[Editorial] Information threats to India’s security
The Ukraine standoff
- The manner in which the Ukraine standoff is progressing, with the opinion expressed by US President Joe Biden almost every day about an impending Russian invasion and the equally prompt denials by Moscow, is one of the best modern-day conflict situations to understand power of hybrid conflict.
What the editorial is about?
- The power of hybrid conflict and the need for the creation of an authority with the multi-disciplinary presence that can be tasked to evaluate such threats.
- It is somewhat euphemistically referred to today as Grey zone conflict.
- The latter is a modern-day derivative of the concept that combines different elements of the conflict spectrum but gives prime importance to political, irregular, ideological and information warfare, among the many other domains; the information remains the core element around which all others rotate.
- Often defined as a means of purposefully pursuing political objectives through carefully designed operations, it looks at moving cautiously towards the objectives rather than seeking decisive results rapidly.
- It usually aims at remaining below escalatory thresholds so as to avoid open hostilities but is not averse to the use of comprehensive national power to achieve ends.
- Military intimidation, applied around the threshold grey zone, often forms a part of such a strategy.
Why the Ukraine standoff can be treated as a hybrid conflict?
- The Russian intimidatory military build-up on Ukraine’s borders is accompanied by extreme rhetoric, demands from the country’s legislature and employment of diplomacy to project international linkages of advantage (such as Moscow-Beijing).
- This is brinkmanship at its best, and if war does not break out, perhaps a fine example of ‘winning without fighting’, Sun Tzu’s famous doctrine.
- It is the broad information domain at the bottom of all this.
A similar situation manifested along India’s northern borders
- Since April 2020, military intimidation in Eastern Ladakh, attempted salami-slicing by the Chinese PLA by activation of friction points, high-intensity propaganda with wolf-warrior diplomacy, and continuous nuances of psychological warfare.
- Fourteen rounds of high-level military talks with limited results of a pullback have been the progression, and now the PLA is improving infrastructure for quicker response.
- All this has been China’s way of attempting hybrid coercion to keep the northern borders in the focus of Indian strategic thinking; preventing refocus on Indo-Pacific and the maritime domain is the key aim alongside the attempt to impact the rising strategic confidence of India.
- China follows the doctrine of employing cyber, legal and media domains alongside optimal military intimidation while maintaining a strong deterrence.
Information domain to counter China’s intent
- Unlike Ukraine which is in the eye of the storm in Europe and in the middle of Russia versus NATO standoff, the Sino-Indian engagement is bilateral and geostrategically isolated.
- India’s pushback cannot be in the counter military intimidation domain alone.
- It has done well by responding through issues such as IT apps but in the domain of information and influence, the results of efforts are only now beginning to emerge.
- An information and influence push to paint China as an intimidator has gained traction.
- However, the information domain may not have been as proficient as the military and diplomatic ones to counter China’s intent.
Need of the hour
National Strategic Communication Authority
- With the world being far more interlinked today, there is a tendency to spread influence to capture the imagination and alter an opinion.
- Perhaps the time has come for a cogent and all-inclusive conversation within India’s strategic circles to comprehend how our country can utilize the information domain much better.
- The difference between the military and civilian information space has greatly shrunk. Hence this needs discussion across the board in academia, think tanks and the government itself.
- Perhaps what we are lacking is the coordination of information assessment and strategy.
- During the pandemic, the I&B ministry coordinated this with the frequent presence of experts from different domains as part of the Empowered Group. It was effective, thus giving rise to the thought that this model could also extend to the security realm.
- If the handling of the security-related information domain is perceived as saddling the I&B ministry with too many tasks, perhaps it’s time we look at a National Strategic Communication Authority, an organization with the multi-disciplinary presence that is then tasked to evaluate information-based threats and evolve India’s strategy on that front.