If the People’s Liberation Army of China leads a technology-driven attack on the Indian forces in high altitude terrain, what are India’s options? The PLA will rely more on Cyber and Electronic Warfare, and PGMs, rather than on an infantry-predominant close-combat attack from a position of disadvantage.
In the near future, cyber, electronic, space and artificial intelligence domains of warfare will be exploited, in addition to the traditional domains of land, air and sea. With full-scale wars between nuclear weapon States being a passé, these new domains will be the primary means of use of force in the competitive conflict among nations.
An article by a US think tank visualises the future of war well. Published in February this year, the authors create a ‘modern’ battlefield of 2035, involving India on one side and China-Pakistan on the other in Jammu and Kashmir. But kinetic and electronic attacks by drone swarms are no longer a fantasy. Nearer home, there was a report in Pakistan media last week about cyberattacks targeting Army personnel and government officials. It has been speculated that the May 2017 Sukhoi 30 crash in Arunachal Pradesh was caused by a cyberattack from China.
India needs to catch-up
Our armed forces have been seized of the problem for the last two decades now, but not much has moved. In 2004, former Chief of Army Staff General S. Padmanabhan, soon after his retirement, wrote a fictional account The writing on the wall-India checkmates America 2017 a scenario of an India-Pakistan war wherein US acts in collusion with Pakistan, but is neutralised by an Indian cyberattack. This optimism back then was due to a growing acknowledgement for India as a world leader in Information Technology. However, despite an early start, so far in real terms, we have only taken baby steps.
We have had Signal Intelligence and Electronic Warfare units for a long time. However, these are saddled with archaic equipment. Indigenisation has made no headway and import is extremely difficult due to reluctance of foreign governments. We created Information Warfare Brigades on the lines of what the US Army has, but failed to integrate Electronic Warfare, Cyber Warfare , psychological operations and military deception under them.
We have yet to evolve a formal doctrine on Information Warfare. Although the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Navy are in a much better position than the Army, they too are well short of the desired capability. During the dogfight the day after Balakot, questions were raised about the electronic warfare capability of our aircraft vis a vis the F16s. We have done well to establish the Defence Cyber Agency and Defence Space Agency in 2018, but these are only baby steps and we have miles to go. Recently, the Army ordered a study, headed by a senior Lt Gen on advanced “niche and disruptive warfare technologies” that range from drone swarms, robotics, lasers and loiter munitions to artificial intelligence, big data analysis and Algorithmic Warfare.
In sharp contrast, the PLA has a head start of three decades and has been seized with Information Warfare since 1993, post-Gulf War 1 in 1990. The PLA’s strategic concept, which is formally given out in the Central Military Commissions’ Defence White Papers, in 1993, highlighted “ local wars under modern conditions”. In 2004, this was modified to – “winning local wars under conditions of informationisation (sic)”. The strategic concept was further modified in 2015 to “winning informationised (sic) local wars”. This strategy signifies that Information Warfare — encompassing Electronic Warfare, Cyber Warfare, Psychological Warfare, strategic deception and communication/electronics aspects of Space Warfare — will play a predominant role in the way China fights its wars. To this end, in the 2015 reforms, the PLA’s Strategic Support Force has been created to control all sub-domains of Information Warfare.
The PLA is rapidly laying fibre-optic cables in areas secured through its preemptive manoeuvre in Eastern Ladakh, to enhance its Information Warfare capabilities.
How to defeat PLA’s high-tech attack?
Given the huge differential in Information Warfare and PGM capabilities, our armed forces have to rely on innovation to defeat the PLA.
- Our present defences were designed to defeat suppressive fire of small arms and non- PGM artillery, and stand out like sore thumbs. They are no different from what we had prepared a 100 years ago and will be obliterated by stand-off ground or air-delivered penetrator PGMs. We need to create concretised tunnel-based defences. South Korea’s defences along the 38th parallel are an excellent example.
- Rather than concentrating on the defences near the top of the heights, we should disperse them along the slopes to present smaller targets. Camouflage and concealment should be used extensively to deny information and mockups must be created to present false targets.
- The enemy wants to avoid close combat. Hence, it would be prudent to force him to engage in close combat. This can be done by organising the defences in depth to force the PLA to fight a successive battle. Once initial contact is established, the enemy can’t use PGMs or area weapons due to his own safety. Launch “spoiling attacks”, which implies attacking the enemy as he moves forward from his assembly areas, to form up for the attack. Launch immediate counter-attacks when the enemy commences mopping-up.
- Make concentrated use of own information warfare resources to attack the enemy command, control and weapon systems.
- Target enemy information warfare resources and PGM weapon platforms with counter-PGM attacks.
- Rather than passively waiting for a high-tech enemy attack to commence, go on an offensive. This can be done both at the higher level with operational level reserve and at the tactical level all along the LAC.
- Coordinate with the US, Israel and France to make emergent procurement of state-of-the-art information warfare equipment.
We have been left at least two decades behind China with respect to military capability in general and Information Warfare in particular. With respect to the latter, the government must set up a task force with active participation of our Information Technology companies and IITs to catch up with China. Eastern Ladakh is a wake-up call. We must reform to bridge this asymmetry or we will bumble along from crisis to crisis, fraught with apprehensions and uncertainty about the outcome.
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. Views are personal.