Thursday, 14 December 2017

Five years late, Scorpene submarine INS Kalvari joins navy



By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 14th Dec 17

After 11 years in construction at Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai (MDL), the first Scorpene (French for scorpion) submarine, INS Kalvari, was commissioned into the Indian navy by Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi in Mumbai on Thursday.

The Kalvari is the first of six conventional submarines for which the navy signed a Rs 18,798 crore contract in 2005 with French-Spanish submarine consortium, Armaris. That company was taken over by France’s Direction des Constructions Navales Services (DCNS), and its cost went up to Rs 23,562 crore. In June, DCNS changed its name to Naval Group.

All six Scorpenes were to be delivered between 2012 and 2015, but that schedule has slipped to 2017-2020. The second vessel, INS Khanderi, is currently undergoing sea trials and is on track for delivery in March. The other four are scheduled for delivery, according to the defence ministry, at nine-month intervals till mid-2021. Naval Group however said in a statement on Thursday that the Scorpenes “will be delivered at a rate of one every 12 months. By that estimation, the last Scorpene would be delivered in early 2022.

Compounding the five year delay in building the Kalvari, the submarine has been languishing for almost three months after it was handed over to the navy, fully built and tested, in September. Since then, it has awaited the PM’s availability for half a day for the commissioning ceremony.

In the event, a galaxy of VIPs attended the ceremony, included Maharashtra governor, Vidyasagar Rao, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Minister of State for Defence, Subhash Bhamre and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.

According to the “commissioning warrant”, read out by Kalvari’s first commanding officer, Captain SD Mehendale, the vessel has been placed under  the navy’s Western Command. This means it will primarily operate in the shallow waters of the Arabian Sea, blockading Pakistani ports and naval bases in wartime and sneaking up on enemy warships to destroy them with torpedoes and anti-ship missiles. It could also be used to blockade shipping from West Asia, entering the Arabian Sea through the Strait of Hormuz.

In a war with China, Indian submarines would guard four major south east Asian straits – Malacca, Lombok, Sunda and Ombai Wettar – preventing Chinese warships based in the South China Sea from crossing into the Indian Ocean.

Even in peacetime the Indian Navy has, since June, continuously maintained a submarine and a surface warship off the Andaman Islands on “Malacca Domain Awareness” patrols, as part of a new posture of “mission based deployment”.

In fulfilling multiple operational tasks, the six Scorpene boats (as navies refer to submarines) will be a welcome addition to the navy’s aging fleet of 13 conventional submarines. These include four 20-30 year-old, German-origin HDW Type 209 boats (called the Shishumar-class); and nine 10-20 year-old, Russian-origin Kilo class 877 EKM vessels (called the Sindhughosh-class).

The Kalvari is being commissioned almost exactly on the Golden Jubilee of the navy’s submarine arm. On December 8, 1967 the navy commissioned its first submarine, a Soviet Foxtrot-class boat that was the original INS Kalvari. That boat’s captain, Commodore (Retired) Subramanian attended the commissioning in Mumbai today.

The new Kalvari is a technological marvel compared to its forebear. Displacing 1,565 tonnes, it is 67.5 metres long and 12.3 metres high and is powered by a quiet “Permanently Magnetised Propulsion Motor” that drives it underwater at 20 knots (37 kilometres per hour, or kmph) and, while surfaced, at 12 knots (22 kmph). There are plans to equip the last two Scorpenes with advanced “air independent propulsion”.

A submarine’s key attribute is stealth, since it is extremely vulnerable once an enemy detects it. Stealth comes from reducing engine noise and from silencing the boat’s internal systems. In the Kalvari, systems are mounted on shock absorbing cradles to dampen vibrations and reduce its noise signature.

The defence ministry says the Kalvari is armed with the heavyweight, 533-millimetre, wire-guided Surface and Underwater Target (SUT) torpedo, an old German armament acquired in the 1980s for the navy’s four 877 EKM (Sindhughosh class) submarines. The navy had initially chosen the modern Black Shark torpedo, built by WASS. That option fell through when the defence ministry banned all buys from Finmeccanica group companies (including WASS) after Italy began investigating corruption by Agusta Westland (a Finmeccanica company) in selling VVIP helicopters to India.

