It is disappointing that the BMS, though an asset for tactical operations, has been rejected by the Army brass. The Defence Minister must intervene to restore confidence of private industry

With work on the Union Budget 2018 to start soon, the defence services are prioritising their allocations. Despite the lion’s share of the annual defence allocation amongst the three services, the Army is the most hard-pressed to rationalise its funds.

Given its increased or rather bloated manpower, the changed nature of warfare and annual financial obligations on account of acquired capabilities, the Army is left with pittance to balance between its immediate weapons’ requirement and indigenous support systems (force multipliers) like the Battlefield Management System (BMS). Consequently, the BMS, though an asset for tactical operations, has, to the disappointment of the indigenous defence industry, been rejected by the Army brass.

At today’s prices, the BMS for the entire Army, to be provided by 2025, is to cost upwards of Rs 50,000 crore. Being developed by two consortia — Tata Power (Strategic Engineering Division) and Larsen & Toubro and Bharat Electronic Limited and Rolta India — the total cost for their prototype each (meant for final selection) built under the high-priority ‘Make’ category is Rs 5,000 core. The Army, according to reports, was required to pay back Rs 1,000 crore over five years as development cost of this project from its kitty. With the Army having excluded the BMS from its acquisitions list, the final decision rests with the Defence Acquisition Council headed by the Defence Minister. 

The BMS is an excellent system meant to network or connect the frontline soldiers with the commanders enabling both to see the developing war picture in real-time. This would make decision-making faster allowing own forces to retaliate quicker than the enemy.

It would, however, be grossly unfair to assess this development as the Modi Government’s spurious commitment to ‘Make in India’ policy. Two issues, instead, are worth considering why the Army felt compelled to take this drastic decision. For one, these are development prototypes. Once approved, the winner BMS would enter mass production with uncertainty over final cost and time-lines. This is not all. Since technology has a short life, the BMS would need regular upgrades to stay ahead in the race. Moreover, considering the BMS is less about hardware and more about software which gets dated, the project, expected to be completed only in 2025, would be a massive drain on the Army’s defence allocations. 

For another, since Indian companies spend minimal on Research and Development (R&D), most BMS software technologies would have been procured from abroad. Procurements from aboard always come with a price: No country gives away its best technologies, and price escalation depends upon criticality of the requirement. To understand why overall indigenisation in India would have a limited success, one has only to look at China. “According to UNESCO data, China is the second largest spender of absolute amounts on R&D and accounts for 20 per cent of the world expenditure on R&D, second only to the US share of 30 per cent,” writes economist Amita Batra. This cannot be said for India where defence manufactures seek early profits.

Moreover, the optimal use of the BMS would be in two tactical war scenarios which are no longer relevant. One, when own forces are operating in foreign lands where soldiers are vulnerable from everywhere — the front, rear, sideways and the air. Here it is critical that frontline combat troops and commanders (of tanks, mechanised infantry and special forces) stay connected in real time to optimise war results. This scenario is not applicable to India since its Army operates only for United Nations’ mandated peace-keeping operations.

And two, the BMS would be a critical force-multiplier if the Indian Army is able to make deep ingress inside enemy territory, namely Pakistan. China is a different ballgame; it has vast non-contact war capabilities in cyber, electronic warfare, unmanned combat aerial systems and missiles. Given the high-altitude battlefield in the Himalayas, it is difficult to conceive Indian Army making deep ingress into Tibet. Thus, the BMS is essentially against Pakistan.

The BMS was conceived by the Army a decade ago (it was approved as ‘Make’ project in December 2011) when the war scenario with Pakistan was different. Today, it has changed dramatically with Pakistan’s acquisition of tactical nuclear weapons and its increased inter-operability (ability to fight together) with Chinese forces. It would be nigh impossible for the Indian Army to make deep ingress inside Pakistan across the international border.

Moreover, the political leadership, conscious of the nuclear red liners, would disallow any adventurism by the Armed Forces. In military terms, the Indian Army would adopt ‘strategic defence with tactical level offence’ posture against Pakistan. In this case, the BMS would have minimal operational utility. The Army would rather spend its scares funds on buying long-range firepower, strengthening its air defence network, and importantly, providing self defence weapons and protection for soldiers.

The operational scenario in the mountains and high altitude areas, where major battles are expected to be fought, would have its own limitations. The war here would be restricted to battle for each post by small Army formations. Major tactical battles for capture of Haji Pir pass and so on, given the inter operability between Pakistani and Chinese militaries, are no longer achievable. Even as the probability of Pakistan using nukes on the Line of Control is zero, the difficult terrain and defence deployments on both sides would rule out deep ingress. Thus, the BMS will have little operational benefit here too.

Coming to the BMS prototypes, questions have been raised about the credibility of the ‘Make in India’ policy if the project is suddenly scrapped. For all its worth, ‘Make in India’ is meant to create jobs by absorption of engineering skills by Indian enterprises. This aspect was succulently explained to me by two senior executives of foreign companies.

According to Abhay Paranjape of Lockheed Martin, “each company has its propriety technologies on which years of research and money have been spent. It will be difficult for any company to part with such technologies without appropriate protection agreements. Beyond this, the company could give India what could become its sovereign capabilities. In this, India would be free to upgrade, maintain and modify the platform on their own.”

What if India wants state-of-art or best technologies now and for future upgrades? This, according to the chief executive, MDBA missile systems, Antoine Bouvier, “is not possible without investing in R&D” — something for a variety of reasons in not done in India.

Given all this, while it would be imprudent to push the Army to re-consider the BMS, the question is who pays Rs 5,000 crore development cost incurred by the consortia. Since 80 per cent cost of development projects under the ‘Make’ category is to be borne by the Defence Ministry (the remainder by the developer), this matter ought to be resolved to restore confidence of the private defence industry. The Defence Minister should intervene in this matter.