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Telecom networks: The changing face of conflict

Telecom networks, 5G, 5G roll-out, India, Chinese equipment, telecom manufacturers, People's Liberation Army
Telecom networks, 5G, 5G roll-out, India, Chinese equipment, telecom manufacturers, People's Liberation Army

By Smita Purushottam

A decision is reportedly soon going to be taken on the inclusion of Chinese equipment in 5G roll-out in India, based on the Principal Scientific Advisor's inputs. Regrettably, only telcos' views have been solicited, even as foreign telecom OEMs mount a high-pitched campaign to push 5G. A crucial decision is sought to be rushed through without taking the interests of indigenous world-class telecom manufacturers into account. The only charitable explanation for this omission is that our decision makers are not even aware of their existence. But before such a momentous decision affecting national and economic security is taken, it is essential to fully debate the implications of Chinese equipment inclusion in our networks. Given China's record in acquiring technology through cyberespionage and other means, the enormous risks we are taking need to be highlighted.

First, one of the Chinese People's Liberation Army's core strengths is 'information warfare', which seamlessly interconnects battlefield operations in a 360-degree multi-domain environment, enabling lethal and targeted war-fighting responses in real time.

Information warfare is also at the heart of the PLA theory on 'systems on systems' confrontations, under which information dominance is the core precondition for achieving dominance in other domains (Rand report). China established the Strategic Support Force to operationalise this evolving doctrine and is thus honing a futuristic, deadly war machine with information warfare at its core, making even the mighty US defence establishment nervous.

By handing over control of our telecom networks, we are, in effect, handing over China's weapon of choice to them! It would be good if our defence analysts studied the 'connection' between information warfare and control of telecom networks, pun unintended.

China is moving to 'intelligentisation', adding an extra layer of lethality to its high-tech arsenal, extensively discussed in 'Battlefield Singularity'. In its most recent Defence White Paper, China has stated 'intelligentisation' is the next step in the evolution of warfare, beyond informatisation. Paired with hypersonic weapons and quantum encryption technologies, electronic warfare suites and space-based capabilities, China is fast gaining multiple battlefield advantages, and incidentally placing our vast weapons imports at risk of obsolescence. We would have been better off investing our funds in leapfrogging technologies.

Second, China has used every means to acquire the best and most advanced technologies from around the world, through mandatory technology transfers in exchange for market access (FDI), overseas high-tech acquisitions (ODI), tech diversion from the civil sector to the military (CMI), and outright cyberespionage (APE).

Third, more than 80% of India's sensitive networks are reportedly already in Chinese hands, thanks to the Department of Telecommunications's irresponsible handling of a strategic security asset-our telecom networks. The risks will be exponentially magnified once we let Chinese companies into 5G, as 5G immensely facilitates cognitive communications. China's declared aim is to become the number one AI world power, and it is currently using AI to acquire total information control over its population. We do not yet know what AI is fully capable of, which means we are surrendering control over unknown realms to a country that has a history of belligerence towards India, demonstrated again by its reaction to the change in the status of Jammu and Kashmir.

Fourth, Chinese companies have ruthlessly underbid Indian companies in telecom tenders, no doubt massively subsidised by their country. After all, control of a country's communications is worth the small change! Added to this is DoT's refusal to release around Rs 1,000 crore owed to domestic companies, a partial list of which has been forwarded to our authorities, levying of one-sided discriminatory bank guarantees only on Indian companies, and forcing Indian companies to run around the world seeking expensive certifications. Domestic industries have thus effectively been ruled out of 4G networks. This especially is something for which "posterity will not forgive us," as Nivedita Haran, a senior IAS officer who has dedicated herself to the service of the nation, stated. Parliament must conduct a full audit of the loss of a high-tech ecosystem and its enormous multipliers due to DoT's actions.

The above, and recent discoveries of Chinese hardware Trojans in Supermicro motherboards, the exhaustive Mandiant report on the global cyberespionage of just one extraordinarily well-provisioned PLA unit, multiple US Congressional reports describing cybersecurity threat from China-all point to a massive, 24/7, multi-domain cyberespionage Chinese playbook, committing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of cyberwarriors to this task.

It would, therefore, defy belief if Chinese companies, obligated by law to follow the Chinese Communist Party's directions and share information with the State, would coyly refrain from exploiting their ownership of India's ICT networks to our disadvantage.

There is a solution. Telecom should be declared a strategic national asset as a defence horizontal, and a telecom security Act should be adopted. We can simultaneously initiate action to leapfrog straight to 6G! Parag Naik, who is the head of one of the world's top high-tech companies (Saankhya Labs), holds 6G patents. He painted an attractive picture of a high-tech India that supports its companies in launching an open, democratised, cognitive, indigenous 6G architecture. If the government supports the development of this technology, for which Indian companies already hold IPRs, India can leap straight to next-gen indigenous telecom networks. India could, in fact, become a high-tech 5G leader in manufacturing and worldwide exports, as a leading domestic telecom manufacturer confided. Many countries will trust Indian gear and rely on us as a safe alternative, particularly after the African Union headquarters hack by China, reported by Le Monde. This will also create thousands of high-tech jobs and massive multipliers, establish India at the forefront of technologically-advanced nations, and generate enormous national pride.

[The author is founder & chairperson, SITARA (Science, Indigenous Technology & Advanced Research Accelerator). Views are personal.]