DRDO History

A little while ago, The Hindu had a good interview with Vijay Kumar Saraswat, then-head of India’s DRDO, which contains some informative material on DRDO’s origin and evolution, as well as an explanation of why certain DRDO programs have lagged in the past.

I found this section on the past effects of the MTCR to be telling:

We were to develop Prithvi missile’s one version in seven years but we developed three versions in 15 years – first of 150 km range, second of 250 km and the third naval version of 350 km range when fired from the ship, yes we took 15 years but we developed the complete system. Same thing happened in Agni One, Two Three programme. But still time and cost overruns were there because when IGMDP was planned we had planned to import some material. We had to import some materials for Prithvi which was first fired in 1988 and Agni in 1989 and then MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) which was brewing all this time clamped all restrictions on us. All the contracts which we had signed with all companies were not honoured and these companies took back everything. Everything was denied to us, this denial caused us a lot of delay and whatever we needed had to be designed, developed and produced by us.

From 1989 to 1997 was a harrowing period. There were restrictions imposed on India and for things like getting Magnesium supply and Servo valves for launch vehicles, we had to struggle and later produce our very own. At that time, Tamil Nadu government’s TIDCO helped in making Magnesium slab from ore.

Saraswat went on to say that India solved some problems caused by these restrictions, but others remain:

Though technical problems had been solved by first launches of Prithvi and Agni missiles. Now these problems are not there, Today, India produces its own servo valves not only for missiles but also for launch vehicles and many other industrial purposes. What was a critical technology in 1988 is no more critical, new technologies have come. A lot of liberalisation has taken place but the fact still remains that critical technologies which are required are not available to us. For example, we still do not have access to high end computer processors and we have to make do with Intel core system. I cannot get a high end computer and I have to start building it for my missile right from the chip.

Here’s a video of an Indian SLBM test featuring Dr. Saraswat:

3 thoughts on “DRDO History

  1. Mark Hibbs

    So what are the takeaways from this?

    The basic lessons are not spectacular. Nor are they controversial. But they are worth reiterating:

    — WMD trade controls are not intended to shut down or prevent technology development
    — The controls do succeed in slowing down technology development
    — There are a panoply of items which states aiming to develop capabilities will need to import during whole decades of ongoing R&D for critical projects, and it is likely that controls will be effective for at least some of these specific items for a long period of time
    — Controls penalize these programs because as a result they will have to reinvent the wheel, and that implies that their first attempts at doing that will be less than perfect.

    “We had to develop the complete system” indigenously because controls at critical points interfered, the above account says. This rings true.

    My historical files show that in some WMD-related programs in India and Pakistan (and no doubt elsewhere) the stuff they reinvented was third-rate for a considerable period of time.

    I don’t know anything about Indian missiles. But I do know about KRL’s diagnostic program to address the short equipment lifetimes for uranium enrichment manometers it was re-engineering from US-made originals. Believe me, Pakistan over quite a period of time accumulated a substantial junkpile of failed pressure gauges. Today maybe they have solved their problems. But the drag effects were real.

    During WWII the US built a nuclear bomb in about three years. India and Pakistan took a lot longer. There were many reasons why. One major difference was that in 1942 the US faced no trade controls. Forty years later and beyond, controls slowed Pakistan and India down. They had to reinvent and improvise.

    The trade controls of course did not stop these programs in their tracks. There were smart and dedicated people running these programs. Nor did the designers of the export controls have any illusions that the controls would prevent India and Pakistan from developing nuclear weapons. And they didn’t.

    1. kerr Post author

      “The basic lessons are not spectacular. Nor are they controversial..” I concur. I think there’s value for missile experts, though, in knowing what DRDO thinks are the past and current technical shortcomings that they face.

  2. Anya L.

    There are two other bits from the interview that are telling, but they have to do with the challenges of restricting the intangibles.

    “There was this Prof Janardan Rao who came from the U.S. and set up a small unit. When I was doing liquid rocket engine programme I needed electro pneumatic system for testing. Under a shed in most abysmal condition, he was trying to do most sophisticated and advanced technology with whatever money he got from the U.S. He built the electro pneumatic system for me that enabled first liquid rocket engine testing possible. If it was not there, I would not have been able to test. Like that there were hundreds of such scattered stories where we could trigger small and medium Industries.

    And, “In the last 10 to 15 years I have worked in international collaboration with Russia, France, Israel, and I can only say that Indian R&D institutions and scientists are matching one to one with respect to best of their capabilities to contributing to JV or absorbing from there the right technology. This is not going to be teacher and taught relationship. This is going to be a relationship at par. Our research base and eco systems are strong enough to grow further with these partnerships.”

    To this end, I’m really curious what the Indians have learned from the BrahMos project and how they will be able to apply it.


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