Chilling Geostrategic Environment: An era of ‘Authoritarian Conflict Management’
Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma (Retd.), Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Are we getting close to a global confrontation or are these fears grossly exaggerated? Lately, the French President had spoken of sending ground troops to Ukraine, there are reports of 12 CIA bases in Ukraine, and 50 British troops (SAG) are in Ukraine guarding the Ukrainian President. In a WebEx conversation, four German Air Force Generals were discussing about delivery of Taurus cruise Missiles and bombing the Kerch bridge in Crimea. Some 40,000 US troops are in the Middle East, including in Israel, and prone to be involved in one combat or another!

In a 2023 Ipsos poll, it was surmised that 84% of people from 30 countries believe the world has become more dangerous over the past year. The poll was conducted before the Israel-Hamas war began on 07 Oct, 2023. The poll also found that 70% of people expect a global conflict similar to the world wars in the next 25 years. Recent YouGov poll data of UK shows 53% Britons are now braced for World War III, in the next 5-10 years. In a Jan 2024 speech, the UK Defence Secretary, Grant Shapps, said that we are ‘moving from a post-war to pre-war world involving China, Russia, North Korea and Iran!’ Again, six out ten Britons think that it is likely that nuclear weapons would be launched in the third world war. In Feb 2024, it was announced that the US intends to station nuclear weapons in the UK for the first time in 15years. US Defence Secretary in a testimony to the Congress on 29 Feb 2024 stated that if Russia defeats Ukraine, NATO will be in war with Russia!

Interestingly, the Times of India, carried an article on 24 Feb 2024, titled ‘10 safest countries to live in if World War III happens!’

Is the World in a Conflictual Environment?

As 2024 commenced, as per Uppsala Data Programme and the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, 32 countries are at war. These include Russia, Ukraine, Israel, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Yemen, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Columbia and Mali. War has cast a long shadow over global affairs. Ukraine war is far from over, and has now entered third year of fighting with no seeming appetite for peace talks. Stalemate is setting in, though how long it will last is anyone’s guess. The Black Sea is filling up with mines and crippled warships. The Baltic and North seas face a shadow-war of pipeline and cable sabotage.

If the war in Ukraine has reverberated across crises worldwide, its impact has been especially acute in the South Caucasus. Two years after their latest war over Nagorno-Karabakh, saw Azerbaijani forces on 19/20 Sep 2023, in a surprise 24-hour operation, occupied Nagorno Karabakh, and pushed over 1,00,000 residents towards Armenia. The world simply accepted this territorial aggression. Tensions yet exist with possibility of escalation to resolve Zangezur Corridor in Armenia that connects Azerbaijan and Nackchivan Autonomous Enclave!

The Middle East is a tinderbox with Israel’s war in Gaza still on having commenced on 07 Oct 2023. Gaza is facing famine and the destruction wrought there has been adversely commented by the ICJ. Israel’s northern front with Hezbollah, remained extremely tense, which forced evacuation of some 80,000 residents each from northern Israel and southern Lebanon. Israel’s air strikes in Beirut and Syria, US strike against Iraq and Syria are a considerable escalation.

In the Red Sea Houthi militias have launched dozens of attacks on ships with drones and missiles, cutting container activity in the Suez Canal by 90%. The Houthi’s attacks have so far caused a spike in insurance and shipping rates. After 12 Jan 2024, the US and Britain responded with sea and air attacks on over Houthi targets in Yemen thus expanding the scope of the Middle East conflict. A rag-tag state militia has thus caused ‘sea denial,’ in Red Sea/ Bab el Mandeb, against the might of the best navies of the world!

The Three Brotherhood Alliance in Myanmar has taken over vast swathes of territory, including Laukkai, the capital of Kokang region, which borders China. An offensive led by the Three Brotherhood Alliance, which comprises several ethnic militias, began Oct 2023 in the country’s north has been remarkably successful, changing the balance in Myanmar’s ongoing civil war, including substantially along India-Myanmar Border.

The Sahel region is in turmoil. Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger show no signs of beating back stubborn Islamist insurgencies. Western leaders, including France whose military involvement over the past decade has done little to stem violence. Since the murder of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, Haiti has been paralysed by political gridlock and rampant gang violence. Hundreds of gangs control more than half of the country suffocating the capital, Port-au-Prince. One of the ferocious gang leaders is nick-named ‘Barbeque!’

Meanwhile Pakistan, in grip of serious internal terrorism in Baluchistan and KP, exchanged fire with Iran and the Durand Line in tense. Iran on its part had targeted Kurd area of Iraq and Syria. Growing concerns about China’s rise continue as it intensifies its assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific, East China Sea and Taiwan Straits and it continues to build its military capabilities. China and the Philippines have been having tensions in the South China Sea (SCS)!

These wars have boosted record stock values of many major defence contractors, like Lockheed Martin, BAE, Systems, Raytheon, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics. Charles Woodburn, CEO of BAE Systems, stated that “We see opportunities to further enhance the medium- term outlook as our customers address the elevated threat environment.” “Security – as shown by the current conflict – is the bedrock of our life in peace and freedom. Rheinmetall has a special obligation here,” Armin Papperger, Rheinmetall CEO stated. In Jan 2022, one month before the Russian offensive against Ukraine, Gregory Hayes, CEO of Raytheon exclaimed: “I fully expect we’re going to see some benefit from it.” It suits vested interests that the conflicts prolong to enable maximal profiteering!

