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Large and powerful countries have ceased to wage conventional military warfare against each other. “The highest form of warfare is when you take out your enemy without firing even a single shot”. Sun Tzu’s quote holds good.

Whenever someone uses the word “warfare” the pictures that strike our minds are troops, AK-47s, grenades, artillery, tanks, mortars, flying bullets, fighter jets, helicopters, chaotic battlefields, sometimes chemicals, and even nuclear bombs, etc. but what if I say this is the most inefficient form of warfare? Most of you might be thinking that by using this conventional military warfare our ancestors ruled and expanded their empires. But as Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest species that survives, not even the intelligent that survives, it is the one that is most adaptable to change”. Adaptability is the key here. If you do not adapt to the surroundings, you will certainly die. As the human race evolved, we have always gone from a less efficient state to a more efficient one. Efficiency is what evolution is all about. We always have been efficient in all aspects so there is no chance of warfare not being a part of it. But Why conventional Military warfare is inefficient?

World Wars I and II can be called the greatest events of the 20th century. Great in terms of damage as well as innovations and technological development, which came up with a lot of lessons for humanity. And one of the important lessons was to avoid conventional military warfare itself. In conventional military warfare, we use our military power to knock down the enemy and to do this, we need separate dedicated resources and investments. After investing all these resources, we still don’t know if we will end up on the losing or winning side. Even if you win, the collateral damage is still very high. We have seen the era of warfare of arms, and the results are devastating, effects of which we see even today. Why destroy the kingdom when it can be yours?

We have seen powers around the world shifting from conventional military warfare to a completely new form of warfare techniques in the last couple of decades but why is that and why these techniques are more efficient? In warfare, there are two key elements to knock down your enemy. The first one is the element of surprise i.e. to shock your enemy and the second is the slow subversion of your enemy without attracting any attention. If your enemy doesn’t know how to adapt to any of the two, you already have the kingdom. So even though the evolution of warfare reaches its peak, these two elements remain intact forever. Now talking about the efficiency of these new warfare techniques. Well, what does it mean to be efficient? Efficiency means getting the maximum gain from using minimum resources. Using minimum resources means you are using less of your energy, time, capital, and assets. These techniques use already existing mainstream means to destroy the enemy i.e. using already existing platforms to sabotage the enemy, such as cyberspace, mainstream media, social media, leveraging economic dependency, infrastructure such as nuclear facilities, bridges, dams, etc. Here we use any available means that can be used to get the enemy on his knees politically, economically, militarily, or territorially by just manipulating and manoeuvring things in a specific manner. In a manner, your enemy can’t even expect to be sabotaged. 

Let’s understand these with some examples. Considering the geopolitical games of this decade China is the most suitable example. So, China has correctly epitomized what a new era of warfare should look like. Today we all are aware of the debt trap policy of China which is how the Chinese government trap some inferior nations under heavy loan and then ask the nation to give up their national assets in the lease in the name of repayment of the loan. Then these assets become the military and economic infrastructure for their strategic interests. Hambantota port of Sri Lanka and Gwadar port of Pakistan are examples.

One more example is the One China policy, China behaves very aggressively if any nation tries to intervene in their political and territorial disputes such as Taiwan and Tibet, because they know, It is very dangerous for their national interest. That’s why China has very straightforward rules that if they want good economic relations with China, they must abide by the One China policy. And we must admit that China today is the global industrial hub, and all other very big nations are dependent on China for their imports. All this is what? this is pure economic warfare. To crush your enemy with your policy by leveraging their dependency on you. 

Not just economic warfare China is indulged in other methods of unconventional warfare as well, such as cyber warfare. Last year in 2022 India experienced 14 lakh cyber-attacks of which 35% were from China-linked groups. They have hit every sector mainly PSUs, the health sector, and government departments, and recently the American firm confirmed a cyber-attack by a China-linked group on at least 7 Indian State Load Despatch Centres (SLDCs) responsible for carrying out real-time operations for grid control and electricity dispatch within these respective states of northern India. Notably, this targeting has been geographically in proximity to the disputed India-China border in Ladakh. Although it was not a full-fledged cyber-attack but just to check their capability, and it was enough to send us a message that no wonder tomorrow they will be able to shut off the electricity in our nation and create an electricity crisis in our country.

A new term is also prevalent these days which is “Water Wars”, let me explain. China is controlling the water of Yarlung Tsangpo i.e. The Brahmaputra River and some other rivers in the Tibetan region to a huge extent. We must consider that these rivers have the highest hydropower potential in the world and this river also affects the livelihood of the lower riparian countries. China has been building dams in Brahmaputra with astonishing speed, by the end of this decade 11 dams of China will be operational in the river. In 2021 China announced the construction of a dam for the production of 70 GW in the Brahmaputra River which is more than the world’s largest Three Gorges dam. How it is dangerous? Chinese control over the water can lead to water scarcity and floods which is dangerous for the economic and social stability of the countries down the stream. This is not merely a potential threat, but this is happening now, China in 2019 intentionally obstructed the flow of the Mekong River which caused droughts in many regions and affected the livelihood of countries like Laos and Cambodia. And, during the Doklam crisis in 2017, China refused to share hydrological data for the river, which shows the hydro-hegemony of China. 

Recently New York Times also revealed a very big network of non-profit organizations funding Chinese propaganda in India. We also know how in the name of the Belt and Road initiative, China is trying to take control over its adversaries. China is making huge investments in the Indian Ocean region to facilitate its trade and military presence. And the list goes on and on. It’s a win-win game for China, with the economic development it gives them the opportunity to dominate their adversaries.

So now we discussed what methods of the new era of warfare look like, but this doesn’t mean we do not need to indulge in conventional military warfare. As mentioned by Chanakya in Artha Shastra, war must always be the last resort. Considering the geopolitical scenario of this century to have a massive military is important but not to wage war on your enemy but to create deterrence. So that the economic consequences of war can be avoided.

We saw that indulging in these warfare techniques is much more efficient and profitable, but we must also notice that to execute these tactics one needs to have economic power first. So, these warfare tactics and a powerful economy run parallelly. Just as China is only able to dominate inferior nations because they have money, they are the biggest goods exporter in the world, and they have huge infrastructure in their country as well as in foreign lands. So now we understand how being an economic power is a prerequisite. Both the economy and warfare capabilities are strongly connected and interdependent. So, we can conclude that we are in a completely different arena of warfare and to adapt to it there is no substitute other than having a powerful economy. This is exactly why in today’s world military warfare is considered to be inefficient because it engulfs your economy and its development.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies

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By Tarun Thapa

Tarun Tapa is a graduate in Industrial and Production Engineering from NIT Jalandhar. He is very passionate about military affairs and geopolitics.