By Col Sanjiv Kumar (Retd)
According to military terminology, a two-front war occurs, when opposing forces encounter on two geographically separate fronts. The forces of two or more allied parties usually simultaneously engage an opponent to increase their chances of success. The opponent consequently encounters severe logistic difficulties as it is forced to divide and disperse its troops, defend an extended front line and is at least partially cut off from access to trade and exterior resources.
The term has widely been used in a metaphorical sense, for example, to illustrate the dilemma of military commanders in the field. Two front war situations are brought about by geopolitical factors and while armies must be ready to fight it, politics has to ensure that it is avoided. All possible alliances must be explored if a two-front war is unavoidable. Wars are fought for political and economic objectives.
As the Northern border of India heats up, the Western border with Pakistan remains as volatile as ever. While the Generals have to make sure that their forces are placed in an advantageous position to win they need to be pragmatic and look beyond the rhetoric’s to please the ruling dispensation and allay the public fears.
A two-front war scenario, almost identical to the first World War would eventually aggregate in the European theatre during World War II, when Nazi Germany confronted allied France, Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and later the United States in the west and the Soviet Union to the east.
Shivaji the Great, in the 17th century, practised great statesmanship to create a ‘Hindavi Swarajya’ and successfully deal with a two-front situation. He faced Bijapur Sultanate in southern, an immediate front and Mughal/Rajput combined in the distant north. He adroitly exploited the Sunni-Mughal’s antipathy to Shia Sultanates of Bijapur and made sure of neutrality of Mughal/Rajput combine while he decimated the Bijapur Sultanate. At a later stage, when under Aurangzeb, the Mughal’s took on the Marathas and Bijapur Sultanate, Shivaji allied with Bijapur and helped them check the Mughals.
In the 1948 Israeli Arab War, the Israeli fought the Egyptians to the South and Jordanians in the East and North. In the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Israel was forced to fight a two-front war.
India and Two-Front War
For more than five decades, the Indian military has feared one thing above all else — a two-front war with China and Pakistan. By leveraging its size, military strength, and eventually its nuclear arsenal, India believed it could deter or manage conflict with either one of its nuclear-armed neighbours individually. But a collaborative threat from both adversaries would overstretch India’s resources and pose a formidable challenge.
Since the 1980s, China’s policy on Kashmir had evolved into a strong pro-Pakistani stance. Beijing has been providing diplomatic support for internationalizing the Kashmir issue in the United Nations and blocking any ban against its ally Pakistan.
As a result, India’s nightmare scenario — a two-front conflict with China and Pakistan simultaneously — looks likely to become a reality. What’s more, it is facing a two-and-a-half front challenge against China in the north, Pakistan in the west, and an insurgency in Kashmir.
Till 2019, while Indian Military leadership talked about a two-front war they were more focussed upon Pakistan as the covenant was based on an unstated understanding that if there was a war-like situation between India and Pakistan, China was unlikely to intervene directly.
The planning, and the limited resource accretion, was aimed at India fighting a short, aggressive 10-day war against Pakistan while holding its defences against China.
This resulted in a situation where the thinking was Pak centric and thus resulted in the limited stocking of ammunition and stores which has placed the Indian military at a disadvantage as India confronts a real two-and-a-half-front challenge, with China as the primary aggressor at its borders. The half front is internal proxies of external adversaries.
The one thing India must factor in any calculation about a possible conflict in the Eastern front is the eminent possibility of the Western front also becoming active.
Given the strategic collusion between China and Pakistan, it is a virtual no-brainer that if a shooting match starts between India and China, the Chinese will direct the Pakistanis, who are a vassal state of China, to jump into the fray.
For their part, the Pakistanis who are already seething over the constitutional changes made in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir will see it as a golden opportunity to even the scores with India.
The Pakistanis know that on their own there is no way they can launch a successful military operation to snatch Kashmir. Diplomatically and politically, their raving and ranting have got little traction. Their best hope is to catch India in a pincer – China on one side, they on the other – make some territorial gains in Kashmir. This means that India must be prepared for fighting on two fronts and not just one if things go downhill with the Chinese.
