Two-front War: A Convenient fiction

Image result for pics of general naravane

[The first CDS, General Bipin Rawat, after handing over charge to the new COAS, General MM Naravane]

This piece published as ‘Upfront’ column in India Today, in issue dated February 3, 2020 at


It is almost de rigueur for a newly appointed military Chief of Staff to ritually make certain statements, for instance, about the supposed readiness of his armed service to fight a “two-front war”. General Manoj M. Naravane, however, displayed a disarming confidence in making them. Asked how he planned to do so, he said the “dual task formations” would switch between confronting Pakistan in the west and taking on China in the north and northeast. “In case of simultaneous threat from both directions,” he elaborated, “there would always be a primary front [where] the bulk of our forces and resources will be concentrated [while] on the other front, we will adopt a more
deterrent posture.” Trouble is, the military considers Pakistan the primary
threat and accordingly invests in, and deploys, its resources.

A real two-front war-fighting capacity would require India to have unlimited
financial resources to afford a comprehensively capable military, self-sufficiency in arms, and the industrial muscle for surge production of all military hardware, nuts and screws up, to quickly fill voids in military stores and lost equipment. But for an army with reportedly only 10 days of ammunition expended at intense rates of fire, Naravane’s is a remarkably sanguine assessment based on flawed assumptions. Namely, that war with China will be limited and unfold linearly and along expected lines, that the terrains in, and weaponry and skill sets required for, the two fronts are similar, and that Indian troops are versatile enough to fight the Pakistan army in
Kashmir one day and be airlifted to tackle the Chinese army in the Himalayas the next.

Such views are propagated essentially to preserve and legitimate the existing dated and dysfunctional force structure. Combat arms within this structure constitute vested,
often clashing, bureaucratic interests that have reached a modus vivendi they do not want disturbed. Thus, modernising and maintaining three-armoured strike corps with
heavy tanks as spear head account for a large chunk (19 to 26 per cent) of the defence budget and, owing to funding constraints, is at the expense of three desperately needed
specialised offensive mountain corps. Stuck in plains/desert warfare concepts, shifting resources to, say, Russian T-14 light tank-equipped mountain corps able to take the fight
to China on the Tibetan Plateau is opposed even if it means ineffectively working the T-72s from their redoubts on the high-altitude northern Sikkim plains where, on any given morning, 40 per cent of them are unable to cold start.

“Fighter mafias” run major air forces, including the Indian Air Force. In IAF, they phased out the bomber component in the 1970s after the medium Canberra bomber
ended service. Short and medium range combat aircraft, however, have been bought pell-mell from every imaginable foreign source. It has obtained, in the process, a fleet without any strategic reach or clout, and so diverse it is nightmarish to upkeep in peacetime, what to speak of in war. In fact, Soviet Union’s offer in 1971 of the Tu-22 Backfire strategic bomber, which would have been a ready delivery system for the Indian nuclear bomb tested and acquired three years later, was spurned and MiG-23BN
selected instead. Since the mid-1990s, the Russian advanced intercontinental range Tu-160 Blackjack bomber available for the asking has likewise been ignored. Indeed, dog in the manger-like IAF even prevented the Indian Navy from securing the Tu-22 and the strategic bombing role it had discarded, leaving the country with aircraft optimally usable only against Pakistan.

So, India finds itself in the sorry situation of “cavalry generals” and fighter jocks inflating the negligible threat from Pakistan, skewing the government’s procurement and other military priorities, and using the two-front war scenario to justify this system that has obtained for the country a severely limited, financially ruinous war-fighting capability, increased vulnerability to China and imperilled national security. Such
distribution of military attention and resources may suit the government of the day. Whether it serves the national interest is another matter.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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12 Responses to Two-front War: A Convenient fiction

  1. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Hi Bharat Sir…..Happy Republic Day

    How much Tu 160 Blackjack will be effective against China in modern times and also considering future warfare, if IAF plans to buy it (lets assume). I have read about it a lot, but always a doubt regarding this weapon system???

  2. Since the time the U-2 was shot down, the Bomber has little use. It will most probably be a one way trip. Probably not even reaching the strategic target. A strategic reach is best achieved by Ballistic missiles with MIRV or Cruise missiles.

