Guest Column | Evolving Domains of Warfare

Cyberspace and Artificial Intelligence will define future wars

Gp Capt A.K. Sachdev (retd)Gp Capt A.K. Sachdev (retd)

Some anthropologists have famously proposed the concept that the territorial instincts of animals apply likewise to human territorial aggression. They have been critically assessed by some others to be erroneous in their conclusions but there is no doubt whatsoever that human beings, for as long as human memory goes, have been instinctively compelled to possess and defend territory. That instinct has been the cause of conflict: at the man to man level, at the familial and tribal level, and at the province or country level.

As the nation and the nation state evolved, the nature of the conflict grew dimensionally and assumed the mantle of ‘warfare’. Again, the history of warfare is as old as human history. The ‘art of war’ and the skills that went into armies to wage wars successfully evolved fairly discernibly; armies fought other armies gladiatorially in wars—garnering for the nations they championed either victory or defeat, largely decisively. With the war making might of nations expanding to include air and sea forces, the nature of war evolved further.

Conversely, the nature of war appears to have devolved in recent decades into many disparate constituents to the extent that some voices declare conventional warfare to be extinct. Undoubtedly, conventional warfare has been brushed into the background by more recent additions to military vocabulary; some of the prominent ones are Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW), Low Intensity Conflict Operations (LICO), Irregular Warfare (IW), Hybrid Warfare (HW), Asymmetric Warfare (AW), Small Wars, Grey Wars, Little Green Men (refers to Russian soldiers in masks and unmarked green army uniform, carrying Russian military weapons and equipment who materialised during the Ukrainian crisis in 2014 and brought about the annexation of Crimea), Political Warfare, Mosaic Warfare and Prototype Warfare.

While the spectre of another world war is not of immediate concern to the geopolitician, warfare in some form flourishes around the globe even as we read this; and it will continue to flourish as long as human beings inhabit it. This article looks at the domains that warfare is conducted in.


Domains of Warfare

The land-based territorial aspirations of man were limited to areas proximate to him and those accessible by foot march until he developed the art and skill of sailing high seas. The capability to navigate oceans opened up the potential of seeking territories beyond reach by land.

Missionary zeal, trade related avarice, and expeditionary fervour patronised by affluent royalty led to the rise of hugely impressive armadas with capabilities of not just carrying foot soldiers to far off lands but also to take on other armadas. On high seas ‘men-of-war’, replete with cannon, replaced men. Indeed, nations vied with each other in building up naval strengths and their trade and military might rose in proportion to their sea-faring prowess. Britain’s naval reach contributed to the gradual creation of an empire spread so expansively around the globe that the sun never set in that empire.

The invention, in 1903, of a heavier than air platform that could fly provided the next domain into which war would foray although, at that time, few imagined that air would assume such importance in affairs military. World War I came just a decade after man’s first flight and so the use of air domain was nebulous, tentative and experimental. However, during the years between World War I and World War II, technological advances brought spectacular accomplishments and the air domain became prominent due to its reach and flexibility. Since the end of World War II, the spectre of another world war has largely been relegated to the background but the Cold War that rose from the ashes of World War II, proved to be a powerful impetus for developing technologies designed to empower and enable militaries to flex muscles constantly in deterrence mode.

Technology made remarkable progress in the fields of computers and communication; these confluenced into Information Technology which became the backbone of military Command, Control, Communications, Computers & Intelligence (C4I). As can be expected, Information Warfare emerged in this context as a contested arena for contending and/or ambitious militaries. Given the extent to which militaries rely on C4I, this aspect gained importance in the context of war and entered military lexicon as cyber warfare—the fourth domain after land, sea and air.

Cyber warfare is defined varyingly; RAND Corporation describes it as involving the actions by a nation state or an international organisation to attack and attempt to damage another nation’s computers or information networks through, for example, computer viruses or denial-of-service attacks. Cyber warfare’s debut appearance as a tangible domain was in 2007 when the Estonian government, which wanted to move a Soviet war memorial, was assaulted by cyber-attacks which were widely believed to be from Russian hackers although Russia had officially denied any such involvement in the attacks. The cyber-attacks targeted banks and government services and rendered them ineffective. There was, however, no physical damage to any building or computer.

The Stuxnet affair in 2010 caused substantial damage to the nuclear programme of Iran and raised cyber warfare to another level of potency and proved that malware could impact the physical world. Since then there have been many instances of physical damage or disruption due to cyber-attacks as in the case of power supply in parts of Ukraine being interrupted in 2015 by hackers using a Trojan called Black Energy. It is also possible to conjure up scenarios wherein hackers march alongside infantry and armour and use computers to attack enemy war waging capabilities. Digital attacks like computer viruses and hacking by one military to disrupt the vital computer systems of another, with the aim of creating damage, death and destruction, are now a reality as many nations build cyber defensive and offensive capabilities at a fast pace. In 2016, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) defined cyberspace as an ‘operational domain’ officially.

