What does the rejig at the top in DRDO portend?

The story of the top positions of power in India’s defence research has come a full circle in 7 years.

The appointment of the 58-year-old Dr Samir V Kamath as the new Chairman, DRDO and Secretary, Defence R& D on August 25 and making the incumbent, Dr G Satheesh Reddy, a Scientific Advisor to the Raksha Mantri ( SA to RM), holds the tale.

Within this period of 7 years, the SA to RM post was first delinked in 2015 from the overall position of Chairman, DRDO, Secretary, Defence R&D and SA held by Avinash Chander.

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While Sateesh Reddy was made SA to RM, Dr S Christopher was made the Chairman, DRDO & Secretary, Defence R&D. Subsequently, in 2018, Dr Satheesh Reddy was made the Chairman, DRDO & Secretary, Defence R&D.

Interestingly, Dr Reddy was given a two-year extension of his term in August 2020. Throughout his four-year tenure at the helm there was no clarity on the SA role and it was presumed that he performed all three responsibilities.

Coming to the latest developments, Dr Samir’s term will be till he attains the age of 60 or until further orders, which gives him about two years. On the other hand, Dr Reddy is set to superannuate in July 2023 when he turns 60, leaving him with less than a year more as the SA to RM. How effectively they can perform their responsibilities will have to be watched.

Issues galore

Given that the DRDO has been under pressure to perform from the PM is known and that delays and cost over runs plaguing its mega projects being no secret, how will these changes at the top impact its performance has been a point of debate.

Moreover, the growing defence expenditure, the challenges on the defence production, indigenous technology development as well as import of arms and equipment call for a strong role for the DRDO.

According to defence ministry watchers there is no definite clarity on the organisational role of the SA. Was it a secretary level rank when bifurcated in 2015? Will the SA be part of the DRDO or have separate office in the South Block? Developments in the weeks to come can throw some light.

Hyderabad’s domination

Interestingly, Hyderabad’s DRDO complex, with more than half a dozen Institutes and manufacturing entities has the unique distinction of providing the lion’s share of the top chiefs in the last 40 years. Starting from V S Arunachalam (1982-92), A P J Abdul Kalam, V K Saraswat, Avinash Chander, Sateesh Reddy and now Samir Kamat, accounting for nearly 3 decades.

A distinguished scientist, the 58 year old, Dr Samir is the Director General Naval Systems & Materials (NS & M) at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) since 2017. Having joined the DMRL, Hyderabad in 1989, he rose to become its Director between August 2015-17.

Hyderabad boasts of the DRDL, DMRL, DLRL, RCI, ASL among others under the DRDO. The BDL, Midhani and BrahMos under the Ministry of Defence. There are several small units too.

The genesis

The NDA government under Narendra Modi had in 2015 taken the bold step of splitting the three posts, usually held by the chief of the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO). The then Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar favoured the move to have an exclusive advisor to him ostensibly on crucial technology matters.

In May 2015, he appointed the 52-year-old G Satheesh Reddy, Director of the Hyderabad-based, Research Centre Imarat (RCI) as the scientific advisor to the Raksha Mantri (SA to RM). At the same time, S Christopher, who was close to 60, was appointed the director general, DRDO (DG DRDO), and concurrently the secretary (defence R&D). Both their terms were for two years respectively.

Prior to that, Dr Avinash Chander was holding all the three positions. He was to continue in office in DRDO Bhavan till May 31, 2016 after being given an extension of 18 months in November, 2014. However that extension was withdrawn with effect from January 31, 2016, raising some controversy.

Manohar Parrikar’s decision to bifurcate the top position was a first in a way in the DRDO in over 50 years. Traditionally, the Scientific Advisor to Raksha Mantri was deemed an important position with eminent scientists like Dr Suri Bhagavantam and Dr D S Kothari holding it during the formative years in the 1960s and 1970s.

However, sometime in the 1980s during Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi’s regime, the DRDO Chief position was upgraded to Secretary Rank by adding the Secretary, Defence R& D position. Dr V S Arunachalam was perhaps the first to hold all 3 positions between 1982 and 1992. He has the unique distinction of serving 5 PMs and more than half a dozen defence ministers.

Subsequently, the practise continued with A P J Abdul Kalam, V K Aatre, M Natarajan, V K Saraswat and Avinash Chander for over 3 decades till 2015.

However, the 2015 decision seemed to be short lived. Firstly, the defence minister was shifted to Goa to head the State as Chief Minister in 2017. Arun Jaitley, then Finance Minister was given the additional responsibility. Meanwhile, the extended term of Dr Christopher ended in May 2018. In the quest of finding a successor to him, the government appointed Sateesh Reddy as the Chairman DRDO and Secretary Defence R&D on August 25, 2018.

What role the SA can play?

In 2015 when the de-merger happened, an independent office and necessary infrastructure and personnel had to be created in the South Block for Sateesh Reddy to operate as the SA to RM away from the DRDO Bhavan.

In view of the short lived bifurcation experts say that the role of the SA to RM has not fully been defined concretely in the overall organisation. Was it advisory to only the RM or had a greater say in the DRDO too? Would the RM get the benefit of explanations from his SA on the recommendations coming from the DRDO as well as the national projects?

With the NDA government pushing for ‘Make in India’ and emphasis on the Aatmanirbhar Bharat, the defence sector has been getting lot of projects. There is also the question of increasing the role of private sector, which the PM is clear on. In fact, at a review meeting several years ago, he reportedly expressed displeasure at the DRDO role. Subsequently, the Dr P Rama Rao committee’s recommendations of restructuring were to be looked into. Though, not much has happened on that front.

The DRDO is pursuing major development projects like the LCA Tejas Mark 2 fighter aircraft, advanced missile systems, Artillery Gun, Electronic Warfare Systems as well as collaborations with Israel, Russia and the US. There is also pressure from the US, France and Russia on purchase of defence equipment on the RM.

The DRDO, the departments of Atomic Energy (DAE) and Space (DoS) are the three strategic departments. It has been a tradition that one person held all the key positions so far. The Chairman, ISRO; Secretary, DoS and Chairman, Space Commission and the Secretary, DAE and Chairman of Atomic Energy Commission is one person.

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