The nature of armed conflict has been gradually changing, particularly since the end of the Cold War. The prevailing security environment is radically different from what it was even a decade ago. The probability of conventional conflict between states or groups of states has been steadily declining while, at the same time, sub-conventional
conflict, marked most often by hybrid or asymmetric warfare, is gaining prominence.
To the two old categories of ‘wars of interest’ and ‘wars of conscience’, a new category ‘wars of intervention’ has been added. The advent of the Islamic State and the brutal brand of fundamentalist terrorism practised by the ISIS militia is an example of the age of ‘new terrorism’. Non-state actors with transnational presence are emerging as important entities and are gaining prominence that is (almost always) disproportionate to their size and status.
Along with West Asia, South Asia has gradually emerged as one of the key epicentres of conflict and instability in the world. Being a host to a mix of indigenous peoples and migrants, South Asia has witnessed the movement of people for several centuries and many South Asian states have rarely seen true political unity. Territorial disputes, religious fundamentalism, radical extremism, ethnic tensions and socio-economic disparities are the hallmarks of South Asia. All of these and the shadow of nuclear weapons have contributed to instability in this conflict-ridden region. At present, it appears unlikely that a genuinely cooperative security framework will eventually emerge in the Indo-Pacific from the ashes of the ongoing conflicts.
In the increasingly globalised world, the emerging security challenges are no longer products merely of conventional inter-state rivalries but of economic, demographic and societal tensions that are transnational in nature. The incidence of conflict is on the rise due to multiple factors ranging from weak and illegitimate state institutions, marginalisation of people in border areas (generating sanctuaries for various insurgent groups), large-scale population displacements and ineffective regional security
Modern conflict is more likely to be a consequence of regional struggles involving a range of actors rather than inter-state tensions. Instability is likely to arise as a consequence of the rise of autonomous armed groups and non-state entities and the weakening of governments and state institutions, coupled with population displacement, trafficking – both human and material – and ethnoreligious tensions. In some cases, non-state actors will act as proxies for inimical nation-states. As the evolving threats are asymmetric in nature, the concepts of hybrid warfare and 4GW (fourth generation warfare) are becoming increasingly more mainstream.
Given the rising importance of cities as political, economic and cultural centres of gravity, the battlefields of armed conflict are increasingly shifting towards urban settings. An emerging phenomenon that is gradually gaining momentum is the use of the techniques of information warfare, organised crime and acts of terrorism, fostered by cross-border linkages between disparate terrorist organisations, involving military training, funding and transfer of technology.
Cyber-security is posing new challenges and nation-states are finding it difficult to cope with the increasingly sophisticated hacking techniques being employed by non- state actors and rogue individuals. Non-contact warfare like economic measures designed to harm a country’s economic stability – for example through the circulation of fake currency – will add to the challenges to be overcome by security planners.
The rising competition over limited energy resources is generating new tensions in geopolitical relations. Its adverse impact is being felt increasingly in the South Asian region as well. Future water wars are already being spoken of in hushed tones as a distinct possibility. Though trade wars are in the realm of speculation at present, with increasing economic competition in future, these may not be far off. However, in the foreseeable future, asymmetric, amorphous, cross-cultural conflict will continue to dominate the strategic landscape. It is the rise of these and other non-traditional security threats that will influence both domestic and international policy in the years ahead. While these concerns have been part and parcel of human existence for many years, never before have they had such a serious impact on individual states or the international community as a whole.
Modern terrorist organisations are both diffuse and opaque in nature. They have cellular structures that resemble networks, rather than a clearly demarcated chain of command. These are increasingly more transnational in their geographical spread, with shifting centres of gravity and constantly changing recruitment bases. Their ideological motivations are mostly driven by religious fundamentalism and they seek to achieve their political objectives through radical extremism even though no religion justifies violent means. Modern terrorism is far more violent than ‘old’ terrorism.
These changes in the nature of conflict are leading to the gradual transformation of military forces.
A nation’s armed forces were formerly designed primarily for conventional state versus state conflict. These are now being re-orientated to be able to fight a conventional war as well to act decisively against non-state adversaries. As future threats and challenges are becoming increasingly more difficult to predict due to strategic uncertainty, in areas that are devoid of territorial disputes, the force transformation trend-line will be to move from threat-based to capability- based forces. Similarly, training regimes will need to be configured to train for certainty and educate for uncertainty.
India will need to prepare for both conventional and non- traditional threats and challenges. As an aspiring regional
power, India will also need to consider its responsibilities towards undertaking humanitarian military interventions when these are morally justified and for providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR). Other requirements that are difficult to visualise accurately today but would further India’s foreign policy objectives or enhance national security interests in future, will also justify the acquisition of military intervention capabilities.
The need for joint threat assessment, joint contingency planning and joint combat force development cannot be emphasised enough. In fact, the requirement of graduating to a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and theatre commands is now indisputable. The earlier the present system of macro-level command and control is discarded, the better options India’s political leadership will have in dealing with emerging threats and challenges, particularly when many of these are of the hybrid variety.
Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal is former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi. A prolific writer and defence analyst, his books include Nuclear Defence: Shaping the Arsenal; and, Indian Army: Vision 2020. A version of this article first appeared in The Tribune, November 27, 2019, before the announcement of the post of CDS by the Government of India in December 2019.