The Sixth Dimension of War: A Battle For the Mind

The art of war has transformed from causing physical damage to assets to the manipulation of minds and the battlefield is now open to anyone with access to the internet.

'Uncle Sam' recruiting poster from the Second World War. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

‘Uncle Sam’ recruiting poster from the Second World War. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Warfare has been a quintessential element of humanity. More contenders fighting for less resources has been the definition of war (as indeed also the raison de’etre of business). Starting from land, warfare evolved across different theatres. As humans became capable of building sea faring vessels, the theatre moved into oceans.

The First World War debuted the third dimension with aircrafts used for reconnaissance and during the Second World War it was in the form of weapon platforms, bombers, logistic supply chains and of course as a thermonuclear delivery vehicle. During the cold war, conflict propelled into the next dimension as the superpowers fought to dominate outer space and finally the 20th century witnessed advent of cyberspace as the fifth dimension of war.

Warfare evolved along two vectors. The first was technological development within the dimension, for example, swords and spears gave way to muskets, rifles and machine guns. Horses and chariots were replaced by vehicles and tanks and so on. The second vector was an orbit shift from one dimension to the other. This necessitated changes in the very doctrine of warfare itself. For example, in land warfare, it was possible for the supreme commander to give out detailed orders and micromanage the campaign, requiring his subordinates to report progress and review plans at every stage.

The organisation structure was typified by a minority of brain and a majority of brawn, and orders were expected to be obeyed in set piece battles. But when the theatre shifted to the sea, the supreme commander could only give general orders to his admirals who sailed away for years and would have to be empowered to take decisions best suiting the circumstances. Similarly, an armada would require every ship’s captain to be trained to assume orders in the absence of orders. Every ship would also require technical expertise of engineers, signalmen, doctors and a full complement of second tier leadership.

Similar doctrinal changes were needed when the aerial dimension evolved, wherein all aspects of strategy, operations and tactics needed to be redeveloped from ground up. In no previous doctrine would so few personnel cause an effect so disproportionate to their numerical strength. So whether it was a crew of the Superfortress bomber dropping nuclear payloads in Japan, or pin point interdiction of key enemy leaders by drones over the middle-eastern theatre, air doctrine rewrote the rules of the game.

Star Wars – as weaponisation of outer space was known – transcended limitations of Earth itself. Space platforms could now assist conventional warfare (like satellites that would aid communication or navigation of conventional forces – or hinder those very capabilities of the adversary) or act as weapons in their own right – with the ability to destroy targets in space or earth.

The most recent theatre of war is cyberspace – also known as the fifth dimension and here is where things start getting out of hand.

The first four dimensions of war have some similarities and familiar structures. All four dimensions are based on kinetic energy, that is, they fundamentally destroy assets – in the form of people or infrastructure. All four dimensions are either state owned or state controllable. Even sophisticated non-state players like LTTE or ISIS haven’t managed meaningful capability in sea, air or space. But the fifth dimension of cyberspace changes these fundamentals in three distinct ways.

Firstly, cyberspace capability is not just the prerogative of the state. As a matter of fact, non-state players are often as good, if not better in this dimension. The US’ frustrating inability to ‘shut down’ exploitation of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook by ISIS is a case in point. Even authoritarian governments like China or North Korea struggle to control the fifth dimension. This is the uncontrollable and a lawless space where ‘good guys’ are playing quintessential catch-up.

Secondly, the fifth dimension changes the traditional threat maps which were drawn based on conventional power. The punching capability of a warring nation had direct correlation with its military and economic might. So Indian defence analysts would assess China with its scores of divisions, powerful air force and multitude of naval vessels as the primary threat and Pakistan came second and so on.

But when it comes to the fifth dimension, size and budgets don’t really matter that much. For instance, despite thousands of cyber-warriors on their rolls, US and China have a relatively small group of a few hundred extremely talented nerds who form the core of their cyber offensive and defensive capability. This analogy is true even in software development companies which may have thousands of ‘coders’ but only a handful of truly gifted software engineers. Now, even countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or Iran can develop capabilities that can match global or regional superpowers. It’s a question of focus, not funds.

Lastly and most dangerously – the fifth dimension acts as a foundation for a more sinister sixth dimension. The battle for the mind.

There is an important military term called the ‘Ground of Tactical Importance’ or GTI for short. The textbook definition of GTI is a piece of land, the loss of which renders a defender incapable of fighting a successful defensive battle. In conventional war, the GTI would be a feature dominating the entire theatre; for example Normandy beachheads during the D-Day landings, or key mountain peaks during Kargil operations. These were physical features which could be defended or attacked with kinetic energy.

The traditional concept of operations in cyberspace has essentially been degradation or denial of service of the adversary’s communication, energy or essential services grid. The Stuxnet virus which deteriorated Iran’s nuclear capability or degradation of Georgia’s communication backbone during the Russian offensive are examples. But the sixth dimension does not seek to degrade the adversary’s network. Instead it leverages and rides on it.

In 2012, Facebook conducted a highly controversial psychological experiment involving 700,000 users. Facebook manipulated their feeds, so that half the group would receive positive news and the other half negative news. Unsurprisingly and disturbingly, this experiment proved that social media feeds affect the psychological and physiological state of the target audience, without the latter realising that they were being manipulated. Such experiments have now been weaponised.

This is why terror organisations and state players use social media and personal messaging services to attack their adversary’s very will to fight. The Indian populace and especially its security forces have been subjected to systematic psychological operations wherein propaganda, morphed pictures, fake videos, phony news and incorrect information is being used to create fear, panic, dissent, parochialism and schisms. Ruptures are being driven between bureaucracy, political leadership, armed forces, junior and senior officers, veterans’ versus serving soldiers etc., through a deliberate campaign right under our noses.

Narratives leveraging sophistry pit various instruments of the government against each other. They compare compensation and perks of bureaucrats with that of the security forces suggesting antipathy of the former towards the latter. Similarly, morphed pictures are used to exaggerate crowds of protesters, or atrocities allegedly committed by state forces. In an era when readers seldom care about veracity before forwarding; specious narratives shape opinions and undermine morale with no cognisance to reality. Lies are literally travelling around the world before truth is able to put on its shoes. Or in our case, even appreciate the need to shift doctrines and prepare for the battle for the mind.

There is a saying that generals fight the last war. Sadly there is some truth to it. Thanks to the mettle of our junior leaders and soldiers, troops with inferior technology or outdated tactics may still be able to win, but if troops are made to fight with outdated doctrines, they are being set up for failure. Unfortunately our leaders seem to be fighting the next war not only with the last war’s weapons and tactics, but also the last war’s doctrines.

The author is the former CEO of NATGRID and Group President of Reliance Industries.