Speech by NSA of India, Amb. Shivshankar Menon at Indian Academy of Science

Science and Security

Indian Academy of Science, 9 November 2013


Science and technology have always been major factors in the security calculus through the ages. At the extreme, technology determined the ages of warfare, the strategy, tactics and art of war. Or so we are told. Yet is technology really the determining factor? The same discoveries and inven-tions, (gunpowder, the stirrup, and the compass), had very different effects in China, where they came first, and in Europe, where they led to revolutions in military affairs. Why was this so? What are the determining factors? The human choices involved are probably as much a result of culture, or strategic culture, as of technology.

We then look at war in the age of modern technology, where nuclear fission has expanded the domain and introduced new concepts such as deterrence.

Security in the age of technology is naturally an even broader question. Science has opened up new domains of contention in cyber and outer space, and their characteristics are still being explored and understood.

Lastly we look at how India has done in this respect.


Professor Dipankar Chatterji, President Indian Academy of Science,
Professor Grover, VC Panjab University,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen.

Thank you for asking me to speak to your annual meeting today. At first glance it may seem strange that a National Security Advisor is invited to speak to such a distinguished gathering of scientists. But on reflection there is logic at work here. Let me try and explain.

Science and technology have always been a major factor in the security calculus through the ages. This is as true of warfare as it is of security broadly defined. And its significance has only grown since the industrial revolution began. But its significance has changed over time. Besides, the relationship between science and security is seldom linear or predictable. I therefore thought that I would speak briefly on science and technology in war, on war in the age of modern technology, and on technology and se-curity. Finally we might look at where India stands today.

S&T in War

Science and warfare have always been intimately connected. That tech-nology is critical to war is now so widely recognized that military historians today define the ages of warfare by technological change rather than by the great generals or leaders associated with them. We now speak of the age of gunpowder, of industrial war, of the atomic age, and of modern war in the age of electronics or the age of systems.

This is not a new or post-industrial revolution phenomenon, though the pace of change has certainly accelerated in the last three centuries. In antiquity the invention of the stirrup and the high saddle in Asia, (when combined with the horseshoe, of unknown origin, and the compound bow), enabled cavalry to dominate the battlefield that previously belonged to infantry with edged weapons, as the 12th century Mongols showed to deadly effect. Of course the limitations of cavalry, that it could not hold ground or reduce fortifications, meant that infantry continued in new roles. From the 12th century until the end of the 17th century the proportion of cavalry to infantry in most successful armies (whether in Europe, India or China) was steady at around 1:2, until the musket, bayonet and flintlock increased infantry firepower, decimating cavalry and changing the ratio back to something like 1:5.

That was only one of the changes that gunpowder brought to warfare. Once gunpowder could be used as a propellant for cannon balls breaking down castle walls, tactics and strategy changed, as did the composition of armies, which now needed trained professionals rather than farmers as part-time soldiers. By the 17th century personal firearms extended the technology of gunpowder, making it more mobile and making the individual infantryman an instrument of firepower in his own right. When combined with the logistics revolution that long distance navigation, and soon the telegraph, mass production and railways made possible, we saw an age of industrial war by European nations against the non-industrial world from the 19th century onwards, and against each other in the twentieth century.

I will not labour the point. Examples of such change, of revolutions in mili-tary affairs as a result of the adoption of new technologies — gunpowder, navigation, radio, atomic energy, and electronics — are myriad and well known to military men, though not part of our science history curricula in schools and universities.

Incidentally, each time a new technology arrives the human reaction has been very similar. When the Spartan king Archidamus saw for the first time a weapon that could shoot darts through the air he reacted with alarm. “O Hercules,” he is said to have exclaimed, “the valour of man is at an end”. As you know he was a bit premature. When the crossbow was reinvented in Europe in the 11th century, men marvelled at its murderousness. Attempts were made to have it banned and declared fit for use only against heathens! There is a deep root for the many technology control and denial regimes that we see in the modern world.

The interesting question, however, is why even identical implements and technologies have been understood and used in entirely different ways in the hands of different societies. Gunpowder was known and used in China from the 7th century onwards but was only harnessed to warfare effectively towards the end of the 14th century, first in West Europe and then by the Mughals and others, long before China did so. Steel was manufactured in blast furnaces in China around 800 AD, thereafter in India, and in Western Europe after 1300 but was effectively applied to the manufacture of weapons in the Levant and Europe not East Asia. Clearly science and technology is a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition for enhanced military effectiveness.

