The Wrong Lessons

The budget shows lack of clarity on the new age war

Pravin Sawhney

There are two predicaments about war: its unpredictability, and finite allocations to prepare and sustain it. These dilemmas get enhanced with induction of new technologies which change the character of war implying how it should be fought to accomplish war objectives with minimal loss of lives.

Prime Minister NarendraModi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Political and military leaders should keep two dictums close to heart: Never start a war you cannot win. And never get into a protracted war. But what if the war is forced by an enemy? Or, when one is compelled to fight with a proxy nation since the real enemy is disinclined for direct combat? The point is this: lessons of a war should be studied in totality but applied with wisdom. For example, what lessons can the Indian military learn and sensibly use from the Russian war with NATO playing out on Ukrainian soil. Here are a few of them.


Political Determination

The political will to fight (even against odds) is real deterrence. This is why the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) war concept has shifted from attrition to cognitive confrontation leading to quicker defeat of enemy with minimal bloodshed. This comprises two components played out simultaneously. Fight in the war zone or whole-of-nation with cyber, counter space, and information war to bring civilian life to a halt. And to fight in the combat zone by denying communications (eye and ears) by hitting command and control nodes under conditions of complete situational awareness.

Even when China was an insignificant military power, it had immense political determination. Weeks before the PLA entered the Korean war against the United States, it had consolidated its hold over Tibet and Xinjiang. On the other hand, the Indian Prime Minister, within four days of the 15 June 2020 Galwan killings declared that no one was in occupation of India territory, which was not true.


War Duration

India’s Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Anil Chauhan recently said that modern wars were said to be ‘short and swift’. In Ukraine, it is ‘longish kind of war.’

The myth of ‘short and swift war’ was created by army chief, Gen. V.P. Malik after the 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan; it was not war since both air forces and navies did not participate. Indian military leaders since have mindlessly accepted this. Duration of war depends upon military objectives to be achieved by both sides. This involves military appreciation which necessitates an understanding of other side’s military power, war concepts, surge capability (to produce war materiel at scale), and, above all, political determination.



When asked by the media during the Kargil conflict, Gen. Malik famously said, ‘We will fight with what we have’. This universally known military dictum that you cannot win war against an enemy with vibrant defence production has not been implemented still. Yet, military leaders (Gen. Chauhan being the latest) keep parroting it as some newfound wisdom.

Consider the Ukraine battle space. Ukraine keeps asking its NATO friends for more arms and ammunition since it lacks comparable surge capability. Russia, on the other hand, has activated its production lines to meet war surge needs. Ditto for the PLA which has automated defence production lines.

Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and US secretary of state Anthony Blinken with foreign minister S. Jaishankar
Clockwise from top left: Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and US secretary of state Anthony Blinken with foreign minister S. Jaishankar



Early in the war, Russia destroyed most of Ukraine’s satellites, ground based air defence, radars sites, and communication nodes. This was possible because of Russian counter space, and electronic warfare capabilities. However, Ukraine was helped by the US to retain communications which are the lifeline of warfare. Ukraine uploaded its critical civilian and some military data to the cloud. And Starlink microsatellites and its ground stations provided by Elon Musk’s SpaceX helped Ukrainian military to stay connected.

There are three issues for Indian military regarding communications. One, since the PLA has round-the-clock satellite situation awareness, there will be no place for Indian military to hide or camouflage its command-and-control nodes. Two, PLA considers space as a war domain and has impressive counter-space capabilities comprising direct ascent, co-orbital, electronic warfare, and directed energy capabilities to deny Indian military’s access to its satellites. And three, there will be extensive use of long-range firepower including land-based missiles by the PLA in combat zone.


Long Range Fires

Russia’s use of hypersonic and cruise missiles did extensive damage to Ukrainian civilian infrastructure; one big reason for thousands of civilians fleeing their country. Despite repeated request by Ukrainian President Zelensky, the US is unwilling to give long-range fires to them since (a) Russia has said this will be assessed as NATO’s direct involvement in war, and (b) the US has no intention of upping the ante. It wants the war to keep simmering which, in its assessment, will isolate Russia and weaken its military.

Long-range precision fires will undoubtedly have an outsized operational role in war between India and China. The PLA’s Rocket Force which has under its all conventional and nuclear missiles is its strength and weapon of first use. This area is Indian military’s Achilles Heel.


Drones and AI

Drones have been successfully used by the Ukraine military. Low-cost commercial drones are used for reconnaissance behind enemy lines and in the Black Sea where extensive damage was done to Russian naval platforms. Incidentally, drones were helped by quick and accurate decision making made possible by Artificial Intelligence (AI). The US’ project Maven (launched during 2003 Iraq war) meant to parse through millions of data inputs (from mostly video feeds) using deep learning algorithms for accurate and timely intelligence has matured and came in handy in the Ukraine war. It helped in quick decision making to close the kill chain (sensors to shooters loop) using drones faster.

Modi with German Chancellor OlafScholz in Delhi for the G-20 meeting
Modi with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Delhi for the G-20 meeting

Two issues regarding drones (in physical domains of land, sea, and air) should be kept in mind: One, drones used in the Ukraine war have human-machine teaming using communication link which are prone to cyber and electronic warfare attacks, or simply jamming of drones. However, as AI is generative in nature implying that innovations using AI will have no ceiling—innovations will beget more innovations at faster pace since it is software driven—warfare has already entered the realm where AI assisted operations have become reality. More AI and trust in drones will soon lead to Lethal Autonomous Weapons (LAWs) colloquially referred to as ‘killer drones.’ This will be a leap from AI-assisted operations to AI operations where LAWs in physical domains will lead to genuine swarm drones or, in my estimation, to Internet of Military Things (IoMT). IoMT implies drones connected by cloud network software to small or fog cloud (which has data and compute). And two, having paid extra focus on drones, the PLA calls it its ‘second air force.’ By end of 2023, expect the PLA Air Force to be an equal mix of manned combat fighters and AI driven drones.


Information War

Information or disinformation war assisted by civilian video feeds is playing a big role in cognitive confrontation war. This could be called ‘concealed military war’ comprising misinformation campaign, political subversion, and use of social media to tear at the fabric of democratic societies. This modern warfare, also called ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ has been used with finesse by Ukraine, NATO, and Russia.

The PLA has Political Work Department (PWD) which gives special attention to this aspect, which comprises ‘Three Warfares’: Public Opinion Warfare, Psychological Warfare, And Legal Warfare. Public opinion warfare shapes favourable narrative by use of print, electronic, and social media platforms to influence domestic and international opinion. Psychological warfare will be directed against foreign policymakers on how they should approach Chinese policies and its red lines. Legal warfare will build legal justification for Chinese action using domestic laws. In addition to the PWD, China will use organs of the Chinese government, ministry of foreign affairs, various intelligence services, and so on to build a strong case of its enemy’s aggression.



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