|November 24, 1997|
Way Off Target
Despite steep increases in its budget the Defence Research and Development Organisation is finding it difficult to meet performance and time schedules.
By Manoj Joshi
Appearing before parliamentarians is always a chore which even the formidable mandarins of the ias view with some trepidation. But there is one departmental head for whom such meetings are a triumphal platform. When last week, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) chief, told a closed-door meeting of his ministry's Parliamentary Consultative Committee that the Arjun main battle tank (MBT) had been tested for 20,000 km and cleared for "limited series production", they listened reverentially.
But within the Army, which has somewhat grudgingly accepted production of a limited batch of 124 tanks, there are growing worries about DRDO's ability to keep its promises. Sources say that the tank is yet to meet the required levels of accuracy as well as two of the 10 imperatives that former army chief, the late General B.C. Joshi, insisted be met in 1994, before the tank was to be accepted by the Army.
The Army and the Air Force are concerned about delays in several other vital DRDO projects as well. Among them are India's indigenously built missiles: not the successful Agni and Prithvi, which have hogged the limelight, but the "bread-and-butter" surface-to-air missiles (sam) Trishul and Akash, that were to have replaced the Russian-supplied OSA-AK and Kvadrat systems. Designed to be fired from tracked vehicles or from batteries, they are a second line of defence to down aircraft between 0.5-25 km away. They should have been replaced in the early 1990s when the DRDO-designed missiles were to be fielded. Now, despite their shelf-life beginning to run out, the Russian missiles are still a part of the forces' arsenal. The question is: For how long?
Yet the problems of Arjun and Trishul pale into insignificance when compared to what the DRDO confronts in the light combat aircraft (LCA) project. It is by far the most technologically complex challenge facing the DRDO today. This multi-role light fighter was mooted to replace the MiG-21. Many of the MiGs have begun "retiring" since no bureaucratic sleight-of-hand can keep them flying. At the time of the LCA's "roll out" in November 1995, it was announced that its first flight would take place in 1996. According to Pushpinder Singh Chopra, a leading civilian defence specialist, "they have not been able to iron out the scores of technical problems, mainly relating to software". Now DRDO maintains that the LCA will fly early next year. But not many experts believe it will. Slip-ups are natural in design and development, but the cost and time involved in indigenous arms projects have resulted in rising concerns that the massive Rs 10,000 crore plus investment that the country has made since the mid-1980s may end up as junk.
Unlike other products, weapon systems face quick obsolescence, with appellations such as "world class" losing their gloss remarkably fast. More important, they have to face not only stiff commercial competition, but also have to, simply, be better than the opposition in the battlefield. For this reason, the concerns of the users, the armed forces -- whose life and limb depend on the superiority and sturdiness of the systems they use -- are central.
As for Arjun, "it is a tank with potential," says a senior armoured corps officer, "but it is far from a world-class tank". Arjun is typical of how the DRDO built up plenty of hype but failed to deliver, both in terms of performance and time schedules. Now in the 25th year of its development -- and nearly Rs 300 crore invested -- the MBT in its present form may be a white elephant. Though offensive weapons, tanks need armour for self-protection and good suspension for crew comfort and to enable its gun to be fired with accuracy. Arjun weighs 57 tonnes; the engine available is a 1400 hp German diesel, which is not powerful enough, especially in summer when high temperature reduces its performance. Most disturbing are continuing doubts about the accuracy of its gun, which, strangely enough, is more accurate when it fires on the move, rather than when it's standing still. "This problem is related to the training and mind-set of 43 Cavalry crews, who are converting from T-72 tanks, which cannot fire on the move," says a DRDO official.
Its army project director at the time, Brigadier (retired) D.R. Gole, went on record last month alleging that there were serious deficiencies in the fire-control system of the tank, reducing its probability of hitting an enemy tank with the first shot to anywhere between 20-80 per cent. The required accuracy is of the order of 90 per cent. Despite the well-publicised problems, the Army has in a mature decision agreed to accept 124 tanks of the first batch, while insisting on the required improvements in the second. These include some "slimming" down of weight, redesigning to accommodate an internal auxiliary power unit and a better gun, and provision of reactive armour to neutralise incoming kinetic-energy shells.
Then again, Arjun has at least reached this point -- the Army has still not been given any of the indigenous sams to test even though Trishul was the first of the five DRDO missiles to be tested in 1987. According to Shankar Bhaduri, an independent technical analyst, Trishul, which has to be guided to the target on an electronic beam, is not working with the required accuracy. DRDO officials acknowledge that there were problems with the plume of the missile's engine that disrupted communication links with the ground. A new guidance system has been made to improve on this and they believe they have a product which more than meets the needs of the Army. The Army version of Trishul is to be launched from a tracked vehicle against targets between 500-9,000 m. Detected at such ranges, enemy aircraft are just minutes away and the ability to launch quickly is the key. DRDO officials maintain that Trishul's usp -- the ability to be launched within eight seconds of the detection of a target -- makes it better than any contemporary sam of its class.
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