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India Must Counter the Bidirectional Psychological Warfare Psychological Warfare

India Must Counter the Bidirectional Psychological Warfare

Lt Gen (Dr.) VK Ahluwalia | @indiablooms | 24 Aug 2020, 04:53 pm

Of late, India has been experiencing a psychologically driven Chinese war strategy at various occasions. For instance, during the 2017 Doklam standoff, and with a much-renewed vigour in the recent military standoffs in Sikkim and at multiple points along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh. Thus, ‘Winning without Fighting’ has become a characteristic feature of China’s warfare strategy which is commonly called ‘psychological warfare’ (psywar).

What further adds to India’s dilemma is Pakistan’s obsession with ‘anti-India’ ideology compounded with acts of terrorism. It has made continuous attempts to internationalise the Kashmir issue especially by trying to influence the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). 

Similarly, on 14 August, on the eve of its Independence Day, Pakistan awarded its highest civilian honour – ‘Nishan-e-Pakistan’ – to the Kashmiri Separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani – yet again an act to defy India. In addition, the same day, Major General Babar Iftikhar, Director General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) remarked, “Whether it be Rafale or S-400, Pakistan Army is fully prepared and ready to thwart any Indian aggression”- a way to attack India’s cognitive capacities.

These reverberations highlight the sinister designs of the prevailing Sino-Pakistan nexus against India. Wherein, the design is all too visible in both physical and psychological operations (psyops) cum propaganda. Psyops is a powerful tool to change the social, political, psychological, and security landscape by its influence operations.

Perceptions can lead to Strategic Blunders

It remains undisputed that the nature and scope of psywar is all-encompassing and remains unrestricted in time and space - making the battlefields omnipresent. The potential of information cum psywar transcends beyond imagination.  What makes psywar lucrative is its cost- effective non-lethal method to influence the target segment- without any set norms of universally accepted laws, rules, and customs.

With the onstage of information and communication technology (ICT), it has significantly evolved into a potent non-kinetic weapon of the 21st century; which can also invariably mould and manipulate the perceptions of the target audience - both at home and abroad. As Sean McFate, in his book, ‘The New Rules of War’ rightly suggests, “…if you twist your enemy’s perception of reality, you can manipulate him into strategic blunders that can be exploited for victory”.

Due to radical changes in the geo-politico-economic-strategic-technological environment, the warfare has continued to evolve from clear territorial wars to uncertain, ambiguous, and irregular wars. In these wars, information, psychological and cyber threats have emerged as the most potent tools of future wars.

William Lind looked at shattering the enemy’s psychological cohesion to act. He propagated that focus should not be on physical destruction. Psyops cum propaganda has the capability to influence public opinion and organise anti-government protests; and mislead adversaries, delay decision making and degrade their will to fight.

Therefore, information cum psywar is not confined to military forces in contact battle alone, but is conducted at three distinct levels: strategic, operational, and tactical. At the strategic level, psyops exploit the adversary’s weaknesses on political, economic, social, religious, informational, and military domains.

This is well-witnessed in the ways our adversaries, both with robust psywar organisations,  have been manipulating and exploiting India’s  multiple domains by usage of: fake news, distorted narratives, morphed images, doctored videos, cartographic aggression, blocking information systems, creating social dissonance and communal disharmony. China, in particular, has been busy in projecting a superior status in economy and GDP, military strength, technology and others.

China’s Hyper-active Psywar Strategy

In 2010, China revised and adopted a ‘Three Warfare Strategy’: public opinion warfare, psywar, and legal warfare- mainly witnessed in its assertive designs against Taiwan, other claimants in the South China Sea, and India. In strengthening its claims, China shapes the public opinion by playing a ‘victim’ card which then justifies its use of force or a military action against the opponent. Complementing it with a fiery information cum psywar campaign, it aims to influence the population and forces on both sides, and gain a psychological advantage.

To note, customised narratives remain central to changing and shaping the perception of the targeted segments. For instance, as exemplified by China’s state-owned newspaper Global Times, continuous warning to India of consequences of resistance to the Chinese activities. It also reported that since the Doklam standoff, the Chinese military has expanded its arsenal with weapons that would be advantageous in high-altitude conflicts, if they arise.

