A recent report titled ‘India-China border tensions and US strategy in the Indo-Pacific’ written by high profile US analysts, Lisa Curtis and Derek Grossman is meant to drive India to quickly integrate into US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) defence network called Integrated Deterrence (military power). India is hesitant to do this as it is unsure of China’s reaction. The US National Security Council coordinator for Indo-Pacific Kurt Campell has said that some recommendations made in the report have been accepted by the US government.
Having signed the four military foundational agreements, the report wants India to take the final step for joint combat since ‘India remains reluctant to focus Quad (the US, Japan, Australia and India) cooperation on defence-related activities, whereas the United States is eager to enhance defence planning and coordination amongst the four nations.’
In return, the report has urged the Biden administration to strengthen India’s deterrence vis-à-vis China with ‘things like joint exercises, emergency senior-level military and defence consultations, and inclusion in Quad statements of the need to defend Indian border claims – all to enhance its deterrence vis-à-vis Beijing.’
Moreover, it says, ‘there should be joint wargaming exercises to develop mutual understanding of the threat of a future India-China conflict and identify Indian capabilities gaps that can be filled before conflict breaks out.’
Sounds good, but there is a big problem.
How can the US military help the Indian military against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sitting inside the Indian tent when it lacks deterrence and assured capabilities for combat if deterrence fails against PLA over Taiwan?
The US military knows that the PLA has outmatched it in hypersonic missiles; range and variety of land-based missiles; integrated air and missile defence system; software networks; fifth generation wireless connectivity and matches it in cyber and electronic fires (cyber-attacks and electronic warfare); counter space capabilities; precision guided missiles and loitering munitions; and miniaturisation for lethality at long ranges. Moreover, the PLA has benefit of geography. Since the US military’s follow-on forces will need to traverse thousands of kilometres to reach the war theatre they will be exposed to PLA’s long range non-kinetic and kinetic fires during transit.
Thus, to strengthen its Integrated Deterrence, the US has taken four steps:
One, it has persuaded its regional military allies (Japan, South Korea, Philippines, and Australia) to bolster their military capabilities.
Two, it has expanded Nato ORBAT (order of battle) by its engagement with the US’s Indo Pacific allies. Since China and Russia are firm on consolidating their strategic partnership, the US has switched the trans-Atlantic alliance into global alliance to cater for both European and Indo-Pacific theatres.
Three, the Pentagon has sought 40% increase in allocations for its Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) to meet the challenge of PLA’s Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) firewall comprising land-based missiles, integrated air and missile defence systems, cyber and electronic fires, laser weapons, and anti-drone capabilities. The PDI is meant for USINDOPACOM forces’ re-structuring, and the hardening of Hawaii, Guam, and new bases on the allies’ territory.
And four, US chief of Joint Staff, General Mark Milley has appealed to the Americans to calm down about war with China. Reasons for this are two-fold: when major powers (US with Russia or US with China) go to war (even proxy war as in the case of Ukraine war), neither side can be certain of winning it with possibility of escalation remaining high since none would be able to exercise war control and hence escalation control. And the US military is not geared to fight two major powers.
The US wants India to take on the responsibility of being a net security provider for non-military and military threats in the Indian Ocean region in collaboration with Quad member nations which are US’ military allies. China has assessed Quad as ‘mini-Nato’ meant to contain its rise. The Quad, China says, would threaten the Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs) and the Maritime Silk Road (MSR), which run alongside each other across the 3,000 nautical miles from straits of Hormuz to Malacca in the Indian Ocean. China’s over $ four trillion trade passes annually through these SLOCs, and the MSR is meant for movement of PLA assets for cooperative security with nations that have joined the Belt and Road Initiative.
Fully aware of the ground realities, the US report has taken advantage of Indian military’s ill-informed narrative of war with China, and worse, its inability to distinguish between peacetime activities, crisis, and war.
The Indian military leadership and senior veterans believe that war with China will have three characteristics: it will be a border war in high altitude areas where Indian army has combat experience; the army will lead the border war to be fought on land and air; and it will be like a war with Pakistan (this explains the logic of fighting two-front war with dual-use forces shifting from one theatre to another).
Moreover, new age technologies like cyber, counter space, and information warfare will be enabler in war with the PLA.
Showcasing the US as a reliable partner, the report reminds of information, intelligence, and winter clothing for Indian soldiers provided by the US military. The report says that in the event of another border crisis or conflict, ‘Washington should be prepared to support India with intelligence, and information sharing that will help India bolster its defences and expedite the provision of military items that will enhance Indian ISR and missile and air defence capabilities.’
All this will not help in war with the PLA.
But first, the intriguing question: Why the Indian military does not understand PLA’s combat? This requires an explanation.
While the Indian military was busy with the Pakistan military since Independence and with counter terror operations for 30 years, the PLA was learning from superior forces: the Red Army of the USSR, and the US military. The Indian military still follows the archaic 1986 US’ Air Land battle war concept which it about tactics and attrition. The army’s spatial battlefield is artificially divided into frontline and operational depth with no combat logic for doing it. Importance is given to the frontline where battles and engagements will happen. Once the frontline defences get breached by the enemy columns, the higher commander takes over the series of battles coalescing in campaign in his area of responsibility with capabilities that are an aggregation of tactical level with little change in quality. The army and air force fight with their core competencies and co-ordination with one other to win the campaign.
On the other hand, the PLA, in the Eighties, adopted the Soviet deep battle concept which gave importance to the theatre rather than the frontline. This introduced operational art to be done by higher commanders by bold, imaginative, and significant manoeuvres by employment of vertical troops strike, integrated fire strikes, and deep raids by Operational Manoeuvre Groups (QMGs) to unravel enemy’s bulk capabilities deep inside the theatre. This would ensure that 50 to 60% of enemy’s capabilities get destroyed even before the frontline combat is joined. Instead of understanding the import of operational art, the Indian army started calling its higher tactical operations at corps and army command level as operational art.
