Wonderful range

Print edition : August 29, 2008

M. Natarajan: "For the country to progress the DRDO and the industry have to sing a duet."-V.V. KRISHNAN

Interview with M. Natarajan, Director General, DRDO, and Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister.

ON the occasion of the golden jubilee celebrations of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), which began on January 9, Frontline met M. Natarajan, Director General, DRDO, and Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister.

Natarajan, who joined the DRDO in 1970, has worked on several important projects including the design and development of tracked vehicles. He was associated with the development of the main battle tank Arjun from its inception and became its Programme Director in 1987. Hard work from him and his team led to India having the self-propelled gun system Bhim.

Before becoming the Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister, Natarajan was Chief Controller, Research and Development (Armaments and Combat Engineering), at DRDO headquarters in New Delhi.

During this period, he ensured the acceptance of Pinaka, the multi-barrel rocket launcher system, by the Army after exhaustive field trials. He also contributed to the mechanical systems of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas. Natarajan was earlier the Director of the Combat Vehicles Research and Development Establishment (CVRDE), which developed Arjun, at Avadi in Chennai.

A mechanical engineer, Natarajan has a B.Tech from Indian Institute of Technology Madras and an M.Tech from IIT Bombay. He also has an M.S. in military vehicle technology from the Royal Military College of Science in the United Kingdom. Excerpts from the interview:

The DRDO is celebrating its golden jubilee this year. What is its road map, say, for the next 25 years?

The DRDO is one arm of the Ministry of Defence devoted to science and technology development. We get a small portion of the defence budget, which is at present around 6.13 per cent. What is not known to many is that 40 per cent of the DRDOs budget goes towards the development of strategic systems, essential for the country to maintain the requisite balance in defence preparedness. Close to a third of our budget goes towards salaries, infrastructure and training. So what most people know about the DRDO is based either on an appreciation or depreciation of one-third of our budget, spent on the development of the tactical systems for our armed forces.

The DRDO, with its chain of 50 laboratories, is specialising in a wide range of disciplines from life sciences to aerospace. When you list them in terms of sciences, engineering and technology, they may number more than the DRDO laboratories. However, the number of DRDO scientists and technical staff is too meagre to cater for the entire spectrum of products required by the armed forces.

This must be appreciated because this is not understood even by those in authority. We are a small team. Therefore, we have to stay focussed on select areas and this is what we are trying to define to the government that the remaining has to be acquired by industries or through other channels. There are many good defence public sector undertakings and ordnance factories, which have matured over the years, and they could supply certain products to the armed forces either through their own development or in collaboration with others. This will supplement DRDO laboratories as well.

This puts DRDO in a tight spot as to how it should strike a balance between what it wants to develop, its aspirations for carrying technology forward in niche areas, and how to network with the industry.

Take for example, aeronautics. We are into a programme for the LCA. What started off as one project has become three: LCA for the Indian Air Force [IAF] and the Navy and a trainer version of the LCA. This trainer will be far superior to the Hawk, with the kind of advanced features that it will have, especially in avionics.

Naturally, when we draw a road map, we see the fructification of these three taking us to a medium combat aircraft, a multi-role combat aircraft with fifth generation technologies, where there can be commonality of parts with LCA in avionics or radar, and eventually, 15 years from now, building an unmanned aerial combat vehicle [UACV].

So, if one looks at just this spectrum of vehicles, five in number, I see a good potential to build all together, about 1,000 aircraft, over a period of time. The LCA could be 400 in number for the IAF, 100 for the Navy; the trainer could be 150; the medium combat aircraft 250; and 100-150 for the UACVs.

Since the design is ours, with a largely open architecture system, we have the comfort of adding values in avionics, radar systems, control and guidance systems as we go along, besides making improvements in the materials for construction, particularly in composites and the manufacturing processes thereof.

With the limited team we have today, including our partners in the industry, even to accomplish this will be an achievement. I, therefore, do not see any conflict between what the HAL [Hindustan Aeronautics Limited] and the private industries will have to do in jointly developing military transport aircraft, helicopters, cargo-lifters and heavy combat aircraft such as Sukhoi because these are the spectrum of aircraft that the IAF will need.

Likewise, we have taken airborne early warning and control [AEW&C] system on a smaller platform such as the Embraer aircraft. [The AEW&C system will be integrated to the EMB-145 aircraft for India by 2011.] It has got limited range, may be 250-300 km. But we will stay focussed in building the AEW&C radar indigenously, including its essential systems such as transmitter-receiver modules, antennae and the entire processing apart from its navigation, communication and intelligence mechanisms, including electronic warfare systems that it may feature.

Is the DRDO attempting to build all this capability?

A soldier in Siachen. The DRDO has developed various technologies to help soldiers face extreme conditions.-AFP

Yes. At the moment, we are building only two or three AEW&Cs. But we see a good potential for this to be used by the Navy and the Coast Guard, besides the IAF, and may be later by the Army aviation along the coast and the borders. The technology elements that will be learnt through this process will enable us to integrate or network this in the bigger systems obtained from abroad. This is the second type of capability we are generating. [The first type is the spectrum of vehicles.]

The third is Nishant, the unmanned aerial vehicle we have built. It has done very well. But we are struggling to produce it in numbers because the production partner is not yet identified. The [DRDO] laboratory is doing the production. We are looking forward to encouraging greater private participation so that more Nishants can be produced in a shorter span of time.

