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The military intelligence function in future war

Ali Ahmed was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • February 26, 2010

    The Indian Army Doctrine accepts Intelligence as “an addition to the widely accepted principles of war because of its pre-eminence in any future conflict.” This clearly brings out the great emphasis placed on this function by the military and rightly so in light of India’s historical experience of both success and shortcomings. Instances of inadequacy include the 1947 tribal bid for Kashmir even as India remained sanguine with its Standstill Agreement. The surprises of 1962 and the Kargil War are examples. The materialisation of an additional armoured division in the 1965 War on the Pakistani orbat was also unexpected. This has been the case with Operations Other than War also such as the limitations in tactical intelligence in the Golden Temple and Jaffna battles.

    Consensus on future wars being that they would be short and lethal, the luxury of time and resources to regain the initiative lost due to faulty intelligence would not exist. Therefore, to prevent history from repeating itself, there is a need to incorporate the additional and fresh areas of intelligence interest brought on by the asymmetric and nuclear dimensions of future conflict. This commentary dilates on the implications of these features of conflict on the intelligence function in future conflict.

    The foremost lesson of recent conflicts is that irregulars would form part of the opposition armies in hostile territory. This is not a new phenomenon given Napoleon’s experience in Spain and later in Russia. But the dimension has changed exponentially since the Iraqi and al Qaeda challenge to US stabilisation operations in Iraq War II. Even the Israelis faced an unconventional foe in both their recent forays into Lebanon and Gaza. The ‘lessons learnt’ of both armies needs critical study, not necessarily for replication since their way of war is very different, but incorporation of best practices suitably modified for Indian conditions.

    Since conventional conflict may arise in fairly short order in case of a punitive Indian response to future 26/11 type situations, it behoves its military to ready itself for these. Implementation of the ‘Cold Start’ strategy may involve broad front offensives to limited depth. These would not only be contested by defenders but their action will be supplemented by employment of irregulars as force multipliers. In which case, the military needs to employ its intelligence resources as also task the Research and Analysis Wing to spot possible prior preparations and the latent networks that would be activated. Pakistan has not only promised an unconventional counter but is also known to have trained fighters for the purpose. Areas such as southern Punjab in Pakistan, in which may figure future military objectives, have of late inclined towards fundamentalism. Across the Line of Control, numbers of irregulars familiar with the terrain and irregular methods can be expected to be much more. Thus, cannon fodder would be readily available to complicate India’s offensives and its immediate and longer term aftermath.

    In addition, a sociological profile of prospective areas of offensive thrusts needs to be built up so that the occupation for howsoever brief a duration is successfully conducted. This effort would help in countering insurgency during stabilisation operations and fulfilling the duties of an occupying power. Follow on forces tasked to restore order in the communication zone need to have personnel with language skills and training in psychological war.

    Next, since perception management is an intelligence function, the intelligence community would require formulating responses to likely scenarios that would develop. These include putting the lid on collateral damage that would be inevitable both in developed terrain and in the heavily populated Line of Control and explaining the benefits of cooperation. The Israeli discourse in the wake of the Goldstone Report may have pointers. It is a separate matter that the Report would be more useful reading for those conducting operations, particularly on the imperative of fighting within the laws of armed conflict; the instrumental logic being that lesser collateral damage would mean quicker stabilisation and easier the temporary occupation.

    The second expanded dimension of the intelligence function is nuclear related. An interesting aspect here is that while in peacetime nuclear information security is equivalent to security of crown jewels, in war there would be a need for an element of transparency on both sides. This is because of the need to reassure the enemy against any move towards pre-emption. The requirements of nuclear signalling may also necessitate a deliberate showing of one’s hand. This could be for instance done by discreetly displaying a heightened nuclear alert status.

    Intelligence agencies would require awareness of the nuances of this game in order that the intelligence assets are suitably tasked to search for and pick up the required information. This means a degree of integration between military intelligence, RAW and NTRO doing this overseen by the JIC, NSCS and the HQs, Strategic Forces Command. Given that nuclear decision making would be a high tension exercise in real time, less ambiguity would make for rational decision making. This aspect needs inclusion in exercises involving multiple agencies and war gaming of the staff and decision makers.

    Arriving at an understanding with and networking foreign intelligence agencies on this score would be crucial, given that the United States in particular is known to have privileged access to information. The channel can also be used for making escalation pressures recede. Such interaction would be particularly useful in case of a face off against China. While technical means are improving, their system would be considerably more impervious. Therefore, assistance from foreign intelligence agencies could help. This obviously requires to be pre-programmed.

    The problem would be less with collection of information than with analysis. For instance, if preparation for missile launch has been picked up, it cannot by default be taken as nuclear related. Likewise, detecting a change in nuclear alert status should not trigger pressures for pre-emption. Alarming instances of misreading information occurred during the Cold War. Some analysts opine that this is accentuated in the South Asian setting in which technology is less capable and flight times are shorter. Coping with these problems require being sensitive to the possibility as a first step.

    More importantly, given that non-state actors can have an autonomous agenda, an accurate reading of the source of a strike would be critical in determining the violence of response. The ‘insider-outsider’ threat to the Pakistani nuclear complex has been in evidence over the past few years. It bears recall here that India’s No First Use is liable to be reconsidered in case of a ‘major’ attack by chemical and biological weapons also. The link to state sponsorship of terrorist action as exploding a radiological device would require to be discerned for appropriate response.

    The nuclear intelligence dimension needs special effort at foregrounding in India. This owes to the possibility of being lulled into a false sense of complacency by two oft-repeated views. One is that nuclear weapons are political weapons. Second is that the Pakistani threshold is likely to be a high enough for India to prosecute conventional military operations, albeit informed by the Limited War concept. That the nuclear initiative would be with Pakistan, which may think differently, is a sobering thought. The scenario of the Cold Start offensives overstepping predetermined lines in the fog of war is a case in point. Therefore, alert intelligence and competent analysis is vital in order that Indian forces do not inadvertently nudge the nuclear threshold. Picking up signals of nuclear preparation can help in timely reversing of provocative military action and in establishing communication and contact with the opposite side to defuse in-conflict nuclear crisis. For the greater good, incidental exposure of the source of the information should not come in way of preventive action.

    Intelligence from own potential nuclear targets needs to be accurate. For instance, in case an air field is hit, there is bound to be collateral damage to the urban centre in the vicinity. How this is viewed – as a counter value or counter military strike – could influence if not determine the nature of the counter. Even as India’s deterrence doctrine promises ‘unacceptable damage’ in retaliation, conflict strategy could instead be a measured one, since escalation is undesirable. Reporting the nature of nuclear damage suffered under emotive conditions needs specially emplaced and practiced measures. The existing system of military and civil reporting channels can be supplemented by the network of the National Disaster Management Authority.

    It is possible that the intelligence leg of officer courses and pedagogy in the intelligence school is already cognisant of this expansion in the intelligence function. Nevertheless, the reemphasis done is useful given the military’s propensity to focus on the conventional level in any discussion of war. The subconventional and nuclear levels being equally salient in future conflict, a conscious effort is required to expand the focus to include these levels. In any case, the nuclear dimension of intelligence warrants a deeper look.