By AbhinavPandya, PhD.

l“For more than a decade, the nuclear threat has seemingly haunted our strategic community. However, after the recent post-Uri ‘surgical strikes’, it has become clear that the much flaunted ‘nuclear threat’ was more of a game in brinkmanship played by Pakistan because of a sort of miscalculation and passive attitude of our strategic sub-conscience. Perhaps, right from the outset, it was a wrong presumption that any short-scale and localised swift action would generate a response in the form of strategic first strike or tactical nuke attack.”

For the last 70 years, Pakistan has been at war with India either directly or through its proxies. Our responses in the former cases have been widely acknowledged as professional and effective. In the latter case of proxy war in Kashmir and elsewhere our approach has been generally described as defensive, reactive and tentative. While there are many reasons for such a perception, in recent years, analysts have been tempted to bring in nuclear capabilities of our erratic adversary as an important consideration in defining our response.

For more than a decade, the nuclear threat has seemingly haunted our strategic community. However, after the recent post-Uri ‘surgical strikes’, it has become clear that the much flaunted ‘nuclear threat’ was more of a game in brinkmanship played by Pakistan because of a sort of miscalculation and passive attitude of our strategic sub-conscience. Perhaps, right from the outset, it was a wrong presumption that any short-scale and localised swift action would generate a response in the form of strategic first strike or tactical nuke attack.

In this instance, however, even after the surgical strikes, cross-border firing has continued unabated. Besides, one witnesses innovative disruptive techniques being employed in Kashmir like stone-throwing, mob protests, school burning etc. The proxy war in Kashmir thus continues with the support for terrorist activities from the establishment in Pakistan. The question thus arises is, what should be our ideal response to an adversary which is erratic, driven by religious extremism and has a military-like aggressive sub-conscious dominating the collective psyche of the state, for which our passivism and defensive approach can also be held partly responsible.

In this essay, it is proposed that it’s time India revised its war doctrine with Pakistan. And, the new war strategy proposed in this essay is of “hybrid warfare”. Lately, the term ‘Hybrid Warfare’ has gained a lot of currency in connection with Russian actions in Ukraine. Although the terminology is new in strategic circles the concept of hybrid warfare in terms of its distinct features and actions have always been present in the history of mankind. So far, not much of a systematic effort has gone into theorising the idea of hybrid warfare. Therefore, before going into details, a rudimentary theoretical structure becomes worthy of contemplating.

What is Hybrid Warfare?

Military theorist Hammes, in his definition of 4th generation warfare, opines that “In this fourth generation of warfare, the ideas of guerrilla warfare, insurgency, people’s war, and long war fit to describe a mode of warfare where conventional military advantages are offset by unconventional means of warfare and coupled with some unifying thought process that establishes the desired military and political end state. Actors in fourth-generation warfare use military influencing operations and strategic communications in conjunction with unconventional methods to both prolong the conflict and attrite conventional force’s political and military support base”.

Hybrid warfare emerged as a military term in the 2007 U.S. Maritime Strategy, describing the convergence of regular and irregular threats using simple and sophisticated technology through decentralised planning and execution [1]. Frank Hoffman built on this idea by adding two new elements and positing hybrid warfare as the synergistic fusion of conventional and unconventional forces in conjunction with terrorism and criminal behaviour [2]. This fusion is oriented toward the desired objective through a political narrative, which simultaneously and adaptively unifies all elements of the force. Additionally, he explained that either a state or a non-state actor could conduct this form of warfare at tactical, operational, or strategic levels. [3]

In a monograph titled “Hybrid Warfare” (Major McCulloh, Timothy, Major Johnson, Richard: Joint Special Operations University Report) hybrid warfare has been defined as a mix of conventional and non-conventional, military and non-military means, including criminal, terrorism and other disruptive activities. The hybrid threat is organisational in nature and generally attempts to gain an asymmetric advantage over a purely conventional enemy within a specific context. The paper goes on to explore at length, the threat emanating from hybrid warfare and hybrid organisations, and argues that hybrid warfare, in effect, is strongly shaped by local social, political and ethnic contexts. It also describes the seven defining principles of hybrid warfare which includes features like being defensive in nature, ideologically motivated, aggressive intelligence posture etc.