The Pakistanis will also activate the anti-national elements it has put into the J&K to threaten the lines of communication, thereby, sucking in a large number of security forces to keep the communication lines open.
The Challenges of a Two-Front War
In their public declamations over the past decade, top Indian military commanders have spoken of preparing for a two-front military threat. But what does this tasking mean in practice? Gen. Vij wrote that the Defense Minister’s operational directive of 2009 requires that Indian armed forces, “Should be prepared to fight on both fronts simultaneously a war at 30 days (intense) and 60 days (normal) rates.” (The intense and normal rates refer to rate of expenditure of ammunition when engaged in warfighting, with intense rates consuming three times the quantity of normal rates). By all accounts, India appears completely unprepared for a two-front conflict, let alone a Two-and-a-half front war.
Reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India have highlighted that stocks of 55 per cent types of ammunition were below the “minimum acceptable risk level” meant to last 20 days of warfighting. More alarmingly, stocks of 40 per cent types of ammunition were not sufficient for even 10 days of intense warfighting.
Gen. Bipin Rawat was then the vice chief of the army, he later explained that his focus in 2016 “was to build more reserves.” Notwithstanding the operational directive of preparing for a two-front war, he decided to focus on building up stocks for only 10 days of intense war with Pakistan, arguing that “If we can’t win a war with Pakistan in 10 days, there is no point of a war.”
There is little chance that these reserves would have been built up by the year 2020 before the tensions escalated on the disputed Ladakh border with China in May 2020.Gen. Vij’s warning about ammunition shortages might come to haunt the Indian Army if the current tensions with China on the LAC escalate into a full-on military conflict — especially if Pakistan joins in a pincer move on Kashmir.
It is not just ammunition and army’s equipment that is in short supply. The Indian Air Force’s shrinking fleet of fighter jets is equally worrisome, as was brought home during the Balakot strike. India’s newest fighter aircraft the 4.5-generation French Rafale will be faced against China’s indigenous claimed fifth-generation fighter, the J-20. Here the numbers will directly affect the outcome.
An old fleet also brings problems of serviceability and operational availability, an issue flagged by the air force and CAG. The then-Air Force Chief B.S. Dhanoa said in 2017 that 42 squadrons “is the minimum strength necessary to “dominate” a two-front conflict.”
However, the Indian Air Force currently has only 30 squadrons of fighter jets. His words that “reduced numbers place a severe handicap, akin to a cricket team playing with seven players instead of 11” is an ominous forewarning.
Unlike with Pakistan, any possible future war with China would be long drawn one. The terrain along the Sino- Indian Border does not allow large scale deployment of land forces so any war with China will undergo phases of intense, and not so intense phase. There are no scales or rates worked out for war against China. The war wastage reserve (WWR) rates of war with Pakistan have been used only to work out the scales, which may not be correct.
Fighting a Two-Front War
How would India execute such a war? In General Vij’s words “Strategically, India may consider adopting a posture of deterrence against Pakistan and dissuasion against China … This will result in optimization and application of forces as best-suited for such an operational scenario with available resources.”
Simply interpreted, it means that India would have to coercively preclude an attack from Pakistan by threatening an effective military reprisal causing unacceptable losses. This was also stated by Gen. Rawat earlier this month when he said that Pakistan would “suffer heavy losses.”
Against China, a posture of dissuasion means that India would be urging Beijing not to become a real military rival or fight a war. This was stated by both the foreign ministers in their joint statement in Moscow when they said that both sides shall “avoid any action that could escalate matters.” Dissuasion would not be achieved by crude threats of war and destruction from India but through the logic of strategic influence in a wider context.
Current Army Chief Gen. M. M. Naravane had also said, “To assume that in all cases both fronts would be 100 per cent active, I think that would be an incorrect assumption to make. In dealing with the two front scenarios, there will always be a priority front and a secondary front. That is how we look at dealing with this two-front threat.”
