CHANDIGARH: Recently there has been talk of India being in a position to fight a two front war.

In a two front war, fighting takes place on two geographically separate areas. Such a conflict requires independent composite forces to fight simultaneously, where switching of forces from one front to the other may not be possible or desirable.

Sometimes it could be the opponent who forces the other side to split its forces to fight on two widely separated fronts. As was the case for Pakistan during the Bangladesh war in 1971.

There are indeed innumerable instances in history where an opponent was compelled to fight on two fronts. The earliest such war was when the Roman Republic fought the first Macedonian War or the later war against Carthage. Since then there have been many instances of such conflicts and the more recent and at a large scale being the First and Second World Wars, where Germany had to contend with two front wars.

A two front war has its own complexities and compulsions. Though in the 1948 Israeli-Arab War, the Israelis successfully fought the Egyptians to the South and the Jordanians and Syria in the East and the North. Israel again fought two-front wars in the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. However Israel’s wars and its opponents is a different story and hold no lessons for a larger conflict in an altogether different setting. So is the case of Britain fighting against the Japanese in the East and Germans in North Africa, which again had an altogether different setting.

The prospect of a two front war had been the bane of the famous German General Staff for half a century across two World Wars. During the First World War, Germany relied on the Schlieffen Plan, where the aim was to quickly overpower France and then switch forces to the Russian front. However, the outcome of wars cannot be predetermined with any precision, because of the imponderable uncertainties, which come into play, and are inherent in the very nature of war. So Germany, on both occasions, could not cope with the demands of a two front war. Therefore, no one need take lightly the compulsions and capabilities required to fight a two front war.

Of late the Indian Army has laid claim to being able to successfully fight a two and a half front war. Though subsequently there has been a climb down from two and half front to a two front war. At the same time the Indian Air Force too has claimed that it can meet the demands of a two front war.

While the IAF is substantially down in its squadron strength, and a good part of the fleet is rather old, the Army, as is well known, is short of reserves of ammunition and other war requirements. Besides, it is lagging far behind in many areas of modernisation. Years of low allocations and poor procurements has had a debilitating effect on the capabilities of the Indian defence forces.

The two fronts that India has to contend with, from the point of view of terrain, climate and connectivity are quite apart. Therefore, organisation and equipping of forces required for each front are different:in some aspects very different. In the given setting, it would not be possible to overcome opposition on one front and then switch forces to deal with the second front : the concept on which Germany relied during both the World Wars and failed.

In any case possibilities of gaining complete success on one front, given the extremely short duration of wars, because of certainty of intervention by UN and global players, is unlikely.

It can be contended by some that, given the prevailing conditions a successful strategy could be to fight a defensive battle on one front and offensive on the second and adjust resources accordingly. Again the availability of total resources comes into play, where in to meet even the minimum requirement for the front, where a defensive battle is contemplated, may not be met. All this calls for a realistic appraisal and less of, or in fact no sabre rattling at all.

The issue of tactical nuclear weapons with Pakistan has come to the forefront and the ways and means to deal with such a situation, if these weapons are ever used. Some argue that because of the Cold Start concept evolved by the Indian army, Pakistan opted for such weapons.

Firstly there is no such thing as a Cold Start in the Indian setting, because the same does not sync with India’s strategic concepts nor can such a policy make any gains or achieve success. In fact Cold Start, in the Indo-Pak context could lead to what in military terms is called, ‘defeat in detail,’ as it runs counter to the very principle of war, called, ‘concentration of forces.’

Pakistan has opted for Tactical Nuclear Weapons to seek balance against the superior and larger Indian army, in the false assumption that their use will not lead to an all out nuclear war. What Pakistan has failed to appreciate and India failed to make clear is that use of Tactical Nuclear Weapons will decidedly descend into a full scale nuclear war and in such a situation, Pakistan will suffer far far greater damage and perhaps cease to exist as a country being turned into nuclear wasteland.

While India must rely more and more on diplomatic moves to resolve problems with those on the two fronts under discussion and others on the periphery at its borders, yet it must know that diplomacy without the backing of a strong military coupled with economic power can make little headway. Therefore, India needs to build the necessary military muscle and economic power for its diplomatic endeavours to succeed.

Those who claim that India can, as of now, meet the demands of a two front war may be pulling away from ground realities. In any case claims of such capabilities need to be avoided. Of course, if compelled to face such a situation, the Indian military will rise to meet the challenge: its present state notwithstanding.

(Lt General Harwant Singh is former Deputy Chief of Army Staff)