As balloons climb, China changes the rules in warfare - Hindustan Times

As balloons climb, China changes the rules in warfare

ByHindustan Times
Mar 01, 2023 12:05 PM IST

The article has been authored by Tara Kartha, former director, National Security Council Secretariat.

Ever since the Chinese spy balloon was spotted, intriguingly late, over the United States (US) skies, the defence establishment and its linked research institutions have been in overdrive about the nature of the threat from China. Congressional Committees have heard undoubtedly well-informed testimonies on the future of warfare in terms of how the Chinese are likely to fight it. While the focus of this is how woefully unprepared the US is to fight such wars, the subject is very relevant to those countries lying close to Chinese borders, and whose resources to fight are far less than that of the US.

China Spy Balloon: A printed balloon with Chinese flag is placed on a US flag in this illustration.(Reuters) PREMIUM
China Spy Balloon: A printed balloon with Chinese flag is placed on a US flag in this illustration.(Reuters)

The recent hearings of the House Armed Services Subcommittee dealt with the changing character of warfare and how the department of defense plans to deal with it. One aspect under discussion was what Chinese doctrine refers to as “systems destruction warfare”, a concept that was under extensive study by such organisations as RAND since 1918. This is seen as a Chinese focus on not just to degrading and destroying America’s (relatively) small numbers of large, expensive military platforms, but to render US forces deaf, dumb, and blind and unable to fight. This disruption is sought to be done by new technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), autonomous systems, robotics, multiplicity of sensors, and low-cost access to space. The hearing notes “AI-enabled loitering munitions, digital targeting systems, cyber weapons, persistent communications and surveillance satellites.” all of which is aimed at making any ‘power projection offensive force’ stop in its tracks. There is also a realisation that AI enabled ‘gray zone’ warfare could be used to deter the US, using this to blindside intelligence, impede communication with forward forces, use cyberattacks against critical infrastructure, disinformation, paralyse the economy, and “deliver a strong signal…about the vulnerabilities in our systems”. To an extent that is just what the Chinese ‘spy balloon’ has already done, as it drifted into across the country and over sensitive defence installations.

In simple words, the Chinese have gone the cheaper way, both literally and euphemistically going under the radar or over it, to blunt the heavy superiority of the US offence. Where there is a ship or aircraft, it is attacking its communications and its sensitive electronics; where the US has imposing space capabilities, it goes under into near space with plastic, and helium balloons. And the main issue. It can do so cheaply and at a fraction of the cost that the US puts into its highly complicated machines. Most importantly, all of these can be mass produced – a Chinese strength – and done so quickly. This is the US quandary. And it now wants to use the “Ukraine war example” to build up capabilities that can defeat a (near) super power and do so cheaply and quickly - both vital given the political fallout already evident due to the inflationary costs of the Ukrainian war. This comes in the backdrop of a realisation that America’s inventories and production cannot keep up to the pace of the Ukraine war, that has now gone on for a year. Expert opinion notes these difficulties with the Javelin for instance, the anti- tank weapon that has acquired a near iconic status due its destruction of Russian tanks, and others such as the Stingers – the anti-aircraft missile that made history in Afghanistan – none of which can be built up quickly. The 7000 Javelins sent to Ukraine represent only a third of US stocks, but it will take more than a year to replace them. If the US enters another hot war, that is far from enough.

The hearing urges somewhat dramatically that this shift in warfare is taking place now, and not in some vague future. That is true enough, not just in Ukraine but in other theatres like Nagorno Karabakh where drones, loitering munitions and other autonomous weapons came into play, and in attacks by ‘non-State actors’ into Saudi Arabia. In the hands of a fully competent state actor, the potential is enormous. Even while advocating the need to quickly deploy and exploit these new technologies, the hearing also advocates a number of other moves designed for the Indo-Pacific, which includes rapid increase in long range missiles of all types, increased procurement of long-range weapons to strike Chinese ships; the politically risky pre-positioning of munitions in Taiwan and joint exercises, but also notably, the positioning of Deployable Air Base Systems; a key air force concept, aimed at spreading out its wings across the Pacific into diverse air fields, together with maintenance, runway repair, munitions handling, and air traffic control equipment. So far, those plans have fallen short. Expeditionary air bases reduced from 93 air during World War II, to 33 permanent overseas air bases, a 65% reduction. In the race for dollars, the air force is not liking that much. And last, is the rather practical suggestion that as the US modernises its capabilities in software, command and control, it should take allies and partners along, rather than have them hobbling alongside during joint operations.

All of this matters to us in two ways. One, in looking ourselves for ways to not just repel a Chinese offensive without breaking the bank; but also deter an invasion altogether. Unlike the US, this could occur very quickly and within just a few kilometres, and could well be of a longish duration. That means the ability to ramp up production quickly. A satisfyingly large defence procurement of 84,823 crores has been cleared by the Defence Acquisition Council, much of this allotted towards ‘make in India’ of conventional weapons. That’s all to the good, but production is going to take a while, especially in booting it up. Meanwhile, it is vital to look urgently for those capabilities that will blind the Chinese, and provide long range attack. That’s not just drones. Recent tests of missiles like the Pralay, shows real capability. Now’s it’s time to pull that up in terms of numbers. In other words, conventional weapons are needed, but the actual clout may come from elsewhere. Second, as major US delegations arrive in Delhi, and the US Congress condemns Chinese actions in Arunachal, it may be time to see all this as a whole, and decide whether are in truth a ‘partner’ who will ‘jointly operate’ with the US. They are certainly likely to want those elusive air bases, even if on a non-permanent basis. The question is whether India want to prepare itself, in its own way, for a war that will be entirely unlike anything the US will fight, or use Washington’s present China preoccupation, to its own benefit to get the best out of what is after all, a single though slightly weakened super power. In the meantime, use the new technologies and fund them with everything you’ve got. As the new wars show, this is all about thinking differently.

The article has been authored by Tara Kartha, former director, National Security Council Secretariat.

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