with the west in the realm of military technology but actually create 'technological surprise' for the rest of the world.
DRDO itself realizes that for India to achieve this objective, the path taken may be a little different from that taken by say the United States or Russia. For instance while DRDO is being boosted by the current regime, the Indian defence market is also being opened up to greater foreign direct investment. DRDO will also be given more freedom in choosing production partners for its products many of whom are likely to be from India's private sector in times to come. Geek at Large caught up with the Scientific Advisor to the Raksha Mantri and Director General DRDO, Dr Avinash Chander to discuss these issues and more...
Saurav Jha: Dr Chander, DRDO's prowess in the area of strategic missile systems is now accepted by even your worst detractors, but the same cannot be said about tactical missile systems yet. How would you respond to this?
Avinash Chander: Major systems that have already been realized in the tactical domain include the Akash surface to air missile (SAM) which has gone into bulk production and recent trials from production lot conducted by the Indian Army (IA) have been quite successful. IA will induct this system shortly. The Indian Air force has of course already inducted the Akash.
Then you have the Astra air to air missile (AAM) which has undergone successful launches from a Su-30MKI and will soon be tested from the same against actual aerial targets. We are very confident about trials against actual targets since the Astra has already intercepted aerial targets when launched from the ground. I think we have a world class system on our hands here with the Astra. Third on this list, is the Indo-Israeli Long Range Surface to Air Missile (LRSAM) which is headed for trials in September if things go according to plan.
So there has been significant growth even in the tactical missiles arena domestically.
Saurav Jha: So in that context what are some of the new tactical missile systems being developed under DRDO's recently unveiled 'missile autonomy mission?'
Avinash Chander: Our aim via the 'missile autonomy mission' is to cover a wider space as it were. Let me outline some of the new systems being progressed. A new man portable anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) for which design is over and hardware is getting developed. A Longer ranged SAM with a range of 200-250 km is on the drawing board. A quick reaction SAM which can track on move is well-advanced in the design stage. An anti-radiation missile and a long range anti-ship missile which can prevent aircraft carriers from coming within 1500-2000 km of our shores are also being pursued.
Saurav Jha: What is the status of the anti-radiation missile and the long range anti-ship missile?
Avinash Chander: For the anti-radiation missile design is in progress, in fact hardware is being readied for the first trials. We expect successful trials of this ARM from an aircraft in about the next three years.
The long range anti-ship missile is on the drawing board, and we are confident that in about six years we would be able to get it ready. The long range anti-ship missile is going to be a ballistic missile with a seeker which can hit ships at long range.
Saurav Jha: So this is a rough equivalent of the Chinese DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile? An anti-access/area denial system?
Avinash Chander: Something like that yes. So as you can see almost the entire spectrum of missile capability is being addressed. And addressed to meet state of the art requirements thereby giving full teeth to our armed forces.
Saurav Jha: Coming back to the Akash, is there a move to upgrade the Akash, with say the addition of an onboard seeker?
Avinash Chander: We are examining various options for Akash Mk-II so that it can operate over a larger profile. One of the options is putting a seeker on board. Of course it not simply a matter of adding a seeker since it changes the entire dynamics of the missile. Nevertheless we are looking at multiple options and are certainly working on a Mark 2 version of the Akash.
Saurav Jha: Moving onto the Astra, when can we expect Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) for it?
Avinash Chander: After the first air-launched trials against an actual target which will take place in October-November this year, we will continue to extend its total engagement envelope and by 2015 end we should be looking at induction clearance.
Saurav Jha: Why was the LRSAM beset with delays? What would your perspective be on this?
Avinash Chander: LRSAM is a state of the art system. The Armed forces had actually tried to buy such a system from abroad, but nothing was really available that would come with satisfactory terms. And that is how we got into a joint venture with Israel, the system had to be developed ab initio. So there were issues with respect to radar development, issues with respect to the actuation system as well which was initially supposed to be pneumatic but then had to be changed to electromechanical. Then there was the two pulse motor which was being done for the first time and that got into certain combustion stability problems. But the good news is that all those problems have now been overcome. We launched a massive program on the rocket motor and today we have a motor which is stable and will be tested shortly.
