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DRDO’s Rustom II UAV Has Reached The Target Altitude Of 28,000 ft; No Need to Import ISR Drones: G Satheesh Reddy
In its new avatar, with structural changes and thrust on accountability, DRDO strives to push the boundaries. G Satheesh Reddy, Secretary DDR&D and Chairman DRDO has been responsible for much of the changes lately. In an exclusive interaction, Dr Reddy speaks with Manish Kumar Jha of BW Businessworld on the wide range of technological breakthroughs and innovations which are taking place in DRDO’s laboratories spread across India. He makes major announcement on critical technologies, including aero-engine for AMCA, Rustom II, ATAGS, Light tank, Hypersonic system and Quantum breakthroughs.
Photo Credit :
Dr G Satheesh Reddy, Secretary DDR&D and Chairman DRDO:
“By April, we should be able to complete ATAGS.”
“We have been holding discussions with Safran on the joint development of AMCA engine.”
“Rustom II has achieved the target altitude of about 28,000 feet and 18 hours of endurance.”
“In that case, we don’t need to buy or procure drones from other countries.”
“With Single Crystal Blade, DRDO has achieved major milestone in engine manufacturing.”
Defence is the thrust. Government has focused much on policies and, is looking at the various possibilities that could boost defence manufacturing in India. It is ample now. Multiple announcement in the framework of the DAP 2020 has laid out concrete measures as it is unfolding the intention as how the defence sector is going to be. According to SIPRI, the five biggest spenders in 2020, which together accounted for 62 per cent of global military expenditure, were the United States, China, India, Russia and the United Kingdom. US military expenditure reached an estimated $778 billion and China’s military expenditure, the second highest in the world, is estimated to have totalled $252 billion in 2020.
While India’s defense budget reached USD 70 billion in the current financial year (2022-2023). Leave aside the U.S. military spending and the military advancement for the reason that are a plenty but China cannot be taken off the map. We are already dealing with the Chinese military at our doors and that warrants a dictum of ‘capability- comparison’.
Firstly, within the defence budget, the capital outlay, which focuses towards the modernization of Armed Forces has been increased by 12.82 percent with an allocation of USD 20.36 billion. Also, In recognition of the modernization deficit, the defence budget sets aside 25 percent of the total R&D budget for private industry. So what is our total R&D, taking account of the entire R&D ecosystem in the country? India spends less than 1% of it GDP on R&D and to be more precise -- 0.65% ( ~ USD 58 billion). And as per the conservative estimates, China spent a massive USD 514 billion which is about 3.3 % of the GDP.
In the current defence budget of 2022-23, R&D allocation is less than 2 percent of total defence budget. Again, the Lok Sabha Standing Committee on Defence 2019-2020 mentioned the PRC’s R&D at 20 percent of the Chinese defence budget. On 2021 budget, it would mean that China could spend as much as $70 billion this year just on equipment alone which is for the procurement and military R&D. While the defence has been the catalyst for many technological breakthroughs, it is more so applicable today with a total transformation of battlefield.
In the context, R&D in defence exhorts greater attention to fund such technology development in microelectronics, hypersonics, artificial intelligence (AI), cyber security, and similar high-priority military capabilities. This would propel the militarization of the fourth industrial revolution through artificial intelligence, big data, man-machine interfacing, autonomous unmanned systems, 5G networking, and the like—in order to create new dominant military-technological advantages. This builds up the case of Indigenization.
Such is the impact of the policies that put overall priority on R&D in Defence. The statistical spread is intended to understand the ecosystem of defense innovation. And within that India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) has been spearheading some of the most successful defence innovations, including the gradual advancement of indigenous missile programs. In its new avatar, with structural changes and thrust on accountability, DRDO has set up to push the boundaries. Dr G Satheesh Reddy, Secretary DDR&D and Chairman DRDO has been responsible for much of the changes lately. In an exclusive interaction, Dr Reddy speaks with Manish Kumar Jha of BW Businessworld on the wide range of technological breakthroughs and innovations which are taking place in DRDO’s laboratories spread across India. In the interaction, he projected the defence innovation in its timeline for that is so vital for the applications and its efficacy in the making of a military hardware. He also speaks about the crucial thread between DRDO and industry.
Beginning with the Advanced Towed Artillery Gun Systems (ATAGS) to Light Tank, Satheesh Reddy talks about the collaboration with Bharat Forge and TATA. Though fully designed by DRDO, he is forthcoming on giving due credits to the industries involved in the project. “We have developed two guns with two industries. Major things are common. However, these are separate units which are made with their own expertise,” he says.
But the bigger announcement he makes it for the staggering effort towards building the A medium-altitude long-endurance UAV (MALE UAV). What about having such capability which could do credible ISR activities and import substitute? That is about Rustom II as he tells me: Firstly, I would like to share a good news with you about the test we have done a day before. We have touched above 27500 feet altitude. So we have almost reached the target altitude.
