The army looks to foreclose one of only three existing “Make” projects
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 1st Dec 17
In a blow to the oft-stated plan to build indigenous defence systems through the “Make” category of procurement, the army wants to shut down the Rs 5,000 crore Battlefield Management System (BMS) project. This ambitious plan to network the army’s combat units will digitally interlink fighting soldiers, providing them a common tactical picture in the battlefields of the future.
The concept of BMS is similar to that of home Wifi usage, where multiple family members plug devices onto a common router, interconnecting with each other while also connecting with the external internet. Similarly, in a BMS-equipped unit, combat soldiers, each with a digital identity, interconncted via a MANET (mobile ad hoc network) that rides on software defined radios (SDR) they carry.
This gives each soldier and commander a common battle picture. A geographic information system (GIS) locates each soldier’s digital identity, along with the identities of supporting weaponry like tanks and mortars. This so-called “Blue Force Tracking” provides clarity amidst the fog of war.
This project is being spearheaded by two Indian consortia that have been selected as Development Agencies (DAs) in a process that has lasted ten years. In one consortium, Tata Power (Strategic Engineering Division) is partnering Larsen & Toubro (L&T); the other has Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL) partnering Rolta India Ltd. Each DA has quoted about Rs 2,500 crore to design the BMS and build four competing prototypes.
The prototypes will be built for an armoured regiment, and mechanised infantry, foot infantry and Special Forces battalions.
Project BMS is one of only three ongoing “Make” category procurements, in which chosen Indian firms design and develop strategic, high-technology platforms, with the defence ministry reimbursing 80 per cent of the development cost. On October 28, at a defence industry workshop in Delhi, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman heard top industrialists describe the “Make” category as the “soul of indigenisation”, and recommend launching 8-10 “Make” projects every year to build Indian capability.
Yet, just days later, the army formally recommended scrapping Project BMS, noting that it should spend money on “more urgently needed equipment.” On November 24, the Defence Production Board (DPrB), chaired by Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra, agreed in principle.
The DPrB has not yet ordered Project BMS to be foreclosed. Instead, it has directed the army to submit by December 29 the Detailed Project Reports (DPRs) of both DAs. However, ministry sources reveal that, once the DPRs are received, the DPrB will recommend foreclosure on the grounds of excessive cost.
The sanctioned cost of Project BMS in 2007 was Rs 350 crore per DA. It is learned that, even as the project heads for closure, the defence ministry is bargaining for the DAs to slash development costs from the quoted Rs 2,500 crore.
Contacted for comments, the defence ministry has not responded.
The army’s opposition to Project BMS stems from the belief that it will cost too much to install in all the army’s 800-plus combat units. An unofficial figure of Rs 50,000 to 60,000 crore is being quoted. However, with the prototypes still to be built, this is only the broadest generalisation.
“We cannot extrapolate mass manufacture costs from what prototype development cost. Leapfrogs in some technology realms could well make the BMS relatively affordable,” says a senior army officer who believes in enhancing combat effectiveness through high technology, as the US Army has done.
Incongruously, the move to shut down the introduction of high technology into combat echelons comes even as the army goes ahead with other projects to network higher headquarters. This is being done through projects like Tactical Communications System (TCS), Command Information and Decision Support System (CIDSS), Artillery Command, Control and Communications System (ACCCS), Battlefield Surveillance System (BSS) and others. Experts scoff at the notion of a 21st century command and control network controlling a mid-20th century combat force.
Private defence industry says foreclosing BMS means not just the loss of a decade, but also of crores of rupees that Indian firms have spent in conceptualising the system, negotiating with suppliers and technology developers, building design and production consortia and committing experts to the project.
Business Standard learns that the army has evaluated the prospect of selected DAs claiming costs and initiating legal proceedings.
“What we have spent is not as important as the defence ministry’s credibility. If the BMS project is closed, no private industry will participate with any conviction in any subsequent “Make” project. If you are looking to build a military industrial complex, killing the BMS is the worst possible step”, says the chief executive officer of a private firm that is committed to defence production.