A test for the defence minister: end this nonsense about scrapping India's BMS project - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 4 December 2017

A test for the defence minister: end this nonsense about scrapping India's BMS project

Ms Sitharaman’s decision on whether to kill the BMS project or not will reveal her commitment to building real indigenous capability in defence

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 8th Dec 17

Senior Indian Army generals, who grew up before smartphones became a part of our daily lives, are blundering in scrapping as “too costly” the ~5,000-crore project to indigenously design and develop a Battlefield Management System (BMS). 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 US Army in Gulf war I (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 their own BMS named Rehbar.  If the Indian military wishes to avoid the fate of 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” (OEM) 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 (ICT) 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 that 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 ~350 crore. Other worldwide benchmark projects indicate $1.5-2.0 billon dollars in initial investments towards developing BMS-type “force multiplier “capabilities. 

Today, the combined cost quoted by the two “development agencies” (DAs) – 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 ~5,000 crore. This would be paid out over five years, but the army is unwilling to earmark even ~1,000 crore 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” (TCS), 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” (SDR) 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 (DPrB), 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. 


  1. Well brought out. Earlier, the lament was, 'Don't use men where you should use artillery'. Now it is, 'Don't use men where you should use technology'. Quite clearly, life is cheap in India.

  2. The test of Congressi Ajai Shukla will be when his pathological hatred for BJP will give way to a more consistent and balanced approach in his write up.

    BMS for a million diffuser soldier army has never been attempted and we are not fighting US army. Better to use this money wisely on something more pressing. You were a bright officer and I expect higher standards from you.

  3. I tend to agree with Mr Satish Pradhan (comment before mine). Except, I don't really know what a "million diffuser soldier army" is... I guess it must be something to do with numbers. But yes, if the higher levels of the decision tree have taken a decision, it must be correct; and we, the people must support it. That's how good democracies work. Not the way the Congress has been running the country. Now we are true democracy, where the people wholeheartedly support their leadership. If generals say BMS is not required; we must support them. They know best. To question them would mean that we think we know better, and that is not a thing good democracies do.

  4. It will help if Ms. Sitaraman is shown audio-visuals of simulated combat using BMS in different battlefield scenarios. This is a matter of presentation of pros and cons with through cost/benefit analysis, apart from information about enemy usage of similar systems.

  5. The generals are not saying that the BMS is not required. They are saying that it is too expensive. If you look at the spending bill for defence purchases of major items, it is unacceptable that the demands of the humble soldier be ignored. After all, every new army chief says, his main priority is the safety and advancement of the soldier, who actually win wars.

  6. @Anonymous 19:04

    I suppose Clemenceau said "La guerre! C’est une chose trop grave pour la confier à des militaires." specifically for people like you. By your logic, there should be no male gynecologists or obstetricians. While I am disgusted to see this government continue in Congressi fashion by eschewing higher defense reforms with an empowered CDS and hopefully a theatre command structure, I will not go the whole hog and say that we as a nation outsource national security decisions to the military. Higher levels or your so called decision tree are where the most entrenched interests exists.

    @Satish Pradhan
    BMS saves lives and nobody equips a million strong army at one go. If we get the strike corps and before that the special forced wired up, that would be an achievement by itself. If we ever dream of getting back PoK or inflicting unsustainable damage in a quick war that necessarily needs to end before breaching in the nuclear threshold we need this.

    Ajai is transparent about his loyalties so that is beside the point. He does occasionally let them seep into his writing but in this particular case, the Colonel has a strong point.


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