Two and a half front war: Continental strategy & scenario

“The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.”                                                                ― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Part I covered the India-China civilizational connect which prevented a confrontation let alone a conflict during the pre-independence of both countries, and genesis of the boundary impasse. In Part II, the resolution/ way forward for resolving the issue was analysed which essentially calls for statesmanship, and atmospherics of ‘Give and Take’, out of box thinking, avoiding irritants, and focus on national objectives and interests for the long term. This Part provides a flavor of the much hyped ‘Two and Half Front War’, spoken of quite frequently whenever India’s sovereignty, integrity, security and strategic freedom of India is discussed. At the outset one would de-link the narrative from the ongoing tensions along the LAC, and most importantly it is imperative to understand that armed forces/militaries do not go to war but nations go to war, and this fundamental truth must be addressed accordingly by every citizen, political parties and leaders. Conflict scenario due to space constraints is discussed at the strategic level, to showcase the immense scope, multi-dimensional nature and its complexity.

Preamble

Emerging multi-polar world, multi-domain security challenges both kinetic and non-kinetic, rise of authoritarianism, nationalism and bilateralism, threat of climate change, economic slowdown leading to trade wars and barriers, contest for strategic space and alliances is compelling ALL countries to carry out dynamic strategic balancing, leading to a turbulent international and regional security environment. Nations will now remain in a state of ‘constant engagement’.

Geography and security related zones still conform except for the global players USA, China and to some extent Russia. 24X7 Multi-Domain environment/activity has changed the security landscape globally and blurred the distinctions between peace and war, scope of confrontational activities and even levels of conflict (blurring distinction between tactical to strategic). China has emerged as a global power with increasingly aggressive manoeuvres to expand its strategic space (from economic, political to military), ready to take on USA and allies in an ideological confrontation. It is a truism that it will brook no interference from India in its quest for Asian supremacy. With deliberately unresolved boundary disputes (Out of 14 boundary disputes only two with India and Bhutan remain unresolved) and collusivity with client state Pakistan, India needs to be prepared for a two-front conflict, however remote the probability may appear.

War/conflict is not a game of numbers, however, the current comprehensive power ratios especially armed forces of India vis-a-vis China and Pakistan are challenging. India ideally seeks to adopt a credible deterrent and punitive deterrent posture against China and Pakistan respectively. For this our CNP (comprehensive national power), the national security apparatus, economic positioning, military modernization structurally, hardware and software (including true integration and jointness in the form of Theatre Commands) NEEDS TO BE TRANSFORMED to create requisite capacities and capabilities to compete, confront and if necessary fight a two-front future war in a 24X7 Multi-Domain Environment (MDE). Assertive China’s other interests (existential importance of BRI (belt and road initiative) and CPEC), her relationship with Pakistan and South Asian nations, her suspicions about Tibet, dependence on Indian Ocean Region (IOR), India’s growing alliances (US, QUAD), and her desire to maintain levers in the relationship with India suggest that a boundary settlement is not a Chinese priority at present.

Emergence of Multi Domain Operations/Environment/War (MDO/E/W) and its impact on the Future Confrontations and Conflict

Multi Domain Operation envisions the nation deploying and employing all facets of comprehensive national power (CNP) including the military (not exclusively) and specially game changing technology, from diplomacy to economic leverages, fighters to destroyers, space shuttle to submarine, cyber to satellites, social media to psychological operations, AI (artificial intelligence), big data to networks, tanks to attack helicopters, munition factory worker to hacks— working together intrinsically as ONE, to overwhelm the adversary with attacks from all domains: land, sea (including sub-surface), air, space, cyberspace, psychological and networks centric operations, dense urban, information influence operations (IIO) including social media.

Future wars will blur the distinction between war, peace and confrontation. Battle space has expanded, converged and compressed all at once (truly oxymoronic!); tactically, by bringing kinetic and non-kinetic effects to bear from any place in the world and, strategically, by being able to challenge the deployment and echeloning of forces into the fight at all places simultaneously (even US homeland is no longer safe from kinetic and non-kinetic attacks; missiles, cyber, psychological, network attacks).