The paper further says that “This advantage not only asserts itself in the realm of pure military force but also in a more holistic manner, across all the elements of national power – including diplomatic, informational, military, economic, financial, intelligence, law enforcement and legal. The advantage generates the effect of transitioning the rules of the battlefield from those of a conventional fight to those realms of a hybrid’s choosing —primarily in the categories of tempo, depth, and intensity. As a result, a weaker military opponent can stand against a stronger one for an indefinite period and continue to generate effects that a more conventional opponent could not generate in the same situation.”

The Russian Experience

In a security brief, “Russia and Security of Europe” by Carnegie, hybrid warfare is defined by Eugene Rumer by stating that “Russia is resorting to an array of tools from nuclear saber rattling to intimidation of smaller, weaker neighbours to information warfare, cyber operations, subversion, bribery, and other political and economic measures as means of hybrid warfare or continuation of politics by all available means”. Moving on to more recent times one would like to draw a lesson from the techniques used by the Russians in Ukraine and Crimea. Apart from abetting subversion by pro-Russian groups (popularly known as ‘little green men’ in Ukraine), Russians have lately added several new elements to hybrid warfare tactics like information campaigns, cyber warfare, social and political unrest, financial destabilisation, tampering with the far-right and far-left political groups, using energy politics for achieving geopolitical ends and propaganda among the youth.

In light of these recent developments in hybrid techniques, Alexander Nicolls of International Institute for Strategic Studies argues that hybrid tactics seek to undermine the foundations of a state; so it is important that all states look to their foundations and attempt to deal with issues and divisions that could be exploited by an adversary. Last but not least, these special or hybrid wars are ferocious, aggressive and ideological. One really needs to hate the enemy and be committed to a battle plan to fight wars like this.

The Indian Scenario

Historically, unconventional means adopted as part of statecraft have been subversions by using irregular armed groups, deceit and intrigues in aid of the art of regular warfare. In Indian ancient history, the Republic of Vajji was destroyed by sowing dissension among tribal chiefs by an agent provocateur of the Magadhan king Ajatshatru, minister Vassakara. Similarly, in war with the Greeks, disinformation techniques were widely used by Kautilya.

But the scenario has changed unrecognisably and acquired immense complexities over the years. In the current context, Pakistan has undisputedly captured a prime position in unleashing a highly refined version of proxy war strategy against India. The recent narrative can start from 1989 after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, though a separate chapter can also be recorded for the phase of Sikh militancy unleashed by Pakistan in the earlier part of that decade. Post-1989, Pakistan was unsure of Americans supporting them in the future as they feared that after Soviet withdrawal, they might not need its support for the kind of role played in Afghan Jihad. Hence they changed tactics and sponsored proxy war in Kashmir through Jihadi groups. Since then, uninterruptedly, these proxies have continued to play havoc with our security, economy, polity and society. Their new jihad was not just confined to Kashmir, but it was gradually, in a well-calibrated strategy, extended to the hinterland. And, with time it has acquired more sophisticated forms which include a variety of other destabilising tools to keep India on the boil through terrorist attacks, funding of other terror groups, fomenting social and political unrest, and funding Non-Government Organisations engaged in anti-national activities.

Pakistan still continues to do so while they have successfully instilled a fear of nuclear retaliation in our minds and exploited that fear for 17 years now. This is the reason why Pakistan easily got away with Kargil, IC-814 hijacking, Parliament attack, Jaipur blasts, Ajmer blasts, Mumbai 26/11 etc. In fact, the trap has been quite successful as evident in the fact that in response to the attack on Parliament, India used up vast resources in its largest military deployment on the borders for months. But we could not conclude that nuclear threat was hollow and it was just to create a phantom in our minds. Systematic game research – theoretical and statistical – would give a roughly accurate analysis of Pakistan’s possible responses, and it will rule out the possibility of a nuclear attack unless a conventional war takes places between Pakistan and India. Our response has always fallen short on understanding the psychological game which the adversary is playing with such deftness. We have always asked the wrong questions: what if we respond to a proxy war with a conventional attack or a short and swift action, and in retaliation, Pakistan opts for a nuclear attack. What is the option left then, more surgical strikes across the Line of Control (LoC) and airstrikes on terrorist camps? These are great options but these cannot be pursued in isolation beyond a point, being more like last resort just a step short of full-scale war. Further, there are strong chances of escalation with the aforesaid options.

