To Redefine War in Indian Context is Mandatory
Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma (Retd.), Distinguished Fellow, VIF

In 1942 Quincy Wright wrote in A Study of War, that to different people war may have different meanings. While Brittanica Encyclopaedia states that war, in the popular sense, is a conflict between political groups involving hostilities of considerable duration and magnitude. Military writers usually confine the term to hostilities among contending states to render the outcome uncertain for a time. Webster Dictionary derives war from English noun werra, meaning confusion! Upsala Conflict Data Analysis Project states that “an armed conflict is a contested incompatibility that concerns government and/or territory where the use of armed force between two parties…results in 25 battle-related deaths in one calendar year.” JD Singer and M Small, authors of The Wages of War 1816-1965, defined war as a series of events that result in at least 1,000 battle deaths of direct victims, direct victims of battle, not indirect victims of famine, disease, or lack of shelter. Von Clausewitz in On War defined war as an act of violence intended to compel our opponents to fulfil our will, and the continuation of politics by other means.

War has been constantly earning adjectives over the years, some of these being: limited war and total (or all-out) war, cold war and hot war, local war and world war, conventional, unconventional and nuclear war, controlled and uncontrolled war, accidental war and premeditated war, proxy war, civil war, tribal and civilized war, preventive or pre-emptive war, protracted war, absolute war, war of liberation, war of conquest, war of commerce, war of plunder, revolutionary war, political war, economic war, social war, imperialist war, guerilla war, psychological war, strategic war, counter-insurgency war, dynastic war, monarchical war, ritual war, agonistic war, sacred war, instrumental war, genocidal war, and onwards!

The Grammer of War: Changing Syntax

Does war even now continue to be characterized only by extreme violence, destruction and mortality, between nations or groups of people that involves the use of weapons, military organizations, and soldiers? Does a nation enforce its rights and will only by use of force? Obviously, the ‘grammar’ of war is becoming confusing, expanding rapidly and needs to transform. Kargil War 1999 has been interchangeably called a conflict and war (even limited), though it does not fall in the definition of war under the 1000 battle-deaths criteria! But then on the criteria of national public opinion Kargil was a war. Simply, for achieving political aims, organised violence carried on by political units against each other is war. Definitionally, violence carried out under the authority of political state is not considered a war, unless it is directed against another political state. The latter in the 21st Century needs challenging, the violence employed by the US and allies, against Al Qaeda and Taliban for over two decades must be termed as war too. President Obama has categorically stated that the United States is “at war with al-Qaeda!”

For Indian professionals to better advise policy and decision makers, it is vital, then, to modernise the definition of war and clearly make a distinction between war and conflict. International law uses the words “armed conflict” instead of “war,” irrespective whether states are fighting each other or against “non-state actors,” such as terrorist groups. To add to confusion, conflict is a fight between armed troops, war is the hostility officially sanctioned by governments/states.

It is argued that in modern parlance, the definition of ‘war’ must describe a complete range of situations that may be military or non-military, violent or non-violent, kinetic or non-kinetic in nature, and even coercion. It may be true that such a broad-based description of ‘war’ may underplay the importance of the term to the militaries but will be apt for examination of national security. How much more confusion can be called by considering war is conflict, yet not all conflict is war! The war spectrum extends from ‘no conflict’ situations – like humanitarian relief – up to and including ‘total war’ between states.

War and conflict have been historically blurred and hazy and in public perception, synonymous. Both tend to coerce the adversary by any which way – conventional violence, limited or all out; economic and diplomatic actions, trade sanctions, espionage, sabotage, terrorism, insurgency, human security, cyber, space and other non-traditional military considerations. If public perceptions matter, why distinguish between war and conflict, except that in conflict violence is inherent, and in modern war domains and dimensions have expanded to the extent imagination will let fly! It does not matter if a bomb is dropped, or a drone or rocket or missile is launched, by Israel and Iran as States, or by Hamas, Houthis or Hezbollah! It also matters less if its informational war that targets national cohesion, counter-terrorism, armed conflict or hostilities. All would undermine Indian State the fall under the larger rubric of war.

Enduring Nature and Changing Character of Warfare: Cling on or Move on!

