Evil Flower of South Asia: Indian Growing Cyber Warfare

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The strategic landscape of South Asia has always remained volatile with multiple trigger points spanning from economic to military domains with spillover effects in the politics of the region. Over the years, South Asian military dynamics have become intertwined with and influenced by Chinese role in the region. The natural alliance between Beijing and Islamabad is gradually strengthening and competing with the recently established security partnership between New Delhi and Washington. This has led to a full-scale strategic competition between Beijing and New Delhi which is evident from the recent Tibet-Aksai Chin crisis. Aside from the conventional domain, the two countries are competing and confronting each other in the unconventional domain as well notably 4th and 5th generation warfare. Since 2018, the U.S. has enabled Indian military through transfer of technology (ToT), joint military exercises, capability enhancement etc. following which the Indian military has pursued a proactive approach.

By actively developing its unconventional capabilities, Indian military’s posture has further become aggressive towards its neighbors. China has reported a renewed network of Indian cyber-hackers actively targeting Beijing and Islamabad. According to Chinese tech giant, 360 Security Technology, the network launched over 100 attacks on China that were monitored and captured in the initial phases. These attacks included Trojan horse, harpoon and phishing emails aimed at economic, defense, and government and education sector of the country. A report published by Anity Labs, Chinese Cybersecurity Company, highlighted that since March 2021, Indian-origin cyber-attacks have targeted defence and military units of the country.

Evil Flower, an Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) organization became active in November 2013 conducting attacks on Chinese organization. Evil Flower remained undetected until 2016 during which it conducted low-intensity attacks mainly aimed at cyber espionage. After its cover blew, it started high-intensity attacks against Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and several other countries. It is also reported Russia also fell a victim of Evil Flower. The scope of its attacks was not limited to a single domain.

As a response to Indian cyber-activism, Chinese cyber-army also became active against the Indian aggression in wake of the crisis in Himalayas. Recorded Future’s COO, Stuart Solomon, stated that Red Echo – a Chinese cyber-group – has been conducting systematic cyber-intrusions in almost twelve power grid and transmission nodes.

Indian cyber warfare is becoming over-ambitious as the country is expanding the horizon of its cyber operations. Dark Basin, an Indian cyber-threat group, has reported to conduct operations against advocacy groups, government officials, businessmen, politicians and journalists across six continents in the last seven years. Majority of the Indian cyber-attacks are not as lethal as that of the U.S., China, Russia, U.K. and others, it is seen that the country is spending heavily to develop sophisticated cyberspace capabilities and increase its cyber warfare strength. However, certain groups in the country have developed advanced custom-built tools which have proved effective for them.

Even though, India has launched massive disinformation campaign to highlight itself as a low-tier country in terms of cyber capabilities, the recent ToT by American military and subsequent doctrinal transformation coupled with joint cyber-exercises     shows that New Delhi is enhancing its capacity to operate in the international cyberspace spectrum at par with the leading powers. Greg Austin, Head of International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Cyber Programme, also outlined Indian progress in developing cyber-intelligence and cyber-offensive capabilities that are primarily focused on China and Pakistan. The U.S., the U.K. and France are facilitating India to build and strengthen its cyber capabilities. India is aiming to emerge as a leading cyber-power internationally where the U.S. is helping it since the combined cyber-power of America and its allies is greater than that of China – a mutual adversary of both the countries.

Indian military’s activism has seen an abrupt spike in its operations to intimidate its adversaries. Earlier, the country was confined to the conventional domain but now it is utilizing the digital spectrum for it with a focus on cyberspace and hybrid warfare. It is evident from India’s recent defence and security partnership drive that the country is aiming for building military ties with few of the top militaries in the world: this would enable Indian military to not only get latest weapons, and equipment but also increase its interoperability with them. As a whole, these country would facilitate infrastructure development and capacity enhancement of India. When Indian cyberspace posture is analyzed, it is seen that the Western military influence it from doctrinal to tactical level. India is amalgamating the acquired technologies with the indigenously-made to develop unique cutting-edge weapons to standout in the domain. COMCASA, BECA, DTTI etc. are few of the defense agreements signed between the U.S. and India to buttress New Delhi enabling it to emerge as a credible technological power in the region to safeguard mutual interests of the two countries. A probable trajectory that can be inferred from these development is that India plans to integrate its cyber capabilities into its military operations at full-scale. This would result in increase in 5th generation warfare keeping the escalation ladder in the region below the threshold of an all-out war. Through this, India would be able to achieve many of its strategic objectives without confronting any of its adversaries.

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