By:- Mohammed Anas
Since ages, information is considered the key to success in any operation or war by great military generals and strategists. The information has resulted in the fall or rise of many empires. The application of this information into the theatre of war is known as the Information Warfare (IW) that has increasingly become a keyword in the commentaries on international relations. The concept of Information Warfare involves information as the target and the information as the tool to carry out the information operation.
In India, foreign and defence policy makers woke up the threat posed by IW when rival neighbours China and Pakistan wove a net of anti-India narratives in recent years.
The advent of the Internet has resulted in a paradigm shift in IW. It has led to a new dimension. The cyberspace has been used to conduct virtual information operations to gain sensitive information. Now, the information collected through intelligence and cyber espionage is assessed and manipulated via disinformation campaign, propaganda, fake news and it then influences the targeted adversaries to the advantage or the will of the state.
In the near future, cyber, electronic, space and artificial intelligence domains of warfare will be exploited, in addition to the traditional domains of land, air and sea. With full-scale wars between nuclear weapon states being a passé, these new domains will be the primary means of use of force in the competitive conflict among nations.
In case of India, we can understand unfolding of IW by analysing use of information as a tool of war by China and Pakistan.
China’s Information War on India
According to the media and intelligence reports, there has been an array of critical cyber-attacks associated with Information Operations carried out by the Chinese on India, targeted on both government and public domain. The nation has been witnessing Chinese cyber-attacks since the first recorded cyber-attack on India was on the computers of BARC (Bhabha Atomic Research Centre) in June 1998.
Some of the significant Chinese information operations and their implications are namely.
1- In 2010, China used the Stuxnet worm to compromise Indian communication satellite, led to the loss of TV signals for many. The government created the National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Centre (NCIIPC) as a measure, to predict and prevent information breaches in the future.
2- In 2012, Chinese malware-infected computers in the campus of Indian Eastern Naval Command. The incident had a significant impact, as the command was responsible for the security of India’s Eastern border and other strategic assets. In response to it, the Indian Navy issued an advisory to the officers regarding usage of computers and other instruments within the establishments.
3- Likewise, in 2013, computers in the DRDO had been compromised by the Chinese and a large number of electronic files were stolen and diverted to a server located in Guangdong Province in China.
4- Moreover, Information operations are carried out not only on targeting Defence and Security domains. Incidents were related to, Information operations also reported in Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), BSNL other public sector undertakings.
5- They also targeted other fields such as banking and finance, public healthcare, Industries, consumer domains.
6- Disinformation and hate propaganda and other instruments of psychological operations, such as media campaign, virtual deceptions were used by the Chinese, via posts in the social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Additionally, the number of cyberattacks tend to increase after any major events in India. For instance, after demonetisation of banknotes, 80,000 cyber-attacks were reported and in the post-Galwan clash in Ladakh, more than 40,300 attacks were reported in Indian cyberspace. A 200 per cent rise in Chinsese cyberattacks was noted in a month after the Galwan Clash, mainly motivated to steal sensitive information.
Pakistan’s All-time Information War on India
Pakistan was quick in realising the need for intelligence-gathering and espionage early on. It set up the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, as it is known, in 1948 amid the conflict between India and Pakistan in Kashmir. The futuristic propaganda arm Inter Services Public Relation came up a year later in May 1949, within the command and strict control of ISI, with a Colonel-level officer as its Director-General.
For over half a century, with a carefully crafted narrative of “Islam in danger”, the ISPR assuaged domestic public anger over its army’s successive defeats against India (1948, 1965, 1971 and 1999). But its real efficacy started showing results in Information Warfare in the international arena, especially against India, in the post-Kargil-1999 era.
The advent of ever-increasing nature of cyberspace – the virtual environment and the growing dominance and influence of social media and content sharing platforms – information and for that matter disinformation become powerful weapons, which possess the potential to alter foreign relations among nations and provides strategic victory to the best manipulator of information.
Undetected by the world, the ISPR has raised an astonishing network of 4000-strong highly qualified Information Warfare Specialists during the past decade through a carefully crafted internship programme directly run by ISI, according to an Indian military intelligence report.
The ISPR’s yearly indoctrination, internship and information warfare budget is 600 crore Pakistani rupees. Horizontal germination of social media across the world provided recruits, battlefield and raison d’être to wage incessant warfare against its select adversaries. Using social media, ISPR has been creating political divides and communal poisoning in India to further Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s “bleed India with a thousand cuts” policy.
The ISPR has been leading Pakistan’s invisible war by indoctrinating thousands of Kashmiri youths through propaganda to push them towards extremism. Ever since the defeat of Pakistan army in 1999 in Kargil, the ISPR has been headed by seven director-generals until 2020.