Besides the outdated SUT torpedo, the Kalvari packs the Exocet SM39 anti-ship missile, built by the Franco-British-Italian conglomerate, MBDA. The defence ministry says the Kalvari has already “undertaken successful torpedo launch as well as the navy’s maiden SM 39 Exocet combat missile firing on 02 Mar 2017.”

Like all underwater predators the Kalvari is superbly equipped to detect targets. It uses sonar and ranging equipment that is integrated into a digital Submarine Tactical Integrated Combat System (SUBTICS). This includes a Low Frequency Analysis and Ranging (LOFAR) sonar, which detects and classifies targets at long ranges (exact ranges are a closely guarded secret). Its periscopes are equipped with infrared and low light cameras and laser range finders.

Naval Group says the Kalvari is the fifth Scorpene submarine in the world. It has already delivered two each to Chile and Malaysia. In addition, four are under construction in Brazil.

While commissioning the Kalvari, the PM described INS Kalvari as a prime example of “Make in India.” In fact, Project 75, as the Scorpene procurement is named, pre-dates “Make in India” by 18 years. In 1999, the cabinet approved the navy’s 30-year submarine building programme, which involves the indigenous construction of 24 submarines by 2029. Project 75, to build six submarines, is the first part of that.

Alongside Project 75, six more submarines with “air independent propulsion” are to be indigenously built under Project 75-I. The defence ministry has allocated this to the private sector under the “Strategic Partner” policy, and a Request for Information has gone out to global vendors. Subsequently, Project 76 would kick off, which envisages the indigenous design and construction of 12 more submarines.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Aerospace industry eyes business worth Rs 12,500 crore

HAL chief promises increased outsourcing in building 106 trainer aircraft, 187 light choppers

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 13th Dec 17

On Tuesday, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) offered the aerospace vendors that feed its aircraft assembly lines a tantalising glimpse of major business opportunities ahead, adding up to some Rs 12,500 crore.

HAL’s chairman, T Suvarna Raju, told a gathering of the company’s vendors in Bengaluru that they would soon participate in building 100 trainer aircraft – the indigenously designed Hindustan Turbo Trainer–40 (HTT-40). In addition, the Light Utility Helicopter (LUH), of which the Indian Air Force is committed to buying 187 pieces, is nearing certification.

“Given our large number of platforms with the Indian defence forces, we remain committed to increase the scope of work to our vendors to ensure success of our programs. HAL is looking to produce 100 basic trainer aircraft HTT-40 soon, once spin tests are completed in the coming months. In the rotary wing segment, our efforts are on to achieve basic certification of LUH by the middle of 2018”, said Raju.

In 2013, then IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne wrote to the defence minister stating that the HTT-40 would cost Rs 59.31 crore in 2018, and escalate by 2020 to Rs 64.77 crore. That letter was intended to scuttle the HTT-40 project as too expensive, and make a case for importing more Pilatus PC-7 Mark II trainers from Switzerland.

Now, however, it has emerged that HAL will build the HTT-40 for an affordable Rs 45 crore apiece. With the defence ministry having already approved the procurement of 106 indigenous trainers for the IAF, this would translate into business worth about Rs 5,000 crore for the aerospace sector.

HAL has managed to develop the indigenous trainer for a frugal Rs 450 crore, employing internal company funds, Raju told Business Standard in July. An additional Rs 120 crore will go on establishing the HTT-40 manufacturing line.

Separately, the manufacture of 187 LUHs, each costing an estimated Rs 40 crore according to internal HAL estimations, will generate business worth Rs 7,500 crore for the aerospace industry.

HAL says indigenisation levels in these platforms would be as high as 80 per cent, given that many imported components, sub-systems and systems would be progressively manufactured in India under transfer of technology. That means Rs 2,500 crore would flow abroad to global original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Even so, Indian aerospace vendors, for the most part micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) that depend almost entirely on government orders, see the remaining Rs 10,000 crore as a significant opportunity.