To illustrate, an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) /PGM (precision guided munition)/ cyber virus/trade sanctions /HALE (high altitude long endurance) drone can be launched from any part of China and will impact the close support area/forward localities, military rear areas, and concurrently military and civilian targets across the length and breadth of the country. Similarly, an Indian ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) Brahmos/ Prithvi missile/perception management operations launched from near the LC/LAC can target an LAC bunker or a strategic/operational target in Tibet and even mainland China depending on range of domain/weapon system.

The Chinese seem to believe that ‘quantity has its own quality’ and so they mass produce and sell defence related systems. MDW (multi domain operations) calls for a change of thought process, ‘a transformation and not just modernisation’. We need to go beyond the current jointmanship and synchronization of operations, and thus the requirement of Theatre Commands. On the multi-dimensional chessboard, the facts of geography, the ambitions of strategy and the realities of politics and technology all interact.

In Indian context specially with reference to borders, use of land power remains the most conclusive instrument of strategy and ‘whether or not land constitutes the principal geographical medium on which combat is waged, strategic effect must ultimately have its way in a territorial context’. I would like to categorically state that from a strategic and military point of view, for India to take its destined place as a regional power in the mid-term and a global power in the long term, we need to be an economic, diplomatic, continental, maritime, air, space, cyber, military, economic, technological and information power– a Multi Domain Power. 

Important International and National Security Truisms

  • ‘No permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interest’; at best we may obtain intelligence, material and moral support; WE NEED TO BE PREPARED TO FIGHT ALONE.
  • Blurred distinctions between war and peace, and tactical to strategic operations.
  • Deterrence potency of even global powers have diminished, impacting their capabilities to dictate global affairs.
  • Non-kinetic verticals often stay below nation’s red lines, defy attributability, making proportionate response difficult.
  • Hostile remote LC/LAC regions provides impetus for adventurism.
  • Lack of a formal written/promulgated India’s strategic doctrine/National Security Strategy (NSS).
  • ‘The now permanent, strategic China-Pakistan collusive partnership has brought in a whole new equation, with a much more expanded assistance in multi domain expected from China even in case of an Indo-Pak war’, and also waging a proxy war.

The Statistical Ratios also provide a Narrative

Everyone understands that wars are not based on just numbers, however, today smaller nations with low populations are very unlikely to become major powers. Numerous Think Tanks provide data on a country’s CNP (comprehensive national power) specially military force ratios of which Lowy Institute, Australia provides very detailed interactive data. Readers should surf for very interesting deductions and can also read ‘The sobering arithmetic of a two-front war’ by Abhijnan Rej, ORF Special Report, 10 Jul 2018 It is apparent that even with partial force application by China (up to 30%) and full force application by Pakistan the numbers are challenging for India.

Two and a Half Front Scenarios.

Firstly, China initiating conflict against India with restricted political and military aim, as an all-out war is improbable due numerous considerations of international power equations, economic and political considerations, competing strategic alliances, status of nuclear weapon states, slow Chinese decline in economic growth and internal security compulsions, priority of other regions like South East and East Asian nations and seas, Taiwan, inability to control Indian Ocean Region and with Pakistan entering the conflict sensing a strategic opportunity specially regarding Kashmir. This is the most likely scenario.

Secondly, India carrying out pro-active operations against Pakistan and China joining the conflict (unlikely)/drawn in due to political or even existential considerations [while existential may sound ludicrous, I firmly believe that success of BRI of which CPEC is a pivotal part is existential to CCP to meet growing aspirations of a restless Chinese populace].

Thirdly, a planned orchestrated two-front war by China and Pakistan with synergy in all domains. All three being nuclear weapon states complicates the already combustible situation, and invites early global intervention. However, an unstable pre-occupied world security (COVID-19) and lure of ‘out of proportion strategic gains’ in a short swift war could create conditions for this scenario. This will provide the stiffest challenge for India. The Half Front refers to internal disturbance/insurgencies in union territories of J&K and Ladakh, North East states and real threat of LWE (Left Wing Extremism) that currently consumes 90 districts across 11 states as per government of India.

