Last week the Vice Chief of the Indian Air Force Air Marshal BS Dhanoa declared that India would not be able to fight a two-front war involving Pakistan and China.The IAF’s numerical strength is at an all-time low, and the Air Marshal has said that “our numbers are not adequate to fully execute an air campaign in a two front scenario.”
Taken by itself, it is an astonishing statement. Is it possible that any country possessing nuclear weapons would risk fighting an all-out war with another, leave alone two of them?
The chances are remote. But that was not just the Air Force speaking, but the considered view of the government of India framed in an operational directive given by the defence minister to the three services in 2009.
It urges them to be ready for a two-front war, never mind that the services have never in the past two decades been resourced to fight even one short war with one adversary.
There are several issues here. First, is the question of assessing the nature of threats to India’s security.
Surely, with a million plus troops in its Army, a 600+ fleet of combat aircraft and a powerful navy - India is not exactly a push-over, even for a Sino-Pak combination.
Second, the two-front scenario has been the proverbial nightmare that India has confronted since the mid-1960s.
It probably came closest to fruition in the September 1965 India-Pakistan war when China issued an ultimatum to India to cease fire, and also moved some forces in the Sikkim area to aid beleaguered Pakistan.
Our Soviet alliance checked China in the 1971 war, and there were never any serious indications that Beijing would indeed get into the fight, despite Henry Kissinger egging-on China to attack India.
During the Kargil war when Pakistan sought Chinese help even the rhetoric was absent, and Beijing politely told Pakistan to get Washington to pull its chestnuts out of the fire.
Third, is the more serious issue of nuclear weapons.
Most reasonable people will assume that a state known to have nuclear weapons is likely to use them only in the face of mortal danger.
Even if India shot off just 10 nuclear weapons, they would be enough to destroy two major cities and kill tens of millions of people in Pakistan or China and, of course, the other way around as well.
Which leader would contemplate such an outcome?
The Chinese are much more focused on this issue and believe that the chances of all-out war are remote. They prepare their forces to win what they call “informationised local wars”, whether on the seas or the land.
India has been singularly unable to adjust its military thinking to the fact that it also possesses nuclear weapons. This is because politicians have decreed that nuclear weapons are not really weapons, they are political instruments meant to be used only for retaliation, or to prevent nuclear blackmail.
So, while the weapons delivery systems are embedded in the military, their command and control is entirely civilian.
Most military personnel do not know anything about India’s nuclear capabilities and act on the belief that their job is to fight a conventional war, while the government of the day will hopefully come through if it goes nuclear.
While the civilians must, indeed, command the nuclear forces, they must understand that they are, in the ultimate analysis, weapons, resting at the very top of the escalatory ladder.
Militaries may not control the employment of such weapons, but they should be fully cognisant about their use and integrate them in their planning scenarios.
One consequence of mentally separating nuclear and conventional weapons is that the outlook of the Indian military has not changed.
So, it still sees itself conducting World War II like “campaigns” against adversaries.
The Army continues to hold a large fleet of tanks in its armoury, even though the plans that were made for their use have been shelved because they will trip Pakistan’s red lines.
India need not unilaterally disarm, but it could consider a verifiable reduction of the most aggressive land weapons system with Pakistan.
Besides enhancing stability in India-Pakistan relations, the money saved could be utilised to enhance the mobility and firepower of our forces facing China.
The Modi government has a uni-dimensional focus on modernising the equipment of the military, perhaps it should provide some leadership in modernising their organisation and strategy.
And, in the meanwhile, initiate a conversation with China and Pakistan about nuclear weapons and their dangers.