Fit for the future
THE WEEK|April 25, 2021
DRDO labs are being closed or merged to prevent duplication and to focus on futuristic technologies
PRADIP R. SAGAR

ON JULY 14, 2017, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath was scheduled to present his government's first budget in the assembly. Suddenly, alarms were raised when a loosely wrapped paper packet containing about 150gm of white powder was found on the premises. Multiple forensic agencies said that it could be PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate), a powerful plastic explosive.

Soon, sleuths from the National Investigation Agency flew in, gathered samples and sent it to the Defence Research and Development Organisation's Laser Science and Technology Centre (LASTEC). Within hours, LASTEC gave its analysis; the powder was harmless. Founded in 1958, LASTEC is the DRDO's mother lab—more than 15 defence laboratories were born as its sub-projects.

LASTEC was working on everything from laser dazzlers for mob control to high-powered lasers that can take out aerial threats. It was also in charge of India's 'Star Wars' project (Project Aditya), which was based on directed energy weapons. But, LASTEC was closed down last November in line with the DRDO's new makeover plan.

Major changes are afoot at the six-decade-old research organisation. Going forward, the DRDO is aiming to focus on high-end and futuristic technology for air, ground, maritime and space systems. This means offloading “redundant” tasks, which academia or industry can do.

The unprecedented shake-up is the outcome of recommendations by a committee headed by V. Ramagopal Rao, director, IIT Delhi. The committee included S. Somnath, director, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre; Air Marshal Sandeep Singh, deputy chief of air staff; Samir V. Kamat, director-general, Naval Systems and Materials, DRDO; and Benjamin Lionel, director, Instruments Research and Development Establishment (IRDE), DRDO. The committee was set up in August 2020 and reviewed the charter of duties of DRDO laboratories and suggested steps to redefine the system for “current and futuristic defence and battlefield scenarios”. Part of the recommendations dealt with minimising overlap among laboratories.

“Contactless warfare” has already been recognised as the future of conflict. A senior Army officer pointed out that Saudi Arabia’s advanced air defence system failed to stop cheap, low-flying drones and cruise missiles launched by Houthi rebels based in Yemen against an Aramco facility.

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