Uncertain Wars

Sub Title : What kind of wars would we have to fight in the future and is our capacity building in the right direction

Issues Details : Vol 13 Issue 3 Jul/Aug 2019

Author : Ashwani Sharma

Page No. : 14

Category : Military Affairs

: July 31, 2019

Technology is impacting the nature of warfare like never before. The Geopolitical environment across the globe is uncertain and recent conflicts have seen large scale participation by non state actors. The situation then begs the question what kind of wars would we have to fight, how best do we prepare for them and is our capacity building in the right direction? Over the next few issues we will debate these issues

Predictions about future warfare have often put emphasis on new technologies and doctrines and lessons learnt from previous wars. Taking a leaf from history, in the 19th century the speedy victory of the Prussian army in 1870 convinced European general staffs that rapid mobilisation by rail, rapid-firing artillery and a focus on attack would make wars short and decisive. Those ideas were put to the test at the beginning of the first world war. The four years of trench warfare on the western front proved them wrong.

In the 1930s it was widely believed that aerial bombardment of cities would prove devastating enough to prompt almost immediate capitulation. That forecast came true only with the invention of nuclear weapons a decade later. Manoeuvre warfare instead turned out to be the winning formula as mechanised forces outflanked and outmanoeuvred enemy defences. Battle tanks which emerged on the battlefield turned out to be the game changer.

Similarly, when America demonstrated in the first Gulf war in 1990-91 what a combination of precision-guided munitions, information warfare, surveillance and reconnaissance methods and stealth technology could achieve, many people assumed that in future the West would always be able to rely on swift, painless victories. But after the terrorist attacks on America on 11 September 2001, the nature of wars took a different turn with blurring of lines between conventional and non-conventional conflicts. Asymmetric warfare has become a norm of sorts.

A valid inference would therefore be that  hybrid wars are there to stay.

What next?

Very often analysts fall into the same trap- imagining the wars they would like to fight rather than the conflicts that are likely to transpire. Inevitably it leads us into preparing for the previous war whose lessons learnt are still fresh and weighing heavily on our minds. But technologies are changing at such a rapid pace ever since the digital revolution, that it is bringing about cultural and institutional changes. Analysing future warfare and its nature thus is far more unpredictable than ever, the reason why we decided to term them as ‘Uncertain Wars’.

In the Indian context, two recent events are significant. Speaking on the occasion to commemorate Kargil Victory, PM Modi stressed upon greater jointmanship and integration amongst the three services and importantly – preparation for Cyber and Space Warfare.  The second significant development is Indian Army’s initiative to raise Integrated Battle Groups to effect greater all arms synergy, better operational coordination and shorter response time. Both the actions reflect India’s pragmatic anticipation and readiness to prepare for future wars. But is this enough? What is of concern is a large percentage of senior hierarchy’s focus on matching adversaries’ conventional capability and adequate response mechanism. With the advent of disruptive technologies, adversaries (both state and non-state) can acquire and apply asymmetric military power, much to the surprise of an unsuspecting adversary.

Nature of warfare is changing rapidly. A quick glance at the current and recent conflicts across the globe indicates that wars have occurred amongst very unlikely adversaries in very unlikely regions. Who could have imagined the US fighting in Afghanistan, or NATO allies invading Iraq two decades ago? Worse still- could we have predicted the nature of these wars and resultant messy outcomes?  ISIS in Syria and Iraq took the entire world by surprise and started a localized war which ultimately pulled in a number of global military powers. Despite some of the best military hardware in use, the conflict dragged on for a number of years and remnants are still fighting, refusing to give up. ISIS’s main weapon, other than the usual hardware was ‘Information Warfare’, which also taught the world a trick or two about ‘War of Perceptions’. North Korea and Iran remain defiant and thus potential flashpoints; Ukraine continues to suspect and resist Russia, as many a nation in Africa remain unstable and in various states of conflict.

Future wars may not be fought over territorial disputes, ideological differences or political hegemony or even over religious dominance. Economical bondage, Water wars, Demographic shifts, Resource crunch, Energy crisis, Environmental degradation etc are the likely causes of conflict in the decades to come. Any or all of the causes which may result in an armed conflict, will also dictate to some extent the way the wars are fought. New alliances will bring together unlikely bed fellows and new enemies. War fighting therefore needs to remain adaptive. Military capacity goals therefore must be defined as per the capability that a nation wishes to acquire and not just to deter its immediate neighborhood.