As we graduate, we are going to take up a project, the medium altitude long-endurance aircraft [version] of the UAV, in which we would like to bring in an Indian company, either private or public or a consortium, in the design phase itself so that it can become the builder of this system and pick up the domain knowledge associated with such equipment. There are good prospects for doing this today.

If this experiment succeeds, and I am sure it will, given the efforts that the DRDO is taking, we can build high-altitude UAVs, which will be required in reasonable numbers by the country. If all these are to succeed, technologies in distinct areas such as control and guidance, flight control systems, avionics systems, electronic warfare systems, airborne radars and so on will have to be concurrently developed. Efforts are on in most of these technologies and they are in different stages of development.

Are efforts under way in these areas in the DRDO?

In DRDO. If you build and test your own systems, you will be on a much stronger wicket in future to seek a meaningful collaboration for joint development. From what I have described, you can see what wonderful opportunities will open up for Indian industry, if only it has the patience and perseverance to get into domain knowledge and demonstrate its initiative and business acumen to carry forward these tasks. For the country to progress, the DRDO and industry have to sing a duet. I am hopeful it will happen.

What do you have to say to the criticism of time and cost overruns in several projects?

Let me be frank. If you look at most of our developmental programmes, I agree that we have taken two or three-fold more time than envisaged. But during the same period, there has been a continual upgrading of technology. The difficulty was that because of the delay, there was a moving goalpost. But while trying to reach the moving goalpost, we tried to upgrade the technology.

The problem was that for these first-off systems, the technology readiness level was inadequate and certain technologies had to be concurrently developed. This is true of any country that ventures to build systems for the first time.

Most people take note of a numerically quoted figure of the project value and the start date, a closing figure and a closing date, and try to decode a multiplication factor thereof, and say that the project cost had gone up by so many times. This is a simplistic way of passing judgement that does not speak the truth.

Financial pundits will say that the time-delay is a cost-escalation even if all other things are perfect. I agree, but the way to judge these projects is not this. When you manufacture a product, you have a production run over a period of time. If you can justify the amortisation of the development [of the product] and it comes to a reasonable figure, consistent with the product of that type, there is every reason to be satisfied with it.

We have reasons to believe that our amortisations are pitifully low compared to many countries in the development arena. For example, if you take the INSAS [Indian National Small Arms System] rifle developed by the DRDO, about a million rifles have been produced until now. We spent less than Rs.20 crore to perfect it.

Rs.20 crore in modifying it?

No. It was the project cost. That is all. But we gave a production worth more than Rs.2,500 crore. What was amortisation [in this]? Just 1 per cent. Even if you take Arjun I am deliberately quoting two extreme-end projects we spent less than Rs.400 crore on its development. In a country that ends up building just 300 of these tanks not a big number you are talking of a production turnover close to Rs.5,000 crore. For a product [Arjun] of such complexity, its amortisation was ridiculously low.

Likewise, take the LCA, its project cost today is close to Rs.6,000 crore. Even if you spend another Rs.1,000 crore for adding some developmental entities, it will be Rs.7,000 crore. If you build 400 aircraft, an aircraft today costs Rs.150 crore it equals Rs.60,000 crore. The amortisation is just about 10 per cent. Worldwide, it is more than 25-30 per cent. Besides, the unit cost of any indigenously developed product is invariably favourable compared with the cost of any individual, imported equipment.

I want to assure you that while the DRDO will take its share of blame it is not the only entity to be blamed there are others in the decision-making process. Yet, I would not wish to pass on the blame to them. I take the blame for the delay but we are giving products at a reasonable cost and they can be sourced at economical prices.

Those in the industry and those who have had exposure to the DRDO know this well and there is no surprise that all big industries want to jump on to the defence bandwagon. I am sure Indian industries are now maturing through greater exposure to opportunities opening up for them and are seeing opportunities for capitalising on the DRDOs knowledge and technology.

What the government spends on the DRDO is nothing but a subsidy to Indian industry, be it private, public or an ordnance factory. So DRDO sincerely looks forward to the day when industry, with its business acumen, knows how to capitalise on the DRDO.

The DRDO has come of age in missile development. How do you assess the success of the underwater missile Sagarika, the interceptor missile, Agni-II, Agni-I and Agni-III, Prithvi, Akash, Nag and BrahMos?

To the outside world, they may look like sudden successes. But there are no instant successes in a scientific activity. It is sustained effort and commitment in different disciplines that go into the integration of a missile, which has culminated in the success of a number of missile systems.

Many elemental technologies that go into missiles, such as propulsion systems, airframe design, navigation, command and control systems, guidance systems, warheads and re-entry where applicable all have reached a maturity for a given design and for the level of technology that we have planned so far. They have been integrated into successful systems. It is like a perfect meal. It is difficult to describe whether these missions are entirely scientific or partly art.

The challenge now will be to take forward the technological gains by making improvements in each elemental technology, which will cumulatively give us advantages in terms of longer-range, lesser-weight, more-efficient propulsion, compact and reliable margins and so on. I am sure that all this will happen in the coming decade with newer seekers, fibre optics, ring-laser gyros, light-weight, high-strength materials, and polymeric materials in propulsion systems.

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