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DRDO: A stellar success

By Kaushik Kapisthalam
Last updated on: January 19, 2005 16:01 IST
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US-based South Asia analyst Kaushik Kapisthalam examines the Defence Research and Development Organisation's performance in a three-part series:

Part I : DRDO, Media's whipping boy?

The Indian media's DRDO bash-fest usually keeps a laser-like focus on the alleged failures of DRDO, like the Arjun tank and the Trishul missile system.

But the reader may be surprised to know that there is a whole slew of DRDO designed and developed products that have proved to be a big hit with the armed services, in addition to saving the exchequer of many crores of rupees. Let us look at some specific examples.

When it comes to military modernisation, some of the priciest systems to modernise are radars, detection and surveillance and electronic warfare equipment. Most cutting edge technologies are simply not available in the market while the available technology is prohibitively expensive.

So how did DRDO respond to the Indian requirements in the above area?

In January 2004, the Indian Army accepted the Samyuktha electronic warfare (EW) system developed by DRDO.

Consisting of 145 vehicles with various subsystems, the Samyuktha provides the army with the ability to detect and jam enemy communications, monitor movements -- an ability that only a few select nations possess. In fact, even though the US imposed sanctions in 1998 could have impaired the Samyuktha project, DRDO scientists overcame the obstacles to develop this state of the art system.

The advanced phased-array radar associated with the Samyuktha, called the Rajendra, was also indigenously developed by DRDO. The Rajendra radar is also part of the Akash medium range surface-to-air missile system, which is currently undergoing advanced trials with the army and air force. A 3D Central Acquisition Radar (3DCAR) is also undergoing trials with users.

DRDO has also leveraged the Rajendra project to develop an advanced Weapon-Locating Radar (WLR), the likes of which would have been invaluable in a war like Kargil, where the Pakistanis had American WLRs and the Indian Army lacked a similar product.

The EW suites for the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force, titled Sangraha and Tempest respectively, have also met with great success.

DRDO to develop new fighter aircraft

For instance, the Tarang Radar Warning Receiver (RWR), a key aircraft EW component, has been successfully installed in the upgraded IAF MiG-21 fighters, the MiG-27 strike planes and the incomparable Su-30MKI air-dominance fighters. Another EW component, the Tusker Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) pod, is also in IAF service.

In fact, the IAF has been a happy DRDO customer for a long time and now routinely relies on local innovations in the fields of avionics, radar and communications.

The Su-30MKI, for instance is a cut above the similar Su-30MKK that the Russians developed for China because the former relies on cutting edge Indian components such as the Mission Computer, Display Processor, Radar Computer, Integrated communication equipment, Radar Altimeter and Programmable Signal Processors, all designed and developed by DRDO under a project titled 'Vetrivale.'

This avionics suite, built locally, costs less than 20 per cent of Western made systems, which may not even offer the same level of technology to the IAF. The Russians were so impressed by the Vetrivale avionics that they asked to incorporate some of the technology to the Su-30 variants they sold to Malaysia.

DRDO technology was also used in IAF's local upgrade efforts of the MiG-27 and Jaguar strike aircraft, saving millions of dollars in foreign exchange. The IAF has also lavishly praised and ordered DRDO developed Indra-II advanced low-level detection radar.

The IAF is widely using the indigenous multi-mission Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH), named Dhruv, developed by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited with support from DRDO. Dhruv has won international accolades and have evoked interest from nations like Chile. It recently set a world record by flying at an altitude of 27,000 feet above mean sea level. The Indian Army and Indian Navy are also acquiring purpose-built Dhruv variants.

The biggest IAF system built by DRDO is the Light Combat Aircraft. While a detailed analysis of the LCA project is beyond the scope of this article, one can safely say that the LCA is a definite success for Indian aviation and has silenced all detractors, at least the ones who stick to facts.