The doomsday prophesies of a global war may not come true, and then there are no contrarian guarantees! Deterrence in whatever form it exists is more than likely to fail! However, it is apparent that inter or intra-state(s) conflicts have taken a dangerous turn towards authoritarianism, with use of violence without amenability of give and take! In this contested world disorder, the actors to conflict are not seeking to deescalate and end violence. Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, in an article evocatively titled article in Foreign Affairs, ‘Why Today’s World is so Dangerous’ states this is shaping up to be a very dangerous decade.

Global or regional consensus to respond to civil or inter-state wars, to seek conflict resolution and peace-making is conspicuous by its absence. The UN Secretary General has called for once-in-a-generation ‘Summit of the Future’ in Sep 2024, to reinvigorate global action, reconnect to fundamental principles and develop a framework for multilateralism. No soothsayer can predict the success or otherwise of the Summit to address the crisis in legitimacy of the Security Council, the widening great power competition and north-south divide and the fragmenting global economy and flaring gap between the rich and the suffering poor. The global power balance has entered a disequilibrium and multilateralism is nonfunctional, in an era of authoritarian conflict management.

In this era of self-help, reliability of security guarantees, external balancing and formal/ informal alliances will matter less. Wars have geopolitical rationale, and can have manifestations in domains much beyond territorial conquests. Clean victory may in future may be a mirage, a myth, yet loss of territory in public perceptions is sufficient to cause anguish. As trends indicate borders are being changed by force and ability to take what a nation deems as its own, matters.

Where Does it Place India?

As an aside, India continues to buck the global trend of pessimism and is ranked as the 3rd most optimistic market, with at least 71% of urban Indians polled believing India is headed in the right direction. It is essential to delve into the prevailing conflictual global environment and what it portends for India. India is located in less than benign environment, with an authoritarian expansionist adversary in the north and an unstable belligerent one to the West, both retaining disputed borders as geostrategic levers against a rising India.

Wars are being elongated and open-ended. New technologies are raising debate between precision and abundance. The armed forces of India must manage transition to a force that can overcome challenges, with constrained budgets and institutional inertia. The significant challenge is to indicate transformation key priorities and choices to implement reforms. Transformation prioritization is an exacting process, emanating from strategy to and technological prognostications. China, for example, the aspiration is of joint firepower campaigns that demand seamless command and control networks.

There is an inevitability of prime prioritization of three – networks, battlespace transparency and drones. First the networks that are imperative to prosecute operations. The geographic tactical networks, both mobile and static with redundancies, that bind both offensive and defensive units and formations are imperative, supporting voice and data. With learning from the current wars, the second type of horizontal and vertical integration of sensors to fire control and from fire control to shooters, largely through fiber optics. The third layer of network should be command and control, with requisite database for information and decision support.

Second, the battlefield transparency is critical, as India has been surprised on the borders often – in 1947-48, 1962, 1965 and in 1999. China is planning to launch 26,000 of low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites, competing with Elon Musk’s Starlink. LEO satellites are commonly used for military recce, spying and communications. Finally, they will create exceedingly short gaps in coverage of high-resolution images, available to any location in near real time.

Sensors are becoming smarter and more sensitive, when riding with machine learning (ML) algorithm, which will sift signal from noise. ML will have a transformative effect on central fusing of information and increase effectiveness of sensors. The battlefields already abound with active electrically scanned array radar, electronic warfare spectrometers, acoustic arrays, vibrometers, electro-optical sensors and indeed social media and cell phones. Globally, proliferation of multisensory arrays and integration of passive and active sensors have made the fused sensor picture much more robust.

India must plan for a seamless multi-layered systemic of sensors, proximate and stand-off, to survive and achieve surprise. With such a futuristic sensor-laden environment, achieving operational surprise by the adversary should be made difficult. There is need to equip own units with multispectral concealment. On own side, the units and formations, and more specifically the platforms like tanks, ICVs and artillery batteries will be ‘visible’ to the adversaries, unless serious efforts are undertaken to appreciate the challenge. It will be a question of survivability. Basic premise that must be driven to every soldier is that he is being ‘watched’ or ‘heard’ all the time. With the northern adversary it must be well understood how does terrain and weather interact with the sensing.

Third is the much-emphasized need for drones, the Ukraine-Russia war has been dubbed as the first drone war. Ukraine and Russia are employing many different types of drones, which are omnipresent over the frontlines, greatly adding to the changing contours of warfare, especially at tactical levels. A major advantage is their accessibility and affordability at a scale. Small commercial quadcopters, costing a few thousand dollars, are ubiquitous. Costing $400 each, do-it-yourself kamikaze drones allow targeting ‘across the hump’ targets, even if their own survivability is questionable. Simply, with eyes in the sky, drones connected to artillery gun positions, would make dumb artillery shells as precision weapons – the lethality of an artillery shell by far outweighs that of a drone. Lethal first-person-view (FPV) kamikaze drones can accurately hit mobile targets.

India needs to exploit commercial capabilities, short-circuiting cumbersome procedures to obtain the variety of drone all discharging different functions. Simultaneously the proliferation of counter-drone technology is a must. Indeed, in time a tactical-drone usage training establishment will be necessary.

(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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