The absence of a “strategic culture” and of an institutional infrastructure for long-term policy planning by the Government of India has long been lamented, particularly within the security community. Current crises and conflicts consume national capacities; there are enduring deficits across all institutions of governance and entrenched disincentives – particularly within the security hierarchy – for all but the high- profile executive positions (and the perks and privileges that go with these).

Moreover, a failure to integrate any academic or research institutions into the tasks and apparatus of policy projection and formulation is endemic across the institutions of governance throughout India. There is, consequently, limited awareness of the dramatic transformations that envelop the world today, radically altering the very nature of national boundaries, the fundamental character of national sovereignty, and the augmenting and complex threats emerging from an increasingly tenuous world order.

In the early 1970s, environmentalist Lester Brown’s World without Borders was making tremendous ripples internationally. At the height of the Cold War, at a time when more than half the globe was still struggling with state formation and consolidation, and where the state and its democratic administration were thought to be the highest aspirations of mankind, Brown proposed that the state could be abolished and that impartial internationalism was not only a possibility but increasingly a necessity for mankind.

He argued, broadly, that the traditional international system based on competition and conflict was no longer a viable model, and that the nation state and balance of power were dated concepts. Such a proposition was difficult to accept at that time and – despite a global pandemic and a rising environmental crisis nudging humankind to think of its common future rather than competitive interests of state – still seems untenable in the real world.

At the present stage of human development, the state remains the most powerful instrument of human transformation, for better or for worse. Competition, conflict and the balance of power remain as urgent today and have become infinitely more complex in an age of unprecedented and rapid change.

Indeed, while the human technological profile has become immeasurably more sophisticated, we see a social and political regression to primitive tribalisms, to irrational ideologies of religious extremism, of ultra-nationalism, of ethnic sub-nationalism and a rising spectre of conflict everywhere. As Hannah Arendt observed, “It is much easier to change the world than our ways of thinking.” If anything, states have become more assertive of their identities and their divergent interests.

The state, as traditionally imagined, lies within clearly defined boundaries, with its armed forces defending its integrity and its sovereignty through what are described as “blood and iron wars”, when necessary. This has been the case for centuries though borders have shifted, as has the nature of weapons and war. Against this backdrop of relentless strife, Walter Lippman describes the essence of national security:

A nation has security when it does not have to sacrifice its legitimate interests to avoid war, and is able, if challenged, to maintain them by war.

We have long seen war as a dichotomy, a presence or an absence. We are either at war or at peace. Today, India celebrates long years of “peace”, decades over which military force, or at least overwhelming or decisive military force, has not been necessary to resolve our conflicts with neighbours.

But war is being reinvented; enormous sources of power are being deployed by India’s adversaries. While manifest military violence between states, and particularly in the Indian neighbourhood, may have declined, warfare has entered into every aspect of human activity as political, economic, environmental and technological violence escalates.

The state’s capacity to defend its legitimate interests – the essence of national security – is being systematically challenged and eroded by new ways of warfare.

Decades ago, strategists of the Maoist revolution in China imagined a slow process of attrition, using all available instrumentalities of power, in their concept of “protracted conflict”: “The strategy of protracted conflict postpones the decisive battle and calibrates its challenges to a calculus of risks – until the balance of power has shifted overwhelmingly to the side of the revolutionary forces.”

This is a process of “nibbling expansion”, of exploiting the vulnerabilities and eroding the strengths of the adversary system. The entire strategy is based on the idea that military and political instruments are interchangeable in the execution of one vast and integrated strategic plan. The premise, moreover, is that “victory, in the protracted conflict, will indeed go to the side able to preserve its position the longest”.

This revolutionary strategy of protracted conflict has been vastly refined, again by Chinese strategists, into a contemporary dynamic of what has been described by two People’s Liberation Army Officers, Colonel Qiao Liang and Colonel Wang Xiangsui, as “unrestricted warfare”. Unrestricted warfare is based on the premise articulated in the Maoist slogan “Using the inferior to defeat the superior”, and has broadly been framed as a strategy targeting American global hegemony. However, it is deployed not just against the USA, but globally – and India is already a visible target.

The first rule, and among the most prominent assumptions of unrestricted warfare, is that there are no rules; nothing is forbidden. The doctrine of surprise, misdirection and deception is paramount, and the strategy also employs civilian technology as military weapons “without morality” and with “no limits” to break the will of democratic societies.

Other aspects envisaged under this strategy include the following:

High tech computer hackers, irregular forces and a range of newly empowered actors have ensured that “boundaries between soldiers and non-soldiers have now been broken down”.

The traditional practice of urban terror warfare is a means to impose “a huge psychological shock to the adversary”. Conventional state sponsorship of terrorism and proxy war retain their salience, but within a much wider strategy of employing all instrumentalities of power, kinetic and non-kinetic, against the adversary.

The strategy seeks to provoke overreaction and overreach on the part of the adversary. Thus, a particular offence or operation, such as the 9/11 attacks in the USA, for instance, can cause an adversary that uses conventional forces and measures as its main combat strength to “look like a big elephant charging into a china shop”.

The 9/11 Commission estimated that the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon cost Al-Qaeda between US$ 400,000 and US$ 500,000. In its reaction, the US government has already spent more than an estimated US$ 5.4 trillion on its “war on terrorism”.

The components of unrestricted warfare include, but are not exhausted by,

  • financial warfare;
  • cyber warfare
  • smuggling warfare: throwing markets into confusion and attacking economic order;
  • cultural warfare: it is useful, in this context, to examine the proliferation of China’s Confucius Institutes across the world, and the US decision to shut several of these down on its soil;
  • drug warfare;
  • media and fabrication warfare;
  • technological warfare (gaining control of or having an edge in particular vital technologies that can be used in both peace and wartime);
  • environmental warfare;
  • terrorism; and
  • political subversion: “The legislatures of countries with representative forms of government cannot evade encirclement by lobbying groups.”

It is important to remind ourselves that war is essentially a process of taking the adversary society apart so that it submits to your will.

In classical war, you did this with swords and spears and, as technology advanced, with guns, bombs and missiles, and you did it across a fairly clearly defined border. But any instrumentality that can inflict damage on the target system is just as good, and contemporary social organisation offers a wide range of such instrumentalities which do not need a single shot to be fired or any territorial boundaries to be forcibly crossed.

The truth is, in many ways, that even as state identities harden, the “world without borders” has come to pass. Not in the benign sense that Lester Brown intended, but in a malefic avatar. What we have is not a world without borders, but wars without borders; neither war nor peace. Unrestricted Warfare notes, “The war god’s face has become indistinct.”

Walter Wriston, writing about the revolution of the Information Age, notes that “sovereignty, the power of a nation to stop others from interfering in its internal affairs, is rapidly eroding”. There is, then, not a benevolent but a malevolent erosion of borders and state systems, inclining toward chaos, empowering the most malicious of actors, both state and non-state.

Securing India’s Rise: A Vision for the Future

Excerpted with permission from Securing India’s Rise: A Vision for the Future, edited by Lieutenant General Kamal Davar, Bloomsbury.