The LCA has also resulted in spin-offs such as the Sitara Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT), which was built from scratch in a record time of 22 months and has received accolades from the end user. Efforts are now underway to build an indigenous Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT) and a small indigenous Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AWACS).

The Indian Navy has even more enthusiastically embraced DRDO products.

Many navy vessels such as the Rajput class and Veer class ships use DRDO's Ajanta Electronic Support Measures (ESM) system. Under the Sangraha EW program, DRDO has completed the development of five types of EW systems. Sanket, an ESM system for patrol boats has already been ordered by the navy. An airborne EW system called KITE has also been successfully tested.

The navy is also testing submarine EW systems, all developed under the Sangraha project. Essentially, thanks to DRDO, the Indian Navy now has airborne, surface ship borne and submarine electronic warfare systems. Given the fact that Pakistan is getting advanced naval reconnaissance systems from the US under the guise of the war on terror, DRDO's work in the Naval EW area goes beyond the savings of millions of dollars.

India US join hands to make futuristic soldier

DRDO has also produced the APSOH, Nagan, Ushus, Humsa and Panchendriya (submarine) sonars for the Indian Navy as well as the SV-2000 maritime patrol radar and the Mihir Sonar for the naval version of the Dhruv helicopter. A lightweight torpedo for helicopter and ship launched attacks on submarines, developed by DRDO, has also been recently cleared for production.

The lethal BrahMos, which is the world's only supersonic stealth cruise missile, was jointly developed by DRDO with Russia. The BrahMos is deadlier than the American Tomahawk missile which flies at a sub-sonic speed. DRDO's contribution to BrahMos includes the onboard navigation system, onboard computer, electronics, fire control system, software and some parts of the propulsion system.

In general, one can see that the navy and air force, which usually don't have the army's big budget to go shopping abroad for everything, have developed an excellent working relationship with DRDO to get whatever they can locally and are satisfied with the results.

Despite the well-publicised 'failings' of the Arjun, the army too has silently built up fruitful partnership with DRDO agencies for systems that are unavailable overseas and India-specific assets for use in counter-insurgency and high-altitude operations.

India tests Lakshya

For instance, the army's aviation wing recently decided to trim its purchase of foreign-made high-altitude helicopters from 198 to 35, reducing the expected bill from $440 million to $80 million, and procure the HAL Dhruv because of the Dhruv's excellent high-altitude performance.

The 5.56mm INSAS fixed-butt rifle, which has been put through one of the most gruelling series of user trials in the history of small arms development, has become a mainstay of the Indian infantry since 1997, with lakhs of units in service. Other versions of the INSAS are now being inducted as well.

The Army has also inducted many counter-insurgency assets developed by DRDO. They include Sujav, a frequency jamming equipment and Safari, a jamming device for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

The indigenous battery-powered man portable battlefield surveillance radar (BFSR-SR) weighing 27kg was developed by DRDO in a short period of 24 months. It is capable of detecting crawling men at 500 metres, moving groups of people at 5 km and a group of vehicles at 10 km -- a tremendous asset along the Line of Control with Pakistan.

The army has also ordered DRDO's Nishant Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), which is fully capable of instantly providing time-sensitive battlefield intelligence to field commanders.

Other unheralded DRDO products for the army include the lethal Pinaka Multi-Barrel Rocket Launcher, the Shakti Artillery Combat Command Control System which connects massed artillery guns and makes them 10 times more effective, the Lakshya pilotless target aircraft, the Bridge Layer Tank on a T-72 chassis, the Sarvatra multi-span bridge, various combat simulators, a mobile Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) decontamination system -- all of which are in production or already in service.

These form just a part of DRDO's products that have proven to be successful with the defence services. Yet all we hear in our media is an endless stream of negativity about India's Defence R&D efforts.

Part III: What's behind the DRDO bashing?

For a different view point, please read:

Chinks in the armour

Mission Unaccomplished
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Kaushik Kapisthalam