In the prevailing era of Information Warfare, perceptions matter as much as the situation on ground, if not more. Speed of information flow at times is more important than fidelity. Speed of decision making, and action is critical in Information Warfare. Social Media is the dominant medium of communication and a weapon of sorts.

Cyber and space are emerging as new arenas for waging wars. Much as we all speak against militarizing outer space, all the major military powers including India are developing capabilities that can apply sizeable military force in space. Traditionally wars have been waged in the medium in which we communicate, land, sea and air, in that order, as we developed means to communicate in them. Cyberspace is the new medium for communications and for sure, it is added to the new space for fighting wars. Now, the picture is changing, and the srace is on to integrate cyber and electronic warfare. A new war is being fought for control of the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum – the term given to the range of EM radiations from radio waves to gamma rays – a war the major powers cannot afford to lose.

Russia demonstrated its cyber warfare capabilities during the conflict with Ukraine in 2015. Russian hackers exploited critical system vulnerabilities in the Ukrainian power network, causing outages that affected more than 220,000 Ukrainian residents, and employed malware to hinder the repair effort. At a very basic level, Cyber attacks today can easily interfere with mobilisation plans and subsequent movements by capturing ATCs, Rail /road systems and telecommunications. Integration of intelligence, cyberspace and electronic warfare is the next step, and reportedly the US Army is already working on it. Synchronisation of cyber and electronic warfare is key for armed forces to succeed. High-end military conflict will not be won by merely leveraging EM spectrum such as utilising space-based satellites to provide global communications, surveillance, missile warning or position navigation – but instead it will be won by projecting control from within the spectrum itself.

Relevance of Kinetic Warfare

How relevant is kinetic warfare then? The answer is simple – as much as it is, and has been. In the battlefield, you need to close in and destroy the enemy. Physical destruction of enemy’s war waging capability which includes men and material, and the entire supporting infrastructure is imperative, notwithstanding the type and medium of warfare, be it land, sea or air. But here again, technology is changing the nature of warfare by ushering in weapons of increased lethality, range and precision. Smart weapons, unmanned, autonomous military platforms are increasingly available and affordable. Precision is fast replacing massed effect. Employed in conjunction with information and electronic warfare, emerging technologies in military domain demand fresh doctrines at the strategic and tactical levels. Hybrid wars present a new challenge as the enemy is no longer what the training precis teaches a soldier. He comes in many forms, in different avatars, evolving with and at the pace of changing times. The enemy fights as much on the lethal multidimensional battlefield as he does on WhatsApp and Instagram. Modern day militaries thus have to be prepared for multidimensional wars; there is not much distinction between war and peace, what matters is the domain in which you are tackling the adversary, and your long/short term strategy.

In the conventional all-out war scenario, as we transition towards Integrated Battle Groups and similar modern day imperatives, the real question that arises is about the nature of military capability and capacity that we plan to generate, given the budgetary constraints and rapid technological advances. Do we need 4000 battle tanks and 3500 Artillery guns, while the infantry soldier still walks in the open? Do we still need 44 combat squadrons in the IAF when UCAVs and long range missiles can do a part of the job? Do we need Carrier battle groups to dominate the oceans with UUVs and satellites out there? Will precision score over numbers? If yes, then when and how do we make an allowance for it in our tactics and acquisition plans? Will autonomous systems finally reduce the numbers, thus obviating human casualties?

Capacity Development

Indian Armed forces must adopt a multi-pronged strategy centered on technology and defence innovations focusing on near, mid and far-term objectives. We need to build for a fundamentally different conflict environment – one that will require us to operate with new cutting edge technologies that are likely to change the way military equipment is designed and the way military forces will fight. A balanced modernisation strategy would require both disruptive and capability based incremental innovations to provide defence capabilities in all time horizons. The speed of change in warfighting concepts, threats, and technology is outpacing current Army modernization. While our Armed Forces modernisation programme is engaged in a protracted struggle with the DPP and bureaucratic antibodies, the bigger danger to our military modernization is low fiscal allotment and national commitment on R&D in cutting edge disruptive technologies. Doctrines at the strategic and tactical level must keep pace with changing geopolitical realities and adapt with technological advancements. It calls for built – in flexibility, keeping the end goal in sight.

