The first step towards preparing for a future war with China is to understand what war it would be
The May 2020 Ladakh crisis marks the turning point in India-China relations since both sides have crossed each other’s red lines. By grabbing 1,000sqkm of Indian territory in Ladakh, China has made it known that bilateral peace and stability will be on its terms. Incapable of evicting the PLA forcefully, and unwilling to accept Beijing’s military coercion, India has become United States’ de facto military ally to purportedly contain China by signing the sensitive Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA).
In Indian judgement, possibility of horizonal escalation in the Indian Ocean region with US’ supposed help would deter China from escalation on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The wisdom of Indian judgement can only be gauged if the relationship is tested. As of now, what appears more probable is that the disengagement and partial de-escalation of opposing forces in Ladakh, whenever it happens, would be on PLA’s terms.
Since both sides would permanently hold the Line of Actual Control (LAC), meaningful de-induction of Indian forces from the northern and eastern theatres is ruled out. Unfortunately, the PLA threat will increase not diminish in 2021. As it will be preparing for the intelligensized war, it hopes, in my estimation, to be ready for a conflict against India by the end of 2023.
Being non-contact and invisible, this war which places premium on Artificial Intelligence would have four distinctive technology features: Dominance of electromagnetic spectrum; autonomy; drones and unmanned systems; and human-machine collaboration and combat teaming. This war will not be a border war limited to salami slicing as the Indian military believes. It will be war of occupation where there would be minimal loss of PLA soldiers’ blood. Given the unbridgeable mismatch between the conventional capabilities of the two sides, India’s nuclear deterrence would be rendered useless.
The reason why PLA would be ready by end 2023 is that Indian military, even seven months into the crisis, remains oblivious about what lies ahead. Under the Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, the Indian military is three decades behind the PLA in its war concepts (for campaign); and tactics, techniques and procedures (for battles). While it is preparing for war with ‘human soldiers in the lead’, the war that PLA will fight would have ‘machines with autonomy in the lead.’
For Gen. Rawat, the war would be fought in physical war domains of land, air and sea with the army leading the campaign. For the PLA, the war winning domains against Indian military would be the virtual ones of space, cyber, electronic and electromagnetic spectrum. Gen. Rawat believes that time, effort, and finances should be spent on creating organisation for supporting physical domains of war. He is pushing for raising of joint integrated air defence command, integrated theatre commands, and maritime theatre command by 2023.
This is when the PLA would be ready with its de-centralised war where the sensors-to-shooters cycle now called data-to-decision cycle, would have the human role largely limited to quick decision-making to remain ahead of the enemy’s kill chain. Gen. Rawat believes that quick infrastructure building on own side would help operational and tactical movement of forces. PLA, on the other hand, is building more roads on its side to facilitate movements of robots and unmanned systems. For Gen. Rawat, civil-military fusion implies marrying of physical assets on commercial and military side. These include integration of civil-military airports, and to get ISRO commercial satellites help meet armed forces requirements with inbuilt encryption. For China, civil-military fusion means utilisation of most new disruptive technologies incubated in the civil sector for the PLA. This involves a long experimentation phase, as well as large finances to get desired assurance level for unmanned systems in war.
Not to be left behind, retired field commanders are suggesting piecemeal technology additives to the armed forces; these will do more harm than good by giving a sense of false security. For instance, a former army commander, in a recent article, writes that drone warfare would be a gamechanger. While drones would play an important role in battles, war or campaign would require a mix of many disruptive technologies. In another article, he mentions need for strengthening Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to build trusted networks. For one, the Indian military is years, if not decades, behind becoming a networked joint warfighting force. For another, PLA’s war would witness the end of traditional battle networks which are prone to cyber and electronic disruptions. Hence, the transformational shift towards autonomy or freedom for weapons from human command and control.
The reality is that PLA’s war preparedness underway for three decades, and especially since Xi Jinping assumed the title of commander-in-chief in 2016, with huge finances spent on vibrant military-technology ecosystem and institutions devoted to war concepts cannot be matched by Indian military by some rapid learning course. This writer has been saying since the PLA unveiled its 2015 transformational reforms that its Western theatre Command has a single enemy to fight: India military. Worse, even now, Indian military is refusing to accept that its 2009 two-front war fighting strategy, predicated on Pakistan being the primary threat, has been rendered irrelevant. Hence, Gen. Rawat’s structural reforms pivoted on the two-front thinking too stand superseded. China is more than a military threat now. If it decides to go to war, Pakistan too will join the war, and the people of Kashmir will not be left behind. Given China’s assessment of India becoming a US’ ally, all this is real.
What is the way forward?
The Indian military should learn the lesson from the US military which has concluded that 13 years of tactical orientation in Afghanistan and Iraq has left it vulnerable to conventional war threats from Russia, and especially China. It believes that China has a lead in AI autonomy; quantum technologies; fifth generation wireless communications; ballistic, cruise and hypersonic missiles; air defence and missile systems and shipbuilding, commercial and military.
Unfortunately, Indian military with 30 years tactical orientation in fighting counter-terror operations, and with little to compare with the US military in terms of annual defence allocations, indigenous military industrial complex, awe-inspiring Silicon Valley technologies, and institutions like Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the newly-raised Joint Artificial Intelligence Centre (JAIC), has an impossible task to accomplish.
Incidentally, China’s Central Military Commission’s Science and Technology Commission formed in 2016 under PLA’s 2015 reforms is the equivalent of US’ DARPA. According to the first director of CMC’s Science and Technology Commission, Lt Gen. Liu Guozhi, ‘Future intelligensized operations are expected to involve prominent employment of intelligent autonomy in weapon systems under conditions of multi-domain integration with command exercised through brain-machine integration enabled by cloud infrastructure.’ Most of the building block technologies enumerated by the PLA general are not required against middle level military power like India. They are meant for its main adversary: the US military.
All, however, is not lost. The need is for honest introspection by Indian military leadership on whether it would be possible to fight on two fronts. If not, it is high time to apprise the political leadership to consider a strategy which minimises the threat from China. De facto military alliance with the US is certainly not the answer.