Saurav Jha: Many of the new missiles being developed under the missile autonomy mission will require an on board seeker given their functions. For true autonomy India will have to be sufficient in that domain at some level. So in that context has a new detector fabrication facility for seeker heads been approved?
Avinash Chander: We are committed to setting up a detector production facility. Normal process of dialogue and tendering, taking approvals etc is currently underway. We are going to have a detector production facility for focal point arrays.
On the radio frequency (RF) seeker front also there is a major thrust. Right from the device i.e source of RF to the stabilization system, to the processing, we are starting a national mission kind of thing. Like we did when it came to developing control laws for the LCA. We have also set up a national mission for engines, for the 1500 HP engine. Now we are setting up a national mission for seekers by involving multiple agencies. We are confident that in the next three years.
We are starting a national mission for seeker and we are confident in the next three years we'll have our own seekers in multiple spectral domains - X band, Ka-band etc.
Saurav Jha: Coming to strategic missile systems. Missile ejection tests for the Agni-V's canister were carried out recently. How successful were these and when will see an actual canisterized launch of the Agni-V?
Avinash Chander: We had two tests and both were quite successful. Prime requirement is that there should be full repeatability matching with the projections. Both requirements have been met and the missile has been cleared to be launched from the canister. It should happen after the monsoon sometime.
Saurav Jha: Dr Chander, given that China is investing in anti-ballistic missile systems, it seems that MIRVs are becoming an inevitability for greater leakage probability. So when will see a full blown system test?
Avinash Chander: First of all, there are many ways of countering a ballistic missile defence. MIRV is one of the ways of course, i.e. by increasing the numbers. There are other ways, putting in more intelligence, countermeasures, reducing RCS and so on. This is like the game between missiles and aircraft. Where you build better missiles, but that doesn't mean that you don't build aircraft. I don't think there can be system which can be 100 percent proof. As we build more and more intelligence, it will have a counter response.
Saurav Jha: Has the program for a domestic turbofan for the Nirbhay taken off? What is the rating of this engine?
Avinash Chander: We have taken up the development of this engine and it has come to the bench test level. It is currently undergoing tests and evaluation and we are confident that we can do it. It has 400 kg thrust engine. But once we have the capability we can achieve varied thrust ratings for engines of this class. Incidentally, Nirbhay is coming up in a big way.
Saurav Jha: And what is the status of the flagship Turbofan development, the Kaveri?
Avinash Chander: Kaveri was tested continuously for 53 hours on a flying test bed in Russia where all the major parameters were proven. There were certain observations which are now being addressed at the lab level. We have put up a proposal to the government to continue. So that we have a viable engine at the end of it. More importantly Kaveri will have to be modified for use in the unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV). As that comes under MTCR and nobody will give us engines. So Kaveri will essentially be a lifeline for that program.
Saurav Jha: What is the status of that program?
Avinash Chander: Designs are getting finalized. We are going through the final stages of reviews.
Saurav Jha: When will we see a prototype of the UCAV? Will we see it by 2017 or so?
Avinash Chander: I don't think it will come that fast. Aircraft prototyping the typical cycle is 5-6 years. But we are working on it.
Saurav Jha: Turning to the Kaveri Marine Gas Turbine. What is the status of that program?
Avinash Chander: KMGT has been taken up as a major joint activity between DRDO and industry. Because it has vast potential.
Saurav Jha: Now while DRDO is a development agency, the real issue in India is that of effective productionization. In that context, will the missile autonomy mission see the emergence of private sector players as system integrators?
Avinash Chander: Today, private industry is very actively involved in many DRDO programmes in the developmental stage. The main issue as you have said rightly, is that of their involvement as system integrators and system deliverers. My feeling is that with a number of systems coming up in the next few years, since our aim is to create a vast array of capability in the next 5-7 years, it will not be possible to do all that with purely government investment. So we will have to involve the national manufacturing capability for which we have suggested a military industrial complex to be created, which can become a partner in development as well as in delivery. We hope that private industry will be playing a major role in this. Also for many of the critical systems, there can be parallel lines for export, which can be run by private industries. If we feel that public sector unit(PSU) capacity is saturated we can always create a parallel line which is purely profit driven. They will have to create a market... and once the need is seen and the profitability is proven, automatically capacity will enhance itself.
