Can India Transcend Its Two-Front Challenge?
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, New Delhi believed it could deter or manage a conflict with either one of its nuclear-armed neighbors individually. But a collaborative threat from both adversaries would overstretch India’s resources and pose a formidable challenge.
Unfortunately for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government, India is close to realizing this nightmare scenario. Ties with Pakistan remain tense more than a year after a Pakistan-based terrorist group killed 40 Indian soldiers in a suicide bombing. The two countries exchanged airstrikes in the weeks that followed. In August 2019, New Delhi changed the legal status of Kashmir (which Pakistan also claims) by abrogating Article 370 of the Indian constitution, sending the relationship into a nosedive. India’s border dispute with China turned deadly this summer for the first time in decades. Hostilities with both countries have no end in sight. A pincer move by either of them would be made worse by the opening of another internal half-front in the Kashmir Valley, where anti-India sentiment is at an all-time high after the Indian federal government instituted harsh security measures against the restive population last year. Ironically, New Delhi’s moves in Kashmir — a longstanding objective of Modi’s political party designed, in part, to stabilize or quell India’s security challenges with Pakistan — and its strident rhetoric on border disputes with China contributed to the country’s current predicament.
Over the last decade, India’s military leadership has invoked the two-front threat to demand a greater share of national resources for the modernization of its armed forces. That 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 defenses against China. The limited stocking of ammunition and stores has placed the Indian military at a disadvantage as New Delhi confronts a real two-and-a-half-front challenge, with China as the primary aggressor at its borders. The result would be bad for India and its partners — New Delhi’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.
India will have to boldly rework its strategy to deal with this challenge and accommodate either of the adversaries. It won’t be easy due to India’s domestic politics and geopolitical considerations, but there are no other viable alternatives. Recent diplomatic efforts with China are a good start.
A “Hot” Line of Control
While the world’s attention has been focused on the Sino-Indian border recently, tensions between India and Pakistan have been overlooked. The number of ceasefire violations on the de facto border between the two countries in Jammu and Kashmir, called the Line of Control, has increased significantly. According to Pakistani news reports, there have been 2,158 ceasefire violations by India this year as of Sept. 6, which have left 17 civilians dead and 168 seriously injured. Data provided by Indian Army officials show that there have been 3,104 ceasefire violations as of Sept. 1, compared to 1,924 during the same period in 2019 and 994 in 2018. Notwithstanding the disparity in exact numbers — much depends on how either country defines a ceasefire violation — it clearly points to the fact that the Line of Control has been “hot” this summer.
The Indian military should have been prepared for increased activity along the Line of Control. In an interview this April, I asked Lt. Gen. B. S. Raju, the commander of the Srinagar-based Chinar Corps, if he expected the situation on the Line of Control to improve in the wake of the pandemic. Lt. Gen. Raju — the top military officer responsible for the Line of Control in Kashmir — told me that “Pakistan’s persistence in infiltrating terrorists, proliferating false propaganda are intended to disturb peace and its actions are unlikely to change anytime soon.”
It is not merely the data on yearly ceasefire violations that is so striking. The monthly breakdown of ceasefire violation data from the Indian Army officials demonstrates that the number of violations has significantly escalated since August 2019. On Aug. 5, Modi’s government altered India’s relationship with Jammu and Kashmir. New Delhi removed the special status Kashmir had long enjoyed, split it into two federally controlled territories, imprisoned all pro-India Kashmiri politicians, and imposed a very harsh physical and internet lockdown in the region.
At the time, these moves were seen by his supporters as a political masterstroke. Asserting de jure control over Kashmir had long been a central tenet of his party (the Bharatiya Janata Party) and Modi — months after re-election — had delivered. In the eyes of domestic and international critics, however, New Delhi’s new Kashmir policy was, at best, a short-sighted mistake and, at worst, a gross miscarriage of justice unbecoming of a secular democracy. Relations between India and Pakistan had already plummeted after the two countries were involved in a limited military skirmish following the Indian airstrikes in Balakot to avenge the Pulwama suicide bombing incident in February 2019. However, the decision on Kashmir in August opened up a new set of challenges for India with Pakistan and, more surprisingly, with China.
