The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), as part of its restructuring process has closed three of its labs, merging staff with other establishments. The move, according to sources, is the first among more such anticipated closures, being carried out to reduce costs and curb operational overlap.
The Axed Labs
The DRDO facilities axed as part of the re-organisation efforts are the Delhi based Defence Terrain Research Laboratory (DTRL) and the Laser Science and Technology Center (LASTEC) and the Hyderabad-based Advanced Numerical Research and Analysis Group (ANURAG).
What were these labs for?
Defence Terrain Research Laboratory (DTRL)
This DRDO lab was primarily responsible for the analysis of terrain characteristics, providing geo-spatial solutions and terrain intelligence. The lab’s staff has been merged with the Chandigarh-based Snow and Avalanche Studies Establishment (SASE) responsible for avalanche forecasting, structural control in snowbound mountainous areas, data collection in cryospheric regions, and the creation of snow cover information system and has been renamed as Defence Geological Research Establishment.
Laser Science & Technology Center (LASTEC)
This DRDO lab was operational in the fields of laser sources, laser countermeasures and laser spectroscopy. LASTEC was also involved in the development of high-power laser sources and related tech for directed energy (DE) applications as well as detectors, weapon locators and laser illuminators.
Advanced Numerical Research & Analysis Group (ANURAG)
This DRDO lab was mainly responsible for advanced computing concepts and technologies including design and the development of high-performance computing systems using parallel processing techniques with indigenous architecture and application specific integrated circuit-based products or critical applications. DRDO staff working at LASTEC and ANURAG are currently being relocated to two other Hyderabad-based labs; The city has several existing DRDO facilities, carrying out notable work in the field of missile development.
An Ape-x Body Long Under Scrutiny
The DRDO has long been under scrutiny and has remained notorious for missing project deadlines. The defence R&D organisation provoked the ire of both, the Parliament Standing Committee on Defence and the Comptroller Auditor General (CAG), with both bodies having given the DRDO adverse remarks with regards to its performance. The restructuring of the DRDO has been considered by some experts to be a move in the right direction while others have cited it to purely be a surface level change, questioning larger level issues such as the organisation’s “consistent lack of delivery”.
Closure of Labs were also Part of Shekatkar Committee Recommendations
Mission Victory India has learned that the 2015 Shekatkar Committee; a committee headed by Lieutenant General D B Shekhatakar (Retd) mandated by former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar ‘to suggest measures to enhance combat capability and rebalance defence expenditure’, had recommended the closure of 11 DRDO labs and 12 Ordnance Factories as part of its 2016 report.
When asked by MVI about recommendations pertaining to the closure of the DRDO labs in the report, Lt Gen. Shekhatakar said, “The laboratories were named by the Rama Rao Committee earlier. The DRDO kept blurring and did nothing. Some laboratories were identified by the Shekatkar Committee, the DRDO lab in Leh, the DRDO lab in Chandigarh, the DRDO lab in Delhi dealing with terrain analysis. The Defence Institute of Psychological Research (DIPR) in Delhi; dealing with psychological studies, they just copy from foreign books and magazines and publish papers. The DRDO lab in Mysore dealing with food, the DRDO lab in Bomdila and Tezpur and there are three more. All 11 are listed in the Rama Rao Committee report.”
Need for Massive Overhaul, Not Mere Cosmetics
Author and analyst Major General Anil Sengar (Retd) commented on the re-organisation of the DRDO saying, “On the face of it, it looks like a progressive step to merge entities that have similar mandates. The bigger issue is the lack of delivery by DRDO in general. That is the major issue that needs to be addressed. This is a cosmetic change. India needs to synergize the strength of DRDO in collaboration with corporate and institutions such as the Indian Institute of Technology etc.”
Brigadier Pradeep Sharma (Retd) opined, “One needs to examine the past track record of DRDO. Does re-aligning meet our requirement and make them more responsive as well as accountable or does it result in mere white wash with a bit of cost cutting? Are they to be corporatised or continue in the present mould? Who has control? The IAS or AHQ? Can we do with old wine in a new bottle?”
While Major General CD Sawant (Retd) presented a slightly different view on the development, “Despite being a cosmetic change this is a step in the right direction. However all labs of DRDO and DRDO officials must be held accountable for timely delivery of whatever research and development they undertook. I have served at Army HQ twice as a Maj and Col. Both times many civilian officers always wanted to get transferred to DRDO. When asked why, they unashamedly admitted that first they get an office with AC, secondly there is hardly any work with many perquisites. I am sure that the same trend continues.”
Touching upon Maj Gen Sengar’s view on the need for effective collaboration with the IITs, an Information Technology professional working for a major Multinational Corporation (MNC) painted a harrowing picture, “IITians with DRDO contracts are copy pasting code from the internet and passing it off. Not realising life depends on it." The former DRDO intern went on to say, “During my internship, I happened to work under a prominent ex-DRDO official. She headed a plenty of panels that were responsible for awarding projects to the creme de la creme of Indian engineers. A lot of these were based on Computer Vision, such as a drone mounted system to detect cracks in the railway tracks, or one to use drones to study erosion in coastal areas.”
“She was appalled by the sheer lack of the gravity of the situation displayed by the students of IITs and NITs. In both these projects, students blatantly copied the code from online instead of investing time in innovating and simply cashed in on the clout. That is seven months of organization resources down the drain.
“While the name of IITs and NITs is synonymous with excellence, indigenous quality in engineering and research, we must not discount the strides made by select students from other institutions. The positive stereotype of IITs has created a psychological barrier for students from private institutions to partner with any government entity.
“A student from SRM has successfully built a weapon based defence startup that has contracts with five other nations including Israel and China. Similarly, another premier startup, working with Computer Vision in scopes to provide thermal as well as other sensors to pinpoint the target over larger distances and tougher weather conditions easy, was set up by non IIT students. There is no doubt that our premier institutes are tough to get into, and tough to stay in, but in the end, are they only superior in producing clout vis-a-vis private institutions? In light of DRDOs restructuring, all Indian state organizations need an image overhaul.
“The students, who consider American DARPA led competitions to be elaborate and the future of warfare, are not even in the know of similar projects by DRDO or any of the forces. One such example is the OFFSET program by DARPA, a state-of-the-art, offensive security robot swarm of land and air robots that can detect intent, fish out the enemy operative and even map ingress and egress points. The first phase of this program was also similarly planned for development under the IAF as the Mehar Baba competition.
“The results of the IAF competition ended up producing what might be called the starting point of OFFSET. The bottom line is that for DRDO to be a global innovator, it needs consistency and innovation. For both, indigenous non-governmental partners are aplenty, however, they must broaden their horizons, and no psychological barriers should stand in the way of innovation. Otherwise, unfortunately, we shall be stuck in the circle jerk of Indian innovation, something even private institutions have not been able to get out of.”