Analysing India’s threat spectrum

An interesting debate has emerged on whether conventional conflict remains a significant part of India’s security or if hybrid threat scenarios will dominate in the future

Published: 16th November 2021 12:04 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th November 2021 12:04 AM   |  A+A-

India, security, Indian borders

For representational purposes (Express Illustrations/Amit Bandre)

With India’s borders under strain and its internal fabric threatened by societal cleavages too, eminent intellectuals have commented on the perceived threat pattern that the nation faces. This is something expected as the means of war are in transition and the outlook and doctrines of adversaries are changing, even as technologies are under rapid development. Across the western border, Pakistan’s Army Chief has stated that his country will win the Fifth Generation Warfare (5GW) hybrid conflict without naming the adversary against which the conflict will be fought.

From the early eighties, India has been subjected to Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) proxy hybrid conflict, first in Punjab and then in J&K. Yet in the period from 1980 to 2021, India also came close to trans-border conventional war at least seven to eight times, against both Pakistan and China. Each time, it was a virtual pullback from the abyss. Now an interesting debate has emerged on whether conventional conflict remains a significant part of India’s threat spectrum or if the 4GW and 5GW conflict scenarios will dominate the future.

Ever since the end of the Cold War (1989), it has often been perceived that war as a means of resolving differences between nations is no longer cost-effective (it never was) and a generational change has been underway. For better awareness, it is good to know that there are five generations of warfare; it is the fourth and fifth that the world is currently witnessing and their definition needs a glance. 4GW alludes to conflict characterised by a blurring of the lines between war and politics, combatants and civilians; the simplest definition includes any war in which one of the major participants is not a state but rather a violent non-state actor. The Soviet-Afghan war of the eighties brought the term non-state actor to prominence when thousands of transnational Islamic fighters fought in Afghanistan. The concept of proxy war using non-state actors also gave the state leeway to remain in denial. After the Soviet defeat, a similar phenomenon was played out in Chechnya, Bosnia and J&K by various sponsor states. The clandestine availability of weaponry to include Kalashnikov rifles, grenades and explosives, with switches and fuses for improvised explosive devices, empowered the so-called ‘4GW fighters’ who could not easily be defeated by conventional means nor by the best practices of counter-insurgency. Rapidly modernising means of clandestine financing—through narcotics, fake currency and lately Bitcoin, with other derivatives—act as enablers.

Fifth generation warfare is best explained by American military academia as the battle of perceptions and information. Violence is so discreetly dispersed that the target is not even aware that he is a victim of war or that he is losing the battle. The secrecy of this warfare makes it the most dangerous of all time. It hides in the background, and as per analysts ‘the most successful 5GW wars are those that are never identified’. In effect 5GW is the outcome of the impact of the information revolution. When it is so much simpler to reach the minds and alter the psyche of an entire population through scientifically designed psychological messaging, a party to a conflict can attempt to play its own narratives and feed this to a target population. This population can be selected with care and exact messaging for each segment developed for maximum impact. Soldiers, police, bureaucrats, students, media and any other diverse segment of society are all victims by different means. It can be brought to bear in the political, social, ideological, economic, academic and gender domains. It has all come to the fore due to the giant strides in communication technology where mass media is both the enabler and the means for countering. The side that takes the initiative, develops scientific campaigns, remains discrete, uses mass communication technology and knows that the power of spin and fake information can win a conflict hands down even before the realisation that such an operation is at play.

India’s mainstream adversaries—Pakistan and China—are considered masters of this form of warfare. Pakistan’s agency is the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR); I have often called it out for its notoriety and it takes great pride in being identified by me as a sponsor of 5GW. Pakistan’s purpose of setting up the ISPR was primarily because it knew that it was up against a much more powerful adversary in India but one with diverse ethnicity, faiths, regions and linguistics, all of which could be exploited to weaken it. The galloping pace of communication technology came to Pakistan’s assistance in no mean way. In the future, Pakistan’s activities at the LoC will remain limited but investment in 5GW will be far more intensive.

It is not coincidental that our second adversary too invested in information as a weapon very early. After the First Gulf War and the CNN revolution that brought live television to the living rooms, China embarked on conceptualising the doctrine of war under informationised conditions, completing this by 1993. Anticipating the rapid rise in information and communication technology, China invested in transformational change to its war-fighting doctrines, adopting the strategy of three warfares—media, legal and cyber war. However, a misperception seems to exist that China would henceforth only employ this strategy for all purposes of conflict resolution. Supporting the three warfares strategy with full weight is the technological and military might of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The PLA has downsized, reorganised itself into theatres, modernised to include rocket and missile forces, and fifth generation fighter aircraft, along with a rapidly developing maritime capability. It is adopting concepts to contribute to hybridity through wolf warrior diplomacy, aggressive political posturing and legal warfare; the latest border laws are a subset of the latter. China’s achievement for the moment is that it will not let its rivals realise which form of warfare it is choosing to embark upon. This itself will contribute to the grey zone and the predicament of its adversaries. With India, border coercion mixed as a low-level conventional threat with 5GW is the hybrid strategy.

Although we have done well against 4GW efforts by adversaries, the generational changes are yet in the infancy of understanding in India. This moment is ideal for initiation of a debate within India’s strategic community to determine the doctrinal direction of the country’s response: conventional, generational or hybrid. In all these, the information domain needs a focus like nothing before.

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd), Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir (


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  • Santosh Louis

    With the type of statement eminating from the dispensation
    19 days ago reply
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