As soon as India bifurcated the erstwhile state into two federally controlled territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, the latter bordering Tibet, China clearly signaled its disapproval. China’s foreign ministry said, “We urge India to exercise prudence in its words and deeds concerning the boundary question, strictly abide by relevant agreements concluded between the two sides and avoid taking move that further complicate the boundary question.”
The strident Chinese statement took Indian officials by surprise. On Aug. 5, Modi’s right-hand man and India’s Home Minister Amit Shah had thundered in parliament about taking back Aksai Chin — another territory claimed by New Delhi and Beijing — at any cost. However, the prime minister had to suddenly rush his foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, to Beijing to placate the Chinese government. The ploy didn’t work. Wang Xianfeng, press officer at the Chinese mission in Islamabad, tweeted an article — which he later deleted — that stated that Foreign Minister Wang Yi had conveyed to Jaishankar that “India’s moves challenged China’s sovereign rights and interests and violated the agreement on maintaining peace and tranquility in the border areas between the two countries.”
A couple of days later, the Chinese permanent representative to the United Nations argued in a closed-door informal session of the U.N. Security Council that India’s decision to abrogate Article 370 challenged China’s sovereign interests and violated bilateral agreements on maintaining peace and stability in the border area.
Despite China’s protestations, senior Indian military leaders were supremely confident that China would do nothing. Gen. Bipin Rawat, who was then the army chief, and was promoted by Modi’s government to be India’s first ever chief of Defence Staff, assessed in September 2019:
The Chinese have got a vision and a plan. I don’t think they are going to come in and do anything at this moment. These pricks (making Ladakh a separate union territory) will not make them waver from their plan. They know when they have to do something. These small skirmishes will happen.
The strident and sustained Chinese response surprised the Indian leadership, which had banked on the strength of Modi’s personal relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two leaders had held an informal summit in Wuhan in April 2018, which was seen to have brought in a new era of trust and cooperation in bilateral ties. In May 2019, the Chinese government released its longstanding hold at the U.N. Security Council to allow the Indian demand to sanction Pakistan-based terrorist Maulana Masood Azhar. After the 73-day standoff at Doklam in 2017, there had been no major crisis on the border between the two armies, which lulled the military leadership into thinking that China was not an immediate threat.
Since the 1980s, China’s policy on Kashmir had evolved from a strong pro-Pakistani stance to a more balanced one between Pakistan and India. Beijing’s diplomatic support for internationalizing the Kashmir issue in the United Nations had also diminished over time, including during the 1999 Kargil War between India and Pakistan. But by upsetting the status quo and embracing confrontational rhetoric in August 2019, Modi’s government compelled China to take a more forceful official posture on territorial disputes. As a result, India’s nightmare scenario — a two-front conflict with China and Pakistan simultaneously — has become a reality. What’s more, it is in fact facing a two-and-a-half front challenge against China in the north, Pakistan in the west, and an insurgency in Kashmir.
Pakistan, of course, views Modi’s predicament with delight. For over half a century, the Pakistani military has sought to weaken New Delhi’s grip on Kashmir, dilute its influence in South Asia, and convince the international community that India — not Pakistan — was an aggressive, revisionist power. With its actions last August, the Indian government played right into Pakistan’s hands. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan has leapt at the opportunity to hurt India while it is under pressure from China. Former army chief, Gen. (ret.) N. C. Vij, predicted in 2018:
If there was to be a war between China and India, Pakistan would almost definitely activate the Western borders with a view to try and seize Kashmir, as Indian troops would be reduced to less than half the normal deployment opposite Pakistan. There will be very little possibility of switching troops and resources from one front to another in case of a war on two fronts.
While India is facing a two-front war, and an additional half-front open internally in Kashmir, its military leadership appears confident. Gen. Rawat noted last week that India has “taken adequate precautions to ensure that any such misadventure by Pakistan is thwarted, and they are not able to succeed in their mission. In fact, they may suffer heavy losses should they attempt any misadventure.” Despite the strong official posturing, can India live up to its top military officer’s words?