Business is also expected to flow from a separate acquisition of 197 Kamov-226T light helicopters, which Russian helicopter manufacturer, Kamov, will initially supply ready-built, and then transfer technology to progressively manufacture in HAL.

In manufacturing aircraft like the Jaguar, Sukhoi-30MKI and the Hawk trainer, HAL had monopolised most of the manufacturing work, relying on very little outsourcing. More recently, the manufacture of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) has seen HAL assume the role of “systems integrator”, with a significant percentage of the supply chain outsourced to private aerospace industry. In the future, HAL envisages functioning exclusively as a systems integrator, with a private industry supply chain feeding in components, sub-systems, systems and even major assemblies like the forward, middle and rear fuselage.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Interview with Kieth Webster: “India is a US defence partner on par with NATO allies”



By Ajai Shukla
Edited interview in Business Standard
11th Dec 17

Keith Webster handled US-India defence relations for several years as a senior Pentagon official in the Obama administration. Now a Senior Vice President with the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF), he talks to Ajai Shukla about the trajectory of the defence relationship.

Q.        Why has the US designated India as a “major defence partner” (MDF)?

In the US system, this was a very significant step. In May 2016, during the waning months of [former President Barack] Obama’s administration, we began debating in the Pentagon the need to cement the solid defence relationship we had achieved. We decided the best way to “immortalise” the relationship was to bring in the term “major defence partner” into the June 2016 joint statement between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Obama.

At a meeting with [Defence Secretary] Ash Carter that was attended by every political appointee in the Pentagon, I was the only career official in that office. I told them: “In nine months, I will probably be the only person here who will still be in this building (the Pentagon). I need this relationship formalised.” We proposed the MDP designation, and the Modi government accepted putting it into the [Modi-Obama] joint statement.

Later in 2016, there was a short exchange of letters between Ash Carter and [Defence Minister] Manohar Parrikar on what MDP broadly meant. And then, MDP was mentioned in our National Defense Authorization Act of 2017, signed by Barack Obama in December 2016. That means the legislation is in place on the US side.

Q.        What does MDP mean in practical terms for India?

While both governments have acknowledged MDP, we need to see how India defines it. When Secretary [Jim] Mattis returned from India in September, he said: “We need to work on this definition [of MDP].” I spoke to Secretary Tillerson about this when he was here in October. So the Trump administration will flesh this out with the Modi government: what exactly will MDP be?

Q.        As a MDP, where does India stand in the hierarchy of US defence partners?

The US has a pyramid of trust, based on which we part with military capabilities and technologies. Naturally, the best goes to the US military alone. Next, at the top of the pyramid are the allies that fight alongside us the most. That would be the “Five Eyes” [an intelligence-sharing alliance between the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand]. One level below are the other allies who fight alongside us, which comprises NATO – “Old NATO”, as opposed to “New NATO”. India hasn’t figured in that pyramid of trust because we never fought as allies. But we are now friends. So we have moved India up, policy-wise, to near the top of the pyramid. Not to the pinnacle, but near the top of the pyramid.

Q.        Below the Five Eyes, but at par with older NATO members?

India’s status is consistent with members of NATO, other than the Five Eyes.

Q.        What about the category of “major non-NATO allies” (MNNA), which the US has designated Pakistan?

That status was unacceptable to India because there are 15-16 nations in that category, including Pakistan. We needed to do something unique for India, which is more than what we’ve done for Pakistan.

Q.        Why would India accept that its designation is above Pakistan’s in the hierarchy of allies?

Because our actions will prove it. Look at the F-16, the Block 70 as we call it now. That is well above your neighbour’s F-16s. What we are proposing for India reflects its status… I don’t believe Pakistan would be sold the F-16 Block 70.

Q.        What benefits does MDP provide India?

First, in transferring defence capabilities, India will be on par with NATO allies. Second, when we talk about “Make in India”, we can now transfer more critical technologies to Indian industries than without MDP categorisation.

Q.        Delhi worries that the Trump administration will be more transactional and focused on defence sales rather than a technology partnership…

In February this year, I too wondered: How do we reconcile “Make America Great Again” and “Make in India”? The good news is the Trump administration has reconciled that, specific to India. It fully backs everything the Obama administration proposed to India, including the exhaustive preparatory work been done on F-16 and F/A-18 “Make in India”.

