‘Our focus is self-reliance’

Interview with Avinash Chander, DRDO Director General.

Published : Jan 08, 2014 12:30 IST

Avinash Chander, DRDO Director General.

Avinash Chander, DRDO Director General.

THE Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) develops everything from battle tanks, missiles and the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) to massive bridge-laying machines, anti-corrosion paint and hundreds of other products. It excels in developing cutting-edge technology. Avinash Chander, the Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister, is DRDO Director General. Besides, he is Secretary, Department of Defence R&D.

He has a degree in electrical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi and an M.S. (by research) in spatial information technology from Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University, Hyderabad. He began his career in the DRDO, in August 1972, pioneering the design and development of inertial navigation systems for aerospace applications. He is the chief architect of India’s long-range Agni III, IV and V missiles and was responsible for the indigenous development of critical technologies for the Agni series of missiles. Among his other achievements is the designing of the Multiple Independently Targeted Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) and the Manoeuvring Re-entry Vehicle (MaRV). Before becoming Director General, he was Chief Controller (Missiles and Strategic Systems) in New Delhi. Earlier, he was Director, Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL), Hyderabad, where the Agni variants were designed and developed. Excerpts from an interview Avinash Chander gave Frontline in Hyderabad on December 8.

What are the areas that the DRDO, with 52 laboratories under its control, is going to focus on: electronics and electro-optics, materials and metallurgy, armaments or life sciences? Only its missiles are always in the limelight.

The prime focus of the DRDO has been self-reliance. In missiles, we have advanced to a large extent in attaining self-reliance. Today, we have the confidence to meet the requirements of the Indian armed forces in surface-to-surface, short-range, long-range, anti-tank, air-to-surface, air-to-air and interceptor missiles.

When you talk of self-reliance overall, there are four areas: the platform, the weapons, the ammunition and the enabling systems. If you talk of the platform, we have the LCA Tejas. Among the unmanned aerial vehicles, Rustom-II is coming up. The first air trial will happen by June 2014. We have the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) coming up. The designs are ready and we are moving forward. On the ground, we have the Arjun-Mark II battle tank, which recently went through trials. Except for its missile which is imported, we have no major issues pending with it.


Practically all [of India’s] naval ships, including aircraft carriers and submarines, are now being built in India. So if you look at the platforms, major steps have been taken to attain self-reliance in land, air, water, underwater, and manned and unmanned systems.

Coming to the weapons, advanced trials are under way on Pinaca-MkII, the multi-barrel rocket launcher system. We have enhanced its range to 60 kilometres. Smart bombs from aerial delivery systems are undergoing trials. With regard to precision-guided munitions, we are working on aerial delivery weapons, which can have long ranges. We have taken up a major project, on a public-private partnership, to develop an advanced, next-generation artillery gun. It will be much better than the existing 155 mm howitzer. We have torpedoes. Varunastra will soon undergo trials. We are confident of completing the trials by February/March 2014 making it ready for induction into the Navy.

We have taken up the futuristic requirements of high-energy weapons, both in the laser and in the microwave domains. Future weapons can be unmanned combat air vehicles —drones and loitering systems.

Ammunition is a critical area. We are working closely with industry and universities in this area. We have developed a bi-modular charge system which fires the shell for 155 mm or 105 mm guns. It is going in for user evaluation. It is a good example of cooperation between the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and the DRDO.

We are also working on thermobaric munitions; air-delivered bombs; ammunition for tank guns; Fin Stabilised Armour Piercing Discarding Sabot (FSAPDS), that is, high-penetration weapons; shells; grenades; and so on.

We are working with the OFB and industry because this is an area where the DRDO has done the R&D, the ordnance factories have to do the production, and industry has to come up with subsystems, components and parts. This is a major joint activity.

Regarding the enabling systems, they are really the force-multipliers: the radars, the communication systems, the Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) System, and so on. The AEW&C System is undergoing evaluation. Communications have been established and radars are being tested.

Is this the Active Electronic Scanning Array (AESA) radar that was developed by the Electronics & Radar Development Establishment (LRDE) in Bangalore?

No. It is not the AESA radar. It is the phased array radar. There are offers from Embraer [the Brazilian aircraft company] to jointly develop and market it. This is the kind of potential that the Indian item has.

Today, we make 85 per cent of India’s needs for tactical radars: high-altitude, mountain, battlefield surveillance and weapon-locating radars. The bulk of the requirement of radars for our armed forces is being met, and some of them are of global standard. The IAF [Indian Air Force] is satisfied with the radars we have developed.

Our aim is to produce state-of-the-art communication equipment: satellite terminals, from field to command-and-control centre and network-centric systems. A software-defined radio for the Navy is now a reality…. We have met all the electronic warfare requirements of the Navy and the IAF, primarily from Indian systems. You know how successful our development of sonars has been. The T-72 and T-90 battle tanks will be refitted with Indian reactive armour. So it is not just missiles that the DRDO has developed but a plethora of systems. About 95 per cent of the requirements of the anti-nuclear, biological and chemical warfare systems are met by the DRDO-developed systems.

