The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is building complex systems, including missiles, fighter aircraft, radar, sonar, submarine systems, electronic warfare, and complex weapon systems. Many such critical and advanced technologies are often denied to India in the global environment of technology control regimes. While critics also point out the incessant delays and delivery of some other key projects, running through many years, the limited budgets for R&D pose significant challenges for the DRDO.
In an exclusive interaction, Samir V Kamat, Secretary Department of Defence R&D and Chairman DRDO speaks with Manish Kumar Jha on developing critical technologies in 2023. Kamat reiterates DRDO’s resolve to make the country self-reliant by developing indigenous advanced defence technologies and complex systems.
Kamat outlines his thrust areas in the strategic and tactical sectors, focusing on the next generation of military platforms and systems. He opens up on the technological breakthroughs in various DRDO labs scattered across India from the light tank to unmanned systems to marine engine. The successful design and development of highly complex single-crystal blade technology – a key component for aero-engine- show the inherent capabilities of the DRDO in the advanced materials which could herald a new era for indigenous fighter aircraft.
Could you talk about the Light Tank Zorawar under 25 tonnes, for the High-Altitude Areas (HAA)? DRDO took it under to develop in the shortest possible time with L&T. What is the stage of development?
To deal with emerging threats and the changing nature of modern-day warfare, DRDO is making every effort towards the modernization of our Armed Forces. The high-altitude areas are ranging from 11000-16500 ft. above mean sea level and are under extreme weather conditions. Due to difficulties faced in the operations and sustenance of tracked vehicles in the northeastern borders, there is a requirement for tailor-made light tanks for high-altitude applications.
The biggest advantage of the light tank is that they are “air portable” and easily deployable in critical areas. To meet the present operational requirement, a dedicated project has been assigned to Combat Vehicles Research & Development Establishment (CVRDE) under the DRDO for the development of a light tank in collaboration with the Lead System Integrator (Larsen & Toubro Limited, Mumbai).
The Light tank will provide a versatile platform with a high power-to-weight ratio, superior firepower, protection, surveillance, and greater communication capabilities. Light Tank is equipped with cutting edge technologies viz. Artificial Intelligence, Drone Integration, a high degree of situational awareness, and amphibious operation, to name a few. The light tank possesses the lethal firepower to defeat the armour of low-flying helicopters and to destroy strongholds & fortifications of the adversary. The tank is expected to be rolled out in the current year.
DRDO’s TAPAS 201 Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV has recently achieved a flight test lasting 18 hours at Aeronautical Test Range. Do you think it can fulfil the critical requirement in the ISR domain? While the focus remains on the indigenous effort, does India need to import MALE/HALE drones?
TAPAS 201 has been designed and developed by the Bengaluru-based Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE). This is designed to perform Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions for Indian Armed Forces. Its mission requirements are to provide continuous wide area coverage and yet be able to identify small targets. Tapas 201 achieved a significant milestone after undertaking a flight test lasting 18 hrs at the Aeronautical Test Range in Chitradurga, Karnataka. This multi-mission UAV is being developed to carry out Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance roles for the three wings of the armed forces with endurance in the range of 24 to 30 hours to fulfil the critical requirements in the ISR domain.
While DRDO has lately come up with many advanced-level breakthroughs, critics point out the delay in realizing unmanned aerial systems. What are the factors?
DRDO has already developed “MALE UAV TAPAS”. As of date, more than 150 flight trials of TAPAS UAV have been completed. During these flights, altitude and endurance have touched the desired requirements. Non-availability of some critical technologies like engine, Twin Element Airfoil Wing, Automatic Take Off and landing etc., were some of the constraints in realizing the UAV systems.
The long development cycle time for the initial projects can be attributed to the steep learning curve of R&D centers and indigenous industries. It is expected to reduce substantially for the subsequent platforms like high altitude long endurance (HALE) UAV, since most of the legacy knowledge, technologies and systems will be effectively leveraged by all R&D partners in academia, industry and DRDO laboratories.
Kaveri Marine Gas Turbine (KMGT)– India succeeded in marine gas engine propulsion by converting the core of the Kaveri gas turbine with 12 megawatts of sustained output. How is DRDO upgrading and to what level for heavier warships?
