Cognitive war is a convergence of information warfare; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; electronic warfare; psychological operations; and cyber operations with digitised and networked infrastructure.


Bengaluru: On our 75th Independence Day, Prime Minister Modi said that India is fighting both terrorism and expansionism and is also responding strongly in a restrained manner. India has been defensive and restrained all these days. Neither masterly inactivity, or Gandhian methods nor mother of all bombs (MOAB) will resolve our problem. Democratic forces and plural societies are unable to agree on the definition of a terrorist nor are they able to resist commercial gains from trading with autocratic regimes and are sadly following the ancient Japanese proverb “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” and accepting unethical and violent behaviour. Sun Tzu, the Chinese strategist said “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Strategy is the overall plan of action to achieve a goal and involves a series of effective tactics i.e. steps, actions or manoeuvres. We need unity, a clear sense of purpose, a sound collaborative strategy with innovative tactics for successful cognitive warfare.

WAR BY A THOUSAND CUTS: “Bleed India with a Thousand Cuts” is the military doctrine of Pakistan. Occupy India with a thousand salami slices and cartographic aggression is the Chinese military strategy. Both these are efforts to wear down psychologically and divide a democratic, plural India, hoping it will give in like the US, the other big democracy, after an election debacle-led regime change. Insurgents and Naxalites are trying to cut up the nation and society from inside. It is high time we evolve from the present “wars of attrition to wars of cognition”, to quote General David L. Goldfein of US Air Force.

COGNITIVE WARFARE: Cognitive war (CW) is a convergence of information warfare (IW), intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), electronic warfare (EW), psychological operations (PSYOPS), and cyber operations (CO) with digitised and networked infrastructure. “Beijing using ‘cognitive warfare’ to sway Taiwan public opinion by feeding it misinformation”, warns a report by Lawrence Chung in the South China Morning Post. Cognitive dissonance is psychological tension or arousal caused by contradictory (dissonance) thoughts or perceptions (cognition). It typically occurs when attitudes, feelings, ideas, beliefs, values are in conflict with awareness of inconsistent behaviour and perception (what is seen or heard). People become motivated to reduce this mental tension. Extremists provide clarity of choice between black and white with no confusion of choosing moderate shades of grey. Cognitive dissonance, empathy and collective relative deprivation are known motivations for individuals to opt for jihad. Jihadi elements have for long been using social media and modern technology to indoctrinate and to fund their efforts to violently force the whole world back into medieval times. India needs to identify the enemies inside and outside our society and nation, understand their psychology and support structure and then take the battle to them proactively by modern day cognitive war.

ILLUSIONS AND MISCONCEPTIONS: Indoctrination and mind control by our adversaries brain wash the gullible to believe that they have a greater purpose in life of protecting their religion or party. They do not realize that their minds are being manipulated to serve religious bigots or a despot. Even a suicide bomber is made to believe about heavenly rewards. When religion or party becomes more important than governance, humanity suffers. A network of “White Hat” volunteer hackers can continuously monitor the net, identify the digital money trail, arms and narcotics trade, indoctrination websites and propaganda on social media and then hack and stop them. The dark web has to be monitored also. A total cyber war is needed.

IMPORTANCE OF MIDDLE CLASS AND MODERATES: India’s greatest strength has been its professional armed forces supported by all Indians, passionately defending against all odds. The moderate majority and the large middle class are a great source of social stability in a land and society with great diversity. Our foes are trying to sunder these centrist moderate forces into left and right extremists. “Knowledge can never imprison you, but you can be captive to your ignorance,” said A.E. Samaan. A continuous campaign of information and education by a cross section of society will help neutralise attempts at manipulating vulnerable minds and polarising society. Even the people under rogue entities have to be made aware of how they are being exploited and of the options available to them. Well planned and comprehensive information war is essential.