To my mind the determining element was the human factor, the choices made by the elite responsible for military decisions. And those choices were guided by their social and cultural milieu, or from what we would now call their strategic culture. What do we mean by strategic culture? We mean the influence of our ideological and mental training and upbringing and the ways of thinking that we normally take for granted. I know that this is not an easy idea for scientists who are trained to think of a universal scientific method, which produces reproducible results irrespective of the country, culture or gender of those who carry out an experiment. But ask yourselves why certain countries, say India and Russia, for instance, consistently produce mathematicians of the highest quality. Or why a generation of path breaking nuclear physicists came from not just one country but one high school. While science itself is value neutral and culture free, technology, the choice of what to study, and how to apply science is not. It is the result of individual choices that reflect their milieu and upbringing.

It is that relationship between strategic culture and available technologies produced by science that determines not just the manner in which tech-nologies are applied to war, but the changes in tactics, strategy and what the Russians call the operational art. Often this goes beyond the military to the nature of society itself.

Let me mention an example of what I mean. Around 1800 BC the light chariot first made its appearance. It was an expensive and complex piece of military equipment, and when combined with the compound bow it could overrun all known opposition on even ground. But the same technology had very different effects in the various societies that adopted it. Where its ownership was private, as in Homeric Greece and through Persia to India, the light chariot gave rise to warrior aristocracies. Remember the Mahabharata. Where its ownership was public the light chariot helped to establish and maintain a strong centralised government, like that under Rameses in New Kingdom Egypt.

Industrial War

The industrial revolution brought total war, an era of mass industrialised warfare where quantity was quality. The highly skilled German war machine was overwhelmed in WWII by the material superiority of its opponents. (This is an oversimplification but true enough for our present purposes.)

The industrial revolution also established the idea of military invention as a permanent and systematic feature of modern war. Not just the invention of new weapons which has happened through the ages. The difference was the sustained conduct of military research with state support to take advantage of rapid technological change. (One has only to remember early research in radar, aeronautics, space science, and atomic energy to see how war drove the state to support basic research.) As a result the relationship between the state and industry, and between the state and research, became increasingly close, particularly during WWII and the Cold War. From the 1940s until the seventies military R&D led rather than followed the ideas of industry in critical sectors like electronics and aerospace. If not for this computers would probably have come some twelve to fifteen years later as also the first integrated circuits which led to the information revolution. After all the internet was first conceived in the sixties as a “post apocalyptic command grid” — as a means of maintaining strategic military communication in the event of a surprise nuclear attack.

War in the Age of Technology

As a result of that spurt of scientific research we have moved beyond in-dustrial war to war in the age of modern technology. If war was industrial-ised in the 19th and 20th centuries, it has since evolved further with the development of nuclear weapons, and then again with the creation of a whole new domain of contention in cyber space by Information and Communication Technology.

The creation of nuclear weapons by atomic physicists brought into being weapons of such unimaginable power that they changed the way in which we thought of war through previous centuries. The atomic military revolution required the development of a doctrine and a force capable of using technology in a new, innovative and unexpected way. The power of these weapons made war between the super-powers irrational under all but the most extreme circumstances. As Bernard Brodie explained in 1946, con-ventional military wisdom in the form of the principles of war simply did not apply in the nuclear world. Surprise and concentration of force no longer guaranteed victory. The nuclear era was therefore an era of the wars of decolonisation or national liberation, of small wars, for the most part involv-ing proxies rather than direct contention between the great powers as was the earlier norm in the wars of the industrial age before 1945.

Before nuclear weapons the main purpose of the military establishment was to win wars. After nuclear weapons the main purpose of the military establishment was to prevent them. And this was to be done through de-terrence, by threatening unacceptable damage upon an enemy who might attempt to win a nuclear exchange. This was paradoxical. In order to prevent the use of nuclear weapons, the adversary had to be convinced of the certainty of their use against him. The development of deterrence theory, different from earlier versions of dissuasion or coercion, and its ramifica-tions, including game theory and other refinements, was a direct result of the development of nuclear weapons. Since deterrence is sensitive to technological change, it therefore sustained military R&D efforts right through the Cold War.