Contextually, warfare denotes waging of war, implying how ‘it is done,’ how armed forces can, do and should operate in future. There is a perpetual attraction to over or under read recent and contemporary trends in warfare, signifying momentous, radical transformation. Warfare is shaped, and driven, much more by geopolitical, socio-economic and geostrategic contexts, as also by changes integral to military science and technology. Is there relevance in 21st Century of the Clausewitzian thought that nature does not change and the character of war does? Does this differentiation of nature and character make any difference in planning, strategizing and conduct of war?

Clausewitz, the author of the comprehensive theory of war, On War, had written over two hundred years ago, and provided a description of the enduring nature of war. The nature of war is the use or threat of violence as an extension of politics to compel an enemy to one's will. Clausewitz believed that war is always a rational act driven by policies and that war never changes because the motivations of people who wage war don't change. Conversely, it was stated that warfare has a constantly changing character. This implies in how war is to be fought, technology, doctrines and military organisations change the character of warfare, slowly or rapidly.

It is obvious that past definitions of war originate from the concept of formal declaration of violent war between belligerent states. The absolute nature of war (use or threat of violence, as an extension of politics, to compel the enemy within the fog, friction and chance of combat), and the changing character of war (due to unique geopolitical, social, demographic, economic, and technological developments) is standard formulation in Indian military hierarchy too.

This Westphalian-Clausewitzian wars formulation, needs to be revisited and de-learned! This nature-character of warfare dialectic does not advantage in any thoughtful, prescriptive or prospective manner. Wars are no longer waged only by states, they are largely intra-state, with diffusion of actors, and may even be non-kinetic and even surreptitious! In 1999, the Pakistan Army attempted to change the LOC in Kargil Sector, without a war, relying on the holders-keepers character of the border. That India refused to accept the holders-keepers formulation that led to a war is another issue. In 2020, PLA occupied many passes/ areas denying Indian Army troops patrolling to their designated LAC, thereby attempting to change the status that existed for many decades. This did not lead to a war, though violent escalation did happen in Galwan Valley.

If in Clausewitzian formulation, war is an “act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will,” but if the opponent can be coerced, cajoled or compelled much against its wishes, or gains like in territory made covertly, without acts of violence, then it is war too! There are obviously ideal wars that the militaries fight and actual wars without use of force, being fought simultaneously. This attempt at a re-conceptualisation of war is rooted in this distinction. Obviously, compared to the Napoleonic wars of Clausewitzian times, wars have moved on.

It is also apparent that modern force-on-force wars are also not necessarily leading to victory or defeat, but remain inconclusive, like the US-Afghanistan War. In fact, both parties to a war can be losers! It is hence argued that in modern warfare of the 21st Century is transforming so rapidly, the conceptualisation of differentiated nature-character of warfare may not be analytically useful, and can only cause confusion in creating strategy, at the National and even military levels.

Contextually, war of the force-on-force kind, can still be presumed as a primary method for conflict resolution and settlement of disputes, and a tool for seeking importance and status. Normally, nations will go to war of the force-kind if the benefits of war are considered to outweigh the disadvantages, and if there is a sense that there is not another mutually agreeable solution. Specifically, wars are fought primarily for territorial, economic, religious, ideological and geopolitical reasons.

Wars may also happen when a country, like may be China currently, opines that it has reached a state of substantial stronger military armaments and technological lead against an adversary which in turn might lead to the stronger power temptation. So, China might conclude that it would be advantageous to make pre-emptive use of force. Assuredly, PLA would have examined Indian use of strong force response at the super altitude heights of Kargil in 1999. Yet, for considerations that need separate analysis, PLA did not opine an escalation of the Kargil kind in Eastern Ladakh in 2020. Could be that PLA analysed a force asymmetry advantage that allowed it to proceed the way it did!

The Nomenclatures of War: Tendency to Categorize to Confuse!

A whole lot of newer nomenclatures - 4G/5G wars, new generation wars, hybrid wars, grey zone wars, multi-domain wars, mosaic wars and so on have entered the lexicon. There are also kinetic/ non-kinetic, contact and non-contact wars, implying that there are significant, profound, distinctive changes between the past, the present and the future.

