From steel to silicon: the shift in military technology - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Wednesday 25 July 2018

From steel to silicon: the shift in military technology

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 26th July 18

The First Gulf War of 1991 – the official name of the four-day decimation of Saddam Hussein after he invaded Kuwait the previous year – mesmerised television audiences everywhere. It was the world’s first televised war, where CNN showed bridges and tanks exploding in puffs of flame, their fates sealed by the placement of a cross hair from a fighter pilot’s cockpit. Cruise missiles moved almost leisurely through the streets of Baghdad before flying buildings through open doors and windows.

But while the citizen glued to her television screen took merely vicarious pleasure in that sanitised dance of death, the armed forces of other militaries were looking more carefully at the new, high-tech US military whose battlefield networking routed Saddam Hussein's Iraqi Army in less than 96 hours. that was clearly enjoying its catharsis from the humiliation of Vietnam. And none observed more carefully than China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Here was the ultimate power dream: a military that could see almost everything on the battlefield, at all times, day or night; and strike with unprecedented precision. In World War One, it took an estimated 12,000 bullets to hit a single soldier. But now, even while infantry on the battlefield continued spraying bullets indiscriminately, there was a growing role for “precision guided munitions” (PGMs). These weapons harnessed several new technologies – satellite and airborne surveillance, digital communications, inertial and satellite navigation, and electronic jamming.

But what impressed observers even more than the improved accuracy of individual weapons systems was the unprecedented coordination by the various elements of the military achieved by networking sensors and fusing the data they generated. Powerful computers and software presented commanders with the best options for striking enemy targets. And the accurate strike options themselves were made available faster.

Since then, the PLA has tried to replicate this networked military, pursuing what communist apparatchiks clumsily term “modern warfare under informatized conditions.” As is evident from its most recent White Paper of 2015, the PLA commits to enhancing its combat capability through systematically structured “command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” (C4ISR) systems – now a buzzword in modern militaries.

In simple terms, this amounts to a shift in emphasis from steel to silicon. Instead of focusing on weapons platforms – such a tanks, warships or fighter aircraft – the focus is now the on network linkages between these platforms. Just as the US military first did, the PLA is transforming itself from a platform-centric force into a cyber-centric one.

A networked military enables it to be faster than the adversary on the “OODA loop” – the sequence of Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. In simple terms that boils down to: detecting and identifying targets, deciding which in-range weapons to destroy him with and, finally, executing the strike. 

Indian generals too like to talk about a “networked military”, but the reality is that our armed forces, especially the army, still operate like a mid-20thcentury force – a collective of individually controlled units that exchange limited information. While 21stcentury militaries network their combat, support and logistics units through high-bandwidth, digital data links, India’s army – and large parts of its navy and air force – rely on traditional communications, such as radio networks. 

In fact, here is little conviction in the Indian military’s pursuit of a networked force, based on information technology and digital communications. On Friday, the army shut down one of its most promising network projects:  the excellently conceived Battlefield Management System (BMS).

BMS aimed at networking combat echelons over man-portable digital communication links provided by a high-tech “software defined radio” (SDR) carried by individual combat soldiers. This would transform each soldier – traditionally no more than a “rifleman” – into a potent “digital entity” that receives data from multiple battlefield sensors, such as unmanned aircraft, radars, ground sensors and even lookout posts. In turn, each soldier transmits battlefield information available to him, feeding into a comprehensive “battlefield picture” available to every combatant.

BMS’ efficacy was to be enhanced further by connecting it with a range of other military networks, which are under development.These include an Artillery Command, Control and Communications System that networks fire support from artillery guns within range; an Air Defence Control & Reporting System that monitors airspace; and a Command Information and Decision Support System that generates automated solutions for commanders to choose from. Riding on the back of a Tactical Communications System, all these networks share information and enhance battlefield transparency.

However the disturbing fact is that a large number of technology-challenged senior officers of the army remain more comforable with platforms and weapons than with digital networks. The army’s recently-retired vice chief ordered BMS shut down in order to conserve money for legacy equipment like rifles.

To understand the advantages of a networked military, one need look no further than Uber. Until the turn of the century, if one wanted a taxi, one called up the local taxi stand, which would send a cab home. In the 2000s, radio taxis came into being. The customer called a central control room, which broadcast the request over a radio network that was received over a radio fitted in each taxi. A nearby taxi would pick up the customer, while the control room updated its map.

This model, which was slow and had capacity constraints, was overwhelmed by Uber, which connects all its taxis and every customer through a radio, computer and location tracker – which reside on every mobile phone. Uber’s data management and networking saves time and optimises limited resources.

