The successes with anti-satellite test and Tejas LCA has uplifted Defence Research and Development Organisation's (DRDO) confidence, with futuristic military technologies like hypersonic missiles, next-generation tanks and over the horizon radar.
In an interview to DH's Kalyan Ray, DRDO chairman G Satheesh Reddy shares the details of futuristic technologies on which DRDO is working and the areas in which India will become self-reliant in the next five years. Excerpts:
Q: Existing DRDO programmes are mostly those that were conceptualised in the 1970s and 1980s. What are the technologies that DRDO would like to muster 25-30 years from now?
A: Our veterans have laid a very strong foundation stone for us to progress and think about the route for self sustenance in technologies for the defence forces through research and development in DRDO. It’s our endeavor to traverse the path and realize a number of weapons systems, to meet the present and futuristic requirements of our users. The new systems include Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft – the twin-engine medium weight fighter aircraft with 5th generation technologies, unmanned combat aerial, next-generation battle tanks, air-borne warning and control systems and high endurance UAV. Among the missiles, the aim is to develop naval anti-ship missiles and long-range hypersonic cruise missiles. Among the sensors and electronic warfare systems, R&D on very long-range radar, over-the-horizon radar, quantum radar and sensors suite for submarines are being undertaken. In the propulsion and engine field, high thrust aero engine, Wheeled vehicle engine with 1500 horse power and 600 hp are being developed. In the next 4-8 years, we should have prototypes and initial trials on at least some of these projects. As far as the new technology initiatives are concerned, we need to focus on swarm drone, artificial intelligence, cognitive, morphing, stealth, cyber defence, quantum communication, computing and advanced smart materials.
Q: Can you share details of new technologies like hypersonic missile and next-generation main battle tanks?
A: Hypersonic vehicles will have a speed of 6-20 Mach (1 Mach is the speed of sound). It will be a cruise missile and the process of developing high-temperature, high-strength material has started for the hypersonic vehicle. The next generation MBT will be lightweight and have sensors to sense the enemy ahead. They will also be having better defensive mechanisms.
Q: You recently had a successful anti-satellite test under Mission Shakti — What is the future of this programme? Do you plan more such tests?
A: The ASAT has been a capability demonstrator of India's technological advancement to neutralise enemy satellites. Such tests will not be repeated and would not be carried out in higher altitude. We have always said no to weaponisation of space but that will not stop us from gaining technological capabilities to defend our national interest. DRDO would continue to work on development of advanced technologies for Air and Missile Defence systems. Any further work would be undertaken only on the directions of the government.
Q: Is DRDO looking at a bigger space programme?
A: We plan several activities as space becomes the fourth dimension of warfare, but I would rather not talk about them. India needs to work on a number of sensors and related systems for the space and a lot of defence-related activities for space needs to be carried out.
Q: Can you provide an update on the missile development programme?
A: We received further orders on Aakash and concluded the user trials for Nag anti-tank missile, which will be inducted soon. The Helina trials will be completed this year whereas the trials for the MPATGM will be finished next year. The trials are also going on for Stand-off anti-tank missile. Other future missile programs include Akash NG, MRSAM for Army, VL-Astra, AAM-Astra MK-II, ASM-Rudra-M and naval anti-ship missile.
Q: Can you elaborate on the progress made on LCA (Air Force) and LCA (Navy)?
A: Final Operational Clearance (FOC) for LCA (Air Force) was accorded in February 2019 and the production center HAL has commenced the Series Production. The Defence Ministry has finalised the orders for 83 LCA Mark-1 aircraft to the IAF. The production of LCA Mk-1A by the HAL is to be completed in the next 4-5 years. HAL has also commenced production activities for Tejas Trainers. Two prototypes have been built and are undergoing flight tests. On LCA-Navy Mark-1, the development activities are to be completed by 2020 subsequent to which we will undertake flying trials. Development of LCA Mark-2 is going on simultaneously.
Q: Compared to the situation two decades ago, how much import reduction has been made possible by DRDO?
A: The production value of systems and equipment developed by DRDO and inducted or approved for induction by the services stands over Rs 2.73 lakh crore, which leads to huge foreign exchanges savings. The indigenous content in DRDO products have gone up to 40-45%. In the next five years, we expect that there will be no imports the areas of radars, sonar, torpedoes, armaments and EW systems.
Q: But the armed forces still complain about DRDO's repeated failure to meet the deadlines?
A: We concentrate on quality in a big way. For critical systems produced by our lead agencies, we engage third party quality assurance agencies. Though DRDO in not directly involved in the mass production of systems developed by it for armed forces but still, DRDO involves the external quality assurance agencies such as DGQA, DGAQA and user service representatives right from the inception stage of its Mission Mode Projects. A comprehensive in house quality and reliability policy ensures adherence to strict QR norms at every stage of development process. However, quality issues during production as flagged time to time, arise at Production Agencies, which are also being addressed by instituting mechanisms to hand hold the during the Product life cycle. We are also developing a sustained quality culture amongst Defence MSMEs with the involvement of professional bodies such as Quality Council of India. The time lag earlier happened due to lack of ecosystems in the academic institutions as well as in the industry. The systems have changed a lot now. The industries have also matured as they deliver built-to-specifications systems. There are now procedures and mechanisms within the organisation to improve efficiency so that the products can be delivered on time. However, in research and development, unforeseen problems can always come up as some amount of uncertainties are involved.
Q. Getting quality manpower is an issue for most of the scientific institutions. How serious is the problem in DRDO, particularly because of the attrition factor, and how do you deal with it?
A: The department faced the attrition issue prior to implementation of 6th and 7th CPC recommendations. However, with increased pay and perks and technical challenges, the trend of attrition has been arrested to a greater extent.