Powerhouse of technology

Print edition : September 25, 2009

M. Natarajan, who retired as Director-General of DRDO on August 31.-V.V. KRISHNAN

WHEN M. Natarajan, Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister, laid down office on August 31 he must have done so with a sense of satisfaction. For, Indias Main Battle Tank (MBT) Arjun, which he fathered, has been inducted into the Army and the nuclear-powered submarine Arihant, which was built under the top-secret Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) programme of which he was the chief coordinator, was launched on July 26. Arihant has propelled India into an elite club of six countries with their own nuclear-powered boats.

A few days before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh launched Arihant in Visakhapatnam, Natarajan told this correspondent: I am happy that the boat is being launched during my tenure. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), of which Natarajan was the Director-General, funded the ATV project. Natarajan was also Secretary, Defence R&D, and Director-General, Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA).

He capped his career in the DRDO after having joined it in 1970 by becoming its Director-General in 2004. For 30 years, he worked on several important projects relating to the design and development of tracked vehicles. He was associated with Arjun right from its inception at the Combat Vehicles Research and Development Establishment (CVRDE) at Avadi, near Chennai. He became the Programme Director of the Arjun project in 1987 and the Director of the CVRDE in December 1989. He ensured that India had its indigenous state-of-the-art Arjun and a self-propelled gun system Bhim.

Today, Arjun has gone into production and the Armys 43rd Regiment is equipped with it. The Army had placed an order for 124 Arjuns. The Heavy Vehicles Factory (HVF) at Avadi has delivered 45 tanks. On August 21, the first batch of armoured ambulances, which Natarajan designed and built, rolled out of the Ordnance Factory at Medak in Andhra Pradesh.

As Director-General, ADA, Natarajan gave a new direction to the development of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), Tejas, which has done 1,163 sorties. Tejas is now ready for initial operational clearance. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has placed orders for 20 aircraft. Natarajan contributed to the mechanical systems of Tejas.

With 52 laboratories under it, the DRDO is one of the biggest and most versatile models of defence R&D in the world. Natarajan calls it a technological powerhouse. These laboratories, situated in different parts of the country, have proven competence in developing strategic military hardware and related technologies in diverse disciplines such as aeronautics, missiles, armaments and naval systems, combat vehicles, strategic systems, electronics, life sciences and materials. They have equipped the three services with MBTs, armoured ambulances, a variety of missiles, radars, the multi-barrel rocket launcher Pinaka, life-saving medicines, self-heating gloves and socks for soldiers posted at high altitudes such as Siachen and Leh, sonars, parachutes, carbon nano tube, and bullet-proof jackets.

The armed forces have become mightier with tanks capable of laying multispan bridges; vehicles that plant or sweep mines; robots that retrieve explosives; autonomous underwater vehicles; missile launchers; vehicles that monitor the use of nuclear, biological and chemical agents; underground shelters for use during chemical warfare; stretchers; laser guns; rifles; carbines; pistols; propellants; explosives; transgenic tomatoes; hybrid milch animals; aloe vera cream to treat frostbite; Leh Berry juice; ready-to-eat pulav and biryani; anti-leucoderma cream; composites; anti-corrosive paints; anti-fouling paints; and desalination plants, all developed by the DRDO.

The DRDO celebrated its golden jubilee in 2008. But the previous year itself it reached another landmark. The year witnessed the successful launches of Agni III, the underwater K-15 missile from a submerged pontoon, and the ballistic interceptor missile. Other notable events include the missile launch test of Tejas, which was the first step in its weaponisation, followed by flights with drop tanks and fuel transfer. The year also saw substantial success in the DRDOs tactical programmes through delivery of radars, electronic warfare and armament systems.

In an interview to Frontline in Chennai on August 4, Natarajan underscored three issues that were of utmost importance to the DRDO nurturing human resource, which is a critical factor in a defence R&D organisation; self-reliance; and the need to set up a Defence Technology Commission (DTC) as recommended by the Dr P. Rama Rao Committee.

Natarajan praised the contribution made by his predecessors to the growth of the DRDO. With the definitive transformation that has taken place in the DRDO in the past five decades because of the efforts of my illustrious predecessors, the organisation can today be justifiably proud of being a technological powerhouse not only for defence but in multitudes of scientific and engineering disciplines with quantifiable success, he said.

According to him, Arjun riding the sand dunes of Rajasthan; Tejas landing at Leh at the rarefied height of about 10,600 feet (3,180 metres), which proved the performance of its fly-by-wire technology; the launch of K-15 missiles from under the sea; the successful tests of the interceptor missiles, which are a forerunner to India building a missile defence shield; the demonstration of networked sensors in real-time operations featuring radars; electro-optics and satellites for a networked battlefield; specialised material for aircraft structures and the Navys ships; innovative biomedical appliances; and life-science products bear testimony to the scientific prowess of the DRDO.

