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If our army wants to avoid the fate of Saddam's army...

December 27, 2017 09:42 IST

'... it must network its battlefield units quickly, securely, robustly,' notes Ajai Shukla.

Senior Indian Army generals, who grew up before smartphones became a part of our daily lives, are blundering in scrapping as 'too costly' the Rs 5,000 crore (Rs 5 billion) project to indigenously design and develop a battlefield management system.

More tech-savvy junior officers understand the importance of the BMS which will provide frontline combat soldiers with a real-time tactical picture of the battlefield to help them deal with the 'fog of war'.


But generals call the shots, and now a defence ministry okay is all that is needed to cancel this promising initiative.

The success of the United States army in the Gulf War I in 1991 when Saddam Hussein's well armed and battle hardened Iraqi army folded in less than 96 hours amply demonstrated the power of a networked force.

The defence ministry must also evaluate the army's wish to foreclose the BMS in the light of the Chinese BMS (named Qu Dian) which began deployment 10 years ago.

Even Pakistan is working on its own BMS named Rehbar.

If the Indian military wishes to avoid the fate of Saddam Hussein's forces, it too must network its battlefield units securely and robustly.

Then there is the need to prioritise 'Make' category projects -- including the BMS, there are only three in the pipeline.

These harness Indian defence industry to develop 'complex, high-tech systems' with the government reimbursing 80 per cent of the development cost.

Such projects build design and development skills and systems integration capability, which is far more important than 'Make in India' projects which merely involve assembling imported components and systems to blueprints provided by a foreign 'original equipment manufacturer' under 'transfer of technology'.

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman's decision -- whether to kill the BMS 'Make' project or nurture it -- will be a revealing indicator of her commitment to building real indigenous capability in defence.

Why is the BMS more important than buying the tanks and guns for which the army wants to save its money?

A BMS is a 'force multiplier' that uses information and communications technology to enhance the effectiveness of the field force and the weapons they operate.

An example of this in civilian life is Google Maps.

Buying a fast (and expensive) car has limited benefits in terms of reaching one's destination sooner, but Google Maps' software does that more effectively.

It chooses the fastest route by 'crowd sourcing' traffic conditions, with user inputs updating this dynamic element in real time. This allows for the most efficient use of the road.

Extrapolating this cheap and commonsensical solution to the battlefield, the 'crowd-sourcing' of inputs from friendly elements on the battlefield -- soldiers, weapons systems or surveillance devices that form a part of one's own force -- builds up a common operating picture of the battlefield that is updated in real time.

The 'battlefield transparency' this creates enables soldiers and combat commanders to react to emerging situations faster than the enemy.

Network centricity is all about being faster on the OODA loop -- the action sequence of Observe, Orient, Decide, Act -- than the adversary.

In non-military terms this means being quicker in picking up and identifying the enemy, deciding how and with what weapons to engage him, and then actually doing so.

A strong BMS system that provides battlefield transparency, and enables the immediate use of firepower and manpower, creates greater combat effect than expensive tanks, guns or fighter aircraft that are unable to use their capabilities to full effect.

Although creating a BMS combat network would be cheaper than buying weapons platforms, it still requires the expenditure of significant sums.

In 2011, the defence ministry approved the BMS for an overly optimistic Rs 350 crore (Rs 3.5 billion).

Other worldwide benchmark projects indicate $1.5 billion to $2 billon in initial investments towards developing BMS-type 'force multiplier capabilities'.

Today, the combined cost quoted by the two 'development agencies' -- one, a consortium of Tata Power (Strategic Engineering Division) and Larsen & Toubro; the other between Bharat Electronics Ltd and Rolta India -- is a more realistic Rs 5,000 crore (Rs 50 billion).

This would be paid out over five years, but the army is unwilling to earmark even Rs 1,000 crore (Rs 10 billion) per year for this revolutionary project which would harness India's demonstrated skills in information technology.

Given the range of technologies that it would galvanise, the BMS would be not just a 'force multiplier' for the military but equally for the ICT economy.

Why does developing two BMS prototypes cost so much?

The other ICT-based networks the army is developing -- such as the 'artillery command, control and communications system' which integrates fire support from artillery guns; or the 'battlefield surveillance system' that integrates surveillance systems -- are basically software systems.

These will ride on a communications network called the 'tactical communications system', which is being developed as a separate 'Make' programme.

The BMS, however, is intended for the combat soldier, who would outpace communications networks like the TCS, especially in situations like an advance into enemy territory.

The BMS, therefore, requires its own communications backbone, built on sophisticated 'software defined radio' that provides enormous flexibility with its ability to function on disparate 'wave forms'.

This means the BMS must have advanced communications technology on which the information technology component is fully integrated. All these must be engineered as part of the project.

The US army tried in vain to ride its BMS on a generic radio, the Joint Tactical Radio System. Some $15 billion later, they realised the hardware and software had to be engineered together in a 'system of systems' approach.

Each element and device in the BMS has to be planned for SWAP (size, weight and power), and a range of waveforms have to be created.

The day of reckoning for the BMS is December 29 when the two DAs must submit their 'detailed project reports', including final price estimates, to the Defence Production Board, which the defence secretary currently heads.

The ministry is currently squeezing the DAs to bring down their prices by over 30 per cent, even if that means reducing the scope of the BMS project.

It is mind-boggling to see a government that claims to be committed to defence preparedness and indigenisation haggling with defence industry over a project that would bring to the Indian military a 'revolution in military affairs' albeit three decades after it transformed the US military's way of warfare.

It is time for Ms Sitharaman to step in and end this nonsense.

Photograph: Kind courtesy US Army

Ajai Shukla