Next, the PLA studied the US-led 1991 Gulf War against Iraq and realised that US military’s battle networks (software systems which connected sensors to shooters) were its strength along with Precision Guided Munitions which were helped by satellites for navigation. Given this, the PLA decided to focus on cyber and electronic warfare to disrupt and destroy the US’s battle networks, and on rocketry (land-based missiles) to destroy command and control centres and vital areas and vital points. It also started work on miniaturisation for PGMs lethality at long ranges. In 2014, the PLA announced it could combat in both physical (land, sea, air, space) and virtual (cyber and electromagnetic spectrum) war domains.
Under its 2015 military reforms, the PLA created two unique organisations directly controlled by its highest operational headquarters, the tri-service Joint Staff Department. The PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) has under it all land-based conventional and nuclear missiles, and the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) is responsible for cyber, electromagnetic spectrum, space and counter space capabilities, and information warfare. The PLARF and PLASSF complement one another and together are responsible for PLA’s war concept called ‘systems destruction warfare’. The latter is dissimilar to strategy of attrition which is predicated on tactics and instead seeks early defeat of enemy by cognitive confrontation through non-kinetic and kinetic combat across an expanded war space comprising war zone (whole of nation) and combat zone (entire war theatre based on operational art).
With 30 years gap in technologies and war concepts, there are four major operational issues between the PLA and the Indian military.
One, since the creation of virtual war domains, the PLA’s war planning has transited from weapon platforms to capabilities which are not dependant on geography and climatic conditions. For example, cyber and electronic fires travel at the speed of light across domains. Cyber fires (digital software weapons) attack and destroy data and information in the cyberspace. Moreover, cyber fires can destroy physical assets too since there is a convergence of physical and virtual domains since 2010 when the US and Israel successfully used the world’s first digital weapon to destroy Iran’s centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear facility. The PLA will use its cyber fires (attacks) in the whole-of-nation (war and combat zones). In the ‘war zone’ it will bring civilian day-to-day life to a grinding halt by disruption or destruction of power, electricity, financial institutions, railway signals, air traffic controllers and so on. Cyber weapons work in cyberspace which exists in computers and internet and everything that combines the two.
Electronic fires, on the other hand, attack the waveforms which carry data. Without data and information, various headquarters would be rendered blind and deaf with serious implications for chain of command.
The use of cyber and electronic fires (electronic warfare) was demonstrated in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. The Russian military was able to destroy communications of the Ukraine military early in the war by its counter space capabilities and cyber fires. Thereafter, connectivity for Ukraine military was provided by Starlink constellation of satellites in low earth orbit with Space-X building numerous base stations for communication signals. The latter are being regularly jammed by Russian electronic fires. Moreover, Russian missiles, especially its Kinzhal hypersonic air launched missile with Mach 12 speed and 3,000-km range has done significant damages. If the Ukrainian military has not come down to its knees, it is because of US-led Nato’s operational and operational logistics support, and Russia holding back much of its capabilities and capacities for contingency of an escalation because of direct involvement of US-led Nato in war.
Two, unlike weapons platforms with the Indian military whose technical specifications and capabilities are known, the PLA would have software driven capabilities in its hardware (tanks, guns, rockets and so on) which would spring operational surprises in war. Moreover, software driven upgrades are quicker than hardware upgrades which require time and far more resources. Worse, the Indian army leadership is woefully short of desired weapon platforms.
For example, the report of the 17th Lok Sabha’s standing committee on defence, which was tabled on March 21, divulges that high proportion of army’s warfighting equipment remains obsolete. The army wants equipment in the ratio of 30:40:30 per cent with 40 being the present equipment, and 30 each for new generation and older generation equipment. What it has is 15 per cent of new generation, 40 per cent of present generation, and the rest, obsolete. Moreover, specialised munitions will be a big constraining factor in combat for the Indian military.
Three, use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in war is a reality. The Ukrainian military has been using it for efficient scan of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data from a variety of sources to dig out actionable information. The AI has moved beyond assisting human decision-making to providing options for decision-making. The PLA, which is good in what the US calls ‘AI at rest’ (use of AI in software networks for quick and precise decision making), and which had garnered loads of operational or training data with its exercises in the war theatre since April 2020 would not hesitate to use AI in decision-making. The Indian military remains clueless about it.
And four, unlike the Indian military combat, the PLA warfighting will not be dependent on geography, weather, and domains. PLA’s cyber fires, electronic fires, long range kinetic fires, and counter space capabilities used combined or as independent wars would be enough to score decisive war of occupation against a medium power like Indian military. Individual wars planned by the PLA’s Western Theatre Command and approved by the Joint Staff Department would comprise cyber war, electronic war, space war, drone war, light (directed energy weapons) war, missile war, and information war. The US cannot help the Indian military in most of these wars. Unlike the Ukraine war, which is about Nato expansion and involvement, the US will not show its hand in India-China war.
India does not need the traditional hardware which the US is offering to sell. It needs capability to compete, contest, and confront in virtual domains, and it needs to understand AI and its use in weapon platforms and decision making to close the kill chain faster than the enemy. It needs land-based missiles (cruise and hypersonic) which, except for the joint venture BrahMos it does not have. It also needs military leadership which is competent and keeps itself abreast of the advances in warfare. According to US general James Mattis, ‘If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personnel experience alone isn’t broad enough to sustain you.’
Succumbing to US pressure for joint combat with Quad nations will bring India closer to war with China, which it cannot win.
Pravin Sawhney is the author of The Last War: How AI Will Shape India’s Final Showdown with China.