On the crucial mission for AMCA, Reddy talks about the critical technologies for the aero engine: advanced materials, processing mechanism for the single crystal blade and success story for the propulsion systems.
On the naval front, DRDO has displayed the Air Independent Prolusion (AIP) System. The higher capacity fuel cell for AIP is the challenge that Reddy talks about. Much is at stake for the P 75 I which is going to unravel the next generation submarine for the Indian Navy.
But what are the futuristic and exponential technological breakthroughs that DRDO is working on? Certainly, that remains for the Hypersonic Technology and Quantum Communications. It is no mean task.
Manish K. Jha: India’s Advanced Towed Artillery Gun Systems (ATAGS) is under the final leg of the trails with BFL and TATA. At what stage of the trails we are at? I understand, after the last trail, some changes are incorporated. When do we expect final trails and subsequent induction?
G Satheesh Reddy: Firstly, we have done a winter trials in Sikkim for a long time. They were all very successful. Then we did last year in the summer trails in Pokhran and there were some simple issues of rate of firing and related things. This means that to sort out these issues, it will take a little more time. We have done the test. Everything is proven. ATAGS have two versions—one gun is from TATA and one is from BFL.
Now, these guns-- from Tata and BFL-- have reached Pokhran and that somewhere around March 15, that we should be able to start trails. I'm thinking that by April, we should be able to complete everything.
Manish K. Jha: Because they are built up on the same fundamental- GQRS, so how will you decide based upon the qualitative comparison as laid down? Could you elaborate the process involved after such rigorous trails?
G Satheesh Reddy: At the moment, we are not thinking on that. We have developed two guns with two industries. Major things are common. However, these are separate units which are made with their own expertise. After the complete trials are over, then we will sit together with Armed Forces, Army, Industries and Acquisition wing and then we will think about how to go about exactly.
Manish K. Jha: A lot of focus is on developing MALE indigenous drones. In fact Prime Minster has spoken about it -- having such capability which could do credible ISR activities. We have also cancelled the import route of drones and instead given a push to our home grown R&D. DRDO’s Rustom has gone through some advanced stage trials with fantastic results, reaching 18000 feet. So where are we now and at what stage of development?
G Satheesh Reddy: We have made a lot of changes and modifications into the new version, Rustom II, and firstly, I would like to share a good news with you about the test we have done a day before. We have touched above 27500 feet altitude. So we have almost reached the target altitude. And, we are going to do some more trails for altitude & endurance. I'm sure in the next about one and a half months, we will be completing all the activities to meet the required parameters.
Manish K. Jha: And how long it will be able to fly for ISR activities?
G Satheesh Reddy: It is 18 hours and about 28,000 feet.
Manish K. Jha: And how could we have the combat capabilities for Rustom II?
G Satheesh Reddy: That we need to discuss with Armed Forces. This is basically made for surveillance applications.
So when do you think Rustom II will ready to be inducted by our Armed forces? Where is the need to import drones?
G Satheesh Reddy: I am sure, once we meet service requirements, it will be inducted by the Armed Forces. In that case, we don’t need to buy or procure drones from other countries
Can we completely substitute the import option?
G Satheesh Reddy: Definitely! Once an indigenous system is made, we don't need to buy from outside. And so the moment we meet all the requirements, we sit with armed forces, DG Acquisition, and all stakeholders to evolve a plan and timeline based on the collective decision.
Manish K. Jha: As reported, DRDO is collaborating with French OEM for developing an aero engine for the AMCA project which is under the SPVs norms. Will it be jointly developed under the open architecture matrix, having full access and rights of the said engine with DRDO? We have been talking about this but we have not reached the point where things start moving on the ground yet.
G Satheesh Reddy: And my answer is very clear on this. As far as the aero engine is concerned, the country has worked on Kaveri engine. By the time it came up, the requirement of the LCA Tejas had changed. So Kaveri could not go into it. But with necessary Technologies, some things that have been develop. Kaveri dry engine which is about 50 KN are underway for some other application. Now coming to AMCA, we need a higher thrust engine, which is not available anywhere in the world today of exact fitting and with specified thrust requirement.
So, Safran is an option as they have been in dialogue with DRDO for a long time and also there are opportunities for the collaborations under the offset as per the procedures. So we have been holding discussions with Safran on the joint development of AMCA engine. And discussions are still going on.
Manish K. Jha: It's all the new project all together from scratch?
G Satheesh Reddy: Absolutely! These will be new technologies and new engine completely.
Some technologies which are developed, will be of huge help but it's altogether a new design.
Manish K. Jha: Are you also are talking with other players like GE because we have inked a deal with them for LCA Tejas?
G Satheesh Reddy: With GE, we are in touch for LCA MK 2 engine of 98KN.
Manish K. Jha: Expect any breakthrough soon?
G Satheesh Reddy: We have to wait for some time. We are holding the discussions because there are a lot of technical aspects to be taken into account. A lot of details that go into such collaborations. Analysts have to study and come back. And, we are also waiting for some more reports and analysis from Safran.
