As major militaries across the world evolve into networked ‘systems of systems’ (SoS), they are increasingly seeing the establishment of information dominance as a precursor to gaining pre-eminence in the more traditional warfighting domains of air, land or sea. Information dominance is understood as the denial to the enemy of the use of information-related capabilities as leveraged through the commons of space, cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) while ensuring access to the same for friendly forces.
Moreover, since the use of information warfare (IW) techniques can span peacetime, crisis and conflict, IW is also emerging as a preferred tool for grey-zone coercion in a world characterised by inter-State competition that seeks to stay below the threshold of conventional war.
Given that IW is currently offensive-dominant, in that it is much easier to attack the enemy’s networks than to defend one’s own, it is imperative that India not delay the setting up of a dedicated professional IW force that reflects the current melding of IW capabilities taking place by consolidating computer network operations (CNO), electronic warfare (EW) and space operations under a single umbrella, instead of instituting separate space and cyber defence agencies as is reportedly being considered by the government.
The revolution in military affairs has matured into an era of SoS warfare that has brought in its wake new vulnerabilities, given the dependence on command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) networks. The disruption or destruction of these networks is therefore now a prime objective for any warfighting campaign. This is why the world’s major militaries have been setting up professional warfighting capability in information-related domains.
While the US set up Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) in 2009 for the ostensible purpose of proactively counteracting cyberattacks against it, the Pentagon now aims at attaining information dominance. The components of USCYBERCOM, drawn from each of the services, reflect the melding of IW capabilities. For instance, the Tenth Fleet, which is the US Navy’s contribution to USCYBERCOM, has cyber, EW as well as some space-based capabilities under its ambit.
Importantly, space operations are now regularly referred to as an information warfare arena in US military literature even though space operations currently fall under the purview of the US Strategic Command.
With the creation of the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) as an independent branch that integrates China’s strategic-level cyber, EW and space capabilities, some in China believe that their country has gone a step ahead of the US in terms of organisational innovation in IW by removing redundancies and enabling the generation of synergistic effects, which are not possible if IW capabilities ‘owned’ by different armed services are merely integrated together in a joint command, as is the case with USCYBERCOM.
Instead, the PLASSF has independent IW capabilities under a streamlined structure that works with various PLA services for integrated joint operations. And though the PLASSF currently draws its cadre from existing services, its personnel already wear distinct signifiers on their uniforms and it is a matter of time before it becomes a full service in the Chinese military.
Importantly, while both USCYBERCOM and the PLASSF look to destroy the enemy’s ‘ability to fight’ by attacking C4ISR networks, they can also be used to dent the enemy’s ‘will to fight’ through offensive IW against critical infrastructure and economic targets. Such capabilities can prove useful for grey-zone coercion in support of other strategic objectives.
Obviously, ‘force calibration’ is a major concern for such operations since civilian groups have a tendency to ‘join in’ and magnify effects to a point where they might cross the enemy’s threshold. The PLASSF, with its mandate for ‘civil military integration’, therefore seeks to draw domestic civilian entities capable of computer network operations into its own command and control structure.
Components of USCYBERCOM, of course, have a number of civilians on their rolls who prove useful for ‘red teaming’, etc. Close cooperation with their civilian sectors has also been identified in both the US and China as the key to helping their militaries leverage technologies such as artificial intelligence, deep learning, big data, etc., for the IW capabilities of tomorrow.
India has reportedly studied the development of USCYBERCOM closely, but it should perhaps take a leaf out of the PLASSF’s book and consolidate cyber and space capabilities under a single Information Defence Agency (IDA).
Moreover, while right now the idea might be to put IW capabilities under a joint command structure, technological trends suggest that it would be better if this proposed IDA gets its own independent budget and dedicated cadre. Such an IDA will be in a position to prepare India for a time when war will not just be information-led but information-dominant.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based commentator on security and energy issues)