Armies world over, especially traditional ones, lag in technology adoption. This has remained unchanged since the First World War, when swashbuckling Generals of a bygone era repeatedly ordered frontal cavalry charges into fusillades of machine gun fire. One would assume that the Generals learnt from the suicidal slaughter, but they didn’t. Many of them continued in denial, staunchly believing that the failure was because of insufficient troops – not their irrational denial of the seismic shift in warfare.
Humanity has waged war since genesis. While war is not new, warfare has undergone major orbit shifts over time. While ‘orbit shifts’ may be catalysed by technology – they are different from mere technology upgradation. For instance, the use of muskets and cannons against swords and catapults is a technology upgradation, and can be dealt with by recasting strategy. But opening of a new theatre, such as naval vessels in the seas or leveraging airpower or dominance of outer space or cyber-war, requires a recasting of doctrine. The ability to grasp this difference and act upon it is crucial.
Strategic leadership of any army (which includes the ‘generals’, bureaucracy and the political leaders) abhors immense changes, especially if they adversely affect its satrapy. It is therefore easier to issue knee-jerk diktats, that in most cases are ineffective, and in some – like information warfare – outrightly counterproductive. The advisory from the Army discouraging or prohibiting its personnel from participating in social media is such an instance. It is about as effective as prohibiting soldiers from listening to the radio or ignoring pamphlets air dropped by the enemy. Both are powerful information warfare methods used for decades.
Banning is easy
Incidentally, this is not the first time that the Army (or for that matter many other sensitive departments of the government) has adopted such ‘insulating’ strategies. About two decades ago, the government and the forces embarked on a massive initiative to ‘airgap’ its networks from the internet. At a time when Indian engineers were probing the innards of systems all over the world and hardening them against the Y2K challenge, the Indian government was busy ensuring that its entire future leadership – who would be expected to compete and fight in a connected world – were denied free access to that very world.
The draconian reprisals in case of a ‘data leak’ were such major disincentives that many officers chose not to have computing devices in their offices rather than be reprimanded, because of an inadvertent data loss. We created an environment where it was better not to learn – than to make mistakes while learning. And we are suffering its consequences, in terms of a psyche whose response to the onslaught from the sixth dimension of war – the battle for the mind and the morale – is to ban it.
Can’t be contained within cantonments
Information warfare is as quintessential as warfare itself. In the Mahabharata, the epitome of truth Yudhishthira – whose credibility was unimpeachable – was used by the Pandavas to spread disinformation about the death of Ashwatthama, thus breaking the morale and efficacy of Drona, one of the most lethal Kaurava chieftains.
There are innumerable cases of a superior army fleeing the battlefield when they were misinformed that their king had been killed or had run away from the battlefield. It is believed that one of the most pivotal battles of Indian history – the third battle of Panipat – was partly lost by the Marathas because they wrongly believed that their commander Sadashivrao Bhau had fled the battle, when in fact he had just changed his mount from an elephant to a horse.
Research proves that the need to access information is a dopamine-high, which is Pavlovian in compulsiveness. Banning access to it doesn’t serve any purpose beyond creating a rule that can be cited to punish the errant. People will just bend or circumvent rules at best, or remain technologically illiterate at worst.
Instead, we have to embrace the reality that the information age is universally pervasive. It cannot be contained within cantonments. Most modern armies of the world recognise the power of this medium and have created environments where their communities can participate in relative security. Relative being the key word.
Stop taking recourse in denial
We also need to rewrite our digital information warfare doctrines very differently from cyber-war or cyber-security. This nuanced distinction is critical to our information warfare’s offensive and defensive strategy. Cyber-war or cyber-security is about denial or degradation of computing or communication assets. For example, the cyber-attack on Iranian nuclear reactor, or the more recent penetration of nuclear systems closer home, was meant to wreak havoc on systems. That can be fixed in a relatively easy manner. Contrary to the hoopla (propagated mostly by companies trying to sell cyber-security), the Stuxnet virus did not cause any discernible delay in the Iranian reactors. (‘Unnatural deaths’ and accidents of Iranian scientists allegedly by hostile agents were far more debilitating for the project.)
Cyber-war and cyber-security have their own set of challenges, but they are very different from the information warfare waged by terror organisations or state-sponsored players. For instance, the ISIS doesn’t intend to degrade the servers of Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. Instead, it leverages those very platforms to further its strategic objectives. Russia ‘allegedly’ rigged elections in the US leveraging the technology platforms, not degrading them.
Our country’s immediate challenge is to stop taking recourse in denial and realise that nothing can or should stop an idea whose time has come. Information, especially social information, is not just the new oil. It is the new oxygen.
And those who believe that it is better to ban soldiers and government functionaries from participating in the knowledge revolution might want to remember the effectiveness of cavalry charges on machine guns.
The author is the founding CEO of NATGRID & a former soldier. He tweets @captraman. Views are personal.