The Raghavan Committee: A High-Powered 9-Member Panel Tasked with Transforming DRDO

By IndraStra Global Editorial Team

Cover Image Attribute: DRDO's stall at AeroIndia exhibition in Bangalore / Source: Arun Sankar | AFP | Getty Images
Cover Image Attribute: The file photo of DRDO's stall at AeroIndia exhibition in Bangalore / Source: Arun Sankar | AFP | Getty Images

Last month, as a part of a significant development, the Government of India formed a nine-member committee tasked with revitalizing the Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the primary governmental agency dedicated to defense research and development. This decision comes shortly after the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defense (SCOD) commended DRDO for its "large number of steps" in advancing research and development by engaging the private sector, leaving many wondering about the impetus behind this sudden move.

Heading the committee is Professor K. Vijay Raghavan, a former Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India, who has been given the challenging responsibility of redefining the Department of Defense (R&D) roles and the DRDO. While the former is a department within the Ministry of Defense (MoD), the latter operates under its administrative control, although this distinction remains somewhat nebulous. Other members of the committee are — former Deputy Chief of Army Lt Gen (Retd.) Subrata Saha, former Vice Chief of Navy, Vice-Admiral SN Ghormade, former Chief of Integrated Staff Air Marshal BR Krishna, DG of Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses Sujan R Chinoy, IIT Kanpur’s Manindra Agarwal, S.P. Shukla, outgoing President SIDM, Larsen and Toubro Defence’s JD Patil, ISRO scientist S Unnikrishnan Nair, and Rasika Chaube, Financial Advisor of MoD.

The Raghavan Committee's extensive mandate includes recommendations to enhance participation from academia, startups, and micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) in developing cutting-edge technologies. The committee will also propose measures to attract and retain scientists through rigorous performance assessments, incentives, and disincentives. Additionally, it aims to streamline laboratory structures and modernize administrative and financial systems to expedite project execution.

Interestingly, these terms of reference bear a resemblance to those of the Dr. P Rama Rao committee of 2007, which led to the previous overhaul of DRDO in 2010. By 2015, many of the committee's recommendations had been implemented, resulting in a major internal restructuring of laboratories to boost efficiency and changes in procedures to facilitate greater private sector involvement in defense research and development.

But in 2015, the DRDO took an add-on initiative to establish a five-member internal committee, with Professor V. Ramagopal Rao, the then director of IIT-Delhi, leading the committee. Their primary objective was to revamp the 52 laboratories within DRDO to cater to the evolving defense and battlefield requirements, both present and future. The committee members included S. Somnath, who serves as the director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre; Air Marshal Sandeep Singh, who holds the position of Deputy Chief of Air Staff; Dr. Samir V. Kamat; the Director General of Naval Systems & Materials (NS&M), and Benjamin Lionel, who directs the Instruments Research & Development Establishment of DRDO. This marked the second attempt to reform DRDO, an organization that has faced criticism for its perceived slow progress.

Since then, efforts have also been made to combat brain drain by introducing an elaborate system of financial incentives, fast-track promotions, and opportunities for higher education at esteemed institutions like the IITs and IISc, with DRDO sponsorship. Awards such as Young Scientist and Scientist of the Year were introduced to recognize exceptional contributions to research.

One promising initiative was the establishment of the Technology Development Fund (TDF) a few years ago. The TDF provides financial support and expertise to the private sector for upgrading existing technologies and developing futuristic ones. Currently, 5,368 companies, 1,983 experts, and 1,278 academics are developing 164 technologies. Of these companies, 3,146 are MSMEs, 1,958 are startups, and 264 are large industrial enterprises. While the initial allocation of Rs 254 crore may seem modest, the Finance Minister's commitment to earmark 25% of the R&D budget for the private sector, as announced in her previous budget speech, is expected to lead to increased disbursements from the TDF once operationalized.


SITREP (Situational Report)



In light of these developments, the appointment of the Raghavan committee raises questions about the effectiveness of the steps taken over the past decade. Unfortunately, there is little official information regarding the outcomes that prompted this second overhaul of DRDO.

Critics have long contended that DRDO tends to make ambitious claims, monopolizes significant projects, hesitates to engage the private sector in R&D, and ventures into non-core research areas such as food and medicine. Moreover, DRDO's projects have often suffered from substantial time and cost overruns, ultimately impacting their delivery.

However, it is important to note that DRDO's performance is influenced by the efficacy, or lack thereof, of the Department of Defense Research and Development, which advises the government on scientific aspects of military equipment and logistics, as well as formulating research, design, and development plans for the Armed Services.

Apart from the management of defense R&D at the apex level, the Raghavan committee must also address three other major issues. First, there has been a longstanding trust deficit between DRDO and the Armed Services. Second, while greater private sector involvement is widely seen as a solution, there has been limited analysis of its effectiveness and the need for additional measures beyond those already taken by DRDO.

If the current arrangements are deemed insufficient, the Raghavan committee may need to recommend pragmatic schemes to enhance private sector participation without diminishing DRDO's central role in coordinating all R&D projects, regardless of the agency undertaking them.

One potential solution that may be considered is the establishment of a Board of Research for Advanced Defense Sciences (BRADS) modeled after the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), known for its effectiveness in developing technologies that maintain and advance the U.S. military's capabilities.

Finally, structural reforms and increased private sector involvement alone may not yield the desired results given the limited budget allocation. The proportion of the defense outlay dedicated to R&D has decreased from 6.38% in 2018-19 to 5.1% in 2023-24, a portion of which is allocated for salaries. Additionally, funding for defense R&D as a percentage of GDP has declined from 0.088% in 2017-18 to 0.078% in 2023-24.

With a three-month timeline to make its recommendations, the Raghavan committee's decisions are eagerly awaited. However, the long-lasting impact of these recommendations may still be overshadowed by financial constraints, even after government implementation.

It remains to be seen how the Raghavan committee will navigate these complex challenges to propel India's defense research and development into a new era of innovation and efficiency.

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IndraStra Global: The Raghavan Committee: A High-Powered 9-Member Panel Tasked with Transforming DRDO
The Raghavan Committee: A High-Powered 9-Member Panel Tasked with Transforming DRDO
By IndraStra Global Editorial Team
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