Need to modernise army communications

Communication systems will need to provide real time transmission of images. 
It emerged during the recent Defexpo at New Delhi that India will spend US$ 50 billion (Rs 250,000 crore) over the next five years on defence acquisitions. However, most of this expenditure will be on weapons platforms like T-90S main battle tanks, 155mm artillery, fighter aircraft, ships and submarines and very little on command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems. In fact, the modernisation of tactical communication systems has lagged far behind that of weapons platforms, particularly in the Indian army. 

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 existing 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and keep pace with offensive operations in the plains has been in service for almost three decades and is based on outdated and bulky technologies like second generation radio relay hubs. 

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 and this has resulted in prolonged delays in introducing both these systems into service.

Optical fibre network
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 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. 

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. 

MNCs 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 MNCs 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 MNC 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 MoD to award both the contracts to the same Indian company so that communications compatibility can be ensured.
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 MNCs, 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. 

(The writer is director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies,  New Delhi)