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Optimal Warfare (OW): the emerging Warfare Concept of the 21st Century
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Lt Gen Philip Campose | Date:28 Mar , 2017 0 Comments
Lt Gen Philip Campose
is the Former Vice Chief of Army Staff.

The Iraq War and the Lebanon War of the first decade of the 21st century are watershed events in the history of warfare. For the weaker side in those wars, the Iraqi Army (who turned insurgents) and the Hezbollah, they highlighted the importance of asymmetric warfare, whereas for their dominant military adversaries, the US and Israel, they emphasised a red line – that, despite their claims of military victories, the large numbers of body bags and war disabled were not an acceptable outcome of war in modern democratic societies. Both the US and Israel were also universally condemned for the large scale humans rights violations in terms of the wanton destruction and mass casualties that were caused during those wars. And, the most unexpected outcomes of the Iraq war were the consequent creation of Daesh, also known as the Islamic State, and the high fiscal cost of the war and its aftermath, which the US still continues to suffer. Thus, it has generally been concluded that these two wars were not conceived, conducted and concluded optimally.

That is not to say that these are the only wars fought in this century or where civilians have suffered massive ‘collateral damage.’ There are enduring wars in the Middle East – Syria, Iraq and Yemen – and there are simmering battles ongoing in Afghanistan, Eastern Ukraine, South Sudan, Congo, Libya, and some more. The end-states in these wars generally appear undefined. And thus, these too can lead to unexpected escalations and outcomes. Not surprisingly, to the extent possible, the major powers ensure that these battles are fought far away from their borders. Nonetheless, the deaths and devastation can lead to widespread condemnation, and even legal challenges for the leadership of the states that initiate these wars. Further, for the nuclear weapon states, both declared and undeclared, it has become quite obvious that even the deterrence potential of their arsenals have some serious limitations when it comes to ensuring the security and well being of their people.

Though states are under a plausible obligation to avoid war, the period of the 20th Century, even in the fifty five years after the end of the Second World War and formation of the United Nations, showed that states did not hold back from initiating  ‘state vs state’ wars to resolve conflict or impose their will. However, studying the trends from the first sixteen years of the current century, it is obvious that the world is finally witnessing a reduction in such wars. In fact, it would not be wrong to conclude that such wars .will be the exception rather than the norm in the foreseeable future in the 21st century. To understand this better, we must first get a sense of the various types of warfare that are relevant today:

  • Conventional / Regular warfare – wars waged by conventional forces or regular troops on both/ all sides of a conflict. In case of nuclear armed states, all such wars will be fought under a nuclear overhang, implying that escalation to the level of nuclear exchanges, though improbable, is possible.
  • Irregular warfare – conflict against a state by employing trained combatants who are not regular military. Pakistan has launched such ‘irregulars’ in all its wars against India.
  • Asymmetric warfare – war between sides whose military power differs greatly, waged by the weaker side using non-traditional means like terrorism. Wars waged by insurgents/ terrorists against nation states, its government or people fall in this category, eg, 9/11 attack by al-Qaeda, Afghanistan war by the Taliban, and so on.
  • Limited Strikes – raids or calibrated (surgical) strikes by special forces, combat aircraft, drones or precision guided munitions (PGMs) and/ or missiles, targeted at specific objectives for tactical or limited strategic purpose.
  • Unconventional warfare –  war waged by a country using means other than established forms of armed conflict, to make the adversary capitulate even without a classical war (economic wars, water wars, legal wars etc).
  • Technological Warfare – predominant use of technology to wage war, including force multipliers, cyber warfare, drone warfare, situational awareness, space based assets – with ingenious use of automation, big data analytics, artificial intelligence, and so on.
  • Informational warfare – combination of cyber, electronic, propaganda, psychological, media and social media wars to protect, project or manipulate information.
  • Hybrid warfare – involve a mix of two or more of the above listed forms of warfare.
  • Limited war – war with limited scope and scale, to achieve specific well-defined objectives (opposite of ‘all out war’).
  • Proxy wars – wars waged by nations against their adversaries using proxy forces – irregular or regular forces of other countries.

Of the above, hybrid wars and proxy wars, the latter mostly of questionable justification, appear to be the new norm, where nation states are concurrently applying a range of warfare means to achieve favourable outcomes, both political and military, in conflict situations. However, there also appears to be an increasing realization that if the selected means are not applied with due ‘proportionality’ and control, it leads to negative effects like international opprobrium on legality and human rights violations as well as adverse economic and internal political consequences. Thus, it can be concluded from recent experience that, not only have the warfare means to be carefully selected, but the scope and scale will also have to be watchfully calibrated for optimal effects. Otherwise, military campaigns employing ‘one size fits all’ strategies may gain military victories in the short term but turn into political, legal and economic disasters in the long term. Therefore, in keeping with the obligation of nation states to avoid war, whenever war is seen as unavoidable, ‘optimal warfare’ – the smarter way of waging war – appears to be the new norm, for most.

How can Optimal Warfare be defined? Based on the foregoing discussion, it can be defined as the ‘well considered mix of warfare means, applied in a calibrated and proportionate manner, to achieve favourable outcome in the shortest possible timeframe, with optimal long term effects.’ Of course, this also assumes that war is being waged with adequate justification and in exceptional circumstances – as ‘the option of last resort.’

To achieve this, firstly, the aim of waging war or a limited (surgical) strike must be clearly defined, to include its ‘end state’, in terms of long term outcome and effect on national interests. Victory or ‘favourable outcome’ must be defined by its long term effects, not just by capturing territory, destroying the adversary’s assets, killing soldiers and capturing prisoners, all of which, by themselves, have only short term effects.

Secondly, the political, human, moral, legal and fiscal cost of waging war (or undertaking a surgical strike) must be deliberately calculated and given due consideration in the decision making and planning process for its conduct. Only then can the right mix be selected and the ‘red lines’ established to ensure that unplanned escalation does not take place and there are no adverse outcomes, immediately or eventually.

Technology holds the key to Optimal Warfare. This is primarily due to the availability of technologically superior means with better accuracy, like PGMs, to calibrate the level of violence and prevent ‘collateral damage.’ Further, automated processes using big data analytics and artificial intelligence facilitate better decision making towards initiating war, planning the war as well as selecting the right mix of warfare means and calibrating its conduct and cessation – to achieve optimal outcomes.

In sum, wars of the future should be planned and executed as optimal warfare. In the first instance, they should be initiated only with adequate political, legal and moral justification, as per universally accepted norms, and as ‘the option of last resort.’ Next, while they would be undertaken with an assured possibility of success, they must be waged with due ‘proportionality,’ combined with careful calibration and control – with a pre-determined and well-defined end-state in view. Unplanned escalation and disproportionate casualties, especially civilian, must be scrupulously avoided. Otherwise, nation states that perpetrate wars, even proxy wars, may find that they stand to lose much more than they gain from the outcome, and the wars, and the legal complications they generate, may take a long time to get over.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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