In Between ISRO and DRDO- Where Lies the Difference?

Written by: Pathikrit Payne
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After the initial euphoria over the emphatic and the most incredible success of ISRO's Mars Mission has settled down, it would be interesting to do some analysis as to why ISRO stands apart from other similar organizations when it comes to crossing one milestone after another and that too in a field where very few dare to venture.

Space research is not everyone's cup of tea and even though most of the major economies of the world have their own independent space research programmes, only a handful have been successful in making a significant mark in this field.

The Milestone Machine named ISRO

Even before the envious milestone of reaching Mars in its very first attempt, ISRO has been known for having had more than 100 launches and with the ISRO workhorse namely the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) alone having been responsible for launching 65 satellites into the orbit out of which 30 are of Indian origin and 35 of foreign origin.

Earlier this year, ISRO also succeeded in taming the unruly horse namely the GSLV or the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle with the launch of GSAT-14 weighing 1982 Kg by GSLV-D5 rocket.

Today ISRO is not just known for its flawless but frugal engineering and space research credentials but also for making the impossible achievements possible with a fraction of the budget that NASA has.

The Big Question- What Sets ISRO Apart and Where Does DRDO Falter?

So what sets ISRO apart? What makes ISRO so globally competitive and how is it possible that a nation which can on its own make a spacecraft and make it travel for more than 660 million Km, finds it difficult to make a quality combat aircraft?

Isn't it strange that a nation which has outsmarted NASA in terms of frugal engineering and low cost Mars Mission finds it difficult to retain its own engineering talent? Is it not a reality that ISRO has succeeded where DRDO has faltered if not failed?

In fact one should remember what Prime Minister Modi had to say to the top brass of DRDO in the month of August this year. He had expressed his anguish at the ‘Chalta Hai' attitude of DRDO for its inability to finish projects on time and made it clear to them that the world would not be waiting for them.

Modi had stated to the top brass of DRDO no unclear terms, ‘"The world will not wait for us. We have to run ahead of time. We should not say in 2014 that a project conceived in 1992 will take some more time," (read more here).

Clearly Modi was referring to DRDO's numerous long delayed projects including that of the Light Combat Aircraft as well as that of its failure with several others including the Kaveri Engine, the Advanced Light Towed Array Sonar (ALTAS) projector the agonizing delay in the Long Range Surface to Air Missile or LR-SAM, which it was doing in collaboration with Israeli Aerospace Industries.

One though cannot deny the success of DRDO for materializing the Agni and Prithvi range of missiles and making some reasonable progress with some others such as Akash, Prahaar, Shaurya, Brahmos and with the anti ballistic missile systems. Barring the missile projects, the success rate of DRDO has been extremely unsatisfactory.

The other key problem with DRDO is its inability to realize its areas of core competence and concentrate on them. Instead it tried to put its hand on everything and ended up failing in many. On the contrary ISRO is known for its core competence and sticking to it.

Not Just DRDO but all Defence PSU's and Ministry of Defence should be Blamed as well

In fact the blame should not just be with DRDO but equally with all the Defence PSUs and the Ordnance Factory Boards (OFB) who all suffer from similar laid back attitude and producing flawless quality products has not their hallmark.

At a time when ISRO has exemplified how a Mars Mission can be made successful at with fund less than what was used for even some of the top line Hollywood flicks, DRDO and its brethren in defense production are masters in cost overrun, delays and snail pace.

A major part of the blame for the sheer difference in the performance of ISRO and DRDO has to taken by the Ministry of Defence as well. The Ministry of Defence has failed to evolve with time and is manned with bureaucrats devoid of any specialized knowledge of strategic and defence affairs.

Their idiosyncratic tendency to cancel tenders at the whiff of a gossip of a wrong doing, without taking the issues of national security and priority for weapons, their tendency to manage issues of technology with a bureaucratic mindset and sheer inability to harness the potential of the private sector has done much harm.

The Real Reason for ISRO's Success- No Bureaucratic Red Tape and Meddling in its Affairs

The real reason for which ISRO has succeeded is because it always had the free hand to perform without the needless bureaucratic hurdles to throttle their work. ISRO works directly under the supervision of the Prime Minister as part of the Department of Space and is managed by specialized technocrats rather than generalist bureaucrats. The ISRO website states:

‘The Space Commission formulates the policies and oversees the implementation of the Indian space programme to promote the development and application of space science and technology for the socio-economic benefit of the country. DOS implements these programmes through, mainly Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), National Atmospheric Research Laboratory (NARL), North Eastern-Space Applications Centre (NE-SAC) and Semi-Conductor Laboratory (SCL). The Antrix Corporation, established in 1992 as a government owned company, markets the space products and services.'

Contrast this with the ad-hoc manner in which Ministry of Defence operates and the arms length distance it keeps from the end users of defense products, i.e. the Indian Army, Air Force and Navy. The Ministry of Defence completely lacks a strategic intent and has failed to create a Defence Commission on the lines of Space Commission to formulate policies and oversee implementation.

Further, it has failed to create a dedicated cadre of personnel with impeccable understanding of defense issues and issues related to the importance of development of indigenous capabilities. Fact of the matter is that defence PSUs or the DRDO were never taken to task everyone was happy with the lackadaisical approach and the dependence on imports.

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Put DRDO directly under Prime Minister's Supervision, just like ISRO

One cannot deny the success of DRDO in terms of making India capable of making developing missiles but at the same time, one also cannot overlook its sheer failure in other areas of defence research. The best thing to do, to salvage the situation would be to directly bring DRDO under the supervision of Prime Minister's office.

In fact the whole Department of Defence, much on the lines of Department of Space should be directly under the Prime Minister and should ideally be supervised by a Defence Commission manned by defence experts and technocrats. Only that can salvage India's defence research and bring it at par with its space research feats. DRDO has immense potential and talent to make excellence a norm like ISRO. All that it would take is to put it right under the supervision of Prime Minister and release it from the clutches of bureaucratic meddling.

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