What must Constitute an Effective Strategy?

Obviously the best strategy would be one that is pre-emptive, i.e. prevents such occasions of military confrontation which have the potential to escalate into a nuclear catastrophe. Toby Dalton of the Moscow Center of Carnegie has opined that practically speaking, India does not have many counter-options because of Pakistan’s nuclear capability. He then devolves deeper into the question to find out how India can motivate Pakistan to prevent cross-border terrorism, and responds that “With a clear comparative advantage over Pakistan in economic clout and soft power, India can utilise a strategy for ‘non-violent compellence’ to isolate Pakistan internationally.” The merits and demerits of the suggestion require a separate discussion.

Response to that suggested approach is that in its anti-India campaign through covert and overt means Pakistan has gone past that phase when the use of ‘economic and soft power’ strategy is likely to have any compelling impact. Therefore, the only effective way to ‘motivate’ Pakistan to move away from cross-border terrorism and firing is to employ hybrid tactics. India needs an effective assortment of covert mechanisms and hidden channels to build and sustain the required level of pressure to compel or motivate Pakistan to shift its approach towards India. It is therefore that India must develop and exploit hybrid tactics as the main plank of its war strategy, though the nature of these could be different and customised to the nature of the threats faced. In future, hybrid threats will define the contemporary operating environment because of their preponderance in number and type of security threats that these pose. India’s adversaries like China and Pakistan have already been using hybrid techniques for almost half a century. Chinese tactics are a bit more sophisticated, relying on cyber espionage and subversion in the North East.

Pakistan’s Fault Lines and Hybrid Warfare Strategy

Pakistan is an, artificially created entity on a fictitious notion of religious nationalism. As a result, it has many fault lines along ethnic, cultural, linguistic, ideological and tribal lines. PM Modi himself referred to the fault lines in Baluchistan theatre where there is a complete mishmash of anti-state hardline Sunni religious extremists like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba, Taliban, Al Qaida, soft and pro-Pak Islamists like Jamaat-e-Islami, nationalist freedom fighters, and the ISIS-affiliated groups. Frederic Grere in his paper, “Baluchistan-The State Versus the Nation” describes at length, their internal dynamics, conflicts and fault lines. Pak media and its government entities have been repeatedly putting out accusations of so-called Indian meddling in Baluchistan affairs. Does it really provide an opportunity for inclusion in any hybrid warfare strategy? In the minimum, India could set up a separate cell at the intelligence and diplomatic level with expertise on the area and subject to exploit the fault line.

Similar or perhaps more intensely deep fault lines exist in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa regions also. These should be well known to the intelligence and diplomatic experts. These have also found copious mention in debates in the strategic community. The internal divides and conflicts seem to be so serious that with little or no effort these regions could, with minimal push, self-implode. One would just need some bold decision-making and limited ground-level action for the situation to explode, as one witness the self-created terror groups inflicting decisive blows in all parts of the country with near impunity.

But these are high-risk strategies that India may find totally disagreeable to its core philosophy and international repute. Easier options can be available in the realm of economics, infrastructure and finance. I guess it’s time now to explore opportunities to cripple Pakistan in socio-economic terms. One issue that readily comes to mind is the Indus Water Treaty which has also been mentioned in the media in recent times and has been widely debated too. The expert believes, and there are no reasons to disagree with their assessment, that through a simple act of using its own share of water as legally available to it under the treaty, India can deliver a debilitating blow to the socio-economic fabric of Pakistan. Is India ready to cross the self-imposed red-line and use Indus waters treaty to secure its geopolitical ends?

There are other fault lines too that could form part of the hybrid war strategy. The existing criminal and estranged political groups like MQM in Sindh, created, nurtured, exploited and often used by the Pakistani ‘deep state’ could be one such opportunity. India can have a strategy to influence the political and social processes like elections and creating and nurturing pro-India socio-political groups, as allegedly done during the recent US election!