There were of course problems with reliance on deterrence. What if some possessor of nuclear weapons did not understand that these weapons were not meant for use or as war fighting weapons? Fortunately nuclear weapons were the products of big science, requiring heavy capital investments and large and complex facilities. They were therefore in the hands of states. They have stayed there despite determined efforts by terrorists and others to get their hands on them. As a result it has been possible to deal with proliferation of nuclear weapons and their limitation through inter-state mechanisms like the IAEA, the NPT and so on.


If nuclear weapons were the result of big science, the ICT revolution is not. Many recent technologies that have carried forward the ICT revolution and its military applications are the result of private research and entrepre-neurship, of small science, unlike the Cold War pattern of military led and state organised or conducted research. Today the role of the state in new areas has shrunk to being a facilitator and provider of funds. The products of many of the new technologies are made in what would have been called handicraft industry in the past, not the large military industrial complex. I am told that this is even more true of the next generation of technologies in new materials, nanotechnology, genetics and biochemistry.

Where nuclear weapons placed unimaginable power in the hands of pos-sessor states, the ICT revolution has brought power into the hands of small groups and individuals, and made the state’s control over its physical borders irrelevant, while creating a whole new domain for contention in cyber space. The state’s legal monopoly of violence, long a fiction in practice, has been now been exposed. And the new information and communication technologies promote alternative forms of war. By enabling and empowering individual communications and small group operations these technologies make guerrilla warfare and sub-conventional conflict more likely, as also the use of asymmetry and deception, and conflict at the lower end of the spectrum of violence.

Many habits of thought that we learnt in the nuclear age, are now being stood on their head as a result of the ICT revolution’s effects. When attacks in cyber space are close to the speed of light, conventional deterrence can barely operate, and there is a clear premium on offense rather than defence. Cyber space is a borderless, anonymous and anarchic domain, where it is hard to ascribe an origin or source to attacks and other malicious activities.

The other new domain of contention that science has created is outer space which is increasingly being used for military purposes.

Technology and Security

It is clear that war is now completely permeated by technology and is even governed by it. At the same time technology has also changed the way in which we define security and think of it. Today we cannot consider national security without considering cyber security, and we look increasingly to technology for solutions to internal security issues. If we have had some success in intelligence based counter-terrorism operations recently, it is due in part to a combination of technological methods, including data fusion, with traditional intelligence trade craft.

As we urbanise our societies, technology becomes ever more important to policing and law and order. For the first time in history half the world’s population now lives in cities. India too is rapidly moving in that direction. Internal security in these situations, when aspirations and expectations have been aroused, will be achieved only if we are successful in finding technology based solutions.

Besides, in the borderless world that ICT has created, we now have no choice but to benchmark our domestic security efforts and institutions to international standards.

In fact I would go further and say that it is time that we started thinking about India’s technology security. This would involve not just our posses-sion of and access to technology, but also our ability to innovate, generate technology and, most important, to use it and apply it in creative ways to the solution of our problems.


In one sense military and security technology is evolving towards India’s strengths. The changes that I have described, from big, capital intensive state conducted science to the kind of knowledge intensive work that has resulted in the ICT revolution, and the new domains in cyber space and outer space, create areas that we should find comfortable to operate in. The question is how we can best organise ourselves to exploit these op-portunities. You are among the best judges of that. To me it seems that if we are to produce the technologies and outcomes that India’s national security requires, the traditional ways in which we have organised our scientific effort in India will need to change or at least be considerably supplemented. We need much stronger links between scientists and the services, and we need to break down the vertical silos in which we work today.

It is not for me to predict how future wars might be waged or how technology will evolve. The possible changes in war from the use of new materials, genetics, or nanotechnology are mind boggling. But I think it is certain that modern technology will play an increasing role in our security calculus. It has already made armies, wars, and their effects increasingly complicated and unpredictable. India is fortunate in having a cohort of world class scientists and a series of governments supportive of scientific research in the country. I am sure that Indian science and technology will make its contribution to the defence and security of India in this new age when sci-ence and technology are one of the most important pillars of India’s security.

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