India must transform to meet future international security trends

Indian soldier in action. (Representative photo)
Indian soldier in action. (Representative photo)

The World is no longer One Family
Our ancient sages and texts have said “Vasudhaiva Kutambakam” (world is one family). Unfortunately, today and for the foreseeable tomorrow, a multi-polar, fragmented but inter-connected world, where all nations are cooperating, competing, confronting, and if required, conflicting with each other in economic, political, diplomatic and informational sphere to establish / retain / expand their strategic space, realise their national aspirations and find their place amongst the comity of nations; and the nations are hardly behaving like a harmonious family.

Every country’s destiny is dictated by its geography, geo-political and geo-strategic environment which is no longer constant (even geography due to globalization and technology). India the ancient, proud civilization with a glorious history aspires to be a great power in the World Order, and is destined by its geography, size, population, resources and history. India is expected to equal/even surpass the United States (in PPP terms) and become the world’s second largest economy, behind China. We must be absolutely clear that ALL countries are in competition with us including our strategic partners, especially our known collusive adversaries China and Pakistan and immediate neighbours. In future (two decades-2040), while it is envisaged that humans will continue to be central to the decision-making process, its character will be determined by politics, strategy, society and technology, and confrontation/ conflicts fought increasingly by robots or autonomous systems could change the very nature of warfare, as there will be less emphasis on emotions, passion and chance. Alongside this Indian emergence, the international order is undergoing significant change as well, with power increasingly diffused within and among states and a new, multi-polar geostrategic landscape begins to emerge with fresh layers of complexities. 

Why Study Future Security Trends
It primarily provides focus to security policy makers, and Indian armed forces. It has applicability across Indian government and agencies to help their understanding of the future environment in which we all may find ourselves operating by 2040. The nature of ‘futures’ is such that attempting to pinpoint when particular trends or characteristic will emerge is invariably problematic. Some characteristics are likely to be similar to those apparent today, but novel factors (re-alignment of nations, emergence of hi-technology impacting environment, geo-pol-strategic-economic shifts) will emerge and some will become increasingly important in determining the future environment in comparison to today.

Global and Regional Security Zones
International Relations Theory and Regional Security Complex Theory[i] (RSCT) postulate that territorial pre-eminence (military) is more potent and powerful than non-territorial domains in the security calculus. Regional security zones are fairly independent of globalisation and global political trends, due to their strong emotional, geographical and historical links. The capabilities of global powers (US and China) enable them to transcend distance, while lesser powers are satisfied to play within their region. By 2040, two nations US and China will play a truly global game, treating each other as a special class, and projecting their power into far-flung regions. But for the great majority of states, the main game of security is defined by their near neighbours. China will dominate the regional security zones of Asia (East, South-East and South Asia). The probability of being in the midst of a cold war between USA and China with its attendant characteristics similar to the previous cold war is very high. India, while currently caught in the classical power play of global and regional security dynamics as its not yet a great power, should position itself as a ‘balancing power’.

An Overview Of Multi-Domain World (MDW)
Globalisation brought many good practices and developmental growth, but also caused instability and conflict. While threat of full-scale conventional wars has gone down, correspondingly the span of conflict, its complexity, unpredictability, lethality, accuracy, reach and manifesting into many domains have emerged. The physical and nonphysical domains including the cognitive have expanded. Competition is 360 degrees, 24×7, with no front, rear and flanks and there is no place to hide. Commonly held perception of deterrence and conflict has changed irrevocably. Specially after COVID-19, with a flux in the global power structure, nations are in a state of ‘persistent engagement’.

Warfare has already transcended the domains of soldiers, military units, and military affairs, and is increasingly becoming a matter for politicians, scientists, networks and even bankers! Four interrelated trends will define competition and conflict by 2040: adversaries will contest all domains, with the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) and the information environment gaining pre-eminence; smaller armies can fight on an expanded battlefield that is increasingly lethal and hyperactive; nation-states have more difficulty in imposing their will within a politically, culturally, technologically, and strategically complex environment; and states will compete below armed conflict (Pakistan’s game against India, Iran, North Korea Vs USA).

India is already engaged in a Multi-Domain World (MDW) Confrontation / conflict is a national effort and not fought by armed forces alone. Increasingly our adversaries China and Pakistan, have leveraged multi-domains to expand the battlefield in time (a blurred distinction between peace and war), in domains (space, cyberspace, information, psychological, diplomatic, legal), and in geography (now extended all India) to create strategic, operational and tactical payoffs. In a state of continuous competition, they are trying to exploit the conditions of the operating environment to achieve their objectives without resorting to armed conflict (stay below our red lines) by resorting to hybrid warfare, attempting to fracture our resolve (proxy war, salami slicing and waging ‘Three Wars’ concept). MDW calls for a change of thought process, ‘a transformation and not just modernisation [ii]’.

