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The Imperative of Modernising Military Communications Systems

Brig Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd.) is Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. Click here for details profile [+}
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  • February 16, 2010

    On the rare occasion that strategic affairs experts in India write about the slow pace of military modernisation in India, they limit their lamentations to the ongoing deficiencies in the acquisition programmes of ‘hard power’ weapons and equipment like tanks, guns, missiles, ships, aircraft carriers, submarines, fighter aircraft, radars and surveillance systems. While powerful weapons platforms are obviously necessary for military domination and deterrence, supremacy in the battles of the 21st century will hinge on sophisticated command, control and communications systems that link the ‘shooters’ and ‘sensors’ together to achieve synergy through network centricity and effects-based operations.

    It is in this field that modernisation has been grossly inadequate, particularly in the Indian Army. According to a former Vice Chief of Army Staff, the modernisation focus in the 11th Defence Plan is on “precision fire power, air defence, aviation, Future Infantry Soldier as a System (F-INSAS), infrastructure development, network centricity and achieving battlefield transparency through improved surveillance, night vision and target acquisition… Considering the receding span of technological cycle (sic), the right balance has to be maintained between state-of-art, current and obsolescent technologies.” Despite this clear realisation about achieving the right balance, the Indian Army’s communications systems are based mostly on obsolescent technologies. Software-based radios and cognitive radios are not even being talked about.

    While some modern frequency-hopping radio sets with integral encryption devices have been introduced into service in recent years, networked communications, which form the backbone of an effective command and control system, need substantial upgradation. The Plan AREN system that is designed to roll forward and keep pace with offensive operations in the plains has been in service for almost three decades and is based on outdated and bulky technologies. It is based on outmoded second generation radio relay hubs and has no capacity for data transmission. Requests for Information (RFI) were floated for a Tactical Communication System (TCS) for offensive operations and a Battlefield Management System (BMS) for communication at the tactical level in defensive operations a few years ago, but since then the acquisition process has meandered continuously, resulting in prolonged delays in introducing both these systems into service.

    The new optical fibre network being laid as an alternative to the 3G spectrum surrendered by the armed forces will go a long way in providing modern land-line communications. However, future communication systems will need to provide wide-band data capabilities to facilitate the real time transmission of images and battlefield video while on the move. The BMS will be integrated with the Army Static Communications (ASCON) system, which is the backbone communication network of the army. ASCON provides voice and data links between static headquarters and those in peace-time locations. It is of modular design and can be upgraded.

    TCS is a system that is meant for offensive operations – a mobile system that can 'leapfrog' forward as the operation progresses into enemy territory. The offensive operations echelons of the ‘pivot’ or ‘holding’ Corps deployed on the international boundary and the three Strike Corps will be equipped with TCS. The TCS programme has been delayed by more than ten years – the project was originally slated to have been started in the year 2000 and was hence called TCS 2000; now it is 2010 and yet the programme has not seen the light of day.

    The Battlefield Management System (BMS) is meant for communications from the battalion headquarters forward to the companies and platoons. It will enable the Commanding Officer to enhance his situational awareness and command his battalion through a secure communications network with built-in redundancy. BMS involves big numbers and will be fielded both in the plains and the mountains. The number of infantry battalions alone is about 350. To this can be added 60 Rashtriya Rifles and 45 Assam Rifles battalions. When armoured, artillery, engineers and signal corps regiments, as also aviation squadrons and the logistics battalions are added, the numbers are really huge.

    Both TCS and BMS have been categorised as ‘make’ programmes by the Defence Acquisition Council headed by the Defence Minister. This implies that the two systems must be designed and developed in India. The leading contenders are Bharat Electronics Limited, Tata Advanced Systems and Wipro, among others. Indian companies need to invest in developing the required technology and the ability to design and implement robust tactical communications systems. About 70 per cent of the required technology will have to be acquired from abroad and overseas companies will play a significant role.

    Multinational Corporations with suitable technologies and the right experience to help as system integrators include General Dynamics, Thales and EADS. Indian companies planning to bid for these contracts must carefully evaluate the technological capabilities of these companies and how their systems have fared during recent combat operations, the type of experience they have in integrating tactical communications systems and whether they are likely to bring a long term commitment to the Indian projects. TCS and BMS will need to be compatible systems and the company that can supply state-of-the-art technology for both the systems at competitive prices will have a clear edge. In fact, it will be prudent for the Ministry of Defence to award both contracts to the same Indian company so that communications compatibility can be ensured in practice and not merely in theory from the very inception of the system.

    The BMS communications system must also be compatible with the Future Infantry Soldier as a System programme. The F-INSAS project focuses on enhancing the lethality and survivability of soldiers. It seeks to transform soldiers into fully networked, mobile warriors with a high degree of situational awareness and the ability to operate in all weather conditions in all types of terrain. The programme envisages equipping infantrymen with light-weight integrated helmets with a ‘head up’ display that has a built in communication system and night vision goggles, hand-held computer display, Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver and lethal fire power, including Laser-guided weapon systems at appropriate levels. The design and development responsibilities for both these programmes need to be clearly defined in order to avoid turf wars between the Infantry Directorate and the Information Systems Directorate in the Army.

    According to a former Director General Information Systems, a Tactical Command, Control, Communications and Information (TacC3I) system is being developed by the Army. Under this mother system, various other systems such as CIDSS (Command Information Decision Support System), ACCCS (Artillery Combat Command and Control System), BSS (Battlefield Surveillance System), ADC&R (Air Defence Control and Reporting System), and BMS (Battlefield Management System) are being developed separately. Efforts are also underway to finalise a net-centric warfare (NCW) philosophy.

    Little progress has been made towards addressing inter-Service interoperability challenges in the communications field. A tri-Service Defence Communications Network (DCN) is now under development and the proposals which have been received are being evaluated. Cyber security and offensive cyber warfare are other areas that do not appear to have received the attention that they deserve. With China moving rapidly towards creating “one million laptop warriors,” neglecting this field will prove to be very costly in the long term.

    The bi-annual DEFEXPO that is now underway has seen a 60 per cent increase in the number of participating companies because India is set to spend close to US$ 50 billion (Rs. 250,000 crore) on defence acquisitions over the next five years. The leading international defence manufacturers are making a beeline to New Delhi. The endeavour should be exploit technologies available internationally to design modern communications systems that are customised for Indian conditions and are in consonance with the Indian Army doctrine and the tri-Service doctrine.

    India must skilfully leverage its buyer’s clout to ensure that each defence acquisition contract results in the transfer of cutting edge defence technology to Indian companies. This is necessary not only for communication systems but also for all other weapons and equipment so that the country’s technological threshold is raised by an order of magnitude. Future defence acquisitions must be firmly rooted in joint research and development with leading multinational corporations, joint trials and testing and joint manufacture and marketing. The patron-client, buyer-seller relationship in arms procurement in which India had been embroiled in the past must be consigned to history as a sorry chapter that is best forgotten. Also, the government must give up its monopoly on defence research and development except in sensitive strategic technologies.