Bio-toilets developed by the DRDO were used during the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi and during the Kumbh Mela. Union Minister Jairam Ramesh has shown a lot of interest in them.

It was originally developed for soldiers posted in remote areas and high altitudes. The Railways have now installed them in their coaches…. In bio-toilets, the water that you get as a by-product is almost as good as river water. It can be recycled. You can get 30 litres a day. It is a big amount of water-saving in a rural area. There are corresponding advantages in sewerage lines, the treatment of water, protection of rivers, etc. So we are trying to make bio-toilets an integral part of town planning.

Another area that Mr Jairam Ramesh was keen about was how to make these bio-toilets part of rural sanitation. Instead of giving cash subsidies, why not install bio-toilets in each house and you can judge its industrial and economic potential, and the impact on hygiene and the social environment.


Are DRDO-developed aerostats a thrust area?

The Aerial Delivery Research and Development Establishment (ADRDE), Agra, is one of the best designers of parachutes anywhere. It meets most of our armed forces’ requirements of parachutes.

Recently, there was a news item about Akashdeep aerostat.

One is the parachute. Another is the aerostat. An aerostat is a vehicle which floats in the air like a balloon filled with helium gas. It is a high-strength balloon which can be tethered from the ground, powered from the ground, and it can sustain itself for weeks together. It can carry surveillance equipment.

Coming to the parachutes, we recently demonstrated a 16-tonne payload being dropped by parachute from an altitude of 1 km and it landed within 90 metres of the desired point. It was a soft landing that could take all the shock. It is an extension of the system developed by the DRDO for the seven-tonne capacity heavy-drop system and accepted by the Indian Army for induction. The ADRDE has developed a wide range of parachute systems for applications ranging from delivery of military stores and soldiers on battlefields and remote locations to recovery systems for the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Space Capsule Recovery Experiment.

We have developed aerostats which have a sustenance period of five days at an altitude of 1 km. It is useful in a place like the Integrated Test Range [at Balasore, near Odisha] during flight trials of low-flying cruise missiles, BrahMos, Nirbhay and things like that. Here, ground-based instrumentation does not work. We are now planning to put a telemetry station in an aerostat, which can get all the data [from aircraft or missiles]. We may have another aerostat carrying a radar.

An aerostat… is a low-cost solution for sustained surveillance over an area from a high altitude. The critical element in an aerostat is its fabric because it has to be filled with helium gas. Helium is light but it starts leaking. The fabric from which the balloon is made should be perfectly thin for this. Even small leakages will decide how long it will stay in the air.

You have developed a plethora of products, for example, foldable stretchers; kits for the detection of dengue, swine flu and typhoid; ready-to-eat food items for soldiers posted at Siachen; Leh berry juice; anti-leucoderma cream; and mosquito repellent cream. But they are not available in the market.

The DRDO is primarily an R&D agency. We are neither a production agency nor a marketing agency. We transfer technologies, particularly where the public good is involved and the common man will benefit. The transfer of technologies takes place in an open manner, to whosoever wants it. Many industries have taken up the technologies developed by the DRDO. For example, we have transferred the bio-toilet technology to 52 industries. In fact, the technology of making packed [ready-to-eat] food products was developed by us.

The first, packed food product technology was transferred from the DRDO to industry in 1983. Technology transfer to MTR [Foods Private Limited] took place in the late 1990s.

Similarly, we have done good work in many other areas such as developing kits at a fairly low cost for filtering water, for removing iron and arsenic from water, which can be used in rural areas. Many of these products have gone commercial. When we transfer technologies, we expect the industries who take them up to commercialise them.

The effectiveness of the anti-mosquito cream developed by the DRDO lasts about eight hours. It is much better than any product available in the market today. Similarly, there are herbal products which help local communities because they cultivate the herbs. When we took up Leh berries, it was a wasted bush in the Ladakh area. Today, it is a highly priced bush because every part of it is marketable, its fruits, seeds, leaves, etc. Oil can be extracted from the plant. The technology of making Leh berry juice was given to producers of soft drinks. Leh berry products have changed the economic potential of the Ladakh valley. The cultivation of the bush helps arrest soil erosion also.


The DRDO’s implementation of the Rama Rao Committee’s recommendations seems to be cosmetic: Chief Controllers have been redesignated as Directors General of clusters of laboratories. When will you empower the clusters of laboratories with greater decision-making powers and allow management decentralisation, migration of scientists/engineers from one laboratory to another within the same cluster, and so on? Have you appointed financial advisers for each cluster?

Implementing the recommendations was the first [thing] on my agenda, and I am really happy that within three months of taking over, I could implement its prime recommendations. First, we have created seven independent clusters of laboratories. Second, [we have] set up a Systems Analysis Centre (SAC) in New Delhi, which will interact with various DRDO laboratories and beyond the laboratories to look at the potential scenarios for our capability development. This is something where scientific methodology has been lacking. Our aim is to create a scientific process to assess the present war-fighting capability, the type of weapons needed, their utilisation, strengthening their safety features, network-centric potential, simulating the processes with mathematical modelling and looking at their potential. The third part, in fact, went beyond the committee report: that the DRDO needs to invest in future technology growth.