KMGT has demonstrated 12MW rated power under Indian sea conditions, which is equivalent to about 16MW under International Standard Atmospheric (ISA) conditions. This power output suffices for most requirements of the Indian Navy like cruisers and destroyers, while heavier warships like aircraft carriers require higher power output turbines and initiate action accordingly. The development of Gas Turbine is a highly resource-intensive activity, and an adequate production volume is required to break even (apportion the development cost).
DRDO in association with the Navy will work out the requirements. Having demonstrated the technology of marine gas turbine through its KMGT project, DRDO has achieved the indigenous capability to undertake any such upgradation effort.
Could DRDO develop propulsion systems for single-crystal technology for the compressor blades which will have a beneficial outcome for the marine turbine version as well?
DRDO has developed single crystal blade technology and supplied 60 of these blades to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) as part of their indigenous helicopter development program for helicopter engine application. It is part of a program taken up by the Defence Metallurgical Research Laboratory (DMRL), a premier DRDO laboratory to develop five sets (300 in number) of single crystal high-pressure turbine (HPT) blades using a nickel-based superalloy. DRDO with the industry partners and Centre of Excellence (CoE) is involved in the advancement of this technology including propulsion systems.
The 52-kilonewton dry variant engine is supposed to power India’s first stealth, unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), the Ghatak. Could you please tell us more on this in terms of engine capabilities and various tests for 15 tonnes weight which could fly at altitudes of 30,000 ft?
With many technologies maturing, our country is in a position to develop various engine classes. 52 kN engine is one such class.
What is the current status of Air Independent Propulsion Systems (AIP)? How long will it take to complete the full tests for P75I?
Air Independent Propulsion System (AIP) has been developed for the submarines of the Indian Navy. The AIP is marine propulsion technology that allows a non-nuclear submarine to operate without access to atmospheric oxygen (by surfacing or using a snorkel). The AIP can augment or replace the diesel-electric propulsion system of non-nuclear vessels.
The AIP has a force multiplier effect on the lethality of a diesel-electric submarine as it raises the submerged endurance of the boat, several-fold. Fuel cell-based AIP has merits in performance compared to other technologies.
The indigenous AIP propulsion system developed by DRDO is a modular system that can be easily configured for any conventional submarine platform. Fuel Cell based air-independent propulsion (AIP) system Crossed important milestones of user-specific tests. It is one of the most advanced AIP Systems in the world, where Fuel Cell Technology is used to generate onboard power.
Now the next step is to make a version to be fitted into the submarine. DRDO has already developed the AIP system in the country and our focus is to get it integrated with the platform.
Has the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) completed the design of AMCA at HAL with special material? What is the next stage of development as the project is still waiting for final approval from the cabinet committee? What is the estimated cost and timeline that you are looking at and how will it unfold under the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) mechanism?
R&D is a continuous process. Towards this, various technologies are developed and tested as part of feasibility before initiating a mission mode project.
AMCA is currently at the Critical Design Review Phase. The program cost will be of the order of a few thousand crore rupees. It is proposed to pursue the manufacturing of prototypes, series production and lifetime support of AMCA through an SPV which will also consist of private industry partners. Indian Private Industries are expected to be invested in the SPV.
You have been spearheading some of the structural changes, aiming to create many centres of excellence within DRDO. How are you doing this?
DRDO has signed MoUs with IITs/Universities for setting up the DRDO-Industry-Academia-led Centre of Excellence (DIA-CoE) across the country for collaborative research under the identified research areas. These centres will undertake DRDO-funded science and technology projects and create special design and test facilities as required. Currently, 15 such DIA-CoEs have been established.
The major aim of establishing such centres is to harness & synergize the combined strength of academia, student community, research fellows, niche technology industries & DRDO scientists to provide impetus to research and innovations, in order to achieve future defence needs. These Centres will be conducting directed research in the advanced areas of technologies with multi-institutional collaboration for defence & security.
DRDO also funds research under its various Grant-in-Aid Scheme to undertake research in the fields of Aeronautics, Armaments, Naval and Life Sciences to strengthen funded research. Further, the Technology Development Fund (TDF) Scheme also funds industries, especially start-ups and MSMEs up to an amount of Rs 50 Crore for innovation, research and development of defence technologies in the field of defence and aerospace.