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Can India Fight A Three-Front War?

China will use airpower to support Pakistan from the start of a war.
China will use the opportunity to at least take Ladakh.
Its growing navy will prevent India from blockading or attacking the Makran Coast.
And thanks to Chinese weapons, Pakistan keeps expanding its forces, observes Ravi Rikhye.

The Government of India is cognisant of the two-front Pakistan-China threat, but has convinced itself it can continue with the old one-and-a-half front strategy adopted after 1962.

Meanwhile, the threat is increasing to a 3-front war with the Chinese navy already the second most powerful in the world.

When China began pushing forward of the McMahon Line around 1956-1957, India pushed back with its Forward Policy but with only a minor increment to its force structure: a weak brigade (Leh); a brigade reserved for East Pakistan sent to Uttarakhand; and 4 Division, a reserve for the Punjab, ordered to the then North East NEFA, and replaced with the new 17 Division.

The Indian Army needed six divisions to protect the north. Jawaharlal Nehru, like the current government, was disinclined to ‘waste’ money on defence given India’s developmental needs. He refused, and India was badly defeated in 1962.

Shocked, the GoI doubled the 2% of GDP for defence (excluding pensions) to 4%, and the army expanded from 10 divisions to 25, the Indian Air Force from 25 squadrons to 42, and a naval build up began.

Eleven divisions went to the Tibet and Ladakh borders and 14 were deployed against Pakistan.

The 1965 and 1971 Wars confirmed India’s confidence in the one-and-a-half war strategy. China did not intervene.

Indeed, by attacking East Pakistan in the winter, India could shift six mountain divisions to free Bangladesh in 1971.

Yet, part of China’s restraint was because of lack of capabilities.

Fifteen years later, in 1986, during the Sumdorong Chu flare up, China sent 8 infantry divisions and numerous independent regiments to reinforce eastern Tibet.

Today the equivalent of 12-16 divisions could arrive in weeks.

To counter Pakistan’s post-1971 buildup, India raised four divisions for the South Punjab.

In the 1980s India raised two additional divisions for the Kashmir theatre.

In the 1980s, however, China surpassed India in GDP and began its 100-year plan to dominate ‘everything under heaven’.

China also embarked on an immense infrastructure build up against India, and by the 2010s began using the same salami tactics it employed in 1954-1961.

With great difficulty because of strained resources, in the 2000s and 2010s India raised four more mountain divisions.

Today the problem is that Chinese aggressiveness and military modernisation continue at an accelerating pace.

Take railways as an example of infrastructure expansion. Hotan is now connected to Kashgar. The Xigatse-Gyrong line is almost ready.

The Xigatze to Kathmandu line is under planning. The Xigatze line will extend west to Burang at the India-Tibet-Nepal trijunction.

The Xigatze-Nyangtri line is complete. It is being extended to Chengdu.

It is a matter of time before the Kashgar-Hotan line is extended to join the Xigatze line, giving a continuous line along the south Tibet border.

The Xigatze line now has a spur to Yatung in the Chumbi Valley (operational 2022).

The latest new road planned is G695, which is east and south of the Aksai Chin road (G218) and much closer to India.

India has met China’s buildup by shifting four Pakistan-assigned divisions to the northern front, weakening the western front.

The count is 20 Indian divisions against 26 Pakistan divisions, and 18 against China.

Of the 18, four are dual based to the Pakistan front.

Officially, Pakistan has only 21 divisions. But under the rubric of ‘Corps Reserves’ it has two armored/mechanized divisions.

Two are light divisions for the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, which are ideal for Kashmir.

A 27th division may be only an administrative HQ for the special forces battalions.

Today China’s GDP is 5x India’s. China could previously station only 30 fighters against India, now it can station 200.

Exercises with Pakistan show China will use airpower to support Pakistan from the start of a war.

China will use the opportunity to at least take Ladakh.

Its growing navy will prevent India from blockading or attacking the Makran Coast.

And thanks to Chinese weapons, Pakistan keeps expanding its forces.

What is the government’s reaction to the rising China-Pakistan threat? The military maxim ‘Hope for the best, but plan for the worst’ is now ‘Hope for the best and plan for the best.’ The government’s position is:

  • India can defeat Pakistan in 3 weeks and then fight China.
  • India’s nuclear weapons prevent an expansion of a conventional war.
  • The US will force Pakistan and China to limit their offensives.

This ignores India’s 35-year weapons modernisation deficit, whereas China is relentlessly ditching obsolescent weapons.

There is no serious attempt for India to fight a 3-front war beyond three weeks.

Nor is India prepared for the inevitable run on forex reserves if war comes.

Only a feeble effort is made toward a steady 10% annual GDP growth needed to build a strong military and reduce unemployment.

And the defence budget (excluding pensions) has fallen from 4% of GDP to about 1.7%, less than in 1962.

India cannot defeat Pakistan in 3 weeks because it will have China’s help from the start.

The government insists that the four divisions sent to the China front after the Ladakh incidents in 2020 are still available for deployment against Pakistan.

But if they stay tied up, there is nothing to send west.

The US will help India only if China/Pakistan attacks outside of Kashmir and Arunachal.

The lands there are officially contested areas and the US will not take sides.

Meanwhile, as China keeps expanding, the US is declining.

The US won’t admit it, but it has already lost exclusive control of the First Island Line in the Western Pacific and China is moving to exclude the US from the Second, preparing to control the Pacific West of Hawaii, and then to station carrier battle groups off North America.

Folks arguing the US can comfortably defeat the Chinese navy miss the point.

The US can no longer win without serious losses, and must act with great caution. The imbalance grows yearly.

As for nuclear weapons, they are unusable in conventional limited wars. They have always been, but if anyone doubts it, they can study Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Ravi Rikhye is a Washington, DC-based military analyst, who has been studying defence issues for six decades.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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