Information is the new oil, and the Indian Army has realised this, albeit a little too late. The Army is finally in the process of changing its 15-year-old media policy. In the age of Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and Tik Tok, the Army has to find new ways to stay nimble and on top of the information cycle.
The previous policy of 2005 was formulated before the boom of TV channels, and hence, does not take into account how to really use the electronic and digital media space. It’s shocking that all current policies are officer-driven and ad hoc.
It is time the Indian military has a joint media and information warfare policy. The Services cannot and should not be allowed to work in silos, thinking that digging their head into the sand is the best way to fight the information warfare.
IAF and Navy are no different
It is not just the Army. The Indian Air Force’s (IAF) media policy dates back to 2011. Anyone who covers the defence beat or is associated with the defence set up knows that the IAF is a tough nut to crack when it comes to information or interaction with officers or visit to airbases.
What is sad is that many senior IAF officers reading this will actually feel proud about the fact that they are the most opaque among the three Services.
This is foolhardy because information always has the ability to flow out even if slowly and in an incomplete way.
The Navy, the fastest to really take advantage of social media, is the better of the three wings when it comes to media policy. An analysis of media, be it newspapers, TV or digital, will show that Navy gets much more attention than its larger sister Services — Army, which is easily 10 times bigger and the IAF, which is about three times bigger.
How social media can be used effectively for information warfare can be seen in two tweets by the Indian Navy on 17 April 2018.
#MissionBasedDeployments From Persian Gulf to Malacca Straits & from Northern Bay of Bengal to Southern Indian Ocean to East coast of Africa @indiannavy with 50 ships on vigil 24X7 keep our Area of Responsibility (AOR) safe. @indiannavy Anytime, Anywhere Everytime @nsitharaman pic.twitter.com/rxmBAed5Sa
— SpokespersonNavy (@indiannavy) April 17, 2018
The tweets by the Indian Navy sent out a very subtle but powerful message to the Chinese PLA Navy: You are being watched in the Indian Ocean region.
However, the recent espionage scandal that rocked the Navy has forced it to take drastic measures. This clearly shows that the force had not taken into account earlier the true dynamics of social media while formulating its overall policy.
The Balakot tragedy
While every force will claim that they have a robust media policy, the fact remains that the biggest and most successful operation ever carried out by the Indian military in the 21st century — 2019 Balakot strikes — also exposed the chinks in India’s ability to tackle the information warfare from Pakistan.
Pakistan was able to create doubt in the minds of many about India’s success of the Balakot strikes even before India woke up.
Two days after the Balakot strike, a joint press conference was held by the three Services. Rather than holding it in a formal manner, when the whole world was watching, the presser was held in a haphazard way on the lawns of the South Block. The event established again the need for a new media policy.
At times it is also laughable. Sample this: In many briefings, a camera is allowed but not mobile phones or dictaphones. Believe it or not, annual press conferences of the Service Chiefs are not allowed to be broadcast live. While reporters can tweet the information out and channels can break the news on TV, the press conference cannot be shown live.
Need for joint doctrine
The Narendra Modi government has appointed a Chief of Defence Staff whose primary job is to break down the silos that the armed forces work and operate in. He should work towards breaking down the information warfare silos.
He should also focus on bringing in cohesion in the media policy of the armed forces and it should not matter which officer is in the chair.
Defence forces across the world like the US, UK and French, have adopted a common policy which is dynamic in nature. The Indian Services should do the same.
What can be done
Media and information warfare should be made a compulsory course for all from the junior level itself. They should be constantly updated.
It is also important to set up concerted and dynamic information warfare cells in each of the Services, which work in tandem with each other. They should be able to launch full-fledged information warfare, rather than merely countering claims of the other side.
It would be a good idea to see how Pakistan military’s propaganda wing, ISPR, functions. While one can ignore the lies and devious methods used by the ISPR to fool their own public with disinformation, a lesson or two can be learnt about how they operate against India.
The Indian military has always shied away from the Western media treating them with suspicion while Pakistan has adopted them. While this is slowly changing in India, it needs to be codified rather than making it an ad hoc practice.
Each Service has a Public Relations Officer (PRO) who reports to the defence ministry. Services also has a separate department that controls information and publicity. This dual office is at times helpful but can become extremely difficult when egos come into play. PROs of all three Services should actually come under the ambit of the CDS or the Department of Military Affairs.
Another important step that needs to be taken is to see the media as a force multiplier and not as a necessary evil. The Commanding Officers should be empowered enough to speak on their own to the media on an operation or issue facing them rather than await clearances from higher-ups.
It is important to give both senior and junior officers with regular media exposure. Moreover, the red tape around permission to visit bases or interaction should be cut down so that the information flow is constant.
Lack of information is what causes the maximum problems for the defence forces as well as the media.