Until the army becomes fully networked like Uber, it is essentially continuing to operate on the radio taxi model. Overworked headquarters and combat units continue functioning over inefficient voice (as opposed to data) channels, directing each unit individually.

This is what BMS seeks to remedy and Google Maps illustrates the model. Theoretically, a passenger could get to her destination sooner by buying a fast, expensive car, but traffic conditions often make a fast car irrelevant. Enter Google Maps, which “crowd sources” traffic conditions from users’ mobiles and feeds back the best route for each, thus allowing for the most efficient use of the road. 

Extrapolating this common sense solution to the battlefield, BMS “crowd-sources” situational inputs from the tactical battle area — including from individual soldiers and weapons systems or surveillance devices. This updates situational awareness in real time, giving combat echelons a head start on the OODA loop. 

The central challenge in developing modern digital networks is to create miniaturised and ruggedised equipment that combat forces can carry and the most important element of this is man-portable radio communications, since a force outpaces its static communication grids while advancing into enemy territory.

“Every field army is structured on the basis of self-sufficiency. It carries its own tentage, transport, cookhouses and road-building equipment, since these cannot be sourced from anywhere on the battlefield. The same is true of communications,” says an officer who works on communication grids.

“Given India’s information technology skills, we should enjoy an advantage in building digital networks. This is a technology domain in which self-sufficiency and indigenisation is critical, since we must guard against an adversary infiltrating or subverting our digital networks. But there is still only limited understanding of these issues and we have far to travel,” says Rahul Chaudhry, who heads the Defence Innovators and Industry Association.


  1. This is not a shift from steel. It complements the steel: we need to see US army or the plans of PLA. They bring in very heavy firepower from artillery to rockets to gunships . Simply saturate the area. It is a big effort to move firepower from one area to another, gphende the need for lighter guns, more heavy helicopters and more medium lift for troops. Plains will require APC.
    Ptge shift needs to happen in steps, guess it is happening.
    The obsolescence rate is very in such electronics/software so we need to spend disproportionately on life cycle costs. Something o ponder upon.

  2. Indian Gens are comfortable with hardware and not software.The best example is the neglect of Drones/Have till Kargil happened.Secondly empire building is another reason for neglect of technology and its application on ground.
    Finally software/ technogy processes ensures accountability and Gens don't want to be held accountable .
    By the way this is not unique to army.Banks and Nirav Modis are the best examples.
    Going digital is not going to happen any time soon.

  3. Indian army must catch up as ARTIFICIAL intelligence augumented reality and other cutting edge technologies will be common in ten years time.



  4. While the Colonel is giving the example of Uber - I doubt anyone significant in this country is going to understand the point. He should have used a gau-raksha example. That when one person reports a gau-rakha incident; the mob can be used most efficiently. But wait! That system is already in place! A civilian BMS is already in use in India. They call it Whatsapp. Everyone understands these concepts. The enemies of the Nation are being engaged by BMS enabled mobs.

  5. Some Criticism :

    Should this not be a budget issue, versus an Army Revolution in Military Affairs issue ?
    After all, the Army shut it down simply because we have a joke of a defence budget.

    I think the article must inform the audience of the poor military budget we have and as a consequence services have to decide whether to go for a BMS or rifles. No Point having a "networked force" of empty cannons.

    An Idea :

    Instead of networking the entire army or a large part of it, Why not just network a couple of front line units/brigades/divisions? This will work as a test bed and a great Opposing force during an excersize.

    The non networked forces, can then hone strategies on how to counter and destroy a network. Jamming, cyber warfare, decoy and ruse tactics and even knocking out enemy satellites.


    Even if there is no budget for the above idea, then i believe the Def Minister needs to have a talk with the Finance minister regarding budget allocation. No fault of the Army then.

  6. Ajai Shukla's post on the shift from steel to silicon in military technology was enlightening. The evolution of warfare technology is fascinating, and Shukla provides a compelling analysis of the transition from traditional steel-centric approaches to the integration of advanced silicon-based systems. Understanding this shift is vital as we move into an era where information and data are as crucial as physical capabilities. Now, transitioning to the Virginia-Class Submarines, I can't help but marvel at the technological prowess embedded in these vessels. The Virginia-Class Submarines represent a paradigm shift in naval capabilities, combining stealth, endurance, and cutting-edge technology. Their ability to operate in diverse environments while maintaining a formidable offensive and defensive posture underscores the importance of innovation in modern naval warfare. It's impressive to witness how the convergence of steel and silicon is shaping the future of military capabilities, and the Virginia-Class Submarines stand as a testament to this transformative journey.


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