Simply put, MDW envisions the military and non-military; everything from fighters to destroyers, space shuttle to submarine, cyber to satellites, tanks to attack helicopters, electromagnetic to electronic, media to information influence operations, economists to MNCs, politicians to think tanks, munition factory worker to hacks — working together intrinsically as ONE, to overwhelm the enemy with attacks from all domains. Interdependence, interoperability, and integration are vital to inevitable success on the battlefield no matter its form. Are we, as a nation and the armed forces, ready to fully commit to being such a “full spectrum (military and non-kinetic) capable” armed force and avoid paradigm paralysis? This will also provide India the necessary deterrence, and tomorrow’s India is counting on it. Hopefully, our security eco-system led from the top (PM, CCS, NSA, CDS) will make meaningful headway to meet future challenges from China and Pakistan starting NOW.

Evolving Trends which will Impact Security Environment and India
A future security scan is incomplete without examining, clearly discernible and distinct trends emerging (by 2040) which at first glance appear theoretical and esoteric, but will need careful analysis, planning, management and implementation for India to exploit/manage[iii]. This will enhance our geo-political, economic, diplomatic and military clout, thus ensuring matching capabilities and capacities against our adversaries regionally, along our continental, maritime and space borders and other domains.

  • Diffusion of States: Internally and Externally. Asia and Indo-Pacific will emerge as economic power centres, where the political and military power of China, and to a lesser extent India, will grow, potentially rivalling that of the United States. Other regional players EU, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Japan, Australia, Nigeria, Brazil will remain important political actors, but their influence is likely to diminish and the economic and soft power of the West will reduce. Whether the current institutions, mechanisms and norms of the international system can adapt to accommodate this shifting balance of power is difficult to predict. If it cannot, there will be instability. Dispersed and contested political power will make it harder to forge internationally-binding treaties, and non-compliance and subversion of international laws are likely to increase. The transition of power between states is occurring alongside the diffusion of power within states. A few multinational corporations will become bigger and more powerful, providing vital services that states will depend on, and some will use their power to demand concessions from the state. The sovereignty of the state will diffuse and a more complex, potentially decentralised, hybrid system of governance may begin to emerge.
  • Ever increasing Power and Role of Information. Processing power for the volume and variety of data, and network centric operations will continue to grow exponentially, driving the development of artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing and the ability to solve problems of increasing complexity and difficulty, leading to improvements across all aspects of human endeavour. Digitization, cyberspace, information will become pivotal to humanity, and ironically conflict. Information Influence Operations (IIO) to include social media will be pervasive creating ‘echo chamber’ effect, polarise populations, eroding trust in institutions, creating uncertainty, and fueling grievances. Difficult to regulate and protect, cyberspace and social media will continue to be exploited by nations, corporates, global terrorist and criminal groups and other malicious actors. Both China and Pakistan are already waging the ‘Three Wars’ against India.
  • Mushrooming Niche and Disruptive Technologies. The change to a significantly more automated world (variously referred to as the 4th Industrial Revolution) involving a range of new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds and impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, is likely to happen faster than previous transitions. Easy accessibility, quantity and quality of kinetic and non-kinetic systems is already changing the global economic and security landscape. This will be beneficial but equally disruptive. China is at the forefront in this field and will exploit her asymmetric superiority in all domains to the detriment of India.
  • Climate Change and Environmental Stress, and Impact of Demographics. There will be a spike in natural and man-made disasters with an enormous impact on the economic and security environment. China and South Asia are particularly susceptible to these developments. Disaster alleviation and community action plans need urgent implementation. Whichever country manages the environment better will enjoy a more stable and steady developmental growth. Needless to state that mismanagement could lead to confrontation and conflict (floods, pandemics, draught, migration, employment). There is sudden realization of the adverse impact of poor demographics and declining population; it can be a game changer and assist achievement of national aspirations or can even be the cause of a nation’s decline (Japan, China, Russia).
  • Rising Human Empowerment. Human security, prosperity, health, awareness and empowerment (limitless information) will grow. May come at the price of more fragmented societies and increasing populism. Inequality is growing, and so is division within many countries between those with liberal and those with traditional views, and nationalism, religious intolerance and antipathy towards immigrants are on the rise. Many governments are becoming more authoritarian, and even with some checks and balances, the rise of autocrats/dictators (Xi Jinping, Trump, Duterte, Kim Jong-un) who will be the final arbiters of a nation is growing. Knowing the mind and personality of leaders is assuming critical dimensions.
  • As a theoretical concept, deterrence rests on the assumption that where risk is involved, humans act rationally, in the sense that they base their decisions on a cost-benefit calculus and act only when the expected gains outweigh the anticipated costs. Research in behavioural economics has cast great doubt on this assumption. Humans, it turns out, cannot be counted to always maximise their prospective gains. Even when they do, they are remarkably inept at understanding how the other side; the adversary in a conflict, calculates his own costs, benefits and risks. In the triangular relations of China-Pakistan-India, we are looking at two illiberal nuclear weapon countries ruled by CCP/military, are collusive and believe in hybrid warfare. India must study its adversaries and their leaders thoroughly.

