Monday, September 27, 2021

The Changing Dynamics of Asymmetric Warfare: Challenges for India

by Gen. Bikram Singh, Former Chief of Army Staff

General Bikram Singh is a retired Chief of the Army Staff, Indian Army

The history of conflict is replete with examples wherein, weaker entities have taken on well-organised superior adversaries employing asymmetric warfare strategies. Such warfare employs unconventional and irregular warfare tactics wherein, the weaker side targets the superior adversary with kinetic and non-kinetic means, which besides causing attrition and disorder, instil fear and degrade morale. Over the years, the advancements in technology have exponentially enhanced these capabilities. The targeting of the Jammu Air Force station through drones carrying Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) on June 27, 2021 is suggestive of the changing techniques and modus operandi.


In India, the asymmetric war has been waged against the state by both foreign and indigenous terrorist outfits since Independence. They have engineered and fuelled insurgencies, perpetrated terror attacks, undertaken acts of sabotage and subversive activities from time to time. The first counterinsurgency operations launched by the Indian Army were in 1956 against the Naga insurgents led by Naga National Council having a secessionist ideology. It was essentially a military response and the lack of experience in such war fighting resulted in the excessive use of force on numerous occasions, which augmented alienation.


Over the years, the national strategy, based on the experience gained in the counterinsurgency and counter terrorist operations in the northeastern states, Punjab, J&K and the Red Corridor (Left wing Extremism) has evolved into a whole-of-government approach (WGA). As against a military centric approach, it aims at addressing the root causes of the conflict through a multipronged strategy employing the political, diplomatic, military, economic and informational instruments of national power. It accords top priority to human rights whereby, all operations are intelligence based, employ minimum force and are conducted in conformity with the ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ stipulated in the Supreme Court judgement of 27 November 1997 on the petition filed by the Naga People’s Movement of Human Rights regarding the constitutional validity of Armed Forces Special Powers Act.


The WGA also factors in the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, adopted by consensus in 2006. It emphasises common strategic and operational parameters that help enhance the regional and international efforts to counter terrorism. Moreover, the best practices followed by other friendly foreign countries engaged in asymmetric warfare and their security forces are suitably incorporated in the national approach. The ongoing defence cooperation and joint military exercises have contributed immensely in this regard.


Based on the strategic guidance from the central government, the state specific strategy for the counterinsurgency and counterterrorist operations is evolved at the Unified Headquarters aka Unified Command. It is chaired by the Chief Minister of the state and is represented by the heads of all the central and state government agencies directly involved in the campaign. This mechanism fans out to the district level, which enables synergising and optimising multiagency effort from the strategic to tactical levels.


Barring sporadic incidents of violence, the internal security situation in J&K, northeastern states and Naxal areas has remained under control. However, J&K continues to remain the principal internal security challenge for the country. Given the growing influence of Taliban in Afghanistan, the asymmetric war in J&K is likely to witness an upsurge over the next few years. The terrorist outfits, which were fighting alongside the Taliban, would now be available to bolster the jihadist networks in and around India.

Today, there are around 12 domestic and 32 transnational outfits in Pakistan. Amongst these, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) that have been employed as a strategic asset against India, enjoy special privileges in Pakistan. The state support and a climate of impunity for the gun-brandishing terrorists in Pakistan has been the primary source of motivation for the unemployed and disenfranchised youth to join these outfits willingly. Systematic indoctrination and the influence of drugs keep them fully primed to attempt infiltration into J&K despite the heavy odds. These groups have been responsible for the maximum number of high profile terror attacks in J&K and other parts of India.

At the tactical level, terrorists will continue with their small-scale kinetic operations like sniping, ambushes, raids, targeting convoying and vital installations through direct and indirect firing weapons and IEDs. Such depredations, besides keeping the security forces tied down also help intimidate the antagonist sections of the population to obtain their support. Easy access to the internet and social media by the terrorists has facilitated countering some of the narratives employed by their handlers for indoctrination. A realisation that ultimate sacrifice during jihad does not guarantee a place in paradise has been instrumental in bringing down the number of Fidayeen attacks in recent years. Terrorists today are increasingly employing standoff kinetic techniques along with artificial intelligence and cyber weapons to target their enemies. The state sponsorship facilitates their acquiring state of the art technology.

In the years ahead, drone threat is likely to grow significantly. These unmanned aerial vehicles provide a low cost high impact option and with their low flying capabilities and extended ranges, they can evade conventional air defence systems to engage strategic targets deep inside the enemy territory. Their versatility and destructive capabilities can be gauged from the incident of September 2019, wherein, the Houthis employing the explosive laden long-range UAV-X drones targeted the oil processing facilities at Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia.


Since 2018, Pakistan has actively employed drones for surveillance and transportation of warlike material and drugs into our border areas. As per the open source information, in the last three years, almost 100 to 150 drones have been sighted every year along our western borders. In June of last year, the personnel of Border Security Force intercepted a drone carrying warlike stores. However, their employment for targeting a vital installation like the air force base at Jammu is the first of its kind.


Cyber-attacks also provide a potent non-kinetic option to the terrorists and their sponsors to sabotage critical infrastructures such as the energy, transportation and command and control networks. In fact, they have the potential to bring down the entire institution as was demonstrated by the ‘Stuxnet’ attacks on the nuclear facilities of Iran in 2010. As an emerging great power, India is bound to witness a marked increase in cyber attacks both by state and non-state actors. According to the official data presented in parliament in 2020, there were 1.16 million cyber security cases in 2020, which were three times more than the previous year. In the Asia-Pacific region, India had the second highest number of cyber attacks after Japan.


Developing a comprehensive plan under the overarching WGA to counter various emerging kinetic and technology based non-kinetic threats with a legally ratified policy framework, is the need of the hour. The US and Israel have made significant progress on the technology front. Against the exploitation of internet, which was extensively used to launch 9/11 attacks, the US has developed the most sophisticated and powerful electronic eavesdropping and antiterrorism systems. Their supercomputers can monitor multitude of online and telephone messages every day to identify and investigate suspicious activity. They have also developed anti drone technologies and defensive and offensive cyber capabilities. These technologies should be leveraged to hone our existing capacity not only for the asymmetric warfare but also for winning conventional wars of the future, wherein, the artificial intelligence and cyber weapons will play a debilitating role.

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