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 (calculated on the basis of estimates, previous war data of expenditure, and technical specifications), 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 India’s constitutionally mandated auditor have highlighted that stocks of 55 percent types of ammunition were below the “minimum acceptable risk level” meant to last 20 days of warfighting. More alarmingly, stocks of 40 percent types of ammunition were not sufficient for even 10 days of intense warfighting. A retired major general explained that this led then-Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar to arrive at a decision in 2016 to stock only 10 days of ammunition for the entire army from the “earlier much inflated figures” of 40 days — slashed to the “minimum acceptable risk level” of 20 days in 1999.
Gen. 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.”
Unlike with Pakistan, Rawat said that a possible future war with China would be drawn out. “And hence it is felt that we should prepare for 30 I (30 days of intense war) … Also, in case of any issue, we can always move arms, ammunition, and men from one location to another.” In other words, even in late 2019, the Indian Army had only stocked ammunition for a 10-day war with Pakistan and was still in the process of building the stocks up for a military conflict with China.
There is little chance that these reserves would have been built up this year before the tensions escalated on the disputed Ladakh border with China in May. As a result, the government in June gave enhanced financial powers to the army to undertake emergency procurement. Nearly all of these emergency procurements have been for ammunition from foreign suppliers. Gen. Vij’s warning about ammunition shortages might come to haunt the Indian Army if the current tensions with China on the Line of Actual Control escalate into a full-on military conflict — especially if Pakistan joins in a pincer move on Kashmir.
It is not just ammunition 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. The air force fielded a Soviet-era MiG-21, which was easily shot down by the Pakistan Air Force’s F-16 and the pilot taken captive. India’s newest fighter aircraft is the 4.5-generation French Rafale. The air force recently accepted five Rafale and will have a total of 36 by 2022. The Indian Air Force will face China’s indigenous fifth generation fighter, the J-20. An old fleet also brings problems of serviceability and operational availability, an issue flagged by the air force and government auditors.
However, the most pressing problem facing the Indian air force is not just the age of its fleet, but its size. 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” sound ominous in the current scenario.
Fighting a Two-Front War
Senior Indian military commanders plan to execute a two-front war by prioritizing only one front for active operations, keeping the other one dormant through defensive measures, and handing over counterinsurgency duties in Kashmir to central police forces. Even though they acknowledge Kashmir as a half-front, they only talk in strict military terms of a two-front war against external adversaries, assuming that the military would not be dealing with the internal challenge of Kashmir in such a scenario.
How would India execute such a war? Gen. Vij explains, “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, Gen. Vij 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 New Delhi 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 explained the modus operandi at a seminar this May:
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.
He said the priority front would be addressed in a different manner, while the secondary front would be kept as dormant as possible in order to conserve resources to focus on the priority front.
Gen. Rawat reiterated that plan this month when the two-front threat seemed more real, stating that the military strategy to deal with a twin challenge would be based on identifying a primary and a secondary front for conducting operations. But it goes contrary to Gen. Vij’s warning that “It will not be possible for India to deal with both the fronts piecemeal; they will have to be handled simultaneously.”
All these theories sound fine but, as every military commander knows, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. The reality is that a vast geographical separation between the two theaters 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 imaginative military leadership and deft political guidance, it is hard to overcome the disadvantage imposed on an army when 68 percent 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.
That such a crisis is arising at a time when India’s economy is going through its worst crisis since its independence, its GDP having shrunk 23.9 percent in the last quarter — the worst performance globally among major economies — only makes the challenge bigger for India. Modi’s government is also confronting the challenge of combating a raging pandemic. The majoritarian politics of the government has polarized a diverse Indian society and a hyper-partisan nationalist media has not helped matters either.
