In his new book The Last War: How AI Will Shape India’s Final Showdown With China, Pravin Sawhney, the editor of FORCE magazine, disquietingly forebodes a grim scenario for 2024: “If India and China were to fight a war in the near future, India faces the prospect of losing the war within 10 days. China could take Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh with a minimum loss of life, and there is very little that India could do about it.” Is it the imagination of a defence analyst running wild? Far from it — such scenarios have been predicted by other analysts too.
A US military blog, Mad Scientist, which looks at the future of warfare, visualised a similar scenario for 2035 in February 2020, wherein China, in collusion with Pakistan, defeats India in Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. At the tactical level, in the early days of the crisis in Eastern Ladakh, I examined China’s high-technology attack with its existing capabilities for which, also, the Indian Army is ill-prepared.
Of course, the above doomsday predictions come with a caveat of how fast the Indian military can reform itself. My only disagreement is with Pravin’s timelines. In my view, the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as visualised by him will fructify in a decade and a full-spectrum AI-driven war capability will take another decade.
Be that as it may, the need of the hour is to analyse China’s capabilities for “informationised and intelligentised” warfare, carry out an ethical assessment of our own capabilities, and reform to bridge the gap.
China’s ‘informationised and intelligentised’ warfare
Empirically, there is a 50-year cycle of radical changes in warfare with respect to military technology, force structure, and doctrines. After World War II, the US demonstrated the next cycle in Gulf War I — Airland Battle with Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs), cyber, electronic and space warfare, and advanced versions of weapon platforms. The tactical battle, glamourised by close combat, was relegated to a ‘walk in/walk over’ to control the battle space shaped by PGMs and electronic warfare. An advanced version of this warfare is currently in vogue. The world is now on the cusp of the next cycle of warfare, which will be dominated by AI. While the technology is likely to fully fructify by 2040-50, its early manifestations are likely to be seen in a decade.
China was a slightly refined World War II military up till 1991. It adapted to the next cycle of warfare, almost equivalent to the US, in 20 years and is now moving forward at a rapid rate to adopt AI-driven warfare. “Informationised and intelligentised” are not mere Chinese pinglish words, but in Mandarin, these have a deeper meaning. China’s national security strategy has traditionally been given out as ‘Military Strategic Guidelines’ by the Central Military Commission (CMC), which are classified. However, some details are invariably given out in Defense White Papers, which are in the public domain. The word ‘informationisation’ first appeared in the 2004 Defence White Paper: “Winning local wars under conditions of informationisation.” This strategic concept was further modified in the 2015 White Paper: “Winning informationised local wars.”
Informationised warfare added three new domains — cyber, electromagnetic and space — to the traditional (land, air and sea) domains. The focus was on information domination — deny information to the enemy for the command, control and use of weapons, and fully exploit it yourself. This implied rendering the adversaries’ command and control and weapon systems — which depend on cyber, electromagnetic and satellite data/communications in all domains — ineffective by systems destruction, leaving its own military free to use the same with impunity.
China’s 2019 White Paper gave birth to the term “intelligentised warfare”: “Driven by the new round of technological and industrial revolution, the application of cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), quantum information, big data, cloud computing and the Internet of Things is gathering pace in the military field. International military competition is undergoing historic changes. New and high-tech military technologies based on IT are developing rapidly. There is a prevailing trend to develop long-range precision, intelligent, stealthy or unmanned weaponry and equipment. War is evolving in form towards informationised warfare, and intelligent warfare is on the horizon.”
Intelligentised warfare focuses on full-spectrum exploitation of AI in all facets of military activity, including intelligent weapons/platforms, bots and autonomous weapon systems, and robotic soldiers with technical support from intelligent networks, cloud, big data and Internet of Military Things. The word ‘intelligent’ here implies that the military machines will have a mind of their own in application.
China will now wage its informationised and intelligentised war in seven domains — air, land, sea, outer space, cyber, electromagnetic spectrum, and near space or hypersonic (between 20 to 100 km, beyond which outer space begins).
China’s reforms for informationised and intelligentised warfare are well on course. In the last 10 years, President Xi Jinping has given military reforms greater impetus to fulfil his ‘China Dream’— a “powerful and prosperous” nation that would acquire “great power status by 2049”. In 2015, he announced comprehensive reforms to shape the transformation of the PLA. Seven military regions were transformed into five tri-Service theatre commands. More importantly, three new Services were created — PLA Ground Force, PLA Rocket Force, and PLA Strategic Support Force. The Strategic Support Force encompasses sub-domains of electronic, cyber, and psychological warfare, strategic deception, and communication/electronics aspects of space warfare. PLA’s Rocket Force has the largest inventory of all types of surface-to-surface missiles in the world. It is meant to destroy the adversary’s static command and control headquarters, air bases/aircraft on the ground, fuel dumps, ammunition depots and road/rail bridges. All modern armies, including India’s, have such missile capabilities, but it is the quality and huge inventory of China’s missiles that is frightening.
Timelines for military reforms have been compressed with rapid progress. Mechanisation with significant informationisation was to be completed by 2020. Integrated development of mechanisation, informationisation and intelligentisation is to be accelerated by 2027 (100 years of PLA). Comprehensively, advanced modernisation of national defence is to be achieved by 2035. And full transformation of the PLA into a world-class force by 2049 (100 years of People’s Republic of China).
India needs time, political will, and military reforms
Today, the Indian military is capable of fighting a poor man’s version of America’s Airland Battle seen in the Gulf Wars, reforms for which had begun in the mid-1980s and were completed by the mid-2000s. At this stage, our capabilities were at par with China. Unfortunately, since then, the reform process has been stagnant. We have not carried out a formal strategic review nor do we have a formal national security strategy from which should flow out capability development strategy to fight the high technology wars of the 21st century.
Optimistically, we say that we are just a decade behind China in military capability, but only in land, air and sea domains of war. In the cyber, electromagnetic, space and near space domains, we are nearly 15 years behind. How else can we explain being surprised in Eastern Ladakh? China has already set goals for full-spectrum military exploitation of AI by 2027 and 2035, and we are busy touting the most fundamental of innovations as military exploitation of AI.
Our situation today is somewhat similar to the one prevailing from 1959 to 1962. War was on the horizon. We had the military capability to stalemate China but with no border infrastructure to sustain it, resulting in a catastrophic defeat. Today, we have a reasonable border infrastructure but have been left far behind in the cyber, electromagnetic and space domains of war which in conjunction with AI will decide the outcome of future wars. We are preparing for the last war and China for the future one.
India must bite the bullet and use diplomacy to gain the decade that we need to stalemate — if not win against — China.
The fantasy of a two-front war needs to be given up. Counter-insurgency operations must be taken over by the Central Reserve Police Force. It has to be a ‘whole-of-nation’ approach. Impose a defence cess to make our defence budget equivalent to China. A politically owned and supervised military reform process must be put in place with clear timelines. Put a caveat of the transfer of high-end military technology on our relationship with our allies. US military prowess will deter China in the Indo-Pacific, but India will bear the brunt in the Himalayas.
I have absolutely no doubt that we can stalemate China, provided we have the political and military will to reform in next ten years. Military reforms undertaken by Ukraine with effect from 2014 to stalemate Russia in 2022 is a classic example.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R), served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)