As a nation, we need to work on a strategy to make India self-reliant in defence. Fiscal turmoil, bureaucratic tangles and a non-performing DPP are some of the obstacles. There is one simple way to indigenize – provide the Indian industry with a viable business case. They will do the rest including acquisition of technology and organic growth. The government has to act as an enabler.

Defence technologies, the core ones at that, which are complex in nature may be imported to meet with immediate deficiencies. The guiding principle for import should be to acquire technologies and hardware that we are unable to produce in a given time frame. Buying outdated technologies on the basis of L1 is nothing short of criminal neglect, given the fiscal constraints and the fact that military platforms have a life span of 4 to 5 decades.

There is a growing discontent amongst the OEMs (and the supply chain) Indian and foreign who have set foot in India with great promise and hope. Seeking business is their primary concern and we cannot grudge them that. What they deserve is a fair, transparent and level playing field, and at times a simple expression of gratitude for their efforts, particularly when they end up at the losers’ end despite a full round of protracted trials. Long, overdrawn procedures are discouraging the industry – signs of fatigue are visible. We need to arrest the slide.

Disruptive Technologies and their Manifestation

The term disruptive technology was coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen in his 1997 best-selling book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. Christensen categorised new technology as being of two sorts, either sustaining or disruptive.

Disruptive technologies will lead to a third offset in the field of military technology. The first offset technology products were built beyond World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War and the Cold War period. The second offset technology systems were influenced by breakthroughs in ICT and precision- guided weapon systems/platforms. Their application manifested during the Gulf War. Military applications emerging from the third offset cutting edge technology include robotics and autonomous unmanned system, hypersonic, new undersea systems, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, EW, stealth meta materials, information and big data analytics, cognitive neurosciences, quantum technology, additive manufacturing, 3D printing, energy and propulsion, directed energy weapon and cyber everything.

Disruptive Technologies

Some of the technologies, which are being pursued with intensified focus are as under.

  • Directed Energy Weapons. High- energy (H-E) lasers have been under development for many years. They offer the potential of enabling low cost, speed of light, multi shots, thereby increasing the likelihood of destroying tactical and strategic targets. Advances in solid and liquid state lasers have increased the prospects for practical weapon applications. DARPAs H-E Liquid Laser Defense System (HELLADS) program is developing a 150 KW H-E laser weapon system with a weight of less than 5 Kg/KW.
  • Artificial Intelligence. Rise in artificial intelligence(AI) has become a reality and would act as a force multiplier for the future military capabilities and is becoming a critical part of modern warfare. Compared with conventional systems, military systems equipped with AI are capable of handling larger volumes of data more efficiently. Additionally, AI improves self-control, self-regulation, and self-actuation of combat systems due to its inherent computing and decision-making capabilities.
  • Hypersonic Strike Technology. Hypersonic refers to speed regimes of five times the speed of sound (Mach 5) and higher. Recent advances in areas of materials technology, guidance, control, and propulsion systems have started to address exceptional thermal, pressure, and other technical challenges of hypersonic weapons. Hypersonic weapons are difficult to intercept because of their speed and manoeuvrability.
  • Quantum Technology. Quantum technologies are likely to become a source of radical disruption in military affairs. China is building the world’s largest quantum facility. One of their plans is to achieve quantum supremacy with computing calculation power one million times to all existing computers by 2020. Such computers could be used for code breaking of existing networks. Quantum communication technology also enables unhackable quantum networks.
  • Autonomous Weapons. Autonomous and semi- autonomous systems have already revolutionized intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). Underlying technologies that support autonomous systems, like robotics, AI, software and wireless systems are developing rapidly. The shift to unmanned system will get accelerated once the tag, track and target technologies further mature and get linked to other ISR developments.
  • Low Cost Persistent Sensing Technologies. A significant number of satellites owned by government and private entities, producing high-resolution imagery, are transmitting 360 degree pole to pole near continuous coverage. Greater availability and lower costs of satellites, improved inter satellite coordination, advent of swarm drones designed to seek out targets having potential to change, advances in sensor and other technologies coupled with AI and big data analytics can potentially cause severe disruption to value targets of interest by maintaining continuous monitoring capabilities.
  • Cybersecurity Threats. Cyber attacks known since mid 90s are continuously evolving to extract sensitive information and denial of service/access to physically sabotaging equipment. Such attacks are very difficult to attribute to a particular country, group or person. Being financially cheaper makes cyber attacks attractive to weaker adversaries. Ability to affect a wide range of technologies and activities makes Cyber-attacks a multi-dimensional threat.