However, its strategic initiative Information Warfare, directed to counter India’s cold-start doctrine, has taken centrestage since the appointment of Lt Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa as Director-General of ISPR in June 2012. His successor Major General Asif Ghafoor, who held the post in December 2016 and left unceremoniously without a promotion in January 2020, turned the ISPR into a formidable propaganda machine, enabling it to use Information Warfare against chosen targets to attain strategic objectives.
Owing to his spirited media-savvy appeal, Maj Gen Ghafoor converted ISPR’s trademark Information Warfare into fine art in real sense. During his incumbency at the ISPR, he produced appealing songs and movies glorifying Pakistani armed forces and made documentaries directed to propagate their views about various incidents with the intention to cater targeted population. His penchant for social media earned him the sobriquet “Twitter General” for successfully diversifying ISPR’s expertise in social media and hashtag campaigns as part of a narrative building.
The twitter account operated by DG ISPR was set up in December 2016 and despite having been created in 2016, this account has 845 tweets as of 23 July 2020, and a following to follower ratio of 0 to 3.9 million, which shows the tremendous impact it generated globally in just a span of four years.
According to a study by an Indian think tank, the spurt in this platform is very visible and various agendas and hashtags to create misinformation were been doing the rounds on the social site some of which include #GobackModi- which was have been in use since 2019, #ChaosInIndia-can be traced to April 20, 2020 and #Islamophobia_In_India- 23 March 2019. These hashtags have been doing the rounds since 2019 and have trended on twitter. Pakistan’s ISPR is famous for spreading fake news and creating tensions, this was specially seen with respect to the abrogation of article 370 and was seen round the clock on DG ISPRs twitter handle.
Very, recently Pakistan successfully pushed Khalistani angle to ongoing Farmers’ Protest against the new farm laws. According to a report in Indian website newslaundry.com, the Khalistan narrative of the farmer protests was born mainly in Pakistan, pushed by social media groups sponsored by the ISPR.
It was then peddled by Pakistani “influencers” such as actor Veena Malik.
On August 15, Malik posted a photo of a farmer holding a poster that read “We want Khalistan”. She wrote that Indian citizens must “demand a separate homeland” for its Sikh farmers.
Interestingly, the Khalistani news angle was picked up by several Indian news channels and special programmes were run by them on this topic. Some of these channels were notable ones like Aaj Tak, Zee News, Times Now and Republic Bharat.
Later, independent websites like Altnews.in, newslaundry.com and others discovered that it was fake news and that a fake account created in the name of Veena Malik was used to peddle this misinformation. These websites have been busting several of such items of fake information doing rounds in cyber space and active media.
Among the Indian strategic circles, Information Warfare is a less understood subject and, not part of public discourse so far. It is particularly palpable when thousands of pages of the United States government-sponsored investigative reports subscribing to the fact how the Information Warfare tilted result of elections in the US, world’s oldest democracy, way back in 2016. There is no dearth of similar highly unimaginable examples starting from Iraq War of 2003 to Arab Spring 2009-2011 to Coronavirus in 2020, where Information Warfare has been applied doggedly by involved players.
Information Warfare is a hypnotised yet convincing management of perception, where manipulated evidence and information catered as fodder to the targeted audience can spark an enabling environment prompting decision-makers or citizens of the target country to take disastrous decisions in real-time. Such decisions may devastate domestic peace, create unrest, snap established ties, foment trouble, resettle foreign relations or even bring a new type of governing dispensation. Therefore, in simple term, Information Warfare is much beyond the precept of social media campaigns.
India is a victim and a bruised target of Information Warfare not because of the invincibility of its adversary, but because of her own follies and inertia. Protests over the decision of Indian Parliament to remove Article 370; outrage against Parliament’s Citizenship Amendment Act; and the calibrated campaign about Islamophobia in India have been some of the burning examples of follies and victimhood.
India, with no offensive cyberspace strategy or a dedicated Information Warfare agency, has been waging a lost battle. No matter how many corrective measures are adopted, the damage once done after disinformation propelled ominous events, cannot be undone.
The Way Forward for India
Indian military establishment has had Signal Intelligence and Electronic Warfare units for a long time. However, these are saddled with archaic equipment. Indigenisation has made no headway and import is extremely difficult due to reluctance of foreign governments. India created Information Warfare Brigades on the lines of what the US Army has, but failed to integrate Electronic Warfare, Cyber Warfare, psychological operations and military deception under them.
We have yet to evolve a formal doctrine on Information Warfare. Although the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Navy are in a much better position than the Army, they too are well short of the desired capability.
We have been left at least two decades behind China and it’s permanent ally and customer Pakistan in respect to military capability in general and Information Warfare in particular. With respect to the latter, the government must set up a task force with active participation of our Information Technology companies and IITs to catch up with China. Eastern Ladakh is a wake-up call. We must reform to bridge this asymmetry or we will bumble along from crisis to crisis, fraught with apprehensions and uncertainty about the outcome.
(Anas is the Chief Sub Editor of Asian Age)