Readers of Indian and Chinese mythology cannot miss the striking contrast between respective cultural outlooks of civilizational attitudes to armed conflict. Take, for instance, the case of the epic poem Mahabharata and its Chinese counterpart, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The central idea of both stories is a struggle for power and control, narrated through a central conflict between rival factions. In the Mahabharata, the conflict is between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, two branches of the same family fighting for control of the Kuru kingdom. In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the conflict is between the different kingdoms vying for control of China during the end of the Han dynasty and the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period. Both stories also feature complex political maneuvering and strategic planning as characters try to gain an advantage over their rivals. Characters in both stories use alliances, betrayals, and other forms of political manipulation to gain the upper hand.

But these common elements are merely the cutting ingredients that leave the first mark on the palate. Deep down under these layered epics, there are contrasting civilizational psychologies at interplay. The key difference here is the political and strategic context. While Mahabartha is more of a microcosmic tale, focusing on the moral and ethical implications of the actions of the characters, Romance of the Three Kingdoms displays a macrocosmic grandeur with a tinge of pragmatic and instrumental utilitarianism, with a focus on practical and tactical aspects of the actions of the characters. Additionally, the Mahabharata is more of a family feud, whereas the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is more about the struggle for power between different territories, with the involvement of many different kingdoms and their respective rulers.

This subtle contrast sets the stage for delving into the capturing prologue of Pravin Sawhney’s recent book on the final showdown between India and China. A quite pessimistic but seemingly realistic take on the strategic state of affairs in Indian politico-military enterprise, Sawhney builds a fictional war scenario in which the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China launches a multi-pronged cyber attack on India in February 2024, achieves full spectrum superiority in communication and air jamming, and deploys humanoid armies to assault Indian soldiers. The war lasts for just a week and results in China gaining control of Ladakh, North Sikkim, and the northern border of Arunachal. Pakistan Army also joins in with the PAF attacking LoC, and it successfully pushes it further at many points. Interestingly, while the Pandavas and the Kauravas of Mahabharata demonstrate a deep understanding of the situation and the complexly interwoven forces at play, develop plans for how to gain the upper hand in the conflict, and make decisions about when and how to engage in battle, the modern day war pandits of Modi’s India find themselves clueless in the face of a massive cyber attack. While the mythological characters of the epic use different strategies, such as diplomacy, deception, and psychological warfare, to gain an advantage over their opponents, the war room in the prime minister’s office wonders: why is this happening, and how can a weapon that doesn’t hurt physically be dangerous?

Sawhney, who is a retired army officer and a prolific writer on various aspects of security as well Sino-Indian conflict, argues from the onset that the Indian army will lose any future war with China, not because it is not prepared but because it is prepared for a wrong war. While Modi’s government has restricted military strategy to perception management, China is well ahead in achieving excellence in the cognitive domain. As to answer the key question of why China would want such a conflict, Sawhney answers that it will draw ten advantages out of it, including humbling India in the region and getting the first mover advantage in AI technologies-backed war against the USA. Interestingly, in such a conflict, Pakistan will also take the Siachen glacier.

The book comprises four parts, beginning with a review of the cooperative security model of China where it is taking the belt and road initiative to revive a sort of middle kingdom. China’s Sputnik movement, in this regard, was AlphaGo beating Lee Sedol. This was the time of strategic revelation that AI is the ultimate future, and within months of Sedol’s defeat, China July 2017 released its super-ambitious New Generation AI Development Plan. Google’s CEO at that time, Eric Schmidt, said that by 2020 they will catch up with the USA, by 2025, they will be better than the USA, and by 2030, they will dominate global industries of AI. The first part of the book also speaks about two security architectures and how 5G networks are part of this AI initiative.

Book two is a sustained indulgence in self-reflection, especially in terms of threats to India and how the Indian military is politicized beyond recovery. It cites the incident when PAF launched Operation Swift Retort in response to the 26th Feb 2019 air bombing on Balakot and how India couldn’t respond back due to its limited air capability and not having a political will to assert. The most interesting part for the military strategist with a technological hat is a lengthy take on the future of war in general and how technology is modernizing warfare. This includes human command and robotic control, autonomous weapon systems, the invisible war with cyber social operations, and advances in missile systems, drones, and nuclear capabilities. The most important part here is how AI would come out as an integrating force to serve as a nerve center for netcentric and intelligent decision-making.

An underlining factor is that the data being the backbone of training these AI-driven systems must be operationally meaningful with real-time battlefield intelligence, or otherwise, the algorithms will either overfit or prove simply useless due to garbage-in garbage-out scenarios. China, while initially training its battlefield AI systems on laboratory-grade data and simulations, is also improving the robustness and efficiency of its models through adversarial and reinforcement learning drawn from realistic data coming from actual operational exercises on the ground. Sawhney quotes first-hand experiences of how India is nowhere near this kind of thinking in its AI development.

The last part of the book speculates on India’s final showdown with China. Sawhney incisively captures the tragedy of Indian military planning by noting that these strategists do not have a sense of history or the future. Completely turning the process of war appreciation on its head, these Indian strategists work backward by setting the premise that the Indian military will beset the Chinese or the Pakistani military in any future armed conflict. They then build how this miracle will be achieved. Sawhney quotes here a brainstorming session by former Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa where it was said that war between India and China will be intense but limited in time and space, will be fought in the physical domains of air and land only, and will take place as force-on-force engagement. In this context, the Indian strategic commanders have absolutely no clue how mission tables of the AI-controlled, autonomous weapon systems with the Internet of Military Things (IoMT) backbone may be responded to or at least be considered doctrinally as a viable factor.

Thus, in the alternate — but quite realistic and plausible — universe of Sawhney, much like the Romance of Three Kingdoms, PLA will move suddenly and hit hard across all combat zones. Its cyberwar will bring civilian life to a standstill, achieving delays and disruption to the Indian Air Force (IAF). China will activate malware viruses in military supply chains and autonomous weapon systems, as well as snap communications among various headquarters.

Sawhney’s book is a must-read, not only for Indian but Pakistani military strategists, because it shows how the classical concept of cognitive superiority is being increasingly reduced to technology and being redefined. It is now a realm where technology and artificial intelligence hold a powerful sway, wielding their influence over the very thoughts and decisions of adversaries. It is a contactless hyperspace where psychological operations and disinformation reign, where cyberattacks seek to disrupt and manipulate the flow of information, and where the ultimate goal is to gain a cognitive advantage over the enemy. The mind is the battlefield, and the weapons are those that can swiftly process vast amounts of data, identify patterns, and exploit vulnerabilities in the enemy’s systems. With the ability to generate and disseminate false information, AI can sow confusion and uncertainty among the enemy ranks, eroding their ability to communicate and make informed decisions. In this cognitive domain, the lines between reality and illusion are blurred, and the power of technology and AI to shape perception and influence the mind is absolute.
Pravin Sawhney almost appears to argue that Indian strategists who should have been composing a new epic — a technologically savvy modern Mahabharata — are instead busy penning a tragedy of equal proportions.

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