There has also been a public debate on the criticality of the high profile projects under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to boost not only the bilateral economic relations but, more importantly, to its overall impact on Pakistan’s economic survival. Any disruption to the project road-map in the implementation stage or subsequently, on account of its alignment through some of the most hostile territories, could have a serious impact. Both Pakistan and China are conscious and worried about physical safety and security. Sabotage of CPEC could cripple Pakistan’s economic lifeline and infrastructure. Given the volatile nature of political unrest in Baluchistan, it is not difficult to imagine local groups indulging in acts of sabotage as they view the whole project as part of their long continuing exploitation by the Punjabi dominated politico-military power oligarchy.

Economic pressure is becoming an accepted part of hybrid warfare strategy. Kremlin had recently conducted its energy attacks against Ukraine. It bypassed Ukraine in delivering Russian gas to Europe by planning several new projects like North Stream, South Stream and Turkish Stream which reduced Ukraine’s importance. Currently, there is a major energy crisis in Ukraine as Russia has also cut its energy supplies (65% per cent of Ukraine’s energy supplies are from the Russian Federation) [4].

One can also take a leaf from the Russian book of intrigue and espionage and delve into the zone of cyber warfare. In the future scenario, the cyber domain will emerge as the real battleground for the clash of the titans. Russians could jam the electric grid of Ukraine which sent chills down the spine of NATO members. India has advanced capabilities in the field of space technology, GPS systems in South Asia, which can all be used to liquidate our recalcitrant adversary in the cyber domain. The actions could range from jamming their critical weapons systems to their national transport and industrial infrastructure.

Another major fault line pertains to aids of supplies and weapons coming to Pakistan from its foreign partners like US and Turkey. Similarly, there are Saudi-sponsored dual-use charity funds flowing into Pakistan which are being used to nurture extremism and fund terrorist operations. India could think of leveraging its strong diplomatic clout with the US and growing understanding with the Gulf countries to choke or restrict the free bucks that are coming to Pakistan.

In the diplomatic domain, India has in recent years, built huge amount of goodwill in the neighbourhood and beyond, largely backed by the pragmatic initiatives. It has now reached a stage where it can leverage its resources to project Pakistan’s true image as a sponsor of terrorism which should finally aim at the declaration of the country as a terrorist state. Public diplomacy and outreach activities supplemented by other informational spread should inform the world community that there is an adversary who thrives on blood money and does its best to incinerate humanity in its lunatic religious zeal and hatred for India and its other neighbours.

Special wars should also have strong ideological underpinning. Any strategy of hybrid warfare needs to be backed by a concerted information and propaganda warfare, challenging the foundations of the Pakistani state. Infiltrating the minds of the youth and the civil society (whatever little exists in Pakistan) with what India represents vis-à-vis Pakistan, would go a long way in securing the desired geopolitical objectives.

What should be India’s Response to Pakistan’s Proxy War?

As stated at the beginning of this paper, India’s response to acts of direct aggression by Pakistan always been widely acknowledged as professional and effective. However, in the case of indirect aggression or proxy-wars, be it earlier in Punjab or the continuing one in Kashmir and elsewhere, the approach has been generally described as defensive, reactive and tentative. The question naturally arises whether India should continue to deal with the state-sponsored proxy-war inflicted by Pakistan for decades in the manner it had done so far or there is need to evolve a new strategy that includes both the conventional approach and elements of the hybrid warfare strategy? Is the time ripe for a course correction? India has waited for too long and needs to seriously reevaluate its options.

After the CPEC, Pakistan has become indispensable for China. With more than 50 billion dollars at stake, the defence of Pakistan and its nukes becomes a compulsion for China. Further, with the involvement of Russians, Central Asians and Iran in the geopolitical drama of China, there is a likelihood of the entire zone emerging as a centre of great power politics, trade and economic diplomacy, and a hub of espionage activities. In such a scenario, conventional war with Pakistan is a near impossibility for any kind of escalation into a nuclear war will be prevented by the world powers.

This essay has discussed in detail the concept and the various debates surrounding the idea. However, an ambiguity prevails as regards the understanding of the concept of “hybrid warfare.” In the light of the analysis presented in this paper, it can be defined as some kind of a flexible permutation and combination of conventional, sub-conventional warfare, cyber tactics, information warfare, terrorism and promotion of crime syndicates. In the lack of precise definition, its application needs to be customised to the context in which it is being used.