In Image: Rafale is equipped with a wide range of lethal weapons system In Image: Rafale is equipped with a wide range of lethal weapons system

While at another instance, it reported China’s Type 15 lightweight main battle tank can effectively operate in plateau regions, it would be extremely difficult for India’s heavier tanks (T-72/90s) to operate. It did not mention that the Indian Army’s relatively heavier tanks like the T-72 and T-90 are better protected, with automatic fire control systems, and are heavily armed with 125 mm smoothbore gun to engage the Type 15 at longer ranges. Also, these tanks and BMPs complement each other to manoeuvre effectively in mountainous terrain of Eastern Ladakh.

Furthermore, while slamming the Rafale against the Chinese J20 fighter aircrafts, Global Times highlighted the extraordinary capabilities of its fighter jets and helicopters to operate in all terrains, altitudes, and weather conditions. It further added the effective precision engagements by artillery at high altitude targets at longer ranges. On 16 August, it reiterated that India's major power dreams have been wrecked by “attacking China”. Global Times may note that Rafale is equipped with a wide range of lethal weapon systems and avionics, and can perform multiple roles to achieve the ultimate - air supremacy.

Cartographic aggression is also a form of hybrid cum psywar, which indulges in intentional misrepresentation of boundaries on maps to lay claim to additional territories in continental and maritime domains. Repeated publication of such incorrect maps by our adversaries forms a larger part of the psywar, to not only influence perceptions to their advantage but also facilitate legal claims later.

Pakistan’s Psywar Strategy

Jammu & Kashmir has been the epicentre of Pakistan’s raison d'être against India compounded by the aim to destabilise India, decelerate its growth trajectory and hinder its global power ambitions. In doing so, Pakistan seeks to, as its 2020 Green Book notes, “take the war into non-kinetic domains:  Information / Cyber Warfare; and Electronic Warfare (EW) Spectrum”. Pakistan’s such a call is catalysed by India’s actions on 5 August 2019 - perceived as ‘Black Day’ by Pakistan.

Despite its own domestic fragilities, Pakistan remains unhindered in applying psyops against India by using the ‘religious card,’ highlighting oppression against Muslims to maintain its political legitimacy and aims to draw concessions from the world at large and the OIC in particular.

In Image: Pakistan is engaged in internationalising Kashmir issueIn Image: Pakistan is engaged in internationalising Kashmir issue

Furthermore, Pakistan is engaged in practices, such as: organising visit of foreign media and United Nations Military Observers to LoC; ISPR issues statements in support of Kashmiris and their struggle; release of special editions of Kashmiris struggle against the “Indian occupation”; instituting of special fund to support Kashmiris’ struggle; initiation of special supplements to suggest indigenous insurgency, and composition of songs that depict resilience of the Kashmiris.

Adding further, Pakistani agencies are also actively engaged in forging ‘Chinese psywar campaign’ against India.

A few social media accounts with Chinese characters that tweeted about the border violence were traced back to Pakistan.

India’s Response Architecture

In a holistic assessment of the contours of psywar campaigns, it appears that India has largely been reacting and responding to the psyops of China and Pakistan mostly through rebuttals. Rather, to thwart the ‘nexus’, India and the Army need to develop a robust and an integrated comprehensive strategy - pivoted on pro-activity. It must also include media strategy wherein there is an urgent need to bring out proactive/preemptive strong narratives. The query is: What more should comprise the Psywar Strategy?

Psywar strategy is distinctly directed against four well defined segments: forces on conventional battlefield, leadership, population on both sides, and global community. Undoubtedly, the strategy would require: an unambiguous psyops objective in consonance with the national interests, identification and analysis of intended target segments, an effective method of dissemination of psyops material, appropriate language, priority of interests of the targeted audience and others.

In Image: Kashmir is witnessing peace since the abrogation of Article 370 last year in August. In Image: Kashmir is witnessing peace since the abrogation of Article 370 last year in August.

To co-ordinate, the proposed apex level organisation should comprise domain experts in the field of psychology, sociology, language, and law; the armed forces, political scientists, foreign affairs, media and social media specialists. However, the psywar planning should be centralised at the apex level, addressing politico - socio – economic – informational - military threats, at all levels of manifestation. Furthermore, India needs to enhance its public diplomacy, strategic communications, public information and relations, and influence operations - to effectively counter the adversary’s bidirectional psywar strategy.


(The author is the Director of Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi. He is the former Corps Commander, Ladakh and Army Commander, Central Command. The views expressed are personal.)