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Army chief’s warning on ‘information battlefield’ must not be ignored. There’s still time

The contribution of India's National Information Board towards 'information warfare' is yet to be known. It need funds to get back on track.

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Defence finally found a mention in Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s Budget speech this year in the Parliament. Its absence in the past couple of years reflects the priorities of the Narendra Modi government. The fact that for over a decade now, the share of the defence budget as a percentage of GDP has been falling reflects this. Currently, defence expenditure stands at about 2 per cent of India’s Gross Domestic Product. In 2018, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence had recommended it to be around 3 per cent. It has also continued to drop as a percentage of central government expenditure. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, it was 16.4 per cent and is now 13.7 per cent. Developing India’s military power in a world that is geopolitically adrift does not seem to be of as much concern as it ought to be unless, of course, the leadership believes that the role of military power is not going to be significant in India’s development journey. But that cannot possibly be the case.

The global geopolitical ambience has continued to deteriorate and it should be clear that India, even if it wants to, cannot remain aloof. It has already been dragged into the larger global power struggle between the United States and China. The struggle has military overtones that cannot be ignored. Yet, the defence budget seems to suggest that required military power can be built with less financial support.

Ideologically, the budget falls short of addressing the concerns of the poor and national defence. Both echo a distorted political economy. However, with the Modi government having stated its priorities through the Budget, the Ministry of Defence and the military have their task cut out to make do with the resources allocated and continue to strive to optimise its utilisation. It is an uphill task, but one that is not new to the MoD and the military.

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The ‘information battlefield’

Chief of Army Staff General M.M. Naravane recently described India’s envisaged threats and said that India’s national security resources were being stretched. He said that “trailers of future conflicts are perceptible and these are being enacted daily on the information battlefield, in the networks and cyberspace. They are also being played along unsettled and active borders.”

The Army Chief’s observation of the ‘information battlefield’ also raises the issue of India’s preparations in the domain and it is one that goes beyond the defence budget. The information domain requires an all-government approach. It has to be strategised at the highest level and executed at the level of various ministries. The lack of such efforts has left the information domain to be dealt with piecemeal, and worse, it seems to be bereft of guidance and oversight.

In international relations, like in all human interactions, the ability to influence has rested on the psychological outcomes of the parties’ interactions. The digital age has provided a major fillip to those who can leverage the opportunities provided by the multiple forms of communications possible, especially, if one has control over the systems being used and can seize control of the adversaries’ systems, when required, during confrontation and conflict.

Alongside the potential offered by the digital age is also the fact that the domain is anarchic and that it has practically no international agreements laying down the rules of the road. Striving for information dominance has blurred the lines between war and peace. Espionage and sabotage of cyber-based information systems are possible at cheaper costs and can be stealthily applied, and such attempts are also deniable as attribution is not easy. With global geopolitical friction on the rise, there is very little likelihood that the anarchic nature of the information space will find relief.

Also Read: As battlefields go digital, democracies like India face test of transparency

India is better placed

India, even with its limited resources, is better placed to exploit the opportunities that are on offer in the information domain. Such a placement is an offshoot of its strength in software and the availability of large human capital to back it. However, what is lacking apart from strategising is the shortage of funds that are specifically set apart for the field.

Organisational responsibility for evolving policy and oversight has been in place since the major structural reforms that followed the Kargil Review Committee Report and the Group of Ministers’ Report in early 2000. A National Information Board (NIB), chaired by the National Security Advisor and the relevant and the highest level bureaucratic representatives as well as the Chiefs of the Armed Forces, has been specifically tasked with national-level policy formulation on information warfare and information security. It is also responsible for the creation of required institutions and structures for implementation of the policies and for tasking and monitoring the institutions created.

The contribution of the NIB towards fulfilling its tasks is not known. But the need to energise the NIB into action is obvious. This would require that it has a say in the allocation of funds to create the structures that have to form part of the larger national information warfare system. Since Budgets are sought and allocated to ministries, the NIB is financially disempowered to execute its plans even when they are crystallised. There is, therefore, a need to create a fund that can be specifically directed to strengthen India’s ability in the domain of information warfare. But the government is hard-pressed financially. So, what can be done?

Also Read: Lost in the data localisation debate: Does India have full power to exploit its own data?

Creation of a National Defence Fund

The answer lies in creating a National Defence Fund through voluntary contributions and placing it under the National Security Council (NSC) and managed by the National Security Council Secretariat for allocation to ministries as advised by it. The Fund should also be utilised for any projects that will strengthen other national security preparations. Information warfare capabilities, in particular, must see the NSC and NIB as their mentors.

The choices of the political economy are always debatable. The shortcomings of national security cannot be left to debate when the adversary is at the gates. The Army chief flagging the stretched resources for national security must not go unheeded. The people of India, especially its sizeable rich and middle class, will hopefully make up for what the political leadership is unable to provide.

Fortuitously, India’s reservoir of nationalism is sufficiently filled with the patriotic spirit and should be harnessed to attract contributions to the National Defence Fund. All it requires is a call from the prime minister.

Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd.) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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