India’s Two-Front War challenge : The problem of Choice, Scenarios and Uncertainty

India’s Two-Front War challenge : The problem of Choice, Scenarios and Uncertainty


India’s Two-Front War challenge : The problem of Choice, Scenarios and Uncertainty


(Kartik Bommakanti )

Is fighting a two-front war exclusively India’s choice? Both China and Pakistan have territorial disputes with India, which naturally makes them strategic partners. Given the possibility for collusion between India’s two military adversaries, recently, prominent defence analysts have averred that India cannot fight a two-front war, and therefore, should not plan for one.

They further advance the prescription that for India to avoid a two-front war, Indian diplomacy bears direct responsibility for preventing it. After all, as opposed to war, diplomacy is a cost effective means of reconciling interests and resolving complex disputes.

Another well-known analyst argues, New Delhi “abandon [ing] the idea of waging a two-front” war because it lacks global interests, a potent defence-industrial military base, outstanding centres on warfare and defence, New Delhi cannot make acquisitions based on capabilities. Instead, India ought to acquire military capabilities based on threats.

Elaborating further, a case is made that New Delhi concentrate effort on threat based planning involving strengthening capabilities for peacetime deterrence rather than warfighting. Consequently, New Delhi ought to jettison all possibilities of fighting two adversaries at the same time.

At first glance, these conclusions about waging a two-front war may appear obvious. After all India’s economy is roughly five times smaller than China’s. The Chinese defence budget is also three and a half times India’s defence budget. In addition, Pakistan too is a formidable military power. Compounding these problems are weaknesses in India’s defence related allocations.

The revenue expenditure of the budget, which funds salaries and pensions for all the three services, consumes most of the defence budget.

Capital expenditure involving procurement of new equipment, which constitutes the other side of the budgetary balance, is minuscule to keep pace with the hardware related acquisitions of the Chinese armed forces.

Given these variables, particularly the resource-related constraints, it would be a justifiable inference that India cannot contend with the realities and demands of fighting a two-front war.

However, a few problems specifically afflict these sort of analyses. It is conceptually solipsistic to think that New Delhi through the sheer weight of its diplomacy should and exclusively be capable of preventing a two front war from occurring. This condition is at best necessary, but insufficient. Indian diplomats and leaders can at most thwart war with both China and Pakistan, only if the latter want it.

Why should this be the case? An elementary understanding of war will teach you that it takes two to fight it. As Carl Von Clausewitz, the Teutonic military strategist observed in his classic work Vom Kriege or On War, “War, however, is not the action of a living force upon a lifeless mass (total non-resistance would be no war at all) but always the collision of two living forces.”

Since war is a contest between animate entities, how is it possible for India to escape the realities of confrontation with both Pakistan and China? If Beijing and Rawalpindi choose to combine forces to start a conflict, there is very little New Delhi can do to prevent it and indeed New Delhi will be compelled to fight them with what it wields. Being animate entities India’s adversaries retain choice.

To simplify the matter further through a vile analogy, a rape victim does not choose her rape, despite her best efforts to prevent or avoid it. Her assailant will proceed to perpetrate the act because he retains a choice in the matter, regardless of her passive and active resistance and despite her attempts to seek help or escape, which might not be available.

Thus, if waging war is India’s choice and a function of its motivation, it is equally so for China and Pakistan. They could wage it irrespective of India’s best efforts. If pursuing diplomacy is a means to prevent war and resolve disputes, war is also a means for doing the same through an act of force.

Conversely, the onus of diplomatically engaging New Delhi to avoid military confrontation is as much China and Pakistan’s responsibility as it is India’s. This fundamental point goes missing to the extent that regardless of New Delhi’s best diplomatic efforts to forestall the worst, war could still break out.

Conceptual solipsism also characterises capabilities versus threat-based planning. Undoubtedly, there is some merit in basing acquisitions on threats.

However, caricaturing capabilities-based planning is dangerous. Assessment about threats is as important as capabilities-based planning.

Capabilities-based planning is certainly not devoid of threat assessment. Indeed, it is integral to it. The converse claim that threat-based planning is focused exclusively on planning for threats is equally fallacious.

Threat analysis generally divide along a certainty and uncertainty spectrum. Therefore, force planners at service headquarters and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) will have to prioritise between what is required today to bridge the gap in capabilities between India and its two neighbours and what is required in the long term.

Some scenarios are more plausible than others are. Adding further complexity is that threat-based planning is not totally threat based, but also scenario-based. Scenarios, albeit imperfect are the best basis for force planning, particularly for the future.

Thus, avoiding a two-front war is not just India’s choice, regardless of how active and dexterous New Delhi’s diplomacy is in preventing it.

It is as much about what China and Pakistan do in response to what India does both on the military and diplomatic fronts and they may initiate military action, independently of what India does.

Further, the expansion of Indian military capabilities will be shaped by threats, as they will be by scenarios on which to base future acquisitions.

Peacetime deterrence also requires a defence effort in the form of capabilities, which makes it doubly disturbing to accept the crude representation that New Delhi give up capability-based planning.

The real divide within the larger defence debates is over what the scope of the capabilities should be. If peacetime deterrence were to collapse, warfighting is inevitable. Indeed, deterrence failure occurs for the same basic reason that states go to war — motivation.

Finally, civilian leaders tend to display a greater comfort with uncertainty, which is not the case with military professionals who generally place a high or at least higher premium on certainty demanding maximum capabilities, which governments, including the current Modi government, short of an acute crisis, will resist as they have other priorities. Uncertainty cuts the other way also, Beijing and Rawalpindi too have to contend with it against India.

Third parties could be drawn in to a war on India’ behalf despite India not having any military guarantee from any major power.

War, after all is a game of chance with a range of vicissitudes, China, and Pakistan, irrespective of their assessment about the relative military balance and motivation of their Indian opponent remain at its mercy as India is to theirs.