The manner in which the Ukraine standoff is progressing, with 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 the power of hybrid conflict, 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; 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 the ends. Military intimidation, applied around the threshold grey zone, often forms a part of such strategy. So, as said, 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.
Almost 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 pull back has 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 focus of Indian strategic thinking; preventing refocus on Indo-Pacific and the maritime domain is the key aim alongside the attempt to impact 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. Now, while prolonging the border talks indefinitely, it is looking at the demographic domain with the settling of 600 villages along its perception of the border and renaming important landmarks on maps. Tawang, Menchuka and Subansiri are three of them. Unlike Ukraine that is in the eye of the storm in Europe and in the middle of the 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.
The third among examples that exemplify today’s dynamics of grey zone threats is from the Indo-Pak realm. From 1977, the Zia Doctrine came into play, with the recognition that India could only be tackled through the asymmetric route with extreme hybridity adopted into a tailor-made campaign. Tackling J&K was only just a part of the strategy that spread deep and wide across India. The Zia Doctrine aimed at exploiting potential chasms in Indian society—religious, ideological, linguistic, caste and even ethnic. At the core is the ideology, to change the way people follow their faith and link it to obscurantist practices in vogue in Pakistan since the seventies. Irregular warfare, which is different in form but warfare nonetheless, describes types of violence conducted by sub-state actors including terrorism and insurgency. Linked to this is a maze of networks that support irregular warfare, but the centre of gravity of the hybrid campaign is the information blitz from time to time, directly or through proxies. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) has developed as an organisation over time to keep the influence and information campaign going. The very voluminous print media in J&K helped in the promotion of separatism in no small way, even as India looked the other way due to a misplaced perception of retaining its credentials as a democracy. Efforts to take the national media from the rest of India to J&K to counter the local one did not succeed due to resistance. Social media is now the more popular methodology of using information (or disinformation) to influence trends in thinking and retain the ideology of separatism. Attempts to prevent anti-national interests in the local print media have received pushback through social media.
All three examples above explain the contemporary employment of technologies in the information domain that help cultivate narratives. With the world being far more interlinked today, there is a tendency to spread influence to capture imagination and alter opinion. A simple example: Even within India, people are unaware of the UN resolutions on J&K being irrelevant after the Simla Agreement. The Indian narrative about ‘talks and terror’ being incompatible in relation to Pakistan is not understood by the majority of the world as most people cannot link the complex dots of the proxy conflict.
Perhaps the time has come for a cogent and all-inclusive conversation within India’s strategic circles to comprehend how our country can utilise 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. The information domain related to the pandemic has been well-handled in India, bringing to the fore the latent power and capability of the I&B ministry. Perhaps what we are lacking is the coordination of information assessment and strategy. During the pandemic, the I&B ministry coordinated this with 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 organisation with multi-disciplinary presence that is then tasked to evaluate information-based threats and evolve India’s strategy on that front.
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir