Both the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and the Indian Army acknowledge network-centric warfare as doctrinally important. But while organisationally and in command and control, the People’s Liberation Army has undergone significant reforms; the same is not true for the Indian Army. The latter is yet to fully acknowledge and recognise the complementarities between electronic warfare and cyber warfare.
Cyber warfare (CW) is defined as “attacks by a nation or quasi-national organisation on the software and data (as opposed to the 13 people) in an information system”.
Electronic warfare (EW) takes place within the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS). The EMS itself can be defined as the “…range of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation from zero to infinity”. EW is crucial in military operations. The integration and conduct of EW to support military missions occurs across all services.
CW and EW in land warfare
In the context of land warfare, electronic warfare and cyber warfare operations are undertaken to support army operations and missions. Most immediately relevant to land operations are ground-based EW systems and aerial EW systems.
Any army will generally have a combination of ground-based and airborne electronic assets. The challenge lies in leveraging both subsets in a synchronised manner. Beyond EW assets, the challenge is either to conduct operations independently or in concert with CW assets based on the commander’s directives and the mission.
The commonality between electronic warfare and cyber warfare is a matter of perspective. As a rule, any network is vulnerable to penetration and corruption whether it is air-gapped (connected to the internet) or not.
Under China’s conception of cyber warfare, an entire range of capabilities and technologies characterise computerised warfare. In Chinese parlance, cyber warfare is described as Computer Network Operations (CNO) that involve digitisation and computer systems that are completely networked and provide clarity and data in real time to military commanders on the field. CNO can assume the form of hacking and cyber-attacks. Further, through simulated false commands, the adversary can be deceived.
From a Chinese standpoint, warfare across the electromagnetic spectrum requires initiative and offensive action. The purpose, according to the PLA, is to dominate the electronic spectrum and effectively deny the enemy the use of its electronic equipment. Offensive operations across the electronic medium would employ electronic jamming, electronic deception, directed energy weapons and electromagnetic pulse radiation. The defence (as opposed to offence) would require hardened facilities, dispersion, countermeasures, and physical retaliation. Consequently, microelectronics has been a key area of investment for the PLA.
In 1999, PLA Major General Dai Qingmin was the key advocate behind the adoption of China’s integrated view of cyber warfare and electronic operations as part of the PLA’s Information Warfare (IW) strategy.
According to the PLA, electronic warfare and cyber warfare are not mutually exclusive; it is necessary to recognise their convergence and integration to dominate information operations during wartime. Dai Qingmin called it Integrated Network Electronic Warfare (INEW) composed of the “…organic combination of electronic warfare and computer network warfare.” As the American scholar James Mulvenon put it, this was “revolutionary”, because even experts and information warriors in the United States were yet to be convinced about the connectedness between the two forms of warfare; they deemed electronic warfare to be completely outside the realm of computer attack networks.
Although China has not established a formal information warfare doctrine, it has gone ahead of the curve in grasping the importance of the opportunities in combining cyber and electronic warfare, or at least seeing the complementarities between them.
There is evidence to suggest that PLA intends to confront the adversary pre-emptively through cyberspace alone, which is not necessarily linked to dominating the electromagnetic spectrum. This effort would require computer network operations that infect the enemy’s weapons systems with malware while they are still inactive, but the malicious code only activates at predetermined time with the aim of destroying the adversary’s Command and Control system, such as “…circuits that control railroads, military air traffic and divert trains to wrong routes to cause traffic jams”. The PLA, therefore, also views cyber operations as an independent means to subdue the adversary and sees computer network operations as having disruptive effects on them.
The Chinese approach to cyber warfare and electronic warfare is compatible with this paper’s conception of cyber-electronic operations to the extent that it recognises they are crucial nodes on the electromagnetic spectrum.
Unlike the space and cyber missions, the Chinese military’s electronic warfare mission has been nowhere nearly as divided.
As Xi Jinping put it in his report to the 19 Party Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), “We must keep it firm in our minds that technology is the core combat capability, encourage innovations in major technologies, and conduct innovations independently. We will strengthen the system for training military personnel, and make our peoples forces innovative.”
India’s approach towards electronic warfare and cyber warfare is nowhere as evolved as that of China’s.
The Indian Army and India are yet to fully acknowledge the convergence between cyber warfare and electronic warfare, whether doctrinally, operationally or organisationally. The Indian Army’s thinking about the relationship between cyber and electronic warfare and how both can play out through the electromagnetic spectrum is, at best, evolving.
Most of the extant work on India’s cyber initiatives centre on threats to critical national infrastructure, government agencies and financial institutions like banks and insurance companies, as well as corporate entities.
To be sure, there are some exceptions within the Indian discourse, which do recognise China’s INEW strategy and the PLA’s quest to synchronise cyber warfare and electronic warfare operations and what India’s response should be. However, they do not engage with both the gaps in India’s capabilities and whether India could learn something from the Chinese experience, its vulnerabilities and establish the extent of a link between synchronised electronic warfare and cyber warfare operations in the context of land operations.
More critically, the Indian Army has yet to develop anything remotely resembling the Chinese INEW approach encompassing cyber warfare and electronic warfare. A likely reason for this is that there is inadequate interaction between the Indian Army Training Command (ARTRAC), which is responsible for formulating and updating service doctrine, and all the technical entities, such as the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Corps of Signals, the Defence Information Assurance and Research Agency (DIARA), and the National Technical Reconnaissance Organisation (NTRO).
Unlike China’s Strategic Support Force (SSF), India lacks a dedicated information warfare service that could be deployed in service-specific missions and military goals. New Delhi’s information warfare capacities are fragmented and lack a clear command structure. India’s electronic warfare capabilities have not matured in the form of miniaturisation to the extent of China’s own. If the IA were to move towards integrating cyber warfare and electronic warfare, it would also need a single operational commander to oversee all combined cyber warfare and electronic warfare activities and personnel within the domain of conventional military operations. As one former IA officer put it, “In order to keep pace with evolutionary changes in tactical doctrine, improvements in army command and control (C2) are required. The rapidly changing combat environment will impose severe time pressures on the staff and the commander.”
The challenge that the Indian Army and the Ministry of Defence face lies in the future. All prospective information based operations will need integration with traditional land warfare military operations; absent a single operational or joint force commander to execute integration, this will be a difficult aim.
However, if the Ministry of Defence and the larger national security establishment see cyber warfare in particular, if not electronic warfare functionally as an exclusively intelligence-related activity and view the electronic warfare domain and cyber domains as discrete, then they risk overlooking the complementarities between cyber and electronic warfare and the opportunities to leverage and synchronise them for kinetic land operations. They also risk undercutting the role of the army commander in integrating cyber and electronic warfare capabilities across multiple lines of operation.
In the event India establishes more integrated commands, the inter-services theatre commander will need greater authority to integrate cyber warfare and electronic warfare for greater network centricity. Authority has to percolate to division and brigade level.
Consequently, some clear recommendations are in order.
Recommendations for Indian Army
First, injecting greater doctrinal clarity on cyber and electronic warfare will help the Indian Army meet its requirements, train, and equip its ground warfare units. The Corps of Signals will and should be the principal source of expertise for training.
Second, based on the foregoing analysis, developing organic CW and EW capabilities is vital for the Indian Army at different echelons, from the corps to brigade level. At the tactical level, more Signals Intelligence personnel will need to be trained in the cyber and electronic domains.
The author is Associate Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme.
This is an edited excerpt of the paper Electronic and Cyber Warfare: A Comparative Analysis of the PLA and the Indian Army, published originally by the Observer Research Foundation.