Manifestation of Trends impacting India
Trends highlighted above can manifest in unexpected ways and complexities due to cross linkages. To illustrate; may result in significant geopolitical shifts in alliances; major conflict (US-China; India-China; India-Pakistan); natural or man-made disasters; financial crisis; collapse of key multilateral organisations; proliferation of a disruptive technology; and 24×7 competition between nations which is already happening. Specific action plans need to be designed and activated to manage the trends. If India does not measure up/cope/exploit niche and disruptive technologies (AI, robotics, nano), public, societal and political unrest, adversary’s IIO (influence information operations), disasters and climate change, and be ahead of the loop for scarce resources like water, rare earths; act pro-actively to dominate/capture fair share of global commons (cyberspace, the oceans, polar regions and space); it will impact our multi-domain capabilities and capacities adversely. In turn this will slow down our GDP growth, impact our freedom to operate in expanding strategic space, with grave consequences to our aspirations for being a regional player, and allow China along with collusive Pakistan and other countries in immediate neighbourhood (Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar) to exploit our vulnerabilities. Concurrently, India by planning and execution, can emerge as a regional power.

Deterrence Capabilities and Reputation
Deterrence requires a national strategy that integrates diplomatic, informational, military, and economic powers. India must develop strategies, plans and operations that are tailored to the perceptions, values, and interests of specific adversaries (China, Pakistan, immediate neighbours). A crucial aspect is that successful deterrence is knowledge-dependent and requires the ability to establish secure communication access to adversaries in order to generate the desired decision outcomes. Our military capabilities and potential must be visible and known to all as it’s a pivotal ingredient of deterrence.

Effective deterrence combines military and non-military means. In some cases, military capabilities may not be an effective tool to deter a particular adversary’s action, making other instruments of power the primary deterrent. We certainly need to constantly review our nuclear policy and capabilities in line with global trends specially China and Pakistan. Additionally, coalition support should be integrated to enhance deterrence credibility, but deterrence also must be viable as a unilateral strategy. Military options/actions will always remain the final arbiter to achieve national objectives both proactive and reactive.

However, armed forces are incapable of deterring threats from many non-kinetic domains like economic sanctions, cyber and information warfare. Possessing adequate CNP (comprehensive national power) alone is not sufficient but one must create a reputation (Israel, China, USA) for using deterrent tools when national interests/ sovereignty is at stake. With China, Pakistan and some of our immediate neighbours constantly impinging on our national interests/sovereignty, India must start enhancing her ‘Multi-Domain Deterrent Reputation’ positively by 2040.

Is the Answer a Grand Strategy for India?   
A grand strategy is a road map for how to match means with ends. It works best on predictable terrain, in a world where policymakers enjoy a clear understanding of the distribution of power, a solid domestic consensus about national goals and identity, and stable political and national security institutions. Economic and military power no longer yield influence as reliably as they once did. The result is an emerging world of multi-polarity and disorder, where grand strategy may not work well. For India, the answer possibly could be a mix of centralization and decentralization and moving in increments since changes will be more sudden, unpredictable with global ramifications. We must follow this strategy specially against China and Pakistan, when moving forward, as predictions of global geo-politics is fraught with uncertainties.

Anticipating and exploiting emerging trends have the potential to position India as the world’s most influential democracy in the second half of the 21st century, giving it the ability to shape Asia, Indo-Pacific region and the dynamically evolving global order. From a military point of view, for India to take its destined place as a regional power in the mid-term and a global power in the long term, we need to be a continental, maritime, air, space, cyber, military, information power– a multi domain power. We need to play our cards very carefully and deliberately, exploit emerging trends, continue relentlessly building all verticals of our CNP (comprehensive national power), and create conditions (not just hope) for breaking out from South Asia to balance the security environment regionally, in Asia and beyond.

[i] Relations Regions and Powers; The Structure of International Security; Cambridge Studies International, Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver, CAMBRIDGE

[ii] ‘Multi Domain Warfare in the Indian Context’ by Lt Gen PR Kumar, 36th USI National Strategic Paper, 2018

[iii] Inputs have been taken based on personal experience, seminars, interaction with core experts, and extensive study, reading and research not only from mainstream media, but from Think Tanks, and online SOPs/texts/manuals from global armed forces institutions. It also finds focus in the paper ‘Global Strategic Trends: The Future Starts Today’, MoD, UK


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