This tendency to categorize war, is actually to clarify and to understand better the war phenomenon, to plan and be prepared better. If the categorisation causes confusion, this will become counter productive. Though in vogue for a long time, there is no agreed definition of hybrid warfare. Fourth generation warfare (4GW) describes the decentralized nature of modern warfare involving at least one non-state actor. 4GW comes close to terrorism and asymmetric warfare, involving, terrorism, psychological warfare, political, economic, social and military coercion, asymmetric operations, and the like. Network Centric Warfare (NCW) concept is to organize and fight in the Information Age. However, NCW aims at increasing the speed of command by delivering the right information at the right time and the right place.

It can be said that how can political or military leaders develop an effective military strategy if they cannot define what they believe is the threat of the day? These concepts must be viewed from perspective of a Senior Operations Branch Officer, say a Brigadier General Staff or a Colonel General Staff (Col GS Ops)! For which of these conflicts should be prepared for? The effective strategy in this complex environment cannot be oversimplified by naming the threat by selecting from the maze of nomenclatures of grey zone, hybrid, asymmetric, proxy, irregular and indeed multi domain (or as Chinese call it, multi domain precision warfare). Which concept is most probable to happen? All these concepts are interconnected, in the larger precepts of modern warfare. The Col GS Ops will be less interested in naming the category of war, but in preparing for and creating a wholistic strategy/ plan.

Are Wars Inevitable?

Not too long ago, it was opined that conventional wars of the force-on-force variety were passe and obsolete, views that have been pushed in the background with the ongoing Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Gaza wars and tensions across the Taiwan Straits, among others! Indeed, though peace and morality are powerful thoughts, force-on-force wars cannot be banished. Though it might be a pessimist view, wars are inescapable in the futuristic world, indeed their first-world war trench-war configuration has reemerged. Wars are testing opportunities for newer technologies and doctrines. There are lobbyists and interest groups with extra-ordinary influence on the political hierarchy, like the military-industrial complexes, whose motivation is largely profit from wars, which propels towards newer wars, a veritable never-ending cycle.

It is a truism that many governments are more likely to avoid violent wars, even if pushed towards it, as wars are expensive in all ways, and hinder national progress and socio-economic development. Wars are messy, with no assurance as to their outcomes, their durations, with likelihood of escalation to much higher levels of death and destruction to civilian population and property, and leave societies in turmoil in perpetuity. US war in Afghanistan, war in Syria and in Ukraine-Russia war prove the point. Intransigent issues thence are left to posterity by deliberate procrastination, like the Chinese deliberately seeking to shelve the border discussions with India to future generations. This procrastination in overall analysis would become more expensive to India in terms of maintenance of larger militaries, tense environment and the possibility of escalation remaining as a Damocles sword.

In the modern context with an enlarged scope of the definition of war to achieve political ends, nothing defines war’s beginning or its end. As a result, the conflicts become open-ended and barbarous, particularly for noncombatants/ civilians. In defining war for the 21st century, India must face reality in own expectations of war. War must not be oversimplified by using only large-scale, multi-domain conventional wars as the paradigm, and not the wide variety of trickeries and treacheries that are part of present and the future.

In sum, to define war for the 21st century in Indian context, it is vital to move beyond the study of battles, and to fathom the political, socio-cultural, techno-economic, and geo-dimensional elements. It is important to consider that hybridization the most important ongoing change. Even conventional warfare has blended with organized crime, irregular conflict and terrorism.

It is becoming apparent that the 21st century war may not begin with a surprise armed attack, but a range of other hostile actions, some overt, mostly covert, designed to weaken India. This may take the form of cyberattacks from unidentified sources, engineered economic crises, or even pandemics. In this manner, India may be at war without even knowing it. Military and non-military dimensions will be enmeshed seamlessly. Modern, future wars hence would require a total integrated use of the elements of national power than hitherto fore.

War, in other words, will be persistent and all pervasive. It is mandatory hence, to strategise for the new definition of war in all manifestations. India must have structures that devote full time to contemplate, forecast and strategise such like interpretations of war, to remain proactive. As this is a war which may not even provide any fair idea of who the adversary is!

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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