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June 14, 1999


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For want of a double-click... N Vittal discusses the impact of information technology on international security and warfare. When we talk of national security, we talk about preservation of the physical identity and boundary and the sovereignty of a nation.

The issue of borders is still significant despite globalisation of the economy. Despite, what Kenichi Omahe and thinkers like him say about living in a borderless world.

Email this story to a friend. Such ideas arise, particularly because of the explosive growth of the Internet that lets us communicate information across borders at what Bill Gates calls "the speed of thought".

Nevertheless, the fact remains that human beings, who have evolved gradually over millions of years, are slow to adjust to the exciting new challenges of technology.

Technology may be a creature of man but, in turn, it affects him. Architects believe that once they have designed a building, the building starts affecting those that live in them.

At one level the impact of information technology can be compared to that of the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg 500 years ago.

Until Gutenberg came along with his movable type and the printing press, literacy and books were a rarity. But once the press made books available freely, it brought a revolution in education. This in turn had political implications in terms of growth of democracy and other movements.

The same can be said about computers and information technology. It is going to have a wide impact on the way we live and our society.

Though we may be living in a borderless world, when we talk about national security, we are talking in terms of preserving the identity -- physical, geographical and territorial identity -- of different nations in the world as they exist today.

When we talk of international security, we are talking in terms of the need for preserving the existing order of nations and ensuring peace and avoiding war.

There will be a failure of international security if there is any failure in these aspects and that could become an occasion for war.

In this century for nearly 70 years, we had the world divided between two superpowers based on ideology. The United States led the capitalist West and the Soviet Union led the communist countries.

In 1991, the Soviet Union imploded and today there is talk about a unipolar world dominated by the United States.

But already there are speculations about the post Cold War scenario. While Fukuyama thought about "the end of history", Huntington came up with the thesis that we are going to witness a clash of civilisations and the emergence of a new order.

Huntington's thesis seems to have some merit because once ideology has ceased to motivate people and guide their action, it is the atavistic revival of old religions and ethnic issues that seem to become dominant in the affairs of many nations.

We are witnessing ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia and NATO's attack on that country is in an effort to prevent the harassment and the killing of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Kurds are spread between Iraq, Iran and Turkey. Does ethnic and cultural identity constitute a nation?

Apparently, this has to be bolstered by firm borders for a people to be identified as a distinct nation.

In Africa we have the problem between Hutus and Tutas.

In fact, the arbitrary drawing of national boundaries in Africa, cutting across tribal and ethnic lives, has created many cultural fault lines that may challenge national boundaries and lead to tension and security threat.

In China we see reports about the stirring of conscience among the Muslim Uigurs. These ethnic issues are likely to provide grist for future international friction and even war.

Apart from ethnic aspects, the other major dominant issue in terms of national security is economy. The Soviet Union is a classic instance of a country, which focussed on building military strength but neglected to build its economic strength. This ultimately led to its collapse.

There was a time perhaps when military strength was the decisive factor in determining national security. But in today's context, is military strength going to be the final arbiter or at least the major decisive factor as far as the security of a nation is concerned?

As I see it, it is going to be perhaps economy. Paul Kennedy pointed out in his study on the rise and fall of superpowers during the last five centuries that economy has been the decisive factor behind the growth of superpowers.

Whenever empires overstretched or overreached, they collapsed.

The industrial revolution brought in its train the phenomenon of imperialism because countries, which were in the vanguard of industrial revolution, were looking for markets for their products and raw materials for sustaining their industries. This in turn led to wars.

In Indian history itself, we have seen how the very prosperity of India attracted invaders who were mostly nomads.

A similar development took place with Jenghis Khan and the vandals attacking the well-established Roman Empire.

It is obvious that economy has been a major factor for wars in the past and we can expect economy to be a very decisive factor in national security issues in the future.

Yet another issue that may trigger wars and dispute among nations and thereby threaten international security is territorial dispute.

We have seen how the dispute over the small island of Falkland under UK that was claimed by Argentina led in 1982 to a war between Argentina and Britain.

Impact of information technology on
future wars and international security

We can look at the issues of international security that are likely to arise in terms of economy, territory and ethnicity.

While these will be the cause of future wars, the nature of the wars at any point of time will depend on the state of technology available.

Information technology is leading to a revolution in military affairs. Alvin and Heidi Toffler, in their book War and Anti-War, have brought out the close correlation between the way economy functions and the way wars are fought.

Here is what they say:

When we compare the new features of warfare with those of the new economy, the parallels are unmistakable.

a) Factors of destruction

Just as no one would ever entirely discount the importance of say raw materials or labour in production, so it would be absurd to ignore material elements in the capacity for destruction. Nor was there ever a time when knowledge was unimportant in war. Nevertheless, a revolution is occurring that places knowledge in various forms, at the core of military power. In both production and destruction, knowledge reduces the requirement for other inputs.