ISRO’s GSLV MkIII Successfully Launches GSAT-29

Back in 1960, Gary Powers was shot down in a Lockheed U-2 operated by US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the U-2’s existence came to be known. The aircraft first flew in 1955 and, during the Cold War, carried out numerous reconnaissance missions over USSR, China, Vietnam, Cuba and possibly other countries. The U-2 is mentioned here as it was capable of flying above the troposphere at an altitude of 70,000 ft. Again, it was technology that had distended the reach of the air domain into space which, conventionally, was one of the ‘Global Commons’—along with high seas, the atmosphere and Antarctica—accessible as common heritage by all mankind.

Under the tenets of international law, these are sanctified as resource domains outside the political reach of any single nation. While the Global Commons concept was one that related to resource exploitation, space acquired an unrelated importance as control of orbital space became a pre-occupation of nations with military might and space competencies. The use of space for satellites employed for communications, navigation, early-warning systems, reconnaissance, and signals intelligence is crucial to the way modern battles are being fought. If the use of aerial platforms in the battle area provided the field commander with the advantage of high ground, the deployment of orbital satellites elevates that advantage significantly.

With increasing weaponisation of orbital platforms, more offensive roles are emerging and ‘militarisation’ of space is seriously under way. In December last year, NATO, as per the London Declaration issued by the heads of state and government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in London formally recognised space as an operational domain alongside land, sea, air and cyberspace although NATO did not announce any plans to weaponise space.

NATO thinking on space warfare is tempered by the US policy pronouncements on outer space. In March 2018, President Donald Trump had announced that the new US national strategy for space recognises that space is a war-fighting domain that needs to be guarded by a separate Space Force. And in 2019, Trump had unveiled a new Space Command (SPACECOM), the Department of Defence’s 11th unified combatant command. At the end of last year, the US Space Force was established with a four-star general known as the Chief of Space Operations serving as the senior military member of the USSF; he is also a full member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The advantage over its adversary to any aerospace power that can dominate space to permit its own forces to exploit the use of space while being able to destroy or degrade enemy space-based assets (enough to fully or partially deny the uses discussed above) is evident. Unarguably, the remodelling of the traditional term ‘battlefield’ into ‘battlespace’ is inspired by the fact that ‘theatre of operations’—traditionally land, sea and air—now include space (with all nuances of cyberspace).


Multi-Domain and All-Domain Warfare

Multi-domain warfare refers to warfare which spans two or more of the domains discussed above to create new and innovative ways against adversaries and is increasingly being projected as the future of warfare.

The newest doctrine to emerge from the US Department of Defence (DoD) is multi-domain operations which are defined as ‘a concept that the joint force can achieve competitive advantage over a near-peer adversary by presenting multiple complementary threats that each requires a response, thereby exposing adversary vulnerabilities to other threats. It is the artful combination of these multiple dilemmas, rather than a clear overmatch in terms of any particular capability, that produces the desired advantage.’

Multi-domain warfare is viewed as something transcending joint operations to achieve synchronisation for integrated operations in a battlespace that sits astride all domains and extends even behind the enemy lines. In principle, joint warfare recognises and accepts separate domains in which operations are principally led by one service. These domains are ‘joint’ when capabilities within one overlap with and are exploited to influence another domain with synchronisation being the key to success. Multi-domain warfare is a broader concept that aims at creating an effect in one domain that produces an effect in another. As can be seen, the level of synchronisation required is deep and penetrating and even the US which has had joint operations in place since the Goldwater Nichols Act in 1986, is struggling to operationalise multi-domain operations.

Nevertheless, the gradual terminology change from multi-domain to all-domain shows the ambitious single-mindedness of the US DoD. Defence secretary Mark Esper is personally involved and had ordered the four services and the Joint Staff last year to create a new Joint War-fighting Concept for All-Domain Operations by December this year. The Joint War-fighting Concept is expected to describe the capabilities and attributes necessary to operate in an all domain future warfare.


Concluding Remarks

As warfare evolved to include new domains successively, the most recently added one gained importance gradually. With refinement in maritime competence, nations that controlled the seas ruled the world.

Similarly, with the passage of time, the ability to dominate the world gradually shifted into the hands of nations that developed mature capabilities in military aviation with which they were able to establish air dominance and air superiority through the use of air power. Current portents indicate that the importance of space as a domain is on the ascendant and that, military powers would contend for superiority in space. Possibly the next domain to be added to military lexicon would be the cognitive one where social media, internet, internet of things, and satellite communications would add a new dimension to the way battles are fought.

It would also be pertinent to point out that the character of war is steadily changing with non-military methods of achieving political goals thus shifting the emphasis from kinetic formats (use of force physically) to non-kinetic (use of soft power); in the context of the latter, cyberspace and Artificial Intelligence are set to define the changes in the nature of war and the pursuit of political objectives without a force-on-force war. Hybrid warfare is the way ahead.


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