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 Way Out
The border dispute in Ladakh with China is now a full-blown crisis and only a major initiative from the top political leadership has a chance, however limited, of achieving a breakthrough. Modi, however, has tried to avoid taking ownership of the crisis, pushing the military to the forefront. Senior military commanders have led talks that would have usually been fronted by senior diplomats and political leaders. Things are on a knife’s edge on the Line of Actual Control, and the onus is now upon Modi to take that chance with Xi, who he has met 18 times since taking office. Modi has taken great pride in his personalized diplomacy and he needs to deliver for his government and the country.
If India can avoid a two-front external war now, it will still need to find answers to this conundrum in the long run. The easiest way is to increase the defense budget, but India’s diminishing economic growth precludes that possibility. Nearly a third of the total capital expenditure incurred by India’s federal government goes towards defense procurement, and any further increase in the defense budget will impinge on India’s equally pressing developmental needs. A major chunk of the existing defense budget goes towards servicing pensions and salaries but with a nationalist government under Modi in place, there is no chance of implementing any plans that slash benefits for personnel.
In addition, India cannot grow its way out of this crisis. Back of the envelope calculations show that the economy would have to sustain an 18 percent growth rate over a decade to provide adequate resources to build the military without cutting down on any other important government expenditure. This, of course, is not possible. Hoping for such a high growth rate over a sustained period cannot be a strategy.
It can be argued that such alarming developments in the conventional domain will increase the possibility of nuclear escalation between the three countries, with one of the weaker powers in the triad lowering its nuclear threshold. In a limited war scenario envisaged between these countries, it is hard to imagine that such an option would be even rhetorically exercised. The need for strategic global alliances and a weak economy would preclude any such move by India, more so when the two-front threat from China and Pakistan is established to be collusive. Any threatening move against the weaker adversary would then be construed as threatening the stronger adversary, placing India’s decision-makers in the unenviable position of choosing between equally unfavorable options.
The only pragmatic way ahead is to ensure that one of the two fronts no longer remains a front. This requires India’s political leadership to have the boldness and the imagination to strike a deal with one of the adversaries for the greater good.
A rational choice for New Delhi would be to find a modus vivendi with China. Doing so, of course, would be extremely difficult. The bilateral relationship has turned toxic after the deadly brawl in Ladakh on June 15, and India’s growing defense ties with the United States cause alarm in Beijing. However, India has overcome mistrust with China before. This would be the model followed by Indian political leadership since the 1990s, when New Delhi and Beijing signed agreements and found ways to manage the relationship. The Indian establishment was, however, always aware that China provides a bigger strategic challenge than Pakistan in the long run. With the world in flux, New Delhi is being confronted with the realities of dealing with a new China.
Evidently, India is in no position to bargain and get a good deal from China. Beijing is a much bigger power with global ambitions, and New Delhi will neither accept a subservient role nor will it be able trust China for the foreseeable future. That leaves the option of engagement and peace with Pakistan, India’s historical adversary. However, this was ruled out by Gen. Rawat last week as Pakistan, he says, “has been launching proxy war, and sponsoring, training, arming and equipping terrorists on their soil, which they keep infiltrating into Jammu and Kashmir.”
Moreover, there is a political reason for India being unable to seek a deal with Pakistan. Modi’s political campaigning has always invoked Pakistan as an adversary, and his party’s majoritarian political narrative works by surreptitiously identifying Indian Muslims with an enemy country like Pakistan. A U-turn on what has consistently been his most successful electoral and political strategy will not be acceptable either to Modi or to his party, his political supporters, and his ideological mentors.
China’s growing power and assertiveness has unraveled India’s strategy of managing the relationship with Beijing while focusing on a troublesome Pakistan. As India’s economy has plummeted, New Delhi is unable to modernize its military to tackle the collusive two-front threat. India’s new security posture under Modi has opened another half-front internally in Kashmir, further compounding the problem for India’s strategic planners.
Trapped between its domestic majoritarian politics, its crumbling economy, and its proud military, India’s strategy for tackling a two-front military challenge needs a fundamental shift. If the cost of pursuing such a radical course seems very high, the price for chasing easy alternatives is far worse.
Sushant Singh is an award-winning journalist and former Indian Army officer. He has taught a course in political science at Yale University.