India needs to take China’s recent White Paper on national defence seriously
China’s recently released White Paper on national defence dealing with China’s defence policy, military reforms, missions, defence expenditure and the changing character of warfare did not get the attention it should have in India. In our collective obsession with Pakistan, it is forgotten that China is India’s immediate, biggest and existential military threat.
China claims 90,000sqkm of Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, does not accept the border with India in Ladakh (Jammu and Kashmir) and has achieved military interoperability (ability to fight together for common objective) with Pakistan. Except for India and Bhutan, all nations in South Asia have joined the One Belt One Road (OBOR) project. Post-Doklam, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) presence in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) has increased substantially. In June 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping personally told the visiting United States defence secretary, James Mattis that China will not lose an inch of its territory handed to them by their ancestors.
Close reading of the White Paper underlines four peculiarities of PLA’s changing warfare. The first is its exceptional spectrum (short for Electromagnetic Spectrum, EMS) warfare capability, where, by blinding India’s military assets, the PLA could end the war before it is joined, hence winning without fighting. This non-kinetic warfare will be in cyberspace, in which high-grade malware (short for malicious software) is injected into the spectrum that connects the entire target engagement cycle comprising satellites, airborne sensors (eyes), command centres, missiles and other interceptors through data-links. All modern weapons — airplanes, tanks, satellites, ships, radio — depend on the spectrum to function. By pushing malware into data-links, military assets are blanked, disrupted, disorientated or debilitated. The war, then, is as good as over.
The Indian military is not prepared by PLA’s cyber offensive which is central to its operational (warfighting) strategy. PLA has consolidated its space, cyber, electronic warfare and psychological warfare assets under the unique Strategic Support Force (SSF), which according to the white paper, ‘has made active efforts to integrate into the joint operations system. It has carried out confrontational training.’
PLA’s second unmatched peculiarity is its rocket force, called PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), which has under it all nuclear and conventional ballistic, cruise, and soon to be acquired hypersonic missiles. The rocket force, ‘has organised force-on-force evaluation-oriented training and training based on operational plans at brigade and regiment level, strengthening training for joint strikes.’ The PLA will use its plethora of missiles by itself and to supplement (not as substitute) its air force. India cannot meet this challenge because it has limited numbers, and PLA with its totally indigenous and automated production lines can deliver unending salvos of smart, long-range and precise missiles.
The third PLA peculiarity is its mission, ‘to safeguard China’s oversea interests’ to include its infrastructure and people. On the one hand, PLA’s presence would continue to increase in nations which have accepted OBOR. This is being done by the ‘office of international military cooperation’, raised under the 2015 military reforms, which reports directly to the Central Military Commission headed by Xi Jinping. More and regular interaction between the PLA and militaries of OBOR nations would lead to better understanding of Chinese arms exports and interoperability, and possibilities of PLA air and naval bases or ‘support bases’ there.
On the other hand, the underplayed Digital Silk Road with vast security implications would increase its footprints alongside OBOR growing presence. China is building fibre optics cables, mobile structures for installing Huawei 5G wireless technology to introduce common technical standards in these nations. The militaries of these nations would soon be connected to Chinese BeiDou navigation satellite system for e-commerce and military needs.
With the successful launch of world’s first intercontinental quantum satellite called Micius in 2016, China has demonstrated long distance cryptography service for secure communications which cannot be hacked. China is already working on expanding quantum communications’ infrastructure; quantum radar and sensing which would defeat stealth technologies; and quantum compass for submarines which would be independent and not require Beidou for navigation. Needless to add that quantum technologies which are transformational and do not follow present laws of physics would revolutionise warfare. Added together, the Digital Silk Road would, sooner rather later, give the PLA ability to control and manipulate the information available with developing smaller OBOR nations.
The fourth peculiarity is, ‘the application of cutting-edge technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), quantum information, big data, cloud computing and the Internet of Things is gathering pace in the military field.’ These technologies will shift warfare from real to virtual battlefields. For example, today a smart cruise missile should be more than ‘fire and forget’ semi-autonomous weapon. It should also have assured data-linking with rear for continuous instructions till desired target is hit. An AI-driven intelligent cruise missile need not have data-linking which is vulnerable to cyberattack. It will do the entire engagement cycle, especially deciding which target is more dangerous needing destruction, on its own.
In terms of revolutions in warfare, AI-driven warfare where China, if not competing, is certainly giving a run for money to the US, is the consequence of the fourth revolution which is both transforming society and warfighting. The earlier three revolutions were wrought by the steam engine, the age of science, and the rise of digital technology. Since doctrines follow technology, China has taken lead in developing disruptive thinking in warfare to optimally exploit AI in warfighting. Interestingly, the new military strategic and doctrinal thinking would have a little or no resemblance with present warfare.
In terms of timelines, China wants, ’to complete the modernisation of national defence and the military by 2035, and to fully transform the people’s armed forces into world-class forces by the mid-21st century.’ Translated this means the PLA would achieve human-machine (robot) fusion by 2035, and, with the arrival of quantum computers, it would have machines more intelligent than humans.
If all this sounds unreal, it is not unexpected. The Indian military, in comparison, is still entering the digital age. It does not understand that in multi-domain warfare, all domains like air force, army and navy are mere tactical units much like cyber, space, and electronic warfare. Thus, when services’ chiefs say that their service on its own is ready for all contingencies, they are talking of fighting the last war, not the next one.