The Heritage Foundation, which is close to the Trump administration, wrote on why it makes sense to support “Make in India” on the F-16, even though much of the supply would shift to India. The argument was: “An F-16 line in India is better than shutting it down. If an Indian line keeps twenty American suppliers in business, that’s better than zero.”

Q.        Over the last decade, the US has concluded a wave of arms sales worth over $15 billion. What do you think the next wave will consist of?

Hopefully, the F-16 and F/A-18. Realistically, even one of those would be huge. It would be a huge symbolic gesture of trust. A fighter aircraft is a power projection capability. Transport aircraft and helicopters are great, but to take that next step – to trust America or not to supply a power projection platform – and have the confidence that the US would be there through its service life, it would be hugely symbolic.

Q.        Would there be negative repercussions if India chose not to buy a US fighter?

Not really, but there would be huge disappointment. In the Pentagon I spent 30 per cent of my time on India, much of it pre-positioning the government approvals needed for making the F-16 and F/A-18 in India. We don’t normally do that. We normally require governments to request for a [weapons] platform and then we make the release decisions.

Q.        Would you call the Quadrilateral a step towards an alliance?

I think it’s huge. This was discussed for the past 3-4 years, and the fact that the Indian government has allowed this to be publicly discussed, no matter how it’s presented, is a huge step for me.

Q.        Is militarizing the Quadrilateral through Malabar an essential next step?

It would be a good, positive next step. We are not allies and, in our system, we have to have a reason for why we would transfer cutting edge technology to anyone. With allies, there’s a reason. But with India, what we have used to justify moving forward is cooperating on maritime domain awareness, search and rescue, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Q.        The co-development and co-manufacturing mantras; how are they going to work, given the huge asymmetry between US and Indian defence industries?

Indian industry will have to learn how to: crawl, walk, and then run. It has technology absorption challenges, as there are with anyone that starts this journey. You have to start somewhere, build a work force, build infrastructure… It’s not insurmountable.

Q.        When you talk co-development, you assume both sides have something concrete to bring to the table. In the Indian case, this is not always so…

That is true today. But it’s possible five or ten years from now. We don’t have to do co-development on Day One. You would [first] do some co-assembly, co-production and then graduate to co-development.

Q.        With close cooperation happening in the Joint Working Group on aircraft carriers, will the two navies be at the forefront of the defence partnership?

Yes, given the cooperation on aircraft carriers and maritime domain awareness. Also the Indian Air Force, because they fly [the C-17 and C-130 transport aircraft and will fly the Apache and Chinook helicopters soon.

Q.        Are there no lines of convergence between the two armies? In India, the army is the most important and influential service…

There is the M777 ultra-light howitzer [that the Indian Army has bought]. Maybe some day the Indian army will have the Javelin [anti-tank missile]. It is possible the Indian army gets some Apaches [attack helicopters] from the second tranche that has been ordered. There is an Apache Users Group globally that brings armies together. There are reports the Indian army is seeking new armoured vehicles; maybe there are some opportunities for cooperation there. I would argue there are promising lines of cooperation with the Indian army too. 

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Unlike India’s chaotic preparations in 1962, a Chinese war plan made months in advance

The Dalai Lama's escape (pictured here, struggling to the Indian border) led Mao to "teach India a lesson"

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 9th Dec 17

On October 20, 1962, when China attacked Indian posts on the Namka Chu rivulet near Tawang, marking the start of the disastrous Sino-Indian war, the troops that conducted that attack – the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) 11 Infantry Division – prepared for that battle in three years of battling Tibetan guerrillas, called the Chushi Gangdruk.

Earlier, on August 25, 1959, the first-ever armed clash between Chinese and Indian soldiers, took place when an Indian patrol ran into a Chinese company (roughly 100 soldiers) stationed in Migyitun “for work with the masses”, as Beijing euphemistically termed operations against the Chushi Gangdruk.