Disruptive technologies will manifest themselves as under.

  • Ubiquitous Robots. With the increasing use of unmanned systems, such as unattended ground sensors, small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and fire-and-forget missiles, we are already seeing the trend in this direction. Simply called robots, these autonomous entities would range in size from micro units, the size of insects to self-driving vehicles capable of troop transport, but also be virtual entities operating within cyberspace. These systems would be networked and collaborative and integrated with human systems.
  • Bot Swarms and Mixed Teams. Robots will be able to act in self-organising collaborative swarms in the same way that the soldier of today acts in teams. Swarms will involve systems with varying degrees of freedom, from remote controlled to autonomous, and act dynamically according to prescribed rules of engagement. Swarms and individual robots would deploy to carry out a variety of tasks from independent offensive action to defensive shields and early warning sensing outliers.
  • Disruptive Tech Soldier. The battlefield of 2050 promises to be a lonely place. Gone are the massed armies, instead we will see fewer humans on the battlefield, but more technologically enhanced ones – “augmented humans”. We can perceive this as extending the physical and mental abilities of the soldier, improving his understanding and interpretation of the environment, and improving communication with other super soldiers and robotic systems.
  • Automated Decision Making. At the tactical level the 2050 battlespace will also be more qualitatively automated. Autonomous processes will undertake many of the decisions made by humans today. These “decision agents” would be integral to all C2, ISR and BDA processes, filtering information, fact checking and disseminating, as well as deploying sensors and dynamically evolving communication paths. That would be a real networked space.
  • Cyber Warfare. As machines and IT systems come to dominate the battlefield of the future, so will cyber warfare adapt and develop to disrupt them. Dynamic hacking and spoofing as a prominent feature of the future tactical environment due to the fact that the so-called “attack surface” of robot units will be large, offering a large target to cyber attackers. There is increasing interest in research into such attacks, including the automation of reverse engineering and vulnerability analysis.

Information warfare

Nuclear age deterrence prevented wanton destruction; Information age elevates disruption over destruction.

It is no secret that modern economic, political and military systems operate and network through high-speed Information and Communication Infrastructures. Also, the population at large is connected and influenced by electronic information elements such as radio, TV and the social media whose reach is trans borders and transcontinental. Any disruption of these Information and Communication Technology enablers can be termed as Information Warfare. It is ongoing and does not really amount to an act of war even though its impact transcends international boundaries.

The tools of Information Warfare are primarily ‘digital’, and the targets would include:

  • Economic information systems to cause financial disruption; to undermine a business, it is not even necessary to attack it directly. Often it will suffice to destroy reputations and drive away supporters and customers through disinformation,
  • Political information systems to influence governance and electoral process; often weakening the influence and reach of the incumbent leadership; e.g. Cambridge Analytica scandal, surrounding the company’s use of personal data to target political advertising,
  • The beliefs and expectations of the population causing a disruption of the social fabric; a proxy-communications war which ignited and hijacked the Arab Spring uprisings.

The lethality of successful Information Operations is that they mutate and transform at a breakneck pace bringing about phenomenal disruptions in the economic and social fabric of a society or nation.

Electronic Warfare, a component of Information Warfare, is a military action involving the use of electromagnetic and targeted energy to attack and control the electromagnetic spectrum of an opponent. Electronic warfare is therefore an instrument of war while Information Warfare does not use kinetic elements or electronic interference.

In the contemporary sense, Internet in general and social media in particular has become a playground of Information Warfare and an instrument for waging covert war by other means. The emerging threats are summarised below:

  • Internet has enabled a unique decentralized command and control model that is faceless and independent of geographical boundaries; Arab Spring uprising.
  • Social media has become a factory of revolutions. While governments and leaders are increasingly using it, they are also being increasingly blindsided by sudden online developments.
  • Crowd sourcing is another Internet based phenomenon with military implications; citizen journalists.

Information Warfare is therefore no longer a preparatory operation to destabilise the enemy. Information Operations are now capable of achieving strategic objectives on their own without relying on kinetic engagement. Attackers include individuals and private groups in addition to governments and the military; Information Warfare is no longer in the exclusive domain of the state. To survive in this big bad world, the state must not only have a strong Information Warfare waging capability but also prepare to create a disinformation resilient society.