The 21st Century and its post-modern society has rejected the “universal validity” of binary oppositions, stable identity, hierarchy, and categorization. Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality. As a result, this ‘individualism’ has created fissures in society and instability in the world. Nationalism and National Interest – ‘individualism’ at another level – seem to dominate. Instead of wars being an unsuitable option, these are being used as instruments of first response!! Like individuals nations too are on a short fuse – ready to bite than bark.
The war in Ukraine is one of these. The lessons that this war has thrown up at the strategic and tactical level are yet to be fully analysed. However, one can cherry-pick lessons to suit ones hypothesis or line of argument and gloss over the others.
I will look at some of these while trying to understand the course of the war and whether such a conclusion can sustain as a lesson that may be applicable to wars of the future.
The first that comes to mind is – Intelligence and Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB). It involves an analytic framework for organizing information to help provide timely, accurate, and relevant intelligence to the military decision making process. Before undertaking any military venture it is imperative that a thorough detailed appreciation of the opponents’ political, military and internal domestic situation is undertaken. The classified nature of such an exercise tends to restrict the involvement to a handful of analysts. Consequently the analysis and assessment tends to have infirmities resulting from biases and pre-conceived notions; not to forget the tendency to be in sync and feed the biases of the ‘paramount’ leader. So it is a shocking failure of the Russian intelligence in having erred to assess the response of the Ukrainian forces to any offensive into their territory. Russia had been at ‘war’ with Ukraine since 2014. However, at the strategic level, it failed to assess the type and quantum of aid and assistance Ukraine had been receiving from the US and what it could receive in case of a larger military intervention by Russia. At the tactical level, Russia was aware that Ukraine did not have tanks and Infantry Combat Vehicles (ICV) in large numbers to match any major mechanised forces thrust towards Kyiv. Knowing that tanks are highly vulnerable to small innocuous tank-hunting teams armed with short-range shoulder-fired anti-tank munitions they did not prepare to counter such measures. It is evident that the Russian military did not war-game the operational plan and the various contingencies that could manifest to counter this offensive. It either smacks of over-confidence or total lack of professionalism or both.
The lessons that this war has thrown up at the strategic and tactical level are yet to be fully analysed. However, one can cherry-pick lessons to suit ones hypothesis or line of argument and gloss over the others
Intelligence at the strategic level has been a weak point for India. Constituting a Multi-Agency Centre (MAC) to collate the inputs from all civil and military agencies has been a partial success at the higher level of government but intelligence agencies operate in insulated silos at the grass-root level; more due to the basic human desire to get credit! Whether it was Doka La (Doklam) in 2017 or Eastern Ladakh in 2020 the intelligence assessments from the inputs that would have been available, for decision making at the government level, were obviously flawed.
The next matter of concern is the apparent lack of robust institutional measures being put in place by Russia on the Information Warfare (IW) front. Russia would surely have been aware of the structures that the US would have helped Ukraine set up since 2014. The US had adequate time to build up an effective network of electronic warfare systems to enable Ukraine to defend itself from a host of Precision Guided Munitions (PGM’s), by using US electronic support gear. Ukrainian troops have intercepted and detected transmissions from electronic warfare systems like the Leer-3 or Krasukha-4, reports Global Defence Technology. Ukraine also has directed rockets, artillery and drone counterattacks against the Russian wheeled multi-barrel launchers systems. Russia was confident that it had adequate electronic counter-measures which would be able to protect its PGM’s and all other surveillance and communication equipment from interference of any sort. In this era of IW to have ventured forth without having ensured adequate protection in this regard is a failure at the strategic level. At the tactical level, in a communication black out scenario, rigid command and control is anathema. The Russians have that out of necessity. Rigid control becomes necessary when the troops are conscripts and junior leaders have not been exposed to “directive command” or “mission command/mission-type tactic” in their peace-time training wherein the conduct of military operations is through decentralized execution based upon mission-type orders. Mission command exploits the human element which is based on emphasising trust between the commander and his troops, force of will, initiative at the junior leaders’ level and in small teams operations, judgment, creativity and improvisation.
India has an advantage in this regard as of now. Indian forces operate in varied terrain and thus quickly adapt to a new geographical environment. Persistent shortage of officer cadre at the unit level has enabled the existing crop of Non Commissioned and Junior Commissioned Officers to develop as dependable junior leaders. The Regimental system in the Combat arms (Infantry, Armoured units) and also in Combat support arms (Artillery and Engineers units) contributes to a cohesiveness and camaraderie that adds to the intangible strength of the fighting force. Tinkering with this traditional system under the guise of it being a “colonial legacy” by the uninitiated should be firmly resisted. As regards the success of the “quasi-conscription” under the recently instituted Agnipath Scheme in the Indian armed forces, only time will tell.