PSYCHOLOGY OF SELF AND THE ADVERSARIES: Sun Tzu, the Chinese strategist, emphasised, “know thyself, know thy enemy; a thousand battles, a thousand victories.” The US lost many asymmetric wars as its powerful military used conventional weapons and strategy against elusive guerrilla tactics of a resilient and motivated opponent and were unable to identify either with the local people or with the purpose of the entire exercise. Religious bigots and anarchists to our west are so different from our northern oppressive autocrat but both possess many features of the dark triad and seek world domination. “Dark Triad” in personality psychology consists of Machiavellianism (calculating and deceitful), psychopathy (manipulative, impulsive and destructive with no empathy or remorse) and narcissism (vain with exaggerated sense of self-importance but vulnerable and insecure). Machiavelli, the 16th century Italian author of “The Prince” advocated the use of power, even if unethically, to achieve political ends. Psychopathy is common to hardened criminals, cruel dictators and ruthless business executives. Narcissus was a Greek youth who fell so much in love with his own reflection in the water that he drowned.

OUT-MANOEUVRING THE ENEMY: Any dialogue or negotiation with bigots, anarchists or a megalomaniac gives them the recognition they seek and strengthens their self-confidence and resolve. Ignoring and isolating them increases their insecurity and self-doubt. Blocking their resources and countering their religious or political doctrines, propaganda and mind games weaken their popular support. They stage dastardly acts to instil fear and gain publicity. World media and social media instead of publicising and sensationalising these should heap shame on and mock the perpetrators so that those within their ranks who have any conscience left will rebel out of revulsion. The media and volunteers should reach out to the suppressed and encourage them to resist and extol the bravery of those who fight back without revealing their true identities. An effective psychological war can demotivate the enemy and can trigger a massive uprising by the suppressed people that will topple any rogue regime or entity.

FACTORS THAT LEAD TO A WORLD WAR: 1. Totalitarian government: It has unlimited power and controls virtually all aspects of public and private life—political, financial, attitudes, morals, and beliefs of the people. It is headed by a dictator and or a single ruling party. Total control of media, courts, administration, education, arts, sciences, religion is enforced by an army or secret police with suppression of all opposition and public by fear of surveillance and severe consequences. Lord Acton, a British historian, observed that a person’s sense of morality lessens as his or her power increases. “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Such entities are expansionist and neo-colonists. They dream of restoring a perceived historical empire and glory.

  1. Nationalism: Excessive national pride seeking to avenge historical grievances and past humiliation for e.g., Pakistan army for defeat and surrender in Bangladesh, China for humiliation at the hands of colonial powers, British and later Japanese. Fascism is totalitarianism with ultra-nationalism.
  2. Militarism: In their pursuit of world domination, power and glory these nations start an arms race which eventually brings devastation, suffering and infamy.
  3. Alliances: When such entities find common cause with similar entities like the present Asian “axis of evil” autocracies; or the Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan axis of World War 2; or the central powers of Imperial Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Ottoman Empire of World War 1; other world powers are forced to form an opposing alliance producing an eyeball to eyeball confrontation.
  4. Any incident can then trigger an all-out war like when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939; or the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on June 27, 1914.

OUR BEST OPTION TO NEUTRALIZE OUR ENEMIES: 1. Identify the enemy. Enemy is the autocrat and not his misinformed army or suppressed people. The religious bigots are the enemy and not the moderates frightened into subservience.

  1. Understand the enemy’s psychology and mind games. Demoralise and defeat them by psychological strategies as mentioned above. Targeted assassination of the leader could trigger violent reprisal and even war. Instead discredit and disgrace the leader and the regime.
  2. Understand the aspirations of the enemy’s suppressed people. Inform and arouse them to rebel and resist with counter propaganda using social and digital media by a network of volunteers.
  3. Continuously monitor and identify the enemy’s network, human-financial-weapon support structure and neutralize them by cyber warfare and human and hi-tech intelligence and countermeasures.
  4. Sustained diplomatic, trade and travel isolation will eventually lead to missteps by a desperate regime as predicted by the ancient wisdom of “vinash kale viprit buddhi”, which means when doom approaches, then one’s mind and intelligence work perversely.

Dr P.S.Venkatesh Rao is Consultant Endocrine, Breast & Laparoscopic Surgeon; National Delegate (India) to International Society of Surgery; President 2014-15, Indian Association of Endocrine Surgeons; former Professor of Endocrine Surgery; former Faculty CMC (Vellore), AIIMS (New Delhi), UCMS (Delhi), MSRMC (Bengaluru).