The Gulf War, writes Alan D Campen, "was a war where an ounce of silicon in a computer may have had more effect than a ton of uranium". Campen ought to know. He is a retired air force colonel and formerly the Director of Command and Control Policy in the US Defence Department. He says, "knowledge came to rival weapons and tactics in importance, giving credence to the notion that an enemy might be brought to its knees principally through destruction and disruption of the means for command and control".

The flavour of the new thinking is best expressed, perhaps, by Fatima Mernissi, a highly intelligent Moroccan sociologist and feminist and a passionate Muslim critic of the US role in the Gulf War. "The supremacy of the West," Mernissi has pointed out, "is not so much due to its military hardware as to the fact that its military bases are laboratories and its troops are brains, armies of researchers and engineers." Knowledge, in short, is now the central resource of destructivity, just as it is the central resource of productivity.

b) Intangible values

If, as Starry and Morelli emphasised, seizing the initiative, better intelligence and communications, and better trained soldiers, more strongly motivated, all count for more than sheer numbers, then the military balance may be determined by more intangible, hard to quantify factors than by the usual easy to count factors to which Second Wave generals were accustomed.

c) De-massification

If de-massification in the apparel industry means using a computer driven laser to cut individual garments, on the battlefield it means using a laser to designate an individual target. Built on the same microelectronic base as the civilian economy, smart weapons can detect sound, heat, radar emissions, and other electronic signals, stream this incoming data through powerful analytical software, pick out the identifying "signature" of a specific target, and destroy it. One target, one kill. Mass destruction will no doubt be with us for as long as we can foresee. Weapons will malfunction and deadly errors will continue to be made so long as there is war. But de-massified destruction, custom tailored to minimise collateral damage, will increasingly dominate the zones of battle, exactly paralleling changes in the civilian economy.

d) Work

It is by now generally understood that the new 'smart' economy requires smart workers, too. As muscle work declines, large number of unskilled labourers are increasingly replaced by smaller number of highly trained workers and intelligent machines. This process, too, is perfectly paralleled in the military, where smart weapons require smart soldiers. Poorly educated troops can fight bravely in the hand-to-hand combat that typifies First Wave warfare; they can fight and win Second Wave wars; but they are just as much a drag on Third Wave armies as ignorant workers are on Third Wave industries.

The military terminology is slightly different. Soldiers speak not of direct or indirect, but of "tooth" or "tail". And the Third Wave tail is now vastly longer than ever before. Notes Gen. Pierre Gallois, "The United States sent 500,000 troops to the Gulf, and there were 200,000 to 300,000 back up troops for logistical purposes. But in fact, the war was won by only 2,000 soldiers. The tail has grown to immense proportions." That tail even included computer programmers -- men and women alike -- back home in the United States, some of them working on PCs in their own homes. Once again what is happening in the economy is reflected in the military.

e) Innovation

Another feature of the Gulf War was the high level initiative shown by troops and civilians alike. And again: critical systems were put together on the spot by "technicians who, upon discovering that communications and computer equipment would be late in arriving... contrived networks by unorthodox and unauthorised use of agglomerations of military and civilian information ware." Similar stories from the Gulf abound.

f) Scale

Scale, too, is changing in parallel. Budget cuts in many (though by no means all) countries are forcing commanders to scale down their forces. But other pressures are pushing in the same direction. Military thinkers are discovering that smaller units -- like "lean and mean" companies in competitive warfare -- can actually deliver "more bang for the buck." As in the civilian economy fewer people with intelligent technology can accomplish more than a lot of people with the brute-force tools of the past.

g) Organisation

Changes in organisational structure in the armed services also parallel developments in the business world. In announcing recent reorganisation, US Air Force Secretary Donald Rice explained that a reduced emphasis on nukes and increasing need for flexible response point to a new structure that enhances the autonomy of the local commander. "The commander of an air base will have unchallenged authority over everything on his facility -- from fighters and weather forecasters to radar-jamming planes." Like Third Wave business, the military is loosening its rigid, top-down control. This was not only the reverse of how the United States fought in Vietnam. It also contrasted starkly with Soviet practice, which used the new C3I systems to strengthen top-down authority in a system described as "forward command from the rear." The downward shift of authority contrasted even more with the way Saddam Hussein ran his army -- with commanders in the field afraid to make a move without topside approval. In the Third Wave military, exactly in the Third Wave corporation, decisional authority is being pushed to the lowest level possible.

