Modern Warfare and Contemplation of Strategic Victory

That is an old saying – victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan!  On the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on 01 May 2003, US President George W. Bush announced Mission Accomplished in the Iraq War. In the twelve years after that televised address, nearly one hundred and fifty thousand civilians and 5000 soldiers lost their lives in Iraq!  Mission obviously had not been accomplished!

Deliberating Modern Warfare

In 21st century modern warfare, the concept of victory is a big challenge facing strategicians.  It emanates from conceptualising what will be future warfare, and how will be future wars end.  Three issues merit consideration. First, the traditional political science definition, which considered 1,000 battle deaths annually as war, has little significance. As is evident, despite the increased lethality, wars have become less fatal.  India fought the Kargil war in 1999 in the super high altitude terrain and had 526 casualties. Pakistan did not publicise the figures, though approximately 400 casualties were spoken off tongue in cheek. That makes Kargil 1999, which was as tough as it could get, not a War in definitional terms.  

Second, Warfare has newer connotations. The breadth of anti-India grey zone warfare emanating from Pakistan is fairly wide, and not only related to disinformation and incitement. It remains a low-cost option in pushing in of fake Indian currency notes (FICN), drugs, hawala money, raising varied bogeys at international fora, fanning internal dissent, and sponsoring terrorism by using proxies. Kashmir is but one of the manifestations of the larger geopolitical rivalry of Pakistan with India. Exploiting social media using technological tools, cyber warfare, adverse information dissemination with fakes/ deep fakes/ use of dark web and distortions is continuous, without any challenge of attributability. China, on the other hand, is the master of grey zone ambiguity. Psychological operations that would end in intellectual confusion to the adversary are part and parcel of the Chinese philosophy of ‘Unrestricted Warfare’. It has nullified the boundary between battle space and non-battle space, with non-military methods including trade wars, economic aid, resource restriction, ecological threats, network warfare, and the like. A Chinese three-warfare strategy is a form of statecraft that encompasses non-kinetic means to achieve political ends.

Third, India’s adversaries are greatly casualty-sensitive.  It has become apparent that China is very sensitive about intimating military casualties, as their release have to be approved by the Central Military Commission. The PLA grossly underreported the 1962 Sino-India war casualties — 722 soldiers killed and 1,697 wounded, in 1994.  Speculation about the number of deaths and injuries of PLA forces in Galwan, Eastern Ladakh on the night of 15/16 June 2020 have varied from five to 43, though no official confirmation has been given.  It is apparent that the Chinese peoples, fed on the narrative of state propaganda and shielded from independent news sources, are insulated from the truth. There is obvious anxiety among the CCP hierarchy, fearing that inevitably large casualties will lead to loss of stature of PLA/CCP, which could add to grievances among the Chinese people against the leadership. Similar Pakistan Army rarely accepts its military casualties of shelling or firing, as is evident on LOC in Kashmir, being evident to own troops in contact and on the airwaves. In the Kargil war, with more than twenty years behind, the Pakistan Army is still totally disowning their soldiers who were buried with due honour by the Indian Army.  No responsible country will disown its dead soldiers. It is obviously to substantiate the false narrative of invincibility of their Army to the Pakistani people and to retain their hold of the national polity. As a policy of the Pakistan Army, hence all their martyrs are buried by the Pakistani Army themselves, with very few bodies sent to their native places. Most of them are buried in the “Graveyard of Martyrs” located in the vicinity of every Military cantonment. Family members are taken into confidence, pressurised and compelled to retain the façade!

India has territorial disputes with China and Pakistan and has fought territorial wars.  On the LOC/ LAC, the topography and environment are tedious, and the Indian Armed Forces have immense operational experience in mountain/ high altitude warfare.  This brings to fore the vision of future border wars, even if limited in space and time, which will be marred by immense lethality and precision, virtually saturating the tactical battle areas.  For aggressor and defender both, inevitably, there would be significant numbers of casualties, and what is distastefully called ‘body bags’. Both for China and Pakistan, in the information-insulated environment, this scenario will loom large, and will have to be safe-guarded against, lest the public of their respective countries understands the truth and loses confidence in their respective militaries!

Wars in 21st Century in the Indian context, hence, should rightly have an enlarged definitional scope and refer to any sort—terrorism, gray-zone attempts to undermine, technological warfare (cyber, space, and electromagnetic spectrum), incursions or attacks across disputed borders, large-scale conventional operations of kinetic/ non-kinetic or contact/ non-contact kind and even nuclear exchanges. It is always avoidable to be pinned down with exactitude of prospective pronouncements, however, if history guides us well, our adversaries will bank largely on political and economic warfare to undermine India, with military operations relegated to inescapable happenstance.  To avoid the vagaries of tactical battle area, it may also be contemplated to resort to technological prowess to achieve political aims, and large bias towards non-kinetic wars, or kinetic non-contact precision warfare. That does not decry pushing borders wars to oblivion; the threat of massed casualties will however remain is a significant deterrent to the resolution of border disputes by force.