If we have to sustain ourselves and transform into a dynamic organisation prepared for cutting-edge technology leadership, the DRDO has to invest in a big way in directed basic research. This is a favourite topic of R. Chidambaram [Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India] also. Today, India is lacking in directed basic research where you do fundamental research, but with a goal in mind. That is what we have started. The SAC will tap the best potential and create centres of technology in academic institutions to carry out this type of directed research, creating a new knowledge-base and new manpower skills. It is a novel concept and in a way what I call the DRDO’s preparation for the DARPA [Defence Advanced Research Projects’ Agency] model.

You said the DRDO has implemented the Rama Rao Committee’s recommendations only in a cosmetic manner. I do not know from where you got that impression. Today, the Director General of each cluster is empowered financially to sanction projects up to Rs.25 crore. The Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister is empowered to sanction projects up to Rs.60 crore. All mission mode programmes have to, in any case, go to the Cabinet Committee on Security. Ultimately, each cluster will have its own independent financial adviser instead of a single IFA [in New Delhi]. We have IFAs in Hyderabad, Bangalore and Pune. We need to have two more IFAs in Hyderabad and Pune.

All Directors General are fully empowered to move any scientist anywhere within the cluster.

Why is there a delay in setting up the Defence Technology Commission (DTC) as recommended by the Rama Rao Committee? Are the three Services chiefs, who will be its members, resisting it because the decisions taken by it will be binding on them?

The process for setting up the DTC is going on. We are going to put it up for the financial approval of the Defence Minister and then it will go to the Finance Ministry. The in-principle agreement is already there [to set up the DTC]. I don’t think there is any issue in setting up the DTC.

As far as the Services are concerned, they are fully represented at the highest level. Any decision taken by the DTC will automatically be a debated, conscious decision, and the whole idea of setting it up is that there should be a new synergy among the various wings, the planner, the designer, the production system and the user, and that is how the country’s defence programme will achieve the requisite self-reliance. We have already started our close interaction with the Services. The Navy directly interacts with the clusters. We have started a very close interaction with the production department so that the production gears up accordingly. We are interacting closely with the OFB and industry to tap their potential to the maximum and build the strength of the OFB further in terms of quality. They have a huge infrastructure that needs to be [utilised] properly.

I am happy that I have had positive interaction with all these groups. Many of our products are jointly coming out from various groups. Take the LCA, for example. The Chief of the Air Staff personally takes a review every two or three months. We have a full team of users sitting and working in the Astra [air-to-air missile] programme. They are doing a part of its design.


The DRDO’s interceptor missile programme is a big success. You had said on an earlier occasion that phases I and II of the interceptor programme would be implemented in New Delhi and Mumbai respectively. Can you explain what is phase I and II?

What I said was that we are getting ready for the programme’s implementation, which means we have to develop the radars and other systems. There are three stages: technical readiness, operational readiness, and actual deployment. Technical readiness means we should have a number of flight trials. At least, three or four more will be needed before we can formally say it is cleared. Then comes operational readiness: we must have all the radars ready. We must have a corresponding launcher system for the missiles, production plans ready. The third is sighting on ground, land availability, and setting up of facilities and operational units. ….[W]e are now getting ready for… technical evaluation and operational readiness.

What is the progress in the development of the Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle at Hyderabad’s Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL)? The HSTDV was to fly in 2013.

The HSTDV is a very strong thrust area of our future. But it is also a very high-technology area. It has a lot of challenges in the area of aerodynamics, hypersonic regime, etc. Unfortunately, the country does not have a hypersonic tunnel yet, so any test we want to do, we have to go abroad. That costs a lot of time, effort and money. The programme gets slowed down. The internal scramjet combustion is a totally new area. We have tremendous heat generation there, the sustenance of combustion, the air intake—they are all very critical. A number of studies have been done in these areas…. Our people are still sorting out some of these challenges, and you have to reach a height of 30 km with a Mach number of six plus. The current U.S. flight was with Mach 4.8 to 5.5. True supersonic comes at Mach six plus. So it was a tremendous achievement: first time scramjet system flying for over 200 seconds. We are also looking at that. It [the HSTDV flight trial] may take another year or so.


When will you integrate the K-15 missile into Arihant?

The K-15 integration in Arihant is already in progress. As soon as Arihant’s sea trials are completed, its weapons and armoury will be integrated… just waiting for the trials to be completed. The reactor on board the submarine has attained criticality. The DAE [Department of Atomic Energy] has done a fantastic job in building this reactor. It is a good example of the cooperation among the DAE, the DRDO and the Navy. Similarly, the cooperation has been fantastic among the DRDO/ the ADA, the IAF and HAL [Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd] in building the LCA. The LCA made more than 450 sorties this year in spite of the prolonged monsoon. Till last year, the LCA flew 260 to 280 times. It shows the integrated, cooperational agreement among the three agencies. HAL is now building up its capacity to produce the LCA at a fast pace.

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