h) Systems integration

The growing complexity of the military lends heavier-than-ever significance to the term "integration". In the air war in the Gulf, airspace "managers", as they are called, had to "de-conflict" the skies. That is, make sure that allied aircraft did not get in one another's way. To accomplish this they had to route thousands of sorties in response to the daily Air Tasking Order. According to Campen, these flights had to move at high speeds through "122 different air refuelling tracks, 660 restricted operations, 312 missile engagement zones, 78 strike corridors, 92 combat air patrol points and 36 training areas alone, spread over 93,600 miles." All this, moreover, had to be "thoroughly co-ordinated with the continually shifting civil airways of six independent nations." What made this possible for the military were not only computers, databases and satellites but their systemic integration.

i) Infrastructure

Like Third Wave business, a Third Wave military requires a vast ramified electronics infrastructure. Without it, systemic integration would have been impossible. Thus, the Gulf War saw what has been called the "largest single communications mobilisation in military history".

j) Acceleration

General Schwarzkopf's famous sweep around the western end of Saddam Hussein's main defence was a classic application of a turning manoeuvre. This "envelopment" was quite predictable to anyone who bothered to look at a map, although efforts were made to deceive Saddam Hussein into thinking a frontal attack was imminent. What was not classic, and what astonished the Iraqi commanders, was the speed with which the end-run was accomplished. Apparently, no one on their side believed that the allied ground troops could advance at such historically high speeds. This increase in the velocity of warfare (like the increasing velocity of economic transactions) was spurred by computers, telecommunications, and, significantly, satellites.

If we want to analyse the impact of information technology on international security, we have to see what impact information technology has on each of those three factors that can trigger a way.

The first is of course the economy. The fact that economic factors can trigger warfare was true not only in the time of imperialism but is also true and relevant in our own time as has been witnessed in Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

United States and other UN forces came to the defence of Kuwait not only on the issue of preserving the sovereignty and integrity of Kuwait but also after taking into account the economic implications on the oil sector.

If economy can be an important factor for war, does information technology have any effect on the economy and in turn have an impact on international security?

When it comes to economy, one of the important factors we have to take note of is the phenomenon, which is called globalisation. Globalisation means the movement across borders freely of four economic elements:

  • physical capital in terms of plant and machinery,
  • financial capital in terms of money invested in capital markets,
  • technology and
  • labour.

Before the age of information technology, movement of physical capital, labour and technology was common.

But because of information technology today, the global financial markets are all closely linked with each other.

Communication networks of computers make it is possible, at the touch of a button, or a click of the mouse, to shift millions of dollars across borders.

It is this instant flow of financial capital in an increasingly close knit global market, which is drastically multiplying and enhancing the impact of information technology on the global economy.

The collapse of the Southeast Asian currencies from mid-1997 is an instance of what can happen when the power of information technology and foreign capital can freely move into emerging markets.

Because of the lack of proper governance, cronyism and corruption, investment of this capital in areas like real estate was speculative.

Once the confidence of the investors fled, the financial capital also shifted and this resulted in the economic crisis.

In Indonesia, we have seen even national security was threatened following the currency crisis. If the economic security of countries is threatened, they in turn can trigger tensions, which may even result in warfare and definitely threaten international security.

The collapse of currencies in southeast nations and the resulting contagion effect has highlighted the fact that there is need for a new international financial architecture.

At one level, because of the widespread impact of information technology on the economies of nations, their economic security can be threatened as has happened in the southeast countries.

To that extent the security of nations on the economic front are dependent, to a significant extent, on information technology.

One of the important aspects of security for any nation is the weapons system used in warfare. There is a perception that what we are witnessing now is a revolution in military affairs.

Because of the extensive use of information technology in practically all weapons systems today, we think in terms of smart weapons systems that can operate by themselves and with minimum risk to human life.

These smart systems are evident in missiles or aircraft that are unmanned or in terms of satellite imagery for espionage. There is a wide range of military systems both in terms of intelligence and for attack where information technology has been completely integrated.

But then information technology also has certain vulnerabilities. It is basically through intelligent brains that we have developed information technology. Naturally, it has also attracted its own set of challengers who would like to crack through a system.

Crackers are part of the scene. As the defence systems in many countries become increasingly dependent on information technology, they also become vulnerable to attack by crackers.

One of the important elements in any future warfare would be the strategy of how to scramble the enemy's system so that the entire operations of the enemy's system go awry.

Therefore, apart from gathering intelligence and also operating smart weapons, using information technology to nullify and neutralise the enemy's systems will be an important element in the strategy.

The importance of information technology in terms of national security, especially in the context of a potential war, will then be obvious.

At this stage, it will also be worthwhile to see what the future will be like. Is it that we can totally do away with ground forces or de-emphasise ground forces and depend only on the smart weapons and systems based on information technology?

I do not think so. If the experience of NATO in trying to bring Milosevic to agree to their point of view in Kosovo by the continuous bombing of Yugoslavia is anything to go by, it appears that ultimately we need ground forces for effective results.