This means the priority front would be addressed differently, while the secondary front would be kept as dormant as possible to conserve resources to focus on the priority front.
All these theories sound fine but, as every military commander knows, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Further, China has proven more than once that it cannot be trusted, what prevents China is not sorting out the long-standing border disputes with India.
The reality is that a vast geographical separation between the two theatres rules out the rapid movement of a large quantum of troops from one sector to another, which would result in separation of forces. This would impose a major limitation on India, which would be made worse by an intractable Kashmir insurgency.
Even if these limitations can somehow be overcome by the imaginative military leadership and deft political guidance, it is hard to overcome the disadvantage imposed on an army when 68 per cent of its equipment is vintage, its ammunition holdings are far below the operationally desirable level of stocks, and high-end specialist military platforms are in short supply.
What should India Do?
The winters are around the corner, snow will make any war in the Himalayas practically impossible. This gives India time to undo the damage done in the last few years. This window must be used to effectively make up the reserves which have got depleted over the years due to reasons best known to leadership.
The deficient equipment needs to be made up of priority. While Make in India and Atmannirbhar Bharat are fine but to get industry in India to produce quality weapons is still some years away. Two front war does not give the luxury of as said by General Malik in 1999, “Doing with what we have”.
There is an urgent need to make the Armoured Fleet fully operational so that any gains in J&K can be countered with major gains in the Pakistani Punjab and Sindh regions.
Now is the time to mend bridges with neighbours, China has made certain inroads with neighbours of India. While everyone knows China cannot be trusted they are forced to toe the Chinese line due to the debts these countries are in.
It is time we actively engaged these countries so that the two front remains two front only and the Chinese do not tie down Indian Forces on other fronts in the Far East (Myanmar) and South (Sri Lanka).
China has an axe to grind with several countries it borders. Most of them individually cannot take on China. India is the strongest militarily in this region and only one who can stare back at China.
India should take the lead and ally with nations who have been bullied by China and are facing losing territory to Chinese hegemony. This will ensure that China is not able to pull out its forces from other theatre commands to be brought against India. With the current Force in the Western Theatre Command, it is not adequate to militarily defeat India.
Indian Military focus of the last 70 years has always been Pakistan centric, despite knowing well that Pakistan does not pose the real threat. Way back in the 1990’s some studies and think tanks had clearly stated that by 2025 China will be the main threat for India.
Unfortunately, this remained only on paper and no real effort was made to develop the capability against China. It was only in the last few years that some infrastructure improvements were undertaken along with the Chinese border areas. There is an urgent requirement to focus on the capacity and capability build-up against China so that it acts as a deterrent to Chinese adventurism.
Forging a stronger alliance with USA, Russia, Australia, Japan, Gulf and other ASEAN nations to counter China in the Pacific, Malacca Straights, Gulf of Hormuz etc choke Chinese energy supply.
Pakistan and China both have internal problems, India’s external intelligence agency RAW has to work on exploiting these issues. Large numbers of forces of both these countries are tied up in keeping these regions under control.
If the border heats up it will be time for RAW to ignite these regions to not only tie down the security forces to keep control on the areas, if some region- Sindh/ Baluchistan, Inner Mongolia or Xinxiang declares independence, all gains made against India in war will go down the drain.
Lastly and not the least, it is time for India to recognise Taiwan and Tibet as independent nations. Calling the bluff of the bully is the only answer to putting a bully into place.
To put it bluntly, a two-front war is a daunting challenge at the best of times, but a two-and-a-half front military challenge at this time would be a nightmare for India. This is not to argue that the Indian armed forces would not give a good fight, but even if they fought to the very best of their capabilities and optimized their potential in every possible way, the odds would be stacked against them.
The result would be bad for India and its partners — India’s political attention, military posture, and diplomatic efforts would be bogged down at its borders. India’s efforts to project power outside South Asia and assume a more prominent global role would be put on hold. It is time to be realistic and the rhetoric’s of the Generals willing to please the public by making bombastic statements should be kept in check.
*Author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed here are personal.