Contemplation of Concept of Victory

That brings to fore contemplation of the concept of victory in modern wars. The future of warfare pulls in diametrically opposite directions by placing India in deepening strategic dilemmas. It demands additional capability investments in ISR, precision, information warfare and technology, while still defending the disputed borders, all in a budget-starved environment. Indian armed forces are struggling to embrace newer disruptive technologies, some of which challenge the core identities of the Services. A case in point is the threat posed by inexpensive drones and unmanned systems, by providing requisite potency and alternatives (drawing from Nagorno-Karabakh)

Contextually, hence, we have to simply fathom what victory will be, will it happen and on what criteria or matrices will it be based? This is examined in two different pathways. First, is the omnipotent question is who decides the winner? Understandably, initial assessments of victory are often merely gut feelings. What matters most is the perception of the situation, broader assessments of the effect of war, and not only tangible facts. Indeed the perceptions would logically differ among proponents. If wars are political by nature, the assessments have to be built on political outcomes, short and long term.  The perceived or unstated outcomes politically complicate the issue of military plans that lead to a victory! Hence what the military would contemplate end-state or conflict termination will remain imprecise. As President George W. Bush would have learnt the hard way, mission accomplishment is not conflicting termination. A strategic victory must lend itself to the enforcement of political dictation of peace, like the Treaty of Versailles post the Great War, though it laid the foundation for the Second World War.

Second, we tend to instinctively relate to winning and losing, and proclaim that defeating the enemy militarily produces victory.  The Clausewitzian definition of warfare as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will,” is incomplete in the 21st century. Despite disintegrating Pakistan and holding the PsW, the great victory of the 1971 War did not cumulate to victory in the long run. Soon Zulfikar Ali Bhutto referred to “… eating grass, and even going hungry, to get one of our own (Atom bomb)”, and Zia ul Haq spoke of “…bleeding India with thousand cuts”. Victory or defeat in war hence cannot rely on objective criteria like respective casualties, territory occupied or lost, war-fighting capability and infrastructure destroyed of the adversary or vice versa or prisoners captured by either side. It can be stated that winning tactically and even operationally is more straightforward and can be militarily quantifiable; strategic victory is more complicated.  A battlefield victory hence may not lead to a long-time effect politically, and even militarily. 

The issue hence is the interse relation of the character of modern wars, as discussed previously, to the conduct of military campaigns. Indeed, modern wars themselves are nebulous, with lines between peace and war and even the belligerents blurred. Conventional wars, involving set-piece battles of the past are a rarity and, in any case, cannot be expected to be deep thrust operations. Non-contact kinetic wars may be intensely damaging, especially to the infrastructure, though their leading on to national or military capitulation is improbable. Hence even in conventional wars, a decisive military end state may not tally in political goals and lead to the final settlement of intransigent disputes. Non-kinetic technological wars, like cyber wars, can be protracted, with little emphatic victory and conversely, a defeat. Since the understanding of terms war and warfare stands distorted and conventional or even a limited war may remain elusive, the ideal decisive victory will remain a myth, and as such will not have clear cut endings.  In this context, in wars undeclared, victories will no longer be decisive. Contemplating armed conflict hence in terms of victory in direct combat will also have modest gains. Similarly, defeat is unfathomable too!

Hence, the concept of victory in modern warfare has gotten tenuous. This suggests that victories will not come in the form as assumed in the past or on table-top exercises. That Pakistan is running a not-so-clandestine proxy war campaign against India is well established. As part of this proxy war, in a recent utterance Pakistan’s Science and Technology Minister in the National assembly, took credit for Pulwama terrorist attack.  Indian response at Balakot hence was prompt, precise and forceful. Similar were the Surgical Strikes previously!  Again, the intrusions by PLA in Eastern Ladakh in 2020 were powerfully responded to in August 2020 in the Chushul sector (South of Pangong Tso).  These cannot be termed as military victories on a template based on matrices.

In sum, therefore, in the blurred nature of wars, gaining strategic advantage through strategic success will account for a modified concept of victory. A new scale of measure of decisiveness in achieving strategic success, using all facets of national power – land, air, sea, or technological (cyber, space) is the call of tomorrow. Each scenario will mandate a different preferred outcome towards this strategic success. The language of victory, hence, at the doctrinal and strategic level needs revisitation, and achieving strategic success may be the answer.