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What's behind the DRDO bashing?

By Kaushik Kapisthalam
January 19, 2005 15:56 IST
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US-based South Asia analyst Kaushik Kapisthalam examines the Defence and Research Development Organisation, in a three-part series.

Part I : DRDO, Media's whipping boy

Part II: DRDO: A stellar success

In the previous two parts of this series, the reader would have seen the objective criteria to evaluate the performance of a nation's defence R&D effort as well as some of the Indian DRDO's successful efforts.

If the facts are against it, why then does the DRDO come in for such excoriation in the Indian media? Are all the experts quoted in the desi DRDO critiques flat out wrong? To understand this, one must look at the possible reasons behind the Indian media's negative reportage on local military products.

The first reason is the simplest one to fathom -- namely that many of Indian defence reporters simply don't know what they are talking about. That sounds harsh and the reader may wonder if I'm saying there are no good defence reporters in India -- which is definitely not the case.

For instance, a leading Indian magazine recently featured a cover story claiming that the DRDO is a white elephant.

The report claimed, for instance, that the Indian Navy had to buy Israeli Barak missiles, because the naval version of the Prithvi missile was delayed. That is funny because the Barak is a Surface-to-Air missile while the Prithvi is a Surface-to-Surface missile. This was unlikely to be a one-off mistake because the report went on to call the Nag anti-tank missile a Surface to Air missile as well.

Surely it's the DRDO's fault that India does not have the ability to protect against airborne tanks and sea-borne aircraft!

While the story went on to say that many of DRDO's projects never resulted in products, it did not quote independent investigations which placed the blame for this malaise equally at the feet of the services, which on many an occasion refused to buy products that they asked for even after they agreed that their requirements were met.

The prestigious magazine did not even print any rebuttal story in later issues, instead settling for short letters that conveniently left out the ones exposing their whoppers and egregious false claims. Bashing Indian product makes good copy, so why let the facts stand in the way of a good story?

These are not isolated examples.

Even a casual reading of defence related reports in the Indian media would turn up errors relating to fundamental military concepts and equipment.

There are exceptions of course, such as NDTV's Vishnu Som, The Statesman's Srinjoy Chowdhury and a few others, but it is still a shame that much of the defence reporting in India is left to people who just reproduce what their 'sources' tell them, without doing any fact-checking. That their 'sources' could have an axe to grind seems to be lost with these people. And very rarely do these negative reports contain quotes from those who have an opposite point of view.

India in the big league: Fernandes

The second big source of the local defence industry baiting is the ever-growing club of retired mid level to senior military officers.

Now, these are people who know the field and their views must be taken seriously. A vast majority of retired servicemen and officers want nothing but the best for their colleagues in service and speak out with that good interest at heart. They must be applauded for this. But one must also look for possible ulterior motives in some of the more strident spokesmen.

There are retired officers who are on the payrolls of foreign military firms, which is quite legal, but when one takes in their views on the pluses and minuses of a local made system, one must ask if their judgement isn't clouded by the possibility of their employer landing a lucrative contract.

The bizarre saga of the AJT

For instance, the Russian arms lobby would like to see India forever dependent on them for tanks and combat vehicles. It is good business for them, but a bad deal for India in the long run.

And then there are retired senior officers who have become peaceniks. There are two former services chiefs who have taken up DRDO bashing earnestly.

But if one reads their writings carefully, one could see that they are making a general 'guns vs butter' type argument. In other words, they'd much rather spend money on welfare and entitlement programs rather than defence research. One is unlikely to see these gentlemen call for an investigation of loss-making non-military public sector undertakings.

And then there are those ex-servicemen who write with the attitude that they know what's best for the country's military and whenever the government decides to promote all local product that they deem of low value, they start fulminating against it. For instance, there is one television-based defence reporter, who is also a retired military officer, who has long been attacking the DRDO with special focus on the Arjun programme.

When the government recently decided to go ahead with the Bhim artillery system, which uses the Arjun as its basis, this gentleman went ballistic and started trashing the Bhim acquisition.

India lagging in research and development work

First, he claimed that India is never going to need this type of self-propelled artillery because it is 'unlikely to fight a war in the near future!' Then he claimed that there are no similar products in the world (there are) and then went on to say that he cannot quote other experts who share his views because he is the expert!

Evidently, the Indian Army's planners have a different idea of what's good for them and they are going ahead with this deal. God save the army! Past reports filed by this gentleman have also blasted DRDO for not delivering products asked for by the army. He used the army's need for a kitchen lorry to serve hot meals to servicemen as an example.

What he failed to point out in his report was that the government itself faulted the army for going to DRDO with a request for a simple system that can be rigged up on the field. It is not very clever of a person to go to a Nobel Prize-winning physicist to solve a 10th standard physics problem, is it?

In fact an independent investigation later on found that the army gave a list of specifications for a kitchen lorry to DRDO and once the latter built a vehicle meeting those needs, the army changed its mind. But this gentleman left out all the facts in these reports.

There are other reporters with military experience too who have perfected the art of passing off their personal opinions as journalism. Real journalism -- be it military-related or otherwise -- involves the setting aside of one's personal views, presenting of facts from both sides and letting the reader make his/her own judgement.

Does this mean that the Indian media should become cheerleaders for the DRDO or local defence products?

Definitely not.

It is the role of the media in a democracy like India to point out government wastage, lack of performance in taxpayer-funded organisations etc. But such criticism should be fact-based and will serve a purpose if it is constructive in nature.

Consider the Light Combat Aircraft as a test case. Virtually every report filed in Indian media on the LCA ends up bemoaning the delays in the project, which is conveniently laid at the feet of the DRDO. But there is hardly a report that puts the LCA in perspective. A 'fair and balanced' report on the LCA would state the facts that:

Few other developing countries in the world have even tried to build a fourth generation fighter from scratch. Compared to them, the LCA is a roaring success.

  • Many of LCA's current critics had claimed on the past that it would never fly. But they still continue to maintain their credibility for some strange reason.
  • The post-Pokhran sanctions hit the LCA project very hard but DRDO overcame it by balancing components on its own when it was previously expected from abroad.
  • Even Western nations have delays in fighter projects despite the fact that hey have had to face fewer budget or access issues. For instance, take the example of the Eurofighter project, which combined the money and technological abilities for the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain and decades of prior military aircraft building experience. The plane was first expected to enter service in the late 1980s and is still facing delays today.
  • Neutral observers have lauded the LCA's technologies as being on the cutting-edge.

It is not at all hard to write a balanced report, as the above example shows, but once one brings in hard facts, it tends to blunt the report's objective in bashing DRDO. Perhaps this is why most Indian DRDO-bashing reports stick to old myths and fallacies.

Money, money everywhere, not a note to spend

In summary, the cup is not necessarily half empty when it comes to India's indigenous defence research and development. In fact, it may even be three-quarters full, when one considers how far our scientists and engineers have come since DRDO was set up in 1958.

There are still many challenges, including the need for better communication between DRDO and the defence services, especially the Army, the bureaucratic delays, the large number of non-productionised projects and the services' continuing reliance on foreign nations for critical defence technology.

The Indian media must keep reporting these issues to keep DRDO on its toes. But the time has also come for the Indian media to bring the defence reporting at an objective level rather than using old shibboleths to tarnish local defence R&D efforts.

For a different view point, please read:

Chinks in the armour

Mission Unaccomplished

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Kaushik Kapisthalam