In the recent past there have been debates on the possibility of unleashing of non-traditional threats by China. While conventional military threats are analysed periodically and refined there is no such process in place for non-conventional/non-kinetic threats. The non-kinetic threats could be economic, diplomatic, cyber, space, water and now you could add biological weapons(like COVID19) too, where the primary responder is not the military. Further the impact being universal the response mechanism will involve the political heads, both state and centre and various government departments with the military playing a supportive role. Thus, there is a need for a ‘Rule Book of Guidelines’ required for each type of threat. For the purpose of this paper considering COVID19 to be a type of threat which could be posed by China, let us try and analyse the same under the heads of Indicators, Threshold, Response and Capability
In this case the early warning was available in terms of China being the first affected, as a victim, and India not being a target nation. It officially though announced to the world (WHO) only on 31 Dec 2019, which it soon discovered was not like SARS. By 17 Jan the cases were being reported by various countries starting from USA in the West to Taiwan in the East. Before India got it’s first case on 30 Jan 2020, China already had over 5000 cases and similarly there were news of other countries reporting cases. Thus, India should have had intelligence mechanisms in place by way of the students who were in Wuhan or the Indian Embassy/diaspora of an impending threat, by the speed at which it was spreading. By 22 March when India decided to impose a Janta Curfew the number of cases in China had crossed 80000 and globally the cases had reached three lacs. By 24 March, when the first lockdown was announced India had 571 cases but globally the number of cases had hit 4,00,000.
In the present situation India had the advantage of seeing the pandemic unfolding globally and how other governments are responding before we could take a call. This may not be the case always in case of a targeted threat.
The next question that emerges is that did the Government have a threshold figure before which it would take action. In terms of percentages though in case of China for a population of 1.435 billion only 81000 plus people being affected is a small percentage. But in today’s world, even a single loss of life, in a non-contact threat is avoidable. So, it is important for our government also to monitor the situation and arrive at thresholds based on timelines when certain measures have to be implemented. While in this case we had only 571 cases on the day of the shutdown, doing much better than most countries, could we have avoided further cases by warning people , when we crossed the 100 mark on 14 March across various states , and enforced a lockdown from say 17 March. Thus, it is important for the government to work out various thresholds which should be based on the impact of the non-kinetic threat with passage of time, and not the number of cases alone, on the society, like shutting down of schools/colleges, closing of public transport, shutting down of businesses, closing of public places like malls, movie halls , places of worship etc. It is a race between the number of cases developing and arrival of testing kits, ventilators, hospital beds, ICUs etc. As it emerged with the progress of the threat, the actions to be taken, were not only medical.
The response thus has to be multifarious to include, social distancing, lockdown, ensuring essentials are supplied, catering for the economic requirement of the daily wage labour and the poor. Similarly, ensuring hospitals, creating additional facilities, law enforcement and assessment of the economic impact are imperative for a proper resonse.
The issue that is being raised is not whether the government has done enough to control COVID19, but to highlight the requirement of a system in place to tackle such non-kinetic threats. In this case the response may have been better due to the majority government and having a proactive Prime Minister and Home Minister. But this may not be the case always and thus there is a need to document the response to various types of non-kinetic threats like diplomatic, economic, water, cyber, space, etc in which now a biological/chemical threat may also get included. In this case we could have stopped all travel to and from China from mid/end Feb itself. Thereafter by monitoring the cases in other countries, which is an advantage since it was not a targeted attack, similar graduated steps to ban travel to those countries could have been taken. Similar was the delay in procurement of ventilators, manufacturing PPEs, creating additional beds etc. The case of migrant workers walking back and their situation being inhuman is an example of not having a pre thought out response mechanism.
Thus, having a vision paper on response will help in implementing the directives faster. For this various scenarios need to be war-gamed by the Cabinet Committee on Security(CCoS).
At the end of the day all this exercise is to be done so that we can ensure adequate capabilities are built before the threat strikes. While it may not be possible to cater for physical capabilities for all types of threats the need is to have the protocols and SOPs in place so that they can be implemented when the need arises.
A few measures which could have helped in capability building in this kind of threat are :-
- Setting up of a nodal agency to track the threat and in the case of biological threats to identify the mode and pace of transmission.
- Identifying industries which can cater for such medical equipment, forewarning them and having directives that can be issued when the need arises. Some sets of medical equipment should form part of the ‘bricks’ held by the NDRF teams.
- Having protocols in place for employing all doctors, including those working in private hospitals by allocating specific hospitals to them . A data bank to this effect can be collated from the time a student finishes MBBS till wherever he is employed in his career. Similar database should be available for health care workers and paramedics.
- Tasking non-conventional medical remedies through AYUSH to find solutions for such threats which could have necessary sanctions obtained from ICMR.
- Have guidelines issued for business houses, NGOs and religious institutions regarding the role they will have to play.
- Plan for utilisation of national resources from across ministries in terms of schools, colleges, hotels, civil aircrafts, transportation agencies, telecommunication agencies, testing laboratories etc.
- Involvement of para military forces, police and the defence services should be fully integrated.
- The defence services with its excellent command and control set up across India can facilitate in establishing camps for migrants, repair facilities for vehicles with civilian set up co-opted and also provide food and medicine to drivers etc who have to ensure the basic essentials reach the common man. Specific instructions in this regard could be issued in advance and locations identified.
- Protocols for evacuation of Indian diaspora in affected countries or ensuring their safety should be issued.
- The banking and finance sector need to be made aware of the likely impact and the likely measures related to the threat could be legislated.
- The diplomatic impact in terms of relations with neighbouring countries, support that can be extended, isolation of China etc can be deliberated upon.
- The Economic impact and the steps to revive the economy will be a huge part of the capability building exercise. This will involve supporting industries which will take a hit like manufacturing, tourism, hotel, transportation etc for which additional measures and safeguards need to be put in place.
- Have strict guidelines for media – print, visual and social so that they don’t spread mis-information.
The present incident of Corona virus, though may not be attempted against a specific country, still remains a possible option for a non-kinetic threat. India needs to be aware that in the present world non-kinetic or hybrid threats, especially from China, is going to be the way forward. Thus, it has to deliberate upon each type of threat which by themselves may have many scenarios and impact various domains. Today the briefings are being given by the Health Secretary and not the NSA. Considering that non-kinetic threats are going to be the order of the day, the ministry which shall be the ‘lead’ in each of these scenarios needs to be specified. Thus, there is a need to have protocols in place for each type of threat and mechanism of capability building, especially in the case of cyber threat to be in place.
Brig R Kannan (Retd), a graduate of LGSC, DSSC, HCC commanded a Med (SP) Regt in the semi desert terrain and an Arty Bde in Ladakh. He has held instructional appointments in School of Artillery, IMTRAT Bhutan and Army War College.
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