The faceoff between the Indian Army and the Chinese PLA in eastern Ladakh has led to comparisons of all kinds between the armed forces of the two countries. While the human resource of our army is superior to the conscript-intensive PLA ground troops, it is assumed that the Chinese forces are technologically better equipped and that while a contact battle in the high mountains may favour the Indian Army, in the non-contact domain, the PLA may be at an advantage.
What does this imply? Along the northern borders, any physical capture of territory would involve a contact battle with the human element being predominant. This would be supported by a non-contact (kinetic) dimension, involving long-range vectors and missiles which can cause damage in depth areas to varying targets. The third form is the non-contact (non-kinetic) warfare which encompasses electromagnetic, cyber, space, information warfare and psychological operations. The non-contact domain is all-encompassing and goes beyond the military, to include economic, energy, environment, water and other resources which affect the net prosperity and capability of a nation.
China has been focused in harnessing and developing technology for military use through imports, domestic research and development, theft and espionage. Its hallmark has been imitative innovation through reverse engineering. A science and technology commission was established in 2016. Under the builder of modern China, Deng Xiaoping, the cardinal rule was: ‘Hide your capability’ and ‘Bide your time’. In the last decade, this edict has been turned on its head and today, China goes to great lengths to showcase its military and technological advancement. It claims high technology niche capabilities, next only to the US.
The fields where it claims prowess and emergence as a leader include artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing and communications, biomaterials, energy capture, storage and smart sensors. All these would be the primary drivers in any multi-domain non-contact warfare to pulverise an adversary.
What remains suspect, however, is a pragmatic and demonstrated assessment of the Chinese capabilities in these areas. A carefully orchestrated showcasing is very different from actual application. Unlike the US, China has shied away from projecting its ‘technology-enabled’ forces. As far back as 2004, when a tsunami caused death and destruction in South-East Asia, India, despite being affected by this calamity, took a lead role in providing relief to ameliorate the misery of many countries. What stood out was China’s absence from such efforts, despite being a major nation in the region. Many experts felt that this was because China was not sure about its capabilities.
Much has changed since then, but all that China comes across is as a ‘bully’ who wants to force its way in pursuit of territorial claims. Its much-touted Belt and Road Initiative and policy of wooing developing nations in Asia and Africa have highlighted its single-minded pursuit of hegemonic ambitions. China’s image is far from benign and the Wuhan virus has further put it under global suspicion.
China is considered a formidable power primarily due to its phenomenal economic growth and the clout this brings. However, has its claimed status as a technology powerhouse truly given the PLA the capabilities it claims but has not really used? Can it win ongoing and future conflicts by deploying technologically superior forces? The current state of affairs in the high Himalayas does not indicate so. Imitation and reverse technology can take you this far and no further. The just concluded plenary session of the Chinese Communist Party presided over by Xi Jinping has finalised plans to build a modern military on a par with the US by 2027. However, the technological prowess of the PLA, especially in multi-domain ground warfare, is still a question mark.
How does the Indian military match up? Budgetary constraints and labyrinthine processes have been a dampener in the acquisition of military weapons and equipment. However, that is not something that cannot be corrected. What is relevant here is a look at our capacities and capabilities in the technological fields related to contact and, more importantly, non-contact, warfare.
Indian scientists have made remarkable progress in the fields of space research and missile technology. A similar momentum is required in other dimensions of non-contact conflict. A major initiative in this regard was the setting up of the Army Design Bureau (ADB) by the Indian Army in 2016. The ADB has endeavoured to energise scientific minds in harnessing technology for military applications. Leading technical education institutions are populated by faculty and students who have the capacity and capability to provide top rate technical solutions to the problems and requirements for developing equipment related to domains of warfare. This initiative by the Army has been moving ahead, albeit slowly. However, as it gains momentum, systems will have to be put in place for transfer of technology, from prototype to assembly line products.
Premier institutes like the IITs, the IISc, IIITs and now a whole array of NITs, are national assets, producing a regular stream of competent and qualified professionals. Unfortunately, harnessing these bright minds towards increasing technological capabilities is something that is not attempted systematically. Graduates from these institutions migrate abroad and are successful in major tech companies. They also go into fields which provide financial recompense of a high order but are unrelated to professions for which they have been trained. These young brains are infused with a will to do and it is this spirit for achievement that needs to be channeled by programmes like Make in India, Startup India, Digital India. The US culture of switching between academia and industry or government is something that brings the much needed fresh air, enabling new perspectives and new ways of solving old problems.
We have considerable parts of such an architecture in place. What is required is melding things in a way that students at an IIT or a startup or even an established company can work on projects and problems that will enhance the country’s capability for multi-dimensional non-contact warfare. They can contribute to national security just as a frontline soldier on the icy heights. India’s capabilities are underutilised at present, making the Dragon look more formidable than it actually is. The future lies in winning India’s wars with Indian solutions.