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General Rawat has failed to acknowledge the looming threat of the PLA’s methods of fighting wars with invisible soldiers. His priority, which reflects the priority of the government, is to focus on terrorism as the principal threat

By Pravin Sawhney

For all the hype around the elevation of General Bipin Rawat as India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), the bitter truth is, it will not help in war preparedness. The CDS is likely to prepare the military to fight the wrong enemy, the wrong war with wrong procurements, training and mind set. While it might help the Modi government politically, it would make India weak militarily. As CDS, General Rawat would head the newly-created Department of Military Affairs (DMA), the fifth department in the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The other four being the Department of Defence, the Department of Research and Development, the Department of Production and Supplies, and the Department of Finance.

The defence secretary will coordinate the activities of all five departments. Moreover, under the Government of India Rules of Business 1961, he will continue to be responsible for the defence of India. By making a four-star and not a five-star CDS (as was recommended by the 2002 Group of Ministers report headed by the then deputy prime minister L.K. Advani), the Modi government has

(a) ensured civilian control of the defence ministry,

(b) obviated (the unfounded) fear of a military coup by a powerful CDS,

(c) fulfilled the long-standing demand of CDS, and

(D) retained General Rawat, a politically useful general who values perception management over actual capabilities.

As twin-hatter CDS head of the Integrated Defence Headquarters (IDHQ) and permanent Chairman of the Chiefs Of Staff Committee (COSC) General Rawat will have four jobs. One, he will be answerable to the defence minister, like other secretaries in the MoD, along with the defence secretary. Two, on the military side, as head of the COSC, he would be first amongst equals whose advise would be binding on the services’ chiefs. Three, he would do all that the IDHQ had been doing  raised in September 2001, the IDHQ had come a long way doing a range of tasks including procurements  better with his raised status and authority. General Rawat’s fourth and most important task would be ‘facilitation of reconstructing of military (or integrated theater) commands’ in three years.

This is a problem area with deep implications. Given the uninspiring indigenous defence industrial base, frugal defence allocations, heavy dependence on imports and two military lines to protect, tying down of limited military assets (especially belonging to air force) in integrated theatre commands without proper assessment to ensure that it meets real threats and future warfare needs would be disastrous. Focused on Pakistan, General Rawat believes the Indian military should prepare for hybrid warfare comprising the entire spectrum of war from sub-conventional (counter terror) to conventional to nuclear level to cyber war to law war to psychological war to information (perception management) war and so on. He also believes that even though room for conventional war is shrinking, the army should lead in war. Speaking at the ‘Army Technology Seminar’ on December 23, he said:

“While non-contact war will help give advantage, the man on the ground (soldier) will remain relevant”. He added, “Quantum, space, cyber and Artificial Intelligence (AI) need to be leveraged in defence ecosystem.” He is certainly not talking about the war that the PLA India’s main adversary is furtively preparing itself for and giving sleepless nights to the powerful US military.

‘Invisible soldiers’

The PLA is preparing for a war which is transforming real battlefields to virtual battle space. There would be AI-backed intelligent computers (capable of learning, reacting and problem solving better than humans in the fog of war) embedded in unmanned systems on land, air and sea. These intelligent and autonomous systems will communicate with one other in real time by networks which will be hugely vulnerable to cyber and electronic warfare. Given this, small networks supported by cloud architecture (having advanced computing powers) and data would be preferred to large networks in theatre commands. Joint-ness will give way to diverse small unmanned missions. The Strategic Support Force (SSF) comprising cyber, electronic warfare, space and psychological warfare created by the PLA in 2015 will have the capability to end a war before it starts.

The SSF will destroy and disable network nodes making communication on battlefields including land, sea, air, space, deep sea and the electromagnetic spectrum unsustainable. The PLA’s massive cyber-attack capabilities could start war instantly, without warning, involving the whole-of-nation by shutting down all computer and telecommunications connected commercial enterprises in the country, creating havoc. So, cyber and space are not force multipliers, as General Rawat believes, but a potent force in new warfare. There will be fewer humans and more machines fighting war. The intelligent cruise, ballistic and hypersonic missiles will be capable of reasoning on their own such that they would be able to change their mission mid-course to hit a more dangerous target.

I recently participated in a high-profile panel discussion on ‘AI in Future Warfare’ at the 9th Xiangshan Forum in Beijing where the consensus was that the character of warfare would alter dramatically. In the next decade or so, by the time India’s integrated theatre (military) commands fructify and all Integrated Battle Groups (a brainchild of General Rawat) become operational, the nature of war would have changed from information to intelligence. By 2035, the war will be without contact and software driven, an invisible war with few or no soldiers. The word ‘quantum’ that General Rawat had used casually at the Army Technology Seminar is a different ballgame. It would propel warfare to the next level from intelligence to quantum warfare. China has invested more finances and effort in quantum sciences (including computers) than the US.

In quantum warfare, things will be superimposed one thing will exist at two places at the same time. Sounds unbelievable, but that is what it would be by 2040. Indian military is oblivious to all this because it has been fighting terrorism since 1990, a war it cannot win. It has not realised that given the border dispute with China and President Xi Jinping’s declaration that not an inch of Chinese territory handed down by its ancestors would be forsaken, India has a major problem at hand. To be sure, India’s major threat is not terrorism or Pakistan. It is the PLA whose capabilities are not adequately understood and the interoperability (ability to fight together against common enemy) between the PLA and Pakistan military. The PLA focused on the US military started conceptualising its military reforms from 2010, and finally announced them in 2015. India has been putting the horse before the cart.

Without a clear understanding of threats and future warfare, work to raise integrated theatre commands has begun with General Rawat as the CDS. Everything else from joint procurements, training, logistics and operations will not amount to future war preparedness, which is what the CDS is meant to deliver. In any case, General Rawat’s focus since he is a counter terror expert will be on sub-conventional war. This will help the government, which has declared terrorism as the most important threat to India. But it will not make India militarily strong.

The writer in editor, Force newsmagazine.

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