With an eye on the future, the DRDO has embarked on projects to develop directed-energy weapons, anti-satellite capabilities, micro-satellites, very low-frequency communication, nano materials, advanced propulsion systems, a variety of sensors and seekers, navigation systems, electronically scanned array radars, fuel cells and batteries, AB-class steel for ship-building, and titanium alloys and carbon composites for aerospace applications.

Each of these developments has its own challenges and more than 3,000 young and intelligent scientists are raring to be up to the task, Natarajan said.

If the DRDO was building a multimode radar with a phased array, it could be improved upon to become electronically scanned so that the rotation of the antenna was not a constraint, he said. The challenge lay in how to package it into a small aircraft like Tejas or a medium combat aircraft because the space in the nose-cone of the aircraft is limited. An even more daunting challenge is the development of high-end seekers made for missiles or satellites or electronic warfare systems, he said.

These were indeed challenges because a large body of scientists was needed to work in the physics of developing these technologies.

Natarajan explained: We need scientists, technologists, technicians, pure academics and scientific assistants [in the DRDO] because when you develop such high-end products, you also need to build specialised machines for manufacturing them. He underlined the importance of leadership in science, technology and engineering.

The ArmyS 43RD Regiment is equipped with the state-of-the-art Main Battle Tank Arjun, developed by the DRDO.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Even a simple mechanical hinge in a door can be improved by reducing its weight and increasing its lubricity. When you gain in acoustics, it does not make a screeching sound. A clever designer will package a restoring spring in it. All these parts will demand far more precision than the Aligarh hinge, he said, as the others in the room burst into laughter.

That is why academic support is important. Academics will have to work in tandem with us. It will be good for the country if academics learn how to migrate to industry and research centres for practical work and go back to the portals of academia so that they can train students and technicians, Natarajan said.

Throughout the two-hour interview, he reiterated that human resource becomes a critical factor in the kind of endeavour that the DRDO was engaged in. The strength for this foundation [the DRDO] comes primarily from its human resource, comprising scientists and technologists, technicians and scientific staff, all working with appropriately digitised tasks, and integrating their efforts into a whole.

Natarajan said the insatiable demand for advanced weapon systems and sensors cannot be met by the DRDO alone with its extremely limited manpower and infrastructure. The solution to this lay in evolving innovative strategies to draw on the potentials of academia, business houses and industry besides structurally binding the stakeholders, the developers, the armed forces, industry and the government together.

The developers could be anybody the DRDO, the public sector units or private companies. Natarajan said, The Rama Rao Committee has sought to indicate the possible route to accomplish the goal. In this context its recommendation to evolve a DTC akin to the Atomic Energy Commission and the Space Commission assumes significance.

(A committee headed by Dr P. Rama Rao, former Secretary, Department of Science and Technology, recommended in 2008 that the DTC restore the DRDOs role in giving scientific advice in the purchase of weapons from abroad and formulate a clear-cut policy on self-reliance.)

He said policy initiatives should bind the DRDO, the services, public sector units, private companies and the academia together. There has to be an overarching body [the DTC] which constantly reminds these independent entities that they should not operate in a disjointed manner. Otherwise, achieving self-reliance will become a difficult task, he said.

For instance, he said, if the MBT Arjun, the LCA, the tactical missiles or the electronic warfare systems developed by the DRDO were to be 10 per cent deficient from the so-called ideal and as a consequence were not allowed to enter production, the question of improving them or addressing the deficiency would be scuttled.

For you do not even give a foothold to the product. The user may get away by saying it is not my job [problem]. But someone has to care for the product, he said.

The issue was not one-to-one equipment replacement but developing total systems capability. In such a situation, deficiency in a system could be addressed by aggregating products developed in India or even by combining some imports.

He said it was the DRDOs good fortune that its scientific community pressed ahead to bring about better communication and meeting of minds among the various stakeholders. I am happy to have contributed to this subtle but significant change, Natarajan said.

He quoted several instances of innovative work done by the organisation. Although the MiG-27 was not designed by the DRDO, it could add value to the aircraft because of its development of avionics for Tejas and other programmes at various aeronautical systems laboratories. Gallium arsenide solar panels developed by the DRDOs Solid State Physics Laboratory in New Delhi and produced by the Gallium Arsenide Technology Enabling Centre in Hyderabad have been used in ISROs satellites.

Parachutes developed by its Aerial Delivery Research and Development Establishment in Agra were used in soft-landing its recoverable satellite (Space Capsule Recovery Experiment).

The CVRDE, which designed and developed Arjun, had nothing to do with Tejas but it successfully designed the gearbox for the aircraft. The centre also developed a power take-off shaft made of titanium alloy for aircraft. The shaft, which weighs less than 2 kg, transmitted 250 horsepower at 20,000 revolutions per minute. A decade ago, one could not have dreamt that the CVRDE could develop these products, said Natarajan.

Natarajan said: I am fully confident that with the continued support of the government, the armed forces, the industry magnates, our academic institutions and well-wishers from the public, the DRDO will not only keep its flag flying high but march towards making the nation proud. The DRDO will contribute meaningfully to ensure the security of the nation and a smile on the faces of its billion-plus people.

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