The reason why Operation Desert Storm succeeded was because there was extensive and overwhelming application of ground forces. But the application of information technology might have significantly reduced collateral damage.

Another important aspect of information technology is in propaganda, during warfare, or even before it.

Every nation continuously tries to influence not only its own people but also others about its point of view. This is the age of satellite communication and more importantly convergence of technologies.

Advances in information technology also give opportunities for advances in propaganda. Effective propaganda is a method of ensuring security. In fact, with modern technology, it is possible to use virtual reality techniques very intelligently for propaganda work. The use of IT in preparing material for propaganda and thereby influencing people will be important elements while assessing the impact of information technology in the context of international security.

Vikaram Sarabhai pointed out that developing countries have an advantage over developed countries because they can leapfrog through intermediate stages that the developed countries had to go through before they arrived at the existing level of development.

Information technology, with its emphasis on brainpower, provides an opportunity for developing countries like India to catch up.

In fact, India is being recognised as an important country as far as software is concerned. Our country also has an objective of emerging as an IT superpower.

In the context of the extensive role of IT in the economy as well as in security related issues, developing human resources that can use information technology effectively should be an element of national defence planning for ensuring national and international security in the years to come.

A forward-looking government therefore will have to think in terms of not only literacy but also computer literacy as a regular part of the education system in the country.

Equally important is the fact that because of the versatile nature of information technology, the same technology can be used both for civilian as well as defence purposes.

Dual-use technology can increasingly become more common with the application of information technology.

In fact, such a focus on dual technologies using IT can be one method of ensuring that not only the economy thrives but at the same time the country is safe too.

There is a lesson to be learnt from the experience of Israel. The nation has faced threat and war right from its inception. But it developed skills in strategic electronics and intelligently used information technology to defend itself effectively. This in turn helped Israel to develop a strong IT sector that is now competing in the global market.

IT, politics and international economy

We can now examine the possible effect of information technology on existing political structures, international relations and international economy.

As far as political structures are concerned, we have already seen the use of information technology in terms of election campaigns.

Today's campaigns are increasingly becoming TV oriented. Information technology is not only useful in conducting opinion polls but also in getting the poll results quickly and then spot trends for analysis.

Modern parties in democracies have to use the information provided by IT to think of their political strategies.

This increasing application of information technology probably is also causing in each political party changes in the internal power equations.

Politicians who are telegenic are likely to be more successful than those who were probably rabble-rousers in the past when different type of street fighting skills were necessary to get ahead in politics.

As far as governance itself is concerned, increasing use of information technology in government can make the system more transparent.

Today there is a greater need for a 'Freedom of Information Act' and public must have access to information.

This is possible by developing computer networks. The experiment in Andhra Pradesh is a very healthy development about what can be done by using intelligently information technology to reduce also to some extent, corruption.

In fact, as the Central Vigilance Commissioner, I have ordered that banks should computerise at least 70 per cent of their operations and one of the key objectives is to ensure that there is less corruption.

So the political life, whether it relates to elections, governance or corruption, can be effectively impacted by information technology for the better.

When it comes to international relations, we have seen earlier how the issues of security at the national level and prevention of international conflicts can be handled.

We can use information technology in weapon systems. We can use it for spying. We can use information technology for counter intelligence. We can use it for propaganda and changing the mindset of the people and maintaining their morale.

Economic relations influence the issues of maintaining international communications and international relations. We have seen how information technology affects the globalisation process.

Practically every industry today is dependent on information technology to compete effectively. Today's economy is highly dependent on information technology.

I have placed before you some thoughts about information technology that affects war and peace, our economic life, the security of nations and international security.

I am sure analysis of the different issues raised above can yield fresh insights and lead to greater understanding of the entire process of the impact of information technology on international security.

N Vittal is the chief vigilance commissioner of India. Prior to this he was the chairman of the Public Enterprises Selection Board. But he is best known as the biggest evangelist for deployment of information technology in government. In an earlier tenure as the secretary of the Telecom Commission he won his credentials by introducing many revolutionary policies.

Previous columns: Critical mass | T.R.a.I | Santa Clause 11(2) | The Broadcasting Bill | The death of distance | S.O.S, getting the message out of the bottle | Force 7 from FICCI | Of railroads and info highways | Techno Politics | Cheating death: Ways to resurrect ITI | The HAM-handed miracle | Electronic governance | Which came first? | The four-engine design | Learning to learn | Heads 'n hands | Post-mortem | Where's the cash | Mr T S Eliot's digital wisdom | Banking on IT | R, R & R | Pots & Pans | The Changing Change | Reality check | Spectrum analysis | Global Slum | Rebooting democracy | Catalysts of change | Educational emergency | A card for all seasons | Moore, Metcalf & Gelder | Heads I win, tails you lose! | Loosen those tongues | The globe is a square | Eat cake | The Fifth Letter

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