Foreign rifles trump 'Make in India'; Army shutting down high-tech project

The younger generation of Army officers believes our army badly needs networking systems like the Battlefield Management System
The ministry of defence (MoD) is shutting down the high-tech indigenous project to develop a Battlefield Management System (BMS) — a 21st century digital network that interconnects combat soldiers on the frontline, giving them all a common picture of the battlefield and greatly reducing the “fog of war”. 

Business Standard has learnt the army wants to save the Rs 50 billion needed to develop the revolutionary BMS, in order to buy foreign rifles and carbines — weaponry in which technology has advanced only incrementally over the last century.

Last October, the vice-chief of army staff ordered the BMS project shut down to save money for “more urgently needed equipment”. That was endorsed in November by the Defence Production Board, chaired by Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra. In December, the Integrated Project Management Team that oversees the BMS project ruled that it was not required “in its current form”.

“The army brass has failed to grasp the importance of BMS. Probably, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will go along,” say officers familiar with the developments.

In fact, there is now another arbitrator — the new high-powered Defence Planning Committee (DPC) that was set up last month. Headed by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, the DPC is aimed at imparting a long-term perspective to defence procurement. This would involve evaluating what provides greater benefits: An upgrade in small arms, or a transformative force multiplier like the BMS.

The criticality of battlefield transparency — or “knowing what is on the other side of the hill”, as soldiers put it — has been understood and pursued for over two centuries. Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz lamented “the fog of war” in his classic book, Vom Krieg (On War). 

The power of a networked force was dramatically demonstrated in the First Gulf War in 1991, when Saddam Hussein's Iraqi Army collapsed in 96 hours before a new-generation US military that had married sensor technology with real-time, cross-force networking, creating for their soldiers a transparent battlefield.

Younger Indian mid-level commanders who are comfortable with digital technology believe our mid-20th century army must be similarly networked through systems like the BMS. But many senior generals, who grew up before smartphones became ubiquitous, are more comfortable with rifles and guns than with digital networking.

BMS networks frontline combat troops in infantry battalions and tank regiments. It works like Google Maps, which gets drivers to their destinations quicker by “crowd-sourcing” traffic information from various sources, including drivers’ mobile phones. BMS similarly “crowd-sources” battlefield information from its own soldiers, communicated over small “software defined radios” (SDR) that equip each soldier. 

Each soldier in a BMS-equipped combat unit has a unique digital identity and is interconnected with other soldiers via a MANET (mobile ad hoc network) that rides on their personal SDRs. This uses the same principle as a home Wi-Fi internet router, with each family member exchanging information through the Wi-Fi router, while also accessing the external internet through it. Defence industry sources also point out that cancelling BMS would be a blow to the “Make” procurement category. BMS is one of only three on-going “Make” projects, in which the MoD selects two Development Agencies (DAs) to design and develop the system, later reimbursing 80-90 per cent of the DAs’ development costs. 

Defence industrialists and MoD bureaucrats have termed “Make” projects the “soul of indigenisation”, and recommended launching 8-10 “Make” projects every year to build indigenous defence capability.

Yet, now, the army has recommended scrapping Project BMS and the MoD is poised to okay that.
Two DAs were chosen for Project BMS. In one, Tata Power (Strategic Engineering Division) is in partnership with L&T. The other DA is a consortium between Bharat Electronics and Rolta India. Each DA quoted about Rs 25 billion to design the BMS and build four prototypes for evaluation. That is significantly higher than the Rs 3.5 billion per DA that the army arbitrarily sanctioned in 2007. Now the MoD is bargaining with DAs to slash costs.

The army says equipping the army’s 800-plus combat units with BMS would cost Rs 500-600 billion, judging by the cost of prototype development. But industry sources argue that prototype development costs are far more than industrial production, where scale drives down prices.

Paradoxically, while shutting down BMS for its combat echelons, the army is going ahead with various projects to network higher headquarters. These include the Tactical Communications System, Command Information and Decision Support System, Artillery Command, Control and Communications System and the Battlefield Surveillance System. 

“What is the sense of a 21st century command and control network that controls an old-fangled combat force,” predicts one defence expert anonymously.

Within the defence industry, there is concern at the army’s unilateral closure of BMS. If cost is the issue, industry says the MoD must sit down with the DAs and discuss and analyse costs in detail.

“Shutting down the project arbitrarily will destroy trust with industry. Private firms have put money and effort into this project. Now, without discussion, the project is being closed,” says a senior executive in one DA firm.

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