  3. Debanjan Banerjee says:

    Thanks a lot Karnad sir for this wonderful article. I would love to know from you whether you think India can defeat Pakistan in 10 days as our hon. PM Modiji said yesterday. Do you believe this claim is credible? I eagerly await your answer. Thanks and regards with best wishes

  4. Rajesh Khosla says:

    With reference to the Manned Bomber in the article above. Stealth and standoff weapons would be a must with this Bomber. The Air Force had done a study on this way back in the early seventies. A deep penetration Strike fighter was the preferred solution as at least the fighter could fight its way back. Even so, Charlie Brown (IAF Chief), then a Sqn Leader in a Jaguar Sqn had jocularly remarked that in the next war 14 and 5 Sqns (The Jaguar Element of the IAF then) will take the North Court and South Court respectively and have a volleyball match in Lyallpur Central Jail. Many a truth told in jest. The Jaguar needed to be escorted by MiG 21’s to tackle the BARCAP thereby tying up a lot of resources for a long range bombing mission.
    Then again, even a country like the USA can barely afford a B2 type bomber. Only 21 in existence! Last reported to cost 700 million USD each. A cruise missile of the same range at Mach3-5 would cost a fraction. Further, a cruise missile can be recalled from the border.

    • I dilated on the cost aspect (some Rs 800 crores if I remember it right) of the Tu-160 in IAF (after talking to Charlie Brown and so attributed in my last — 2015 — book — Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet) ) — which, as argued, would only need a shifting of resources from unproductive categories, etc.

  5. This response received from Lt Gen Surinder Singh (Retd), former GOC-in-C, Western Command, 2016-2019, and currently Chairman, Punjab Public Service Commission.
    Read your guest column in India Today on Two Front war. If I may submit, the compulsion for Chiefs to say that we’re ready for a Two Front War is political. Otherwise, the govt will have to answer the public what it’s doing, especially when the budget doesn’t allow capability building of the scale required. The Army knows nobody can fight and win on two fronts simultaneously. It’s for the government to ensure the country doesn’t have to fight on two fronts simultaneously. God forbid it happens, the armed forces would leave the minimum escapable forces, those which by virtue of unsuitable equipment can’t operate in mountains, to determine and hold Pakistan and switch all others to Northern Front to hold PLA as best as it can. That’s what Chief meant.
    Regarding Light tanks in mountains, PLA has medium tanks opposite us, except a few experimental light tanks. To face them, we need T72 or rather T 90 tanks. And whoever says that 40℅ of tanks in North Sikkim don’t start? The Army is already refocusing on building capacities for mountains. The Strike Corps in plains are just adequate to deter Pakistan and nothing big is being done for plains.
    We’re in-principle on the same page

    • The central point I tried to make in the piece, General Surinder Singh, is precisely the paucity of financial resources and the need, therefore, to be judicious in deciding what capability against which adversary to invest in. Surely, you’d agree that making Pakistan top security priority is ridiculous with an unforgiving China looming in the north and east whence the absolute need to hereafter focus primarily on China with a bare holding force deployed in the west against Pakistan. Of course, the army’s, and generally the military’s, Pakistan fixation is a political decision in sync with the government of the day’s inclination. It still does not excuse the army or any other service for not speaking truth to power.

      The fact that PLA fields T-72/90 equivalent tanks on the Tibetan Plateau is neither here nor there. If Indian offensive corps are to mount disruptive ops against entrenched PLA units — bcause no other mission can reasonably be envisioned for them, the nimbler, more agile, light tanks will be far more effective than the relatively lumbering T-72s/90s, and this is a point I have been making for over 15 years now in my books, including my latest — Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition, and other writings.

      As re: the T-72 cold start aspect, that bit of info is from a former corps commander.

  6. ARINDAM BORA says:

    Sir, the T14 and T90 are in the similar weight category. So the former cannot be considered a Light Tank.
    I have read that in the 1980s and 90s there was a project to develop a light tank based on the chassis of the Russian-origin BMP-2. It was however cancelled before the Kargil War. Is there a chance of reviving the project instead of developing one from scratch?

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