For executing any such plan, India needs an aggressive intelligence posture with expertise and specialists from diverse fields like technology, economy, finance, culture, arts and politics. It must be remembered that hybrid warfare is not just about the military. The military is just a constituent of it but in essence, it goes way beyond ‘military’. Hybrid warfare has a strong espionage element as a strong network spanning across the diverse sectors needs to be built up. India needs to revamp its intelligence set-up, doctrine and philosophy behind it. Thus, what India needs is the complete Revolution in Intelligence Affairs (RIA) to have this new warfare doctrine of “hybrid warfare” in its armor. Besides that there is a need of for the strategy to incorporate all elements of national power i.e. intellectual, economic, intelligence, cyber capabilities, scientific, business, trade and diplomatic; in new security framework through which hybrid warfare will be channelled.

Finally, it also needs to be mentioned that India’s resort to such tactics is not because of any asymmetry in conventional capabilities vis-à-vis the enemy; rather it’s because of the irrational, erratic and recalcitrant nature of Pakistan. Secondly, hybrid war has an economic logic too. As compared to large-scale conventional wars, continuous action on the border and frequent surgical strikes, hybrid warfare will have low economic and political costs and high payoffs. Lastly, the hybrid warfare will have an ethical logic too as it will prevent a nuclear war, bring down tensions on the border and loss of civilian and military causalities.

As examined in the earlier segment of the essay, the hybrid warfare strategy harnesses the synergies of a series of activities like subversion, irregular warfare, insurgency, terrorism, criminal activities, economic destabilisation, cyber warfare, social and political unrest, and tampering with far-right and far-left political parties. India will first have to develop a doctrine to this effect, then formulate a grand strategy for this, exploiting all elements of national power. The tactical and operational details can be worked out with specific missions.

The detailed analysis of the possible options available to India is beyond the scope of this essay. It must, however, be noted that hybrid tactics also have a cost-benefit rationale. After CPEC, Pak establishment is expected to be less worried about its conventional defences, given the fact of a near impossibility of a conventional war with India and the involvement of world powers in CPEC. In such a situation, it might be left with an ample amount of resources, energy and time to strengthen its jihad architecture in India. If Pakistan continues to fund proxies and jihad in India, then India’s likely response (in line with our strategy so far) would either be a conventional war or short and swift military action like a “surgical strike.” However, by following the line of action mentioned above, we are treading on a dangerous path as any military confrontation could escalate into a nuclear war either accidentally or deliberately. Now, since Pakistan has decided to give tactical nukes to its field commanders the possibility of non-state actors conniving with low-level field commanders to use a tactical nuke against India also cannot be ruled out. This might happen without the senior authorities even knowing about it. And, if it happens then India is left with no option but to use its nukes in response, in line with its nuclear doctrine.

The idea is to let the game be played between the spooks and in a diverse and elusive manner so that it generates an effective pressure without leading to the occasions of direct military engagement. In our philosophical tradition, there is a doctrine of “syadvad” which says that “the reality ‘is’, and it ‘is not’ at the same time.” Our hybrid tactics with all its ambiguity, vagueness and complexities must be the perfection of Syadvad i.e. “the war ‘exists’, and it ‘does not exist’, at the same time.”

Coming to the feasibility of the hybrid tactics, I would like to emphasise that it is not an altogether new strategy. This is an area which is well known to intelligence and security professionals for decades. Since times immemorial, such tactics have been the essential instrument of the statecraft. In that area, India has the capabilities, if not the experience. We need to simply concretise our efforts, make them focused, systematic and well-defined. Pakistan had to create such assets in Kashmir and other parts of India whereas in Pakistan’s case there is no need to create such fault lines; those which they have inherited from the partitions have strengthened and worsened over the years of discriminatory and autocratic rule by the army. Such fault-lines need to be identified and effectively utilised for our geopolitical ends.

More importantly, India needs a change in the approach. So far it has been overly moralistic in response to an adversary for whom morals and values are the last priority. Further, in geopolitics rather than norms and values, the economic logic and a sense of realism would better serve our purpose. Lastly, we need to develop our intelligence capabilities in the fields of research, analysis, synthesis of open-source intelligence and other channels, covert operations, and the harmonising of efforts at diverse levels, and through diverse channels to achieve our objectives.

(This article was first published on to whom it belongs)