Strategic Overview of Conflict

Having highlighted challenging force ratios and the emerging MDO (multi domain operations) scenario, one should also understand that it is not 1962, and our current force structures coupled with the attrition filled Himalayan terrain where the scenario is likely to pan out, will allow our Armed Forces to adopt (limited) punitive posture against Pakistan and dissuasive posture against China with limited offensive capability.

The vital role of Air Force which enjoys a strategic advantage of operating from lower altitudes against China (with diminishing assets it needs an urgent push in numbers and technology to fulfil its role of counter air and counter surface operations which are both battle winning and battle changing capabilities), and of the Navy which can cause considerable attrition to both Chinese and Pakistan naval assets if they manage to draw them into the IOR (Indian Ocean Region) bears mention.

It is important to highlight that there is very little possibility to switch our forces and resources between fronts (applicable to both Army and Air Force while the Navy will need to be deployed along both the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal), and there will be almost total situational awareness with the adversaries given Chinese capabilities (our own capabilities are moderate unless we persuade USA to chip in as Russia is likely to remain neutral).

We discuss a well-orchestrated joint China-Pakistan pro-active operation.  The confrontation being political, it could be ‘to teach India a lesson and show the world’ her power projection potential of an ‘Arrived Super Power’ (in the process, humiliate India/impact India’s aspirations), while Pakistan would like to resolve the Kashmir Valley equation to her advantage. J&K is the only area where there is physical collusivity between China and Pakistan, and East Ladakh is vulnerable because of terrain, remoteness and sector segregation, mechanized forces operating conditions and own lack of infrastructure. Operations could start as an aggressive competition and confrontation using both kinetic and non-kinetic means but could easily escalate to a broader conflict. Deploying and employing land, maritime and air resources and routes and bases through other immediate neighbours cannot be ruled out.

Getting to more specifics, China and Pakistan operating along our Northern and Western Borders (both prosecuting MDO (multi domain operations) pan India in hinterland also), we anticipate their employment of fires across domains – cyber, computer, Information Influence Operations (IIO) specially social media, hybrid, electro-magnetic spectrum, space, application of PDIME (political, diplomatic, information, military and economic) during peace (constant competition) and imposition of their will with increasing tempo, focus and lethality just prior to conflict to try and achieve his political and military aims, without fighting. Shifting gears to actual combat both countries will employ their air assets including attack helicopters, ISR (intelligence, surveillance target acquisition) capabilities, special forces, rockets, missiles and artillery to degrade our strategic, operational and tactical assets and military forces, isolate the battle field, and then employ offensive forces to defeat our land and air forces in detail.

Permanent terminal objectives even in the event of a full-scale war are most likely to be Chinese perception of his traditional borders which in Ladakh are close to the current LAC and in the Eastern Front includes the state of Arunachal Pradesh. For Pakistan it would like to capture maximum territory in J&K and along our Western borders to use for strategic bargaining in the Valley. Except for the physical land boundary disputes, there is no other territorial or maritime disputes with China. However, terminal objectives would be dictated by their political aim translated into military objectives, battle field success in terms of real estate, domains, battlefield casualties (especially Chinese) and vulnerabilities.

India’s response especially military including resolve and war fighting potential, international reactions and the nuclear dimension; the same is being war gamed on a regular basis at the strategic and operational level within our Armed Forces. The intensity of hard and soft power would be nothing like the nation or our troops would have experienced. We have one of the most battle-hardened troops in the world, but the intangible effect of psychological and information operations, isolation, lack of situational awareness, operating in a degraded environment coupled with a 360-degree conflict with no front, rear and flanks will certainly impact them; if we do not train, prepare and have the capacity to counter and negate their design of conflict.

China will wage such a war; however just as a stalemate for India is considered a defeat, when we launch pro-active operations against Pakistan, the same is applicable to China. Their aim would be to achieve their political and military objectives swiftly. Our internal situation will be handled adequately by Central Armed Police Forces with Army deployed at more sensitive sites and in reserve. The logistic trains will be well protected and systems are in place to ensure smooth chain supply without disruption with ample contingencies.