Manish K. Jha: So, during the discussion, it came up that as you know, these are the material based on advanced and complex metals but mostly mix of Titanium and Nickel based material. Have we done something in such areas?
G Satheesh Reddy: Our laboratory DMRL has been working on all materials and processing technologies; for making very specific, things like for example, a single Crystal Blade technology has been developed by DMRL. It is supplying to HAL for its engines and GTRE for other engines. So, one by one, the Technologies are being developed in advanced material domain.
Manish K. Jha: But these are a group of rare materials and some of them you need to explore from outside?
G Satheesh Reddy: Some of them are already available in the country. We are developing the processing technologies and such that the product can be developed. These are all the things DMRL is working and they're in a good shape and many other things are coming up for specified materials.
Manish K. Jha: So, with Single Crystal Blade, DRDO has achieved major milestone in engine manufacturing fully?
G Satheesh Reddy: Yes.
Manish K. Jha: On Light tank, as you told me last year, DRDO will be ready for most capable Light tank for such high altitude. Could you please give us the update on the recent development on the ongoing Light Tank project which is being undertaken with private industries?
G Satheesh Reddy: Light Tank Project is taken up by DRDO. We have already designed and, we are developing the prototype. Light Tank should be ready very soon.
Manish K. Jha: While DRDO has been successful in testing Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle using the indigenously developed scramjet propulsion, China has leapfrogged in doing successful run of first hypersonic weapon. What could be the potential application and range of such hypersonic weapon? When do we see that being developed and inducted by our military?
G Satheesh Reddy: You know that we conducted trials of hypersonic test demonstration vehicle and it was very successful mission. That was one of the experiments and we would be conducting some more trails on this to develop the critical technologies. So once we develop the technologies, we will think of next course of action.
We are working on the scramjet engine required and the materials required for it, and various thermodynamic aspect of the system. We are working on the materials which can withstand the thermodynamic stresses in the hypersonic vehicles. That we are into that very seriously.
Manish K. Jha: So lets talk about the Air independent Propulsion (AIP) system. DRDO is developing AIP for P75 which will get refitted into. Then we have the P75 I my which is again futuristic and requires a higher capacity of fuel cell for AIP. What are these two? Can you link these two development for our submarine program?
G Satheesh Reddy: Firstly, an independent propulsion System (AIP) is based on fuel Cell and that technologies have been developed in the country.
It has gone through the ground prototype test for 14 days, which is a mandatory requirement and it has passed successfully. So we say that the technology has been completely developed in the country.
Now the next step is to make a version to be fitted into the submarine. So we need to make a plug and then incorporate it in the P-75 [Scorpene class submarine]. That's the first task. So our focus is on developing a plug and integrating it into the submarine. Once this technology is fully put into use in a [P 75 ] submarine then we'll see after that. The next course of action will depend on the approach of Navy. As far as we are concerned, AIP is already developed within the country and our focus is to get it integrated with the platform.
Manish K. Jha: RFI for P 75 I talks about a foreign Partner under the Strategic Partnership (SP) model. Foreign OEMs who wish to participate, will have to have this technology (AIP) running and in operation. That is the prerequisite for the collaboration. So how does DRDO look at this?
G Satheesh Reddy: I don't want to comment on anything. These things require discussions with the Navy. We will see that.
Manish K. Jha: New startups are emerging in defence cyber and space sector and many of these startups are providing data-based services for security and defence applications. Due to the unavailability of the indigenous large scale cloud infrastructures services, they are forced to go to foreign cloud infrastructure services. Consider the criticality, are there any plans to indigenize such Cloud Infrastructure? Why aren't we doing something about in India?
G Satheesh Reddy: I think, there are efforts in the country to make out indigenous Cloud Infrastructure. DRDO is not working on this as of now.
Manish K. Jha: In budget 2022, finally, R&D got some encouragement and budget increase. What is added to DRDO in Defence budget?
G Satheesh Reddy: There is about INR 1000 Cr increase in our budget. Every year, there has been a continuous increase by the government. We have a lot more responsibilities also to promote R&D in academia, start-ups and industries. So, we should be able to do well with the current budget in all the aspects that government is expecting from us.
Manish K. Jha: You have been spearheading some of the most advanced projects despite the limited and constrained budget if we compare to the other R&D agencies across the world. Having said that I would like to ask you about some of the exponential technological breakthroughs that DRDO is working on? And something that is being done by very few in the world?
G Satheesh Reddy: Very recently, we have done quantum communication between two places 100 Km apart. So, we are one of the very few nations in the world who have done such communication over an optical fibre for 100 Kms.
Manish K. Jha: Could you please update on Deck based fighter Jet?
G Satheesh Reddy: Discussions between DRDO and the Navy are going on
Manish K. Jha: But what about the folding blade as it is the major part of the modification for the deck based combat jet?
G Satheesh Reddy: It is being worked out
Manish K. Jha: So, do we need a separate program for this?
G Satheesh Reddy: Yes, a separate project is needed.