Wednesday, March 29th, 2023 12:16:32

What is Two-Front War ?

By Lt Gen Abhay Krishna, (retd)
Updated: February 11, 2023 5:46 am

During the Indo-Pak war of 1971, India fought on two fronts; but it was with a common adversary on both the fronts. Besides this, India had also fought multiple wars starting from one in 1947 in J&K and then 1962 war with China followed by 1965 war with Pakistan. Then in 1999 it was Kargil War. In addition, in all these decades gone by, India has also been battling with an internal conflict involving insurgents in North East, Maoists spread over many States and terrorists in J&K. Besides this India has also faced number of supposed cyber-attacks, AIIMS incident being the lates one. So, what does this frequently used expression saying that,” We are prepared for Two Front War,” actually mean?

Term Two Front War

Does the currently propagated concept of a Two-Front War mean fighting simultaneously on two specific fronts that is Western and Northern Fronts or fighting Two Different Adversaries? The former involves two specific geographical segments while the latter may involve more than two directions or geographical regions. The use of expression ‘Two-Front War,’ has gradually turned into a military terminology essentially to summarise the combined threat from both the Western and Northern fronts. This repeated assurance definitely indicates availability of adequate resources and preparedness to take the battle into the adversary’s territory.

Going back in the pages of military history, one may recall as an example how the aggressor Germany that chose to open two fronts simultaneously and later faced the consequences of spreading its forces to both East and West. For any aggressor, it is always wise to concentrate his forces on one front and take on his enemies one by one. In military terminology, therefore, a Two-Front War is one in which fighting takes place on two geographically separate fronts. It is usually executed by two or more separate forces simultaneously or nearly simultaneously, in the hope that their opponent will be forced to split his fighting force to deal with threats on both the fronts.

However, talking about a Two-Front War scenario in India’s context, it seems a different ball game altogether, because India does not project herself as a potential aggressor. India always talks of defending her territorial integrity instead. A Two-Front War in respect of India will involve a combination of both China and Pakistan. But who out of the two will then start the war or will it be both and that too simultaneously? And will the war remain confined to border or include maritime and other multi domain also? Moreover will the geographical segments comprising Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh will remain unaffected ?

China’s Build-up capability

The 1962 war with China taught a big lