India needs to think more strategically about information as a system to win standoffs

Written By: Syed Ata Hasnain
New Delhi Published: Jun 08, 2019, 12.41 PM(IST)

File photo of Indian army.  Photograph:( Reuters )

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It’s about time India thought more strategically about information as a system to win standoffs in the entire spectrum of military operations.

Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail, a retired Pakistan Air Force (PAF) officer and former director air operations at PAF Headquarters is not unknown in Indian military circles. 

In 2009, without mincing his words, he wrote a brilliant essay on the treachery of the Pakistan Army in letting down its nation and the PAF by attempting to go alone into Kargil in an ill-conceived operation in 1999. The essay was well received in the Indian strategic community for various reasons. Very recently Tufail has employed communication skills mixed with his vast knowledge of aviation technology and air operations, to write a seminal piece for his popular blog.

This time he has taken on the Indian Air Force (IAF) and its operations post-Pulwama. These operations involved the air strike against terrorist facilities at Balakot and subsequent actions against the PAF in J&K leading to the downing of an IAF Mig 21 Bison which culminated with the capture of Abhinandan and the alleged shooting down of an IAF Mi-17 helicopter in alleged friendly fire.  It is well known that the PAF’s reputation has been in the dock ever since the US launched a helicopter based operation to eliminate Osama bin Laden in 2011. The Balakot operation made that reputation no better with the IAF’s extraordinary operation to avenge Pulwama; the PAF was outwitted and left to do no better than defend its reputation through the skilful use of information operations in which disinformation has played a major role. Kaiser Tufail’s essay appears an attempt to atone for what many in the Pakistan Armed Forces would have considered sacrilege when he wrote the piece on Kargil. 

Being appreciative of the adversary’s ways and critical of one’s own win is never popular. What is, however, important for us to realise is cogent, focused and a continuous onslaught of information which Pakistan has put out to the world to make the international community believe in the narrative that it wishes to be known. He who wants to convince communities of the righteousness of his narrative will always make strident efforts to bring information to the fore; it is immaterial what type of information. In information operations which are nothing new, truth is immaterial; it is the narrative control which must remain in your hands. 

Modern day information operations are facilitated hugely by emerging information technology. The instant availability of information for the asking, woven into events, writings, videos, chat groups and blogs goes around the world in milliseconds and we have yet witnessed only the tip of the iceberg. Pakistan has ardently followed and employed ‘information warfare’ having realised very early the power of information in influencing the adversary or even its own population. It will never be known why it decided to raise the information arm of the Pakistan Air Forces, within two years of independence. This has been mentioned ad nauseam in writings and discussions; that in India everyone knows the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) wing of Pakistan but hardly anyone knows the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) wing, raised in 1949. The latter is far more devious and for many years has run campaigns on behalf of Pakistan on narratives that the government wants to be believed. The most significant and strategic of these narratives is the one on J&K which the ISPR repeatedly plays out at important cities, universities and institutions of the world. 

As part of India’s strategic culture, the power of information as a game changer and force multiplier has hardly been realised. Information operations are also an essential part of hybrid warfare to form narratives and generally to influence political opinion-making among the target populations. We have been hesitant in its use in the insurgencies of the last half-century or more. While surprise and deception continue to rule strategic planning involving military or quasi-military operations the information domain remains relatively ignored. We all agree that our opinion and narrative is the right one, yet we are rarely able to convince the world that this is so. One sometimes tends to think that the Indian character and approach to life has an ethical element attached to it. We are straight-faced and insufficiently ingenious in using available instruments and have never attempted playing the information game to strategic advantage. We believe that there is no reason for anyone to disbelieve our version of things given our credibility as a successful democracy with a value-based leadership. However, that may not be the way that the world looks at things and that is why India needs to get realistic about the use of information as a system for the future. There can be no denying that veteran aviators of repute did step in to write their post-Balakot analyses but the voice was insufficiently heard internationally due to lack of institutional backing. Nations whose weapons and technology were employed for strategic effect should have been asked to partner in building a credible information campaign.

This is not the end of a narrative spin and narrative control for India. During Doklam 2017 the Indian government played the information game with greater credit than China. Post the event there was much analysis of the operational standoff but the information domain remained relatively neglected in terms of analyses for lessons learnt. For a nation whose advertising industry is one which arrived early and has accomplished much, there is no reason why the need for information strategy cannot be included in the system which addresses security issues. It’s not for nothing that I have been strongly recommending the constitution of a body to institutionalise the use of information for strategic gain. 

It’s not just the current which should concern us, it’s also how things will be viewed by history. If we wish to leave behind legacies of achievements the information should be able to justify the narratives we wish to be remembered. It’s about time India thought more strategically about information as a system to win standoffs in the entire spectrum of military operations; that includes hybrid wars where the people matter more than anything else.

(This article was originally published on The DNA. Read the original article)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.) 

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