June 14, 2007
India’s defense R&D lacks talent
There could probably be no more telling indictment of an organization than the fact that people are not willing to work for it, and it therefore lacks the talent needed to perform. That is partly what seems to have happened to the Defence Research and Development Organisation, India’s leading scientific defense body, which has gained a reputation over many years for failing on research and development and for being more focused on organizing its own perpetuity.
This morning’s Indian Express, a leading Indian daily, has a headline that makes the point - “More quit DRDO than join, applications fall by 70% in three years” with a sub-head “DRDO’s brainwave – hike salaries six-fold, need more benefits, perks, including sabbatical, royalty.” Reporting information given to a government pay review body, the newspaper said that there were only 31,810 job applications last year compared with 110,224 in 2003, mainly because there were better career opportunities and professional challenges elsewhere. That is scarcely surprising. Entry level salaries are only $200-$325 a month - a fraction of the levels that are easily available in the private sector. It is also symptomatic of the changes in attitudes that have swept through India, as economic reforms have dramatically boosted job and pay aspirations. No longer do university graduates seek safe lifetime job havens in the public sector, but rather go for instantly higher pay in private companies, often not bothering to study first for the PhD and other higher degrees that marked out top scientists and engineers in earlier generations.
But it is also the DRDO’s poor image that deters graduates, when India’s booming information technology industry offers high flying jobs and success stories in India and abroad. Headed for many years by Abdul Kalam, now India’s President, the DRDO has some 50 laboratories that are involved in projects ranging from combat vehicles and armaments to submarines and aircraft. But instead of being a center of excellence, it frequently fails in both technical and financial terms to meet the needs of the military which then buys abroad.
DRDO’s main successes have been surface-to-surface missiles called Agni and Prithvi, but it has failed to produce smaller missiles for the army and navy, which bought instead from Israel. After more than 20 years of work, it has also failed (partly because of U.S. sanctions blocking component deliveries) to produce India’s planned light combat aircraft (LCA) that would replace Russian MiG21s. Other failures have included a main battle tank, called the Arjun, which is still undergoing trials after 30 years’ development - so Russian tanks are filling the gaps.
Defense production reforms that are now being introduced will enable private sector companies, both foreign and Indian, to link up with the DRDO on equal terms to develop and produce defense equipment. That might help revive the DRDO, though it seems more likely that firms will use their access to spot and hire the brightest talents, making the current situation worse.