Written by Rizwan Zeb.
The Indian military’s dissatisfaction with New Delhi has never been so vocal and visible as it is at present. Despite It was the failure of the Indian political leadership to decisively counter the Pakistan problem after the Indian parliament attack, despite repeated plans by the government to retaliate, that started this dissatisfaction in recent times. Yet, the army’s “Cold Start” military doctrine has an often-overlooked dimension. Through this policy, the Indian military wanted to snatch the control of decision making from the Indian political leadership. However, internal logistical and technological short-comings as well as Pakistan’s response through the development of tactical nuclear weapons made it a very risky proposition.
Since General Bipin Rawat became the chief of the Indian Army, he has frequently pushed for a more aggressive military stance in the Indo-Pacific. Recently, General Bipin Rawat issued several statements that are not only overly aggressive, provocative, and alarming, but also gratuitously reckless. While addressing a seminar at the New Delhi-based Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), General Rawat stated, “we have to be prepared for conflict on the northern and western borders,” adding “India cannot rule out the possibility of a two-front war with China and Pakistan despite having credible nuclear deterrence capabilities.”
On Pakistan, there seems to be a consensus in the Indian defence establishment that it will remain an enemy state and continue to pose a threat to India whether the country is stable or not. During his address, General Rawat claimed that differences between India and Pakistan could not be reconciled.
On China, General Rawat stated, “as far as the northern adversary (China) is concerned, the flexing of muscles has started… taking over territory in a very gradual manner, testing our limits of threshold… is something we have to be wary about.” Post-Doklam crisis, New Delhi believes such needling operations from China cannot be ruled out in the future, especially in the eastern Ladakh and eastern Arunachal Pradesh area. The Indian army, as echoed in General Rawat’s address, is concerned that in such a future crisis “Pakistan could well swing into action to take advantage of such situations when India is busy with problems on the China front.” This is the scenario that prompted the General to encourage New Delhi to prepare for a two-front war.
To be fair to General Rawat, as the chief of the Indian Army it is his job to war game all possible, probable and improbable scenarios. It is also true that Rawat is not the only one who has talked of India’s need to prepare for a two-front war. In 2009, then chief of the Indian Army, General Deepak Kapoor, argued the Indian army must prepare for a two-front war at an Army Training Command doctrine seminar. Since then, all Indian army chiefs have voiced similar opinions.
Initially, India might have an advantage due to Chinese jets taking off from high altitude airfields and subsequently delivering small payloads. Yet, how would the Indian Air Force capitalise on this? Moreover, in the scenario of China and Pakistan cording their attacks, is the IAF ready and equipped for such a large-scale military deployment?
Nevertheless, what prompted General Rawat to say such a provocative statement? Although several Indian strategic commentators claim New Delhi managed to end Doklam with China on its terms, there is also concern over the implications of the crisis for future disputes. In the Indian strategic calculus, China is a challenger to its leadership in the Indo-Pacific. One of the tools China uses to undermine India’s role in the region is Pakistan. This Sino-Pak nexus against India has only strengthened with the implementation of transnational infrastructure projects like the China-Pakistan economic corridor. Although currently Pakistan is responsible for the security of CPEC, according to New Delhi, the presence and involvement of China cannot be ruled out. Such a development will further aggravate the situation for India.
Is India in a position to fight a two-front war with China and Pakistan? In an earlier article for IAPS Dialogue, I highlighted the flaws in claims that the Indian armed forces are capable of neutralising Pakistan in armed conflict. Now take a scenario in which both China and Pakistan are fighting a war with India. One of India’s assets could be its new BrahMos cruise missile that can be used against multiple targets. Initially, India might have an advantage due to Chinese jets taking off from high altitude airfields and subsequently delivering small payloads. Yet, how would the Indian Air Force capitalise on this? Moreover, in the scenario of China and Pakistan cording their attacks, is the IAF ready and equipped for such a large-scale military deployment?
It is an open secret that the IAF is struggling. The introduction of new Rafale fighter planes could affect its operational preparedness in the future. Already, the IAF require more Rafales than it initially received from France to correct the deficit. How many operational fighter squadrons IAF currently hold and how much it requires remains a hotly debated topic. Notwithstanding the ageing and soon-to-be decommissioned fighter jets in existing squadrons, the IAF is lagging far behind its desired 45 squadrons of fully operational fighters. Almost half of the existing ones will be decommissioned in the next nine years. Similar issues exist for its helicopter fleet, mid-air refuelling capability, and airborne surveillance capability.
The Indian Army, meanwhile, is struggling with a shortage of officers and ammunition problems. The navy is also suffering from similar difficulties. The Armed Forces leadership are not happy about this, and blame the Indian civilian establishment for not granting national security the importance it deserves.
Admiral Sunil Lanba, Chief of Naval Staff, is on record saying “the way national security is being handled is not commensurate with the security environment, which is extremely serious at the moment”. General Rawat has also stated that the military was not getting enough funds for modernisation. This is the context in which the two-front war statement should be analysed: a chance for the Indian military to flex its political muscle and make the case for a concerted military modernisation campaign.
Rizwan Zeb is Research Fellow, South Asia Study Group (SASG), University of Sydney and associate editor, Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs (Sage). He is Senior Research Analyst, Institute of Regional Studies and associate professor, Iqra University, Islamabad (on leave). He is a former Benjamin Meaker professor, University of Bristol, UK, and visiting scholar at the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. He tweets at @SRizwanZeb. This article is a revised and slightly modified version of an article that originally appeared in the Nation, which can be found here. Image Credit: CC/ Wikimedia Commons.