Intelligence, more than any other asset, can be a game changer in conflicts. An example from World War II illustrates this.
In May 1940, the British Army lay devastated at the French harbour of Dunkirk. In full retreat and with their morale low, over 330,000 troops were evacuated from the European theatre. Winston Churchill described it as a “colossal military disaster”, admitting that the army’s equipment, core and brain were in a shambles on the beaches of Dunkirk.
With the Nazi gaining complete dominance over Europe, Hitler was confident that the depleted British would have no option but to press for an armistice. But Britain continued to be defiant. After France surrendered in June, Hitler ordered preparations for a sea-borne invasion of Britain, called Operation Sea Lion.
The contours of the German invasion plan were straight-forward. It envisaged an armada of barges that would transport the invasion force and land them along the eastern coast of Britain. In anticipation, the British had thrown together remnants of their army and virtually every able-bodied soul into homeland defence along the coastline and at ports.
To succeed, the Germans needed to cross the English Channel without interference from the British Navy—still a formidable force. This required the German Air Force—the Luftwaffe—to achieve air superiority during the crossing. Hermann Goering, the Luftwaffe commander, was supremely confident of his ability to provide that air cover, because Luftwaffe outnumbered the Royal Air Force (RAF) by a factor of three.
In July, the Germans attacked British shipping in the English Channel, with devastating results. RAF fighters were hopelessly outnumbered. Soon, the Luftwaffe and German U-boats had stopped almost all British traffic through the channel.
Next, the Germans began attacking coastal airfields to destroy RAF capabilities and launch pads. And despite Hitler’s specific directives not to bomb London, the Luftwaffe first inadvertently and then deliberately attacked the capital, bombing it almost every day.
RAF realized its Achilles heel was numerical inadequacy, and that it could not engage the Luftwaffe in pitched battles. Even if its pilots performed magnificently, the superior German numbers would simply decimate them in sortie after sortie.
And so, the British developed a secret weapon, the “Dowding” system, named after air chief marshal Sir H.T.C. Dowding. This system consisted of 21 radar towers deployed along the eastern coast of Britain, and tasked to detect German air raids well before they approached the mainland. The strength, composition and thrust lines of the raiding parties were fed through a sophisticated system of telephones and wireless to the main control room, from where operational instructions were relayed to RAF squadrons best poised to confront the Luftwaffe.
The result was that RAF fighters seemed to magically appear whenever the Luftwaffe approached strategic targets. The Dowding system also leveraged Bletchley Park—the British code-breaking organization that had deciphered the German Enigma machines and could thus provide valuable intelligence by intercepting German communication.
This integrated system of information coming in penny packets from the radars, observers, Bletchley Park and other sightings was assembled to present a strategic picture to the British high command.
RAF decided to offset its numerical disadvantage by engaging only major German formations at tactically advantageous moments. The Dowding system allowed it to choose the killing ground and engage the Luftwaffe when it was more vulnerable—such as during the return trip, when fuel would be running low.
The radar was a relatively recent invention, and Goering didn’t appreciate the potential of this paradigm-shifting technology. The uncanny ability with which RAF fighters seemed to intercept the Luftwaffe frustrated him and forced him to assign more fighter escorts to the bombers. This aggravated the situation, because the German fighters now had less room to manoeuvre.
The Battle of Britain, as this campaign came to be known, was the first time that an integrated system was used in real time to defeat a numerically stronger enemy. Faced with such strategic intelligence, Goering was unable to provide the air superiority essential for the German assault. Soon, the US and the Soviet Union joined the war against the Axis powers, forcing Hitler to abandon his invasion plans.
The Dowding system allowed the British to use strategic intelligence as a force multiplier, enabling optimum use of scarce resources. Lacking a similar framework—and, more importantly, the vision to appreciate its value—the German high command fought the battle blind and far removed from the ground reality. It eventually lost to a force that was numerically disadvantaged, but strategically insightful.
The operational situations that India faces in its internal conflicts are highly fluid and opaque. Opportunities are fleeting and their immediate exploitation is critical, especially for conventional forces that by their very design are rigid and slower in response compared with their irregular adversaries. The only way security forces can offset this disadvantage is by implementing integrated frameworks that give them visibility of weak signals at their earliest occurrence. This would allow deployment of resources with surgical precision during the early stages of planning and attack, rather than force strategists to rely only on numerical superiority in later stages or post facto.
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