For India, as already highlighted, formidable terrain friction along the LAC, LC and AGPL (actual ground position line) where the land wars will be fought (Pakistan or India could initiate conflict across the international border where the dynamics are in our favour) will consume troops of the attacker (high ratios of 6 to 9 times) and will be to our advantage. Our dug in well-fortified and stocked positions will continue to hold ground despite being encircled or bypassed and will need physical clearing, own effective general and close fire support (artillery, rockets, missiles, EW (electronic warfare), optimum use of attack/armed helicopters, cyber war), strategic and operational logistics, timely ammunition, equipment and troop reinforcements, synergized counter air and counter surface support, opening up of new/different fronts/areas, newly acquired strategic lift capabilities and most importantly conduct of Theatre MDO and keeping a major portion of our strategic strike forces (four strike Corps including the Mountain Strike Corps) largely uncommitted for limited offensive operations /riposte and continuously recreating reserves, will ensure a slow grinding attrition based defensive operations unbalancing and stalling their offensive. 

While it will be a challenge, we must keep increasing our military capabilities to impose prohibitive costs to deter this adventure. As of now it is appreciated, that in case of a two-front war, we can defend ourselves, launch limited offensive operations, and cause prohibitive degradation of aggressors’ Armed Forces to thwart their political and military objectives, given the proven ethos, training, combat experience, resolve, leadership and professionalism of our Armed Forces. 

The Way Forward

Given the international and regional dynamic security situation, our national economic situation, slow pace of indigenization (Make in India), the operational necessity of holistic capacity and capability building of our Armed Forces as a pivot of CNP (comprehensive national power) is a strategic imperative. It will be pragmatic to have a two-phase strategy to strengthen and optimize our national security apparatus viz Phase 1 – Immediate future (3-5 years) and Long-Term Plan (beyond 5 years). Some essential national and military measures are listed below.

Immediate Future Plan (3-5 years, which will automatically spillover into the long term)

  • Strategic Direction for the Nation and the Armed Forces and formal and if necessary government orders leading to true Tri-services integration and commencement of Theatre Commands raising (already on).
  • Increased Budgetary Allocations imperative for National Security. This will have to be done for a long period, as envisaged by experts to 3% of the budget.
  • Re-structuring MoD and all three Services. Impetus to ‘Make in India’.
  • Place ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police) along LAC under operational control of the Indian Army.
  • Roadmap, planning and implementation to fight a two-front war in MD (multi-domain) environment.

Longer Term Measures (beyond 5 years)

  • Build requisite strategic air and sea lift capability.
  • Modernisation of the Armed Forces.
  • Minimum Stock Levels (MSL) of Munitions, Equipment and Spares and Setting the Stage for Technological Upgrade of Armed Forces.

Conclusion

Future wars are going to be very complex, intense, multi-dimensional with blurred distinction between competition, confrontation and conflict, with diminishing power of deterrence, and ambiguity of attribution and commensurate retribution. India must be prepared for a two and a half front escalating security and war scenario. Continuous building of CNP (comprehensive national power) of which the military is an inescapable and operational imperative needs to be done with focus, dedication and ‘whole of nation approach’. Our Armed Forces need to transform itself to deter and if necessary fight and win a two-front war, and ensure that both China and Pakistan will bear the consequences of military and national embarrassment. WE MUST CONTINUE THE PROCESS AS A NATIONAL ENDEAVOUR NOW.

“You can have peace. Or you can have freedom. Don’t ever count on having both at once.”                                                                                           ― Robert A. Heinlein

Click here to read the Part I
“Civilizational Connect and Genesis of India China Border impasse”

Click here to read the Part II
“Recommended way forward for boundary resolution between India & China”

Lt. Gen. PR Kumar (Retd.)
Lt. Gen. PR Kumar (Retd.)
Lt. Gen. PR Kumar retired from the post of Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) of the Indian Army. As DGMO he was responsible for the entire operational planning, preparation and execution of plans and border management. After his retirement he has been writing for numerous Think Tanks on international and national strategic issues and on security related aspects. He also delivers talks in Armed Forces and Educational institutions.

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