The Ladakh stand-off has boosted transparency, for it has given greater visibility to a species of information soldiers who could be described as ‘Satellite Warriors’. These individuals, who are mostly housed in either think tanks or media, are increasingly the main sources of satellite imagery, informing the Indian and international public about China’s military moves. Their interpretations based on commercially available satellite imagery often vary from the official descriptions of the situation on the ground. Without any official interpretations contradicting their claim, the satellite warriors are having a free run while Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statements, even if they refer only to Galwan, are increasingly looking like lies attempting to hide in plain sight.
The last time the Modi government made compromises with China, at Doklam in 2017, the satellite warriors were small in number and their impact was marginalised by the projection of Doklam as a victory. The fact that the ‘victory’ was short-lived and restricted to stopping China from building a road with a particular alignment, did not get traction because the story hid the truth despite all the efforts of a few satellite warriors. The truth of China’s perfidy in Doklam is available through satellite photographs and is yet to reach the popular imagination. The Balakot strike in 2019 witnessed satellite warriors from India, Pakistan and other countries in an information battle space, which involved providing proof of strikes as a success or failure.
Occupying the information space
The role of satellite warriors in the current Ladakh stand-off is markedly different. They are at the forefront of putting out information in the public domain and seem to be fighting the Modi government, which prefers to deal with them by either pretending they do not exist or that they do not matter. Only time will tell whether this is a wise policy to adopt, unless things are so bad that silence is the only seemingly handy option and it does not matter what the public will assume.
The Modi government’s failure to communicate its version in a cohesive manner has been apparent since the beginning of the crisis in Ladakh along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The differing statements of Prime Minister Modi, Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh being the prime example. To depend upon the Prime Minister’s popularity and vacate the information space could be an invitation for political grief, because China’s actions on the border have the psychological component as their cornerstone. Information projection is crucial for India’s image on the global stage, for the world is watching how India is standing up to the big bully, China.
All is not hunky-dory
The uncontested space gives satellite warriors a free run. They may be well-intentioned in seeking to bring the truth to the public but they can also be a source of misinformation due to misinterpretation on account of lack of military expertise, having seen the ground only through satellite photographs. These satellite warriors can also be manipulated by China to project its military strength through subtle and deliberate exposure of military deployments. Ruses like making maps on the ground conveying planning for hostilities, are deliberately exposed to be picked up by the satellite warriors and utilised to intimidate and mislead a gullible public. The satellite warriors can, therefore, unknowingly become pawns in China’s psychological warfare.
The official capacity for satellite intelligence is beyond that of satellite warriors because the information is sourced from diverse satellites and interpreted by people with military expertise and ground knowledge. The reason the Modi government has ignored the satellite warriors is possibly because of the latter’s limited reach among Indians. Barring a few, the Indian print and television media have kept a respectable distance from the reports and claims of satellite warriors. Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp have been the main platforms that provide unrestricted flow of images but one that reaches a very niche audience. Domestic audience, by and large, is presumably largely unexposed to the satellite warriors.
On the international stage, their revelations have an audience that include the strategic cognoscenti, intelligence agencies and the political decision-makers. The views of such sections can influence perceptions of political leadership and consequent decision-making. This again can be wished away by assuming that most parts of the globe are too involved with the challenging situation wrought by Covid-19, to be interested in the India-China stand-off and the forays of the satellite warriors. In the short term, this is an acceptable argument. But it ignores the consequences in the longer term. If the crisis prolongs, the satellite warriors will only get better at their interpretations and the silence of the Modi government may be seen as a capitulation or a cover-up.
India might rue the current policy
The policy adopted so far to deal with a new player on the information stage, who has the potential to bring bad news to the public, is certainly in need of a review. There is no need to contest directly any of the satellite warriors. Instead, official images suitably interpreted must speak of the ground reality that has to be in consonance with the statements of political leaders and official spokespersons.
Governments lying to the public is a universal phenomenon and could even be justified in the name of statecraft. But what is galling in the current situation is that through silence, there is growing suspicion that the Modi government is involved in a cover-up and is accompanied by the assumption that international opinion does not matter.
Images and headlines gain attention far more than any other form of expression. The advent of satellite warriors is not a passing occurrence that is going to go away with the crisis in Ladakh. It can stay to haunt the Modi government and provide grist to the mill, to those forces who are inimically inclined towards India. The damages thus caused may eventually find their place in the annals of history. For sure, the satellite warriors will grow in strength and India may rue the ostrich policy currently being practised.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon is the Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bangalore and Former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He is the author of The Strategy Trap: India and Pakistan Under the Nuclear Shadow. Views are personal.