Has DRDO taken Defence Minister Parrikar and India for a ride?

On 30 March, 2016, media headlines stated: ‘Enough of Akash, says Army as it opts for Israeli missiles’.

The report quoting MoD sources went on to say that the Army has made it clear that it does not want any more Akash regiments after it gets the first two ordered earlier for Rs 14,180 crore, with six firing batteries and hundreds of missiles each. This marks a major blow to the 'Make in India' policy, especially since the Navy is turning to France for similar requirements after dumping the Akash missiles for its warships due to "stabilisation problems".

The message was unmistakable

First, military prefers imported systems, especially the Army — why else would they stop after “ordering” two regiments worth of Akash?

Second, the military was shattering the ‘Make in India’ dream kickstarted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

On 27 April 2016, a Press Information Bureau (PIB) release gave details of products/systems developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) that have either been inducted in the defence forces or are in the process of trials/production/induction, as listed by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar in a written reply to KC Tyagi in the Rajya Sabha. This list included the Akash Weapon System. On 4 May, 2016, another PIB release carried a written reply by Parrikar to Sanjay Raut in the Rajya Sabha with respect to the Akash Weapon System, which can be summarised as the following:

File photo of Manohar Parrikar. PTI

File photo of Manohar Parrikar. PTI

-Proper trials of Akash missile were conducted prior to induction into Armed Forces
-Development user trials were completed ‘successfully’ in 2007
-Orders were placed for two squadrons by IAF in 2008 and six squadrons in 2010
-User trial of production equipment was done successfully in 2012
-Post-induction user trials for Akash Air Force equipment was conducted successfully in 2014
-An order was placed for two regiments by the Indian Army and First Off Production Model (FOPM) trials were successfully conducted in 2014
-Post-induction trials by the Army were conducted successfully in 2016
-Akash Missile System is successfully inducted and is performing as per the expectations of the armed forces.

The production of Akash is being handled by Bharat Electronics Ltd and Bharat Dynamics Ltd with the help of a number of major and MSME industries spread all across the country. So, Akash is a successful example of the 'Make in India' policy and proves that the government’s initiatives are successful in defence manufacturing.

What are we missing here?

Does the military deserve to be kicked for its penchant for imports and the way it undermined ‘Make in India’? To start with, the Akash Weapon System has nothing to do with Modi’s call for ‘Make in India’ given in 2014. Akash was one of the five core missile systems of the integrated guided missile development program launched by the DRDO in 1984; Akash was to replace the Russian Kvadrat System with the Army for providing air defence cover for mechanised forces during manoeuvre battles. Some 23 years later, when the trials were done in 2007, these were a complete fiasco. The Army found that while on the move, Akash could not negotiate undulating ground appropriately and had difficulty in acquiring even slow-moving helicopters, leave alone fast-moving aircraft.

The Army therefore rejected Akash outright because it did not meet the requirement of providing air defence for mechanised forces during manoeuvre battles. So Akash was ‘given’ to the IAF. The IAF did not mind because IAF deploys air defence weapons for protection of vulnerable points and vulnerable areas in layers. So, Akash became one of the air defence weapon in this multi-layered air defence.

In early 2015, the media exploded with the news that the Army will finally get some desperately-needed supersonic firepower to take on enemy fighters, helicopters, drones and sub-sonic cruise missiles after years of grappling with obsolete air defence weapons with the “Improved Akash Weapon System”, and what made this even more significant was that the improved Akash Weapon System is 96 percent indigenous.

Quoting ministry of defence sources, the report said that Parrikar was slated to symbolically hand over the first Akash to the Army in early April, adding the first full Akash Regiment should be ready by June-July 2015 with second one following by end-2016. But what the Army found to its horror is that this so called ‘Improved Akash’ is still incapable of providing air defence for mechanised forces during manoeuvre battle like the vintage Kvadrat.

So, the Army perforce has to use the ‘Improved Kvadrat’ in static role. It is for the same reason, that the Navy rejected Akash; for problem of stabilization. What should a matter of grave concern that this while we already have the technology of guns firing on the move past several years; – naval guns aboard ships and tanks in Army - the T-90 Russian tank being by far the best for accuracy on the move. Why could this technology not be incorporated in the Akash Weapon System despite three decades of development – to acquire and engage targets on the move.

The question that the civilian friends would ask is why did the Army accept the two Akash Regiments in the first place? The fiasco of the 2007 Development User trials compared to what the Defence Minister recently apprised the Rajya Sabha has been mentioned above. The system puts tremendous pressure on the Services on the plea that when so much money and time has been spent on developing a product / system, at least buy “some” to compensate the development / part development costs.

Such pressure is invariably at the level of the Defence Secretary or Secretary Defence Production. The Army would have likely agreed for two regiments worth because Army’s air defence equipment anyway is 90% obsolete. Perhaps then there was a move to make Army buy more of these Akash regiments, and that is where the Army said enough is enough. Since Akash does not meet the operational requirements of the Army, quite naturally, Army has gone in for procurement of four QR-SAM regiments through the global tender route. Missile systems from Israel, Russia and Sweden have undergone extensive field trials conducted by the Army.

The results have not been officially declared but Israeli Spyder QR-SAMs have reportedly topped in the trials. For reasons discussed above, the IAF sure is inducting more Akash squadrons but if Akash was so versatile (despite three decades of development), why would IAF be looking for imports. It may be noted that IAF is inducting four Spyder QR-SAM squadrons February 2017 onwards.

One does not expect Defence Minister Parrikar to know the above and his written replies perforce are drafts prepared by the MoD bureaucrats. But the question is when the Defence Minister says in his written reply, “Akash Missile System is successfully inducted and is performing as per the expectations of the Services … Thus, Akash, is a successful example of ‘Make in India’ and proves government’s initiatives are successful in defence manufacturing”, how much of it is true?

Hasn’t Parrikar and the nation been taken for a ride?

Akash incidentally is just one example of inadequate and unaccountable functioning of the DRDO. Scores of articles have highlighted multiple products and inadequacies in a long list of products and systems, leave aside numerous CAG reports indicating rampant corruption and sub-standard products. As per recent reports, Government is contemplating setting up not-for-profit firm to foster innovation and create R&D ecosystem.

Hopefully, this firm would also focus on military and dual-use R&D too, because the DRDO has hardly been able to meet military’s requirements. Much thought is needed on the issue.

The author is a retired Lieutenant-General of the Indian Army


Published Date: May 12, 2016 05:10 pm | Updated Date: May 12, 2016 05:10 pm


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