The Challenges Of A Two Front War
India’s initial euphoria after independence was carried forward by the then leadership to imply there was no threat to this peace loving nation. Pakistani incursions in J&K in 1947-48 suddenly brought reality to the table. The humiliating defeat in Sino-Indian war of 1962 was a wake-up call. In 1963 Pakistan ceded 5160 sq km territory in Karakoram region of Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) to China to seek friendship. Sensing an opportunity, Pakistan tried to take advantage and waged a failed war in 1965. The 1971 Indo-Pak war saw break up of Pakistan and 93,000 soldiers being taken prisoners of war. The last misadventure in Kargil saw heavy casualties for Pakistan Army. China which was still evolving economically did not come in support of Pakistan in any of these conflicts. Pakistan military which has been in power (or in control) for most of country’s history always faced humiliating defeats. It is thus clear that Pakistan cannot win a one-on-one war.
Since 1989 Pakistan has been engaged in a proxy war against India through infiltrated terror. 1998 saw both India and Pakistan overtly becoming nuclear powers. The US Congress’ Pressler amendment put severe restrictions on sale of arms to Pakistan and forced it closer to China. China helped Pakistan build a military industrial complex, and covertly assisted it in acquiring missile and nuclear technologies. In return Pakistan allowed China to build and use Gwadar port, and more recently China has committed investment of US$ 46 billion to build the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China has adopted a belligerent attitude in its territorial claims with all its neighbours including in Tibet, Arunachal, South China Sea and East China Sea. With such heavy stakes in Pakistan, there is greater possibility that China may defend Pakistan in case of a war with India. For long, the three Services have been considering a ‘two-front war’ though it has got public attention only recently.
India’s current Army capability is around twice that of Pakistan, IAF is 1.6 times bigger and Indian Navy is around three times more capable. On the other hand the Chinese Army is nearly 2.5 times bigger and Navy and Air Force two times larger than India. For India to give a credible fight in a two-front war, the Armed forces and equipment would have to be increased by at least 50%. This may take nearly 15-20 years and huge allotment of funds. Pakistan has the advantage of military calling the shots and thus quicker military procurement decisions. With much larger Chinese economy, the military build up gap will continue to increase. China has already established a state of the art military industrial complex and unlike India is less dependent on hardware imports. At 1.7% of GDP, India’s defence budget of US$ 49 billion is less than one third of China. Pakistan also has an openly stated ‘First Use Nuclear’ policy which they vocally claim has a low threshold.
Conversely, China now has a slowing economy. With major economic stakes in Pakistan, and an ambition to become a global super-power, will it allow Pakistan to enter into a full scale war with India is questionable. With over US$ 100 billion trade and eye on the fastest growing Indian market, China has a lot to lose in case of a war. Any loss for India will have a great impact on US and Russian economies. India and China work closely in powerful world forums like UN, G-20, BRICS, and SCO etc. Will the world allow such a two-front scenario to develop? I think it is unlikely. Notwithstanding, India needs to prepare for this scenario.
Action plan India should evolve accordingly. India needs to keep traditional friend Russia in good humour, simultaneously accelerate strengthening ties with USA, Europe, Japan, Vietnam and Australia. India should continue more military exercises with these nations to build synergy. This will put pressure on China. Declare a ‘First Use Nuclear’ policy in case of a two-front war. Build a sizeable nuclear deterrent against China. Take help from Israel and others to accelerate work on missile defence shield. Increase defence budget to around 2.75% of GDP for next 15 years. Give greater push and impetus for Make-in-India for Defence production, something we should have done 50 years back. Like China, India has to invest heavily in border infrastructure both in road and rail. India Army needs much more mountain war capability. At least two additional Corps will be required in the long run to counter China’s nearly 450,000 troops across northern border. Mountain warfare will also require large numbers of ultra-light howitzers. Chinese Air Force has managed aggressive modernisation. With seven active Chinese airbases in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) region and many more in Chengdu Military region east of Myanmar, India has significant air threat to counter. China has disadvantage of high-altitude airfields restricting weapon load. Yet, for a two-front war the IAF strength has to eventually go up to around 50 combat Squadrons. Chinese ballistic missile hitting IAF airfields in the Assam valley has to be countered. IAF will require more Boeing C-17 class aircraft for inter-theatre movements. More heavy lift helicopters are required for inter-valley shift of troops and equipment at short notice. At least two more airfields have to come up in the Assam valley to be able to operate SU-30 class fighters. The Advanced landing Grounds (ALG) need to increase and made more capable. Indian Navy will require more nuclear submarines. A powerful Indian Navy could help put pressure on critical petro-chemical Chinese shipping. A single Chinese Tri-Service integrated Command in TAR will be pitted against Indian Army’s four and IAF’s three commands. India may need to review higher defence structure. Like China which regularly conducts exercises in Tibet, Indian Armed Forces must do more joint training in mountainous terrain.
China will hesitate to get into a war with nuclear India and also global sympathy will be with the emerging India. China’s strategic advantage lies in good and quick decision making and enormous flexibility before and during the war. This is made possible by close politico-military interaction. China is known to begin with coercion and intimidation. China has enough logistics, ammunition and missile storage arrangements in the TAR and could field over 20 divisions at high state of alert. Chinese troops are at heights and are pre-acclimatised. Indian troops coming from the valley will require time. PLA’s Special Forces dropped in the Brahmaputra valley can impede Indian operations. China also possesses tactical nuclear weapons. In mountains there will be little collateral damage. India needs to have the same. China is today a Cyber super power and India will have to defend from such attacks. China’s demonstrated anti-satellite (ASAT) capability has also to be contended with. But unlike 1962, India is in a good position and capable of giving them a bloody nose. Indian has to demonstrate political will to come heavily on terror and secessionist movement in Kashmir. India has to show resolve to repeat punitive acts across LoC, even if it just means heavy artillery shelling. India must act on Indus Water Treaty to use full water and keep the threat alive. China stopping Brahmaputra water will have minimal effect. Like China, India must learn to pursue national interests and territorial claims unapologetically. China and Pakistan are bound to come closer in years to come. Chinese military presence in Pakistan will increase in the guise of defending CPEC. Pakistan is already a client state of China. India has to concentrate on capability and deterrence development.