Saurav Jha: Dr Chander doesn't this lead to that old chicken and egg situation, where the private sector doesn't come in without assured demand, but to create the demand itself you have to make upfront investments?
Avinash Chander: I think the scenario is changing. Because there has been an unnecessary hesitation in conveying the numbers. Fact is we need numbers. Everybody knows we need numbers. And if we need numbers, we can convey the numbers to whichever industry whether public or private, subject to that industry meeting the specified requirements. If it doesn't meet requirements, we don't accept, just like any other thing which we go and buy. If something doesn't meet my specifications, I go and return the item or I don't accept it at all. So there shouldn't be a worry, that if it doesn't meet (specifications), as to what one should do. I think a realization has dawned that if time cycles have to be cut down, if capacity has to be created, if people have to be drawn in to invest in the creation of knowledge, it is essential that an integrated planning approach be adopted. Wherein all stages from development to product support during the life cycle be treated as an integrated activity. Then only can we be cost effective, time effective, and can create state of the art products.
Saurav Jha: The numbers you mention are also attracting a lot of foreign majors. And India recently liberalized its FDI in defence norms. But India's experience has shown that no foreign major, really wants to transfer the latest technology simply in lieu of money, to put it crudely. So in that sense what do you think FDI in defence can do for you?
Avinash Chander: When one is in a competitive market, an induction of this kind (i.e. of FDI), is a sort of trigger. I am confident that Indian innovation capability, entrepreneurship capabilities, will create more emphasis on R&D at the industry level, to be competitive with the FDIs on the anvil. When that happens, foreign vendors will have no option but to bring in better technology. Because it would set up a kind of a cycle wherein if they have to survive they would have to bring in the latest technology. For instance today that we come to this stage of development in missiles and aircraft, we find that people are offering a much better level of technological cooperation to us. The United States for example has come with the Javelin co-production, co-development offer, which was unthinkable some time back. And this is all because of the domestic capability which has been created. I am sure FDI in the defence sector, will trigger, like it did in the automobile sector. There also nobody wanted to bring in the technology, but people learnt, they grew. And they created a competitive eco-system and today you see Indian automobile companies standing on their own stead.
Saurav Jha: But in some areas such as drive trains, the Indian automobile sector is not really at par with the rest of the world. So that suggests that some technology gaps may yet require public investment to be bridged. Again, the latest budget has seen a substantial increase in the outlay for DRDO, but is it enough? Does DRDO today have enough manpower and enough resources?
Avinash Chander: With the enhanced budget we are comfortable for the time being. Secondly, for many of the future developments there will be partnership from the armed forces, from industry and so on. All the money need not come from DRDO, should not come from DRDO in fact, because we want commitment from all segments.
Another important part that you referred to is of course manpower. That is a serious area of concern. We have been carrying on, but we are finding serious difficulties because today we are saturated at about 7500 scientists, which basically means that there are a very small number of scientists per program. We are finding different means for outsourcing some of the more routine activities, but what for all the major programs on the anvil we need around 300-350 fresh young minds to be inducted every year who would bring new ideas, new dynamism. Today we are inducting hardly seventy people to offset retirements. So we have put up a case to government for enhancement of manpower and are looking to induct some 2700 scientists in phases over the next decade, so that our base can become strong. That base will create the dynamism for the future.
Watch out for Part II of this interview early next week.
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More about Saurav Jha
Saurav Jha studied economics (and debated politics) at Presidency College, Calcutta, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He writes and researches on global energy and security issues and is a regular contributor to publications such as World Politics Review, The Diplomat and Le Monde Diplomatique, and has written for Deccan Herald, The Telegraph and Hindustan Times. He is the Consulting Editor of Geopolitics magazine. His first book, The Upside Down Book of Nuclear Power, was published in March 2010 to excellent reviews. He is presently working on The Heat and Dust Project, a quirky travelogue, based on an intense budget journey through India, co-authored with his wife Devapriya.
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