The next issue I would like to flag is that of strategic deception. At the tactical level it would largely be ‘cunning’ and ‘guile’. The Chinese are past masters in deception particularly at the strategic level. Strategic deception is a full-fledged military operation that needs to be supported by all intelligence agencies. Albeit, the resources required are commensurate to that required for a full-fledged military operation at that level. Since serviceable equipment will be in short supply, decoys and dummies that can deceive the modern technologically advanced surveillance devices need to be deployed. The deception plan carried out during Op Parakram, though partially successful, exposed a number of weaknesses. To execute a deception plan in an adhoc manner is a waste of time and effort given the prevailing transparency that exists today enabled by the varied electronic means. However, the Russians in their ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine seemed to have given this a fairly low priority. On the other hand it could be that by posturing with deployment of large forces for everyone to see they expected to put the fear of god in the Ukrainians leadership and compel them to rush to the negotiating table. Russia grossly underestimated the ‘Will’ of the Ukrainian leaders. The deployment in the posturing proved counter-productive for the Russians in the ensuing military offensive. Their thrust lines were compromised. Also expecting a quick capitulation of Ukraine the Russians were poorly prepared to logistically support the advancing mechanised columns. The advancing columns ‘bashed on regardless’ with the commanders overshooting the operational ‘culminating point’. It is a gross failure on the part of the operational level commanders and those responsible for higher direction of war. This also put to question the overall political aim set by Kremlin and thereafter in clearing the selected military objectives to achieve the grandiose political aim. Obviously the forces levels were inadequate to achieve these ambitious military objectives for an equally unrealistic political objective. Overall it is a failure in the higher direction of war.
The US had adequate time to build up an effective network of electronic warfare systems to enable Ukraine to defend itself from a host of Precision Guided Munitions (PGM’s), by using US electronic support gear.
In the Indian context, the launch of ‘Op Gibraltar’ in 1965 by Pakistan in Kashmir was an overestimation by Pakistan of the local support the infiltrators would get in the Valley and a gross underestimation of the Indian political ‘Will’ and resolve of India to demolish this operation. The infiltrating forces had expected to get their daily needs of victuals from the local people. That did not happen and as they starved they were forced to return. The operation was a politico-military strategic disaster. The fairly recent (2020) Chinese invasion of India in Eastern Ladakh was also an ill-conceived operation with an ambiguous and unclear political aim formulated by Xi Jinping and his coterie with equally vague military objectives. The Chinese tried to force India to accept their boundary line claim line, projected by them in 1959, as the final uncontested boundary in Eastern Ladakh between India and China!! In the process the Chinese have completed disregarded the Line of Actual Control as it existed in 1959. Its ambitious venture has been an utter failure.
For success of a military campaign, preparing the battlefield to facilitate operations is paramount. While Russia carried out posturing as strategic coercion along the Western front, it gave short-shift to preparing the battlefield for a major offensive. It did not integrate its resources in order to “shape” the enemy. The strategy did not attack the resources of the opponent that would play a major role in conduct of the defensive war but also, more importantly, the mind and thought processes of the enemy. Cyber warfare has enabled an adversary to fight a war in peace-time without attribution. Digitalisation has facilitated economic development and governance but has also made the country vulnerable to cyber-attacks by inimical elements and an adversary. In peace-time an adversary is likely to penetrate the various networks and gather information as also infect the systems with viruses, worms, Trojans and bots to be activated as and when required. How much of this was done by Russia in Ukraine is not clear but from the outcome as seen it may not have been much initially. In fact, shortly after the invasion, the Ukrainian government uploaded all its critical data to the cloud, so that it could safeguard information and keep functioning even if Russian missiles turned its ministerial offices into rubble – obviously at the behest of the US. The country’s Ministry of Digital Transformation, which Ukrainian President Zelensky had established just two years earlier, repurposed its e-government mobile app, Diia, for open-source intelligence collection, so that citizens could upload photos and videos of enemy military units. With their communications infrastructure in jeopardy, the Ukrainians turned to Starlink satellites and ground stations provided by SpaceX to stay connected. Evidently the Ukranians, probably with US help, prepared themselves to safe-guard their electronic network and stay relevant.