PLA General Yin Fatang reveals that, on June 11, 1962, the Tibet Military Command constituted the “Advance Command Post for China-India Border Self-Defence Counter-attack” code-named Z419 (“Z” stands for “Xizang”, or Tibet). Yin was appointed its political commissar.

Four days earlier, PLA General Tan Guansan, who had brutally put down the Lhasa revolt in March 1959, relayed orders from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee and Central Military Commission to prepare to fight the Indian army.

These are some of a range of new details of the 1962 Sino-Indian war gleaned by Chinese scholar, Jianglin Li, from Chinese Communist Party (CCP) documents and interviews with People’s Liberation Army (PLA) veterans. Li’s research is posted on the “War on Tibet” website in a research article entitled  “‘Suppressing Rebellion in Tibet’ and the China-India Border War”.

The war clouds began gathering in May 1962, when Beijing decided to “create conditions for peacefully resolving the border dispute” by “resolutely fighting back” against the advancing Indian army, says Wei Ke, director of Z419’s political department. Then itself, it was decided that the main front would be the eastern sector, specifically the Tawang and Walong areas. 

By October, 10,300 Chinese soldiers were placed under Z419 Command Post, charged with attacking India in Kejielang (Nyamjang Chu valley) and Tawang, according to a PLA “Studies on Battle Examples”.

Yin says: “From mid-June 1962, Z419 Command Post started to collect intelligence in the battle zone and work on a battle plan.” Intensive military training began, including individual training, unit training and battle exercises at regimental level. Based on the experience of fighting the Chushi Gangdruk, Z419 replaced physically unfit officers and soldiers. Well-trained rocket launcher operators were dispatched to Tibet from Wuhan, and artillery personnel were sent from several military commands. Beijing Military Command sent communications equipment and operators. Over one hundred English, Hindi and Tibetan interpreters from different areas were sent to Tibet for the coming “self-defence counter-attack”.

Meanwhile, in contrast with China’s formidable build up, the Indian Army was struggling to send to the border an inadequate formation of 2,400 soldiers – the ill-fated 7 Infantry Brigade – which was short of soldiers, arms, equipment and acclimatisation for high-altitude combat.

Beijing took the final decision to go to war in two meetings. The first was on October 8, between Mao Zedong and China’s top leadership – Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Liu Shaoqi, Zhu De, He Long, Nie Rongzheng and Luo Ruiqing. The next day, Z419 received the pre-order for battle.

The die was cast, According to General Zhang Guohua, who was selected to command the battle; he flew back to Lhasa from Beijing on October 13th. A “Frontline Command Post”, positioned at Tsona, replaced Z419 for the battle.

The second meeting, at which the final go-ahead was given, took place at 1:30 p.m. on October 17. The Central Military Commission and Mao himself approved General Zhang Guohua’s battle plan.

Besides the PLA’s overwhelming advantage in combat soldiers numbers, Li’s research reveals the CCP’s Tibet Work Committee supported the frontline with a major logistic effort. It dispatched 1,280 party cadres to lead civilian workers functioning as logistical support teams. 32,237 Tibetans and 1,057 pack animals were drafted to load, unload and transport supplies, carry wounded soldiers back from battlefront, and clear up battlefields, etc. Over 10,000 civilians were drafted to repair and construct roads.

It is hardly surprising that, on October 20, Indian defences in the Tawang sector crumbled in hours. 

Friday, 8 December 2017

Chinese army prepared for 1962 war by fighting Tibetans

After Lhasa went up in flames in early-March 1959, the PLA fought 12 major battles in Tibet over the next 3 years

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 8th Dec 17

In path breaking research into the Tibetan uprising in 1956-59 and the lead-up to the 1962 war, Chinese scholar Jianglin Li has accessed Chinese Communist Party (CCP) documents and interviewed People’s Liberation Army (PLA) veterans from that war to present critical new aspects of that period’s history.

 Li’s research illustrates that Mao Zedong cynically regarded operations against the Tibetan resistance – called Chushi Gangdruk – as an opportunity to train the PLA.

This research rebuts earlier claims by 1962 war veterans like Yin Fatang, a former CCP boss in Tibet, that the PLA fought the 1962 war unprepared. A similar claim was made in the 2008 memoir of Ding Sheng, who commanded the PLA’s 54thArmy in Walong sector. Ding says that in October 1962, the 54th Army was scattered across Sichuan for agricultural work. On October 28, when he received the order to attack Walong, “the troops were hastily mobilized, issued warm clothing and rushed to Tibet for the battle at short notice”, Ding says.

Li’s research – which is posted on the “War on Tibet” website in a research article entitled  “‘Suppressing Rebellion in Tibet’ and the China-India Border War” – shows the PLA presented a formidable contrast to the poorly equipped and poorly acclimatised Indian troops.

CCP documents indicate that, in the three years from March 1959 to March 1962, the PLA fought 12 major battles in Central Tibet, targeting the Chushi Gangdruk. Li concludes that, when the 1962 war began, “It had been less than a year since Ding’s troops pulled back from Tibet after three years of fighting.”

Beijing’s hostility came even though India helped China sustain its occupation of Tibet. “In the early 1950s, China needed India’s help to send supplies into Tibet, so that the PLA could consolidate the occupation. India was quite generous in providing this help. In 1952, Beijing “used diplomatic channels” to ship 2,500 tons of rice from Guangdong province to Calcutta, and transport it up to Tibet through Yadong (Dromo). By April 1953, all the rice had arrived. This basically solved the food supply problem for PLA troops, and enabled them to establish a preliminary footing in Tibet”, according to a book, “Remembering Tibet – Collected Recollections of Advancing and Liberating Tibet”.

After discovering the existence of the border dispute in 1952, when the Chinese Foreign Ministry “absorbed the former foreign office of the Kashag (Tibetan government) and acquired its archival documents”, Zhou Enlai sought to buy time.

“India is still under British and American influence, so we want to win it over… [Border disputes] should be solved in future… due to insufficient documents now”, says Zhou’s 1954 directive on the border issue, according to Wang Gui, of the Tibet Military Command Political Department.

Unlike the patient Zhou, Mao had decided to teach India a lesson by end-March 1959, soon after the Tibet uprising and Dalai Lama’s escape to India. Wu Lengxi, who headed Xinhua and People’s Daily at that time, describes Mao fuming in a Party Central Committee meeting in Shanghai: “Let the Indian government commit all the wrongs for now. When the time comes, we will settle accounts with them”.

PLA aggression on the McMahon Line started right away, says Wang Tingsheng of the 54th Army Division. His memoirs recount: “PLA soldiers crossed the McMahon Line at three locations in pursuit of escaping Tibetans.”

Even so, Mao carefully lulled India into complacency, ordering the inclusion of a paragraph into a May 15, 1959 letter from Beijing to New Delhi: ““China’s main attention and principle of struggle is focused on the east, the West Pacific region, on the ferocious American imperialism, not on India, the southeast or south Asian countries at all. …China will not be so stupid as to make enemies with the US in the east, and make enemies with India in the west. Pacification of rebellion and implementing democratic reform in Tibet would pose no threat to India whatsoever.”

At the time Mao made this statement, PLA 11 Infantry Division was already fighting the Tibetan resistance in Chamdo. Three years later, on October 20, 1962, this battle-hardened division would start the Sino-India war with its attack on Indian positions on the Namka Chu rivulet, near Tawang.

Li shows that Mao viewed operations against the Tibetan resistance as training ground for the PLA, causing the use of disproportionate force and warfighting weaponry against Tibetan civilians. From January 22nd to February 19th 1959, Mao Zedong added written instructions to four reports on the Tibet situation, stating: “Rebellion is a good thing”, as it could be used to “train the troops and the masses”, and to “harden our troops to combat readiness.”

Xu Yan, a professor at the Chinese National Defence University, says the key differentiator in the 1962 war was combat experience. “Most of the troops of the [PLA] who fought at the China-India border have a glorious history”, he commented, “Besides that, they had also acquired rich combat experience in high and cold mountain regions in the five years from the Khampa rebellion in 1956 to the end of the suppression of Tibetan rebellion in 1961.”


(Next: Part II: China’s preparations for attack)

Tuesday, 5 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.