Last week, Ajit Doval agreed with Carl von Clausewitz. The Prussian general and military theorist and India’s national security advisor are separated by centuries and cultures. Yet they have both embraced the idea that warfare is a flexible phenomenon and not a static concept. Embracing this idea and evolving national security policies around them will be the harder part. It would mean rethinking everything from force orientation, to defence procurement, to training doctrines. Indeed, the security and defence architecture of India, largely a legacy from the British Raj, will have to be examined from the point of future efficacy.
Doval was expounding the salient points of this revolution in warfare in his Sardar Patel Memorial Lecture in New Delhi. He put forth the view that a Second World War-like battle will never happen again, but that India must prepare for fourth generation warfare, including fighting invisible enemies. He also spoke of contactless wars, the importance of acquiring cutting edge technology, and psychological operations.
Clausewitz would have advised the same had he lived in this day and age. His most famous dictum is the one he never stated. ‘War is the extension of politics by other means’ is an erroneous translation of his famous precept. John Keegan, in his ‘History of Warfare’, has provided the correct translation—‘War is an extension of political intercourse with the intermixing of other means’.
It is the latter element, the ‘other means’, that has now become preponderant. In Clausewitz day and age, traditional instruments of military power like infantry, artillery and cavalry were all decisive in ensuring victory. They were the centrepieces of the prosecution of war by one state against the other.
Yet, even then, states used non-military and non-traditional military instruments to prosecute conflict. For example, regular European and Asian armies were lashed together with irregular units. Cossacks, Highlanders, Hussars, Bashi-bazouk, Privateers, Pindaris, Minutemen were all irregular warfare units. They performed key roles outside the force matrix of a static battle, including raiding, pillaging, border warfare, terrorising, sabotage and skirmish. The commonly used non-military instruments include economic blockade and propaganda. Their operations were designed to weaken and disorient an enemy, sometimes as a prelude to battle, but often entirely divorced from regular military conflict.
The salience of these non-conventional instruments of war increased, but they remained at best an adjunct to conventional war waging tools. Warfare was largely carried out by states or coalitions of states that used their industrial might to defeat their opponents. The Second World War was a good example of this. Since then, the advent of nuclear weapons has kept major power conflict at bay; military conflict was largely between smaller powers or between a superpower waging war against guerrillas fighting for freedom. In both cases—the US in Vietnam and the Soviets in Afghanistan—the military juggernauts of the superpowers came to naught against the lethally armed bands of highly motivated guerrillas. True, both conflicts saw the extensive use of commandos like the Soviet Spetsnaz and American Green Berets, who often had localised success. Yet, the superpower war effort was doomed in the long run. As Clausewitz stated, “If you want to overcome your enemy, you must match your effort against his power of resistance”. The American and Soviet forces had failed to muster the right effort against their fleeting, but formidable enemies.
In more recent times, the non-conventional force components of modern militaries have substantially increased. They now employ special forces, drones, cyber warfare units, para military units, commando teams and information warfare units among others. Nonetheless, until the 20th century, they remained husbanded to large, conventional military formations.
The attacks of September 11, 2001, changed all that. The war on terror has been a war of spooks, commandos and mercenaries. One of its defining features has been the exponential expansion of the CIA's war fighting role. Its special activities division conducts covert military strikes in the bad lands of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq. It also spearheads the drone warfare programme. Even the vaunted US military has largely been oriented towards fighting terror groups, and Islamic and tribal militias. America’s shadow armies have, for nearly two decades, been engaged in a low visibility, high-tech war against invisible enemies in the world’s gray zones.
Russia too has built up extraordinary asymmetric warfare capability since the early 2000. Feeling threatened by the rise of armed separatist movements in its Asian Rimlands and NATO forces in the Baltics, Russia had to develop a panoply of irregular warfare instruments. Its new trident consists of special forces, disinformation campaigns and subversion. It used this combination to lethal effect in Ukraine and put NATO on the back foot. In addition, Russia also uses as a force multiplier mercenaries, the Russian mafia and shadow banking channels.
The legacy acquisitions of the cold war, the legions of tanks, artillery and air superiority fighters now play secondary role in security. Of course, as China rises, there is always the risk of a major military confrontation in the Pacific or South China Sea, or a Trans Himalayan conflict between India and China. But the chances are remote and ebbing, while fourth generation warfare between states or between states and non-state actors is assured.
India faces a challenging regional threat scenario. Its western frontier, the Af-Pak theatre is a hub of radical Islamism, drug and small arms smuggling and amorphous terror groups. For the Pakistan Army, the temptation to use its terror proxies will always be there. India’s Eastern frontier has a hostile regime, insurgent groups, drug cartels and extensive smuggling networks. Both theses frontiers are characterised by lawlessness, repressive military regimes and lack of rule of law. In the Indian Ocean region, India faces wavering regimes in Maldives and Sri Lanka, heavy Chinese influence and the possibility of internal revolts and major instability.
If India wants to proactively engage in these areas, to deny the hostile power a base and ensure that developments on the ground are going its way, then it must develop a whole new array of instruments. Propaganda specialists, linguists, cryptologists, coders, covert warfare units and shadow banking networks are spearheads of this new force. The good news is that compared to conventional military build-up, these are relatively inexpensive assets to create and organise. Will New Delhi ever consciously embrace such a build-up, however, remains to be seen. Much will be decided by the vision and acuity of intellect of the political masters of New Delhi.
(Shankar R. is an independent journalist)