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The phrase ‘two front’ was firmly placed in Indian strategic discussion by its army chief referring to it in a closed-door meeting of army brass at the turn of the decade in the context of Chinese presence in Gilgit. The ‘two front’ reference was to the ‘collusive threat’ from China and Pakistan seen as developing along the Himalayan watershed. While the term may be new, India has long been sensitive to the threat. In the April 1971 considerations of a military response to troubles in East Pakistan, India had refrained from action wary of the second front. Today, India’s naval exertions have expanded the scope of the term to the maritime domain.
The article examines what India means by the term by discussing it in its two connotations: one in peace time, and the other in its implications in conflict. The latter while hypothetical, is not on that account insignificant. It informs the ‘worst case’ that best explains the monies to the tune of $250 billion set to be expended by India over the coming decade.
The prime minister while commissioning India’s largest indigenously manufactured destroyer, INS Kolkata, indicated India’s strategic doctrine as one of deterrence. The military prong is in being able to respond militarily to offensive action. This will reduce any incentive for aggressive behavior, leaving the diplomatic route open for dispute settlement. The diplomatic prong is in external balancing, for instance in the just-completed strategic dialogue with the US best signified by the US taking over as India’s largest defence supplier. Taking advantage of deterrence, India continues to engage diplomatically with both neighbours.
The prime minister has indicated that sufficient monies are being set apart for deterrence, with the 12 per cent increase in defence budget illustrating the government’s seriousness. On the China front, improved Tibetan infrastructure has given China the theoretical ability to launch 30 divisions. China has practiced rapid trans-regional mobilization in the Chengdu and Lanzhau military regions to enable this. India in rebound has shifted from a defensive to a posture of active deterrence on the China front by expanding airfields, placing strike aircraft forward and rescinding environmental rules for developing border roads at a gallop.
The Pakistan part of the ‘two front’ has stabilized since India rejigged its conventional doctrine. It was able to convert from its Second World War style conventional doctrine to one more appropriate for the nuclear age. It has reappraised the manner in which it will use its three strike corps in light of Pakistan’s nuclear thresholds. The raising of one of the two divisions of the mountain strike corps in Pathankot on the Pakistan border suggests that the corps advertised for the China front can be dual-tasked for the Pakistan front. This suggests that India has an offensive capability for the Pakistan front. ‘Deterrence by punishment’ is being worked towards in order to be able to respond on the conventional level in case of subconventional terror provocation.
Connotation in conflict
The second connotation, that of how the ‘two front’ concept could manifest in conflict, is indeed difficult to visualize. China would not want to get into a conflict with India since it would not like to divert its energy and attention from its emergence at the global level as the main challenger. An India-China conflict itself being remote, the ‘second front’, on the west with Pakistan, is unlikely to materialize.
Reversing the consideration, in any future India-Pakistan conflict, China may side with Pakistan without necessarily opening up a ‘front’. However, in case of a conflict originating in terror provocation, China will unlikely weigh in on Paksitan’s side. Besides, from China’s past record in India-Pakistan wars, though India has kept a watchful eye on it such as in 1971, China has remained dormant.
India’s conflict options
Therefore, a two-front consideration in conflict can only be hypothetical. India would essentially have three options: the first is to hold on both fronts and the second is to progress matters on one front while holding on the other front. That latter has two variants – hold on the Pakistan front and progress matters on the China front and vice versa – leading to three Indian options.
The first – holding on both fronts – is feasible in terms of India having the requisite defensive capability for both fronts. The option enables time for strategic partners to step in on India’s side. This is the dividend India seeks in its current day diplomacy’s targeting of democracies. The second – hold on the China front while progressing matters on the Pakistan front – is feasible since India has the capability for offensive on the Pakistan front with mechanized forces that does not affect its capacity on the China front. This may be in Chinese interests in that it would leave Pakistan to dissipate India’s military might. Consequently, the third – to progress operations against China while holding on the Pakistan front – cannot be ruled out. China, the major opponent, would require India to have singularity of aim and concentration of effort for a credible showing. Success in this will also prevent any hyena-act on Pakistan’s part.
However, the ‘two front’ problem would tend to converge in the J&K in which there could be one theatre but two opponents. India has advantages of inner lines and that mountains favour defence. It’s location of an armoured brigade in Ladakh and presence of five divisions of the paramilitary, the Rashtriya Rifles, in Kashmir, indicates resilience. India may require spreading the adversaries’ attention and dissipating their strength to the other theatres/sectors, such as the plains sector in case of Pakistan and the eastern sector in case of China, by posturing respectively of its strike corps and the mountain strike corps.
The nuclear dimension
Such a discussion cannot be in isolation of the nuclear factor. India is relatively well placed conventionally not to dislodge the No First Use pillar of its nuclear doctrine. There is also the buffer on the maritime front available for pressuring China in case India is adversely placed on the Himalayan waterfront. India has only recently pointedly commissioned India’s aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, INS Kolkata and the antisubmarine warfare ship, INS Kamorta. On the Pakistan front, since India has the mechanized forces with a single front applicability, it would not be India that brings the nuclear factor into the reckoning. It would be Pakistan.
Pakistan has been projecting a low nuclear threshold since its 2011-introduction of and late 2013 testing of the tactical nuclear missile system, Nasr. In a ‘two front’ scenario, it can be assumed to be acting as a junior partner to China, so it would not be able to consider its nuclear actions without recourse to China. Therefore, how China appreciates the nuclear factor is a key question. China is in the game with global power stakes. Any action against India can at best be with a preventive intent. This limited aim can do without the complications of a nuclear dimension. Therefore, in a two-front scenario, China will likely dampen any Pakistani propensity to reach for the nuclear button.
Pakistan, with China alongside, is also unlikely to need to do so. Nuclear dangers on the China front are minimal since both India and China have an NFU in place as also have sufficient conventional forces for enabling respective aims. The nuclear dimension will unlikely figure unless any of the three is gravely conventionally disadvantaged. All three are aware that a nuclear power is never to be pushed into such a corner.
The ‘two-front’ formulation has not outlived its utility. Deterrence is in any case always a work-in-progress. Therefore, while finishing touches are being made, the time is ripe for shifting from the military to the diplomatic prong of its ‘two front’ strategy. India is apparently making such a shift. India could aim at achieving a position of greater proximity with either state than each has with the other. It could consider such proximity with China so as to displace Pakistan from its favoured position. Precedence exists in the changed equations in the US-India-Pakistan triad.
India’s approach to the ‘transgressions’ on the Line of Actual Control has drawn positive comment with China calling it ‘objective’. It is set to receive Chinese premier. On the Pakistan front, however, India is being ‘tough’, having put off a promising beginning in the recent calling off of foreign secretary level talks with Pakistan. It is also engaging in firefights, termed as ‘befitting reply’ in press handouts, along the Line of Control.
Summing up, it can be said that India has a differentiated ‘two front’ policy. While on the China front it has defensive deterrence in place behind which it is engaging China diplomatically, for the Pakistan front it is reliant on offensive deterrence and has a harder diplomatic line. This suggests India’s strategy to be one of mitigating the ‘two front’ problem by isolating Pakistan. This sets the stage for it to tackle Pakistan more forcefully in case of terror provocation, without China weighing in.