It is no secret that there’s a delay in India’s current cycle of military modernisation. Ask the services and they will vaguely claim that the cycle will be completed by 2022 or maybe 2027. The effort is to induct the contemporary range of armoured vehicles, artillery, fighter jets, submarines, frigates and so on. Given the decades taken to achieve this, these systems will almost immediately become obsolete and another delayed cycle will begin.
As long as an indigent Pakistan was the principal adversary, this caused no big worry. But we now increasingly confront a risen China, whose plans work on schedule, and whose modernisation is relentlessly moving from copying western design and concepts towards leapfrogging to become technology leaders.
In recent years, China has systematically built up its military, and also undertaken a deep reorganisation of its structure. This is aimed at creating a force that, as Xi Jinping is never tired of repeating, is loyal to the Communist Party of China and capable of fighting and winning wars. The reorganisation has led to an integrated military divided into geographical theatre commands mimicking in many ways the organisation of its principal adversary: the United States.
The modernisation is top to bottom—it begins with the nuclear forces, the bedrock of Beijing’s status as a world power, and goes right down to the maritime militias that are used to swamp fishing grounds in the South China Sea. The Chinese are simultaneously aiming to deny the US access to its mainland through the so-called A2/AD (anti-access area denial) systems, and at the same time organising their own forces for greater regional and even extra-regional reach.
So, while China’s navy moves from offshore defence to regional capability, its air force is creating an integrated aerospace system for offensive and defensive operations beyond its borders. All this means a virtual assembly line of new generations of aircraft carriers, destroyers, submarines, fighter aircraft, ballistic and cruise missiles and associated systems. In all this, space is a key element for C4ISR—command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. We are talking here not of individual satellites, but constellations. So by 2020, the existing 30 Beidou navigation satellites will be replaced by 35 advanced versions. Already 40 Yaogan satellites move in a triplet formation providing imagery and electronic intelligence. By 2020, China will be able to obtain 30-minute updates from any part of the globe from 60 satellites including the Gaofen and Jilin series. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is also working on counter-space systems aimed at knocking out adversary satellites.
For years, the PLA used to talk about “informationised warfare” which was about digital systems and networks. Now, they are on the threshold of what analyst Elsa Kania says is the era of “intelligentised warfare” featuring artificial intelligence (AI), big data and cloud computing to enhance their C4ISR capabilities. The depth of the Chinese effort is obvious: many of the technologies now emerging are part of an effort undertaken under Project 863, begun in March 1986. Among these are boost glide vehicles, laser and high-power microwave (HPM) weapons. Earlier this year, young scientist Huang Wenhua received a national technology award for developing an HPM system for defending warships from anti-ship missiles.
Beyond the horizon is an array of even more dramatic AI-based technologies, where China has emerged as a global leader—in quantum computing and communications and electromagnetic and pulsar propulsion in space. These have great military consequences, and in all of them, China has demonstrated a capacity, such as the launch last August of the world’s first quantum communications satellite Micius.
But in the past few years, the challenge we have faced from China has been somewhat strange. There has been Pakistan, the “iron brother” that can always be counted on to keep India off balance, but we have also seen a handful of Chinese soldiers pitching a tent in the middle of nowhere in Aksai Chin in 2013, a disembodied voice warning INS Airavat in 2011 that it was in Chinese waters, when, in fact, it was in Vietnam’s EEZ, or, more recently, the invocation of a non-binding UN Resolution 1172 of 1998 demanding that India end the development of ballistic missiles, and the decision to rename six places in Arunachal Pradesh. This is a new kind of warfare involving psychological, legal and media elements. With both countries possessing nuclear weapons, it is unlikely that they will openly fight each other. But, warfare has many dimensions and the best victory is one that is obtained without fighting at all.
Indeed, as Wu Chunqiu of the Academy of Military Sciences argued in 2000, “Victory without war does not mean that there is no war at all. The wars one must fight are political wars, economic wars, science and technology wars, diplomatic wars, etc. To sum up in a word, it is a war of Comprehensive National Power (CNP). Although military power is an important factor, in peacetime it usually acts as a backup force, and plays the role of invisible might.” What India must understand is that war is no longer about tanks and guns, but CNP. China has long had a fascination with the concept pioneered by Ray Cline of the CIA, who came up with an index based on the formula Pp = (C+E+M) x (S+W) in the 1960s. In the nuclear age, defeat and victory were about CNP, as the erstwhile Soviet Union realised, not its military arsenal.
In Cline’s schema, Pp was perceived power, C was critical mass (population plus territory), E was economic capability, M stood for military strength, S was strategic purpose and W the will to pursue national strategy. Subsequently other indices came up, using even more refined variables.
The Chinese have never hidden their will to power. Where India has always wanted to be seen as a ‘Great Nation’, the Chinese are clear that they are once again destined to be a, if not the, ‘Great Power’. To that end, they are deploying a range of elements relating to hard and soft power, and the $1 trillion One Belt One Road scheme is its economic manifestation.
One of the key areas being pursued is STI—science, technology and innovation. In the next five years, the Chinese government alone will spend $250 billion in S&T and innovation. Its tech giants, Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei and others will spend several times this sum. The priority areas are quantum communications and computation, an arcane field that is difficult to even conceptualise, but whose implications are earth-shaking. In addition, focus remains on cyber security, deep-space exploration, robotics, materials, genetics, big data and brain research.
Hard power is used to control or coerce the behaviour of others, but equally vital are soft power, persuasion, leading by example and a sense of legitimacy. Here authoritarian China does not have it easy, but it isn’t conceding anything. It is spending billions in winning friends and influencing people. Through institutions and schemes like the AIIB, NDB and the OBOR, it is expanding its remit to include Asia, parts of Europe and the Indian Ocean Region. Its media and culture outreach aims to present China in the best possible way to the international community.
The Chinese challenge is not about guns and submarines, though the disputed border and the Sino-Pak nexus signify the need to up our guard. It is about CNP, of which the military is an important element, but not the only one. We need a compound national strategic effort to enhance all the CNP elements. In the first stage, India needs to understand that it is no longer competing with China, but seeking to cope with an increasing asymmetry of power. It should turn the Chinese strategy inside out by ringing itself with A2/AD defences and make up our military power deficit through effective coalitions and alliances.
It means a society working at a much higher level of efficiency than the one we have now. It means a different kind of a military, not the World War II kind of force we have today. But more important, we need a socially cohesive India, led by people with a constructive and forward-looking agenda. Most important, we need to understand that there are no shortcuts. What you see in China is what began 30 years ago.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow with Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.)