It is probable that the Western mercenaries are actually former soldiers who have trained and also manned such equipment and weapons.
Cyber security in the Indian context is an area which needs attention. While the National Cyber Coordination Centre (NCCC) is an operational cybersecurity and e-surveillance agency in India, it is intended to screen communication metadata and co-ordinate the intelligence gathering activities of other agencies. The NCCC is in virtual contact with the control room of all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to scan traffic within the country, flowing at the point of entry and exit, including international gateway. Apart from monitoring the Internet, the NCCC looks into various threats posed by cyber-attacks. The NCCC also addresses the threats faced by the computer networks of government departments and organisations handling sensitive government data and important websites. As is apparent, the NCCC is more oriented towards defending the digital environment. Its ability to undertake offensive cyber operations is suspect. India needs a dedicated department to be able to launch coordinated offensive cyber operations.
Attrition in modern wars is colossal. To have the ability to absorb the losses due to attrition and sustain a long duration without losing capacity and capability the country has to build its warfighting stamina. It is to the credit of Russian defence industry that the Russian forces have had a steady and fairly uninterrupted supply of equipment, munitions and military hardware to sustain it in the long drawn war. However, in the process, Russia has also ensured that it maintains sufficient stocks to cater for an eventuality of the war escalating to include rest of Europe and NATO. On the other hand Ukraine had initially consumed its arsenal of Soviet technology and has thereafter quickly adapted to the weapons and equipment of Western technology. It is probable that the Western mercenaries are actually former soldiers who have trained and also manned such equipment and weapons. Since these mercenaries are in the combat support forces and not the infantry forces which comprises of Ukrainians, the truth about the role of these mercenaries will not be known yet.
The Ukrainian military, for example, has used AI to efficiently scan intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data from a variety of sources, seriously affecting the efficacy of Russia’s combat ability.
In a technology first, a 35 meter tall rocket, Terran-1, 85 percent of which was fabricated from a 3D printer was prepared for launch on March 08, 2023, but due to unfavourable atmospheric temperature conditions had to be halted. 3D printing to fabricate weapon and equipment parts is what, in future, will replace the huge inventories of spares that are stored in forward depots for a whole range of weapons and equipment. It will make repair in situ possible thus reducing down-time of the equipment. It will save on effort to move such loads from rear depots and manufacturing units to forward depots. That in turn will make the supply chain less vulnerable to enemy interference or even disruption due to terrain and weather. 3D printing is a technology whose time has arrived.
Finally, the defining new force of international politics is: innovation power. Innovation power is the ability to invent, adopt, and adapt new technologies. Developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) in particular will not only unlock new areas of scientific discovery; it will also speed up that very process of innovation. AI is a booster for the ability of scientists and engineers to discover ever more powerful technologies, promoting advances in AI itself. The ability to innovate faster and better will determine the outcome of relative superiority of two competitors. Today’s AI systems can provide key advantages in the military domain, where they are able to resolve into its component parts millions of inputs, identify patterns, and alert commanders to enemy activity. The Ukrainian military, for example, has used AI to efficiently scan intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data from a variety of sources, seriously affecting the efficacy of Russia’s combat ability. AI will be critical in the race for innovation power, which will be lying behind future developments in numerous diverse fields—and in AI itself by presenting a platform for continuous scientific and technological innovation; it can lead to yet more innovation. That phenomenon makes the AI age different from the Bronze Age or the Steel Age. Fundamentally now rather than natural resource wealth or mastery of a given technology, the source of a country’s power now lies in its ability to continuously innovate. AI has finally created a level playing field. Even more powerful than today’s artificial intelligence is a more comprehensive technology—hypothetical for now, given current computing power—called “artificial general intelligence,” (AGI). The advent of AGI remains years, perhaps even decades, away, but whichever country develops the technology first will have a massive advantage, since it could then use AGI to develop ever more advanced versions of AGI, gaining an edge in all other domains of science and technology in the process. A country can be complacent at its own peril.
I have dwelled on macro issues to derive suitable lessons at the strategic level in the ongoing tumultuous global geo-political scenario. The governments have to adapt and be able to respond at a matching pace that technological changes demand of it. At present, governments are monstrous bureaucratic behemoths, sluggish and with a slow metabolic rate. Like in the corporate world those failing to adapt wither away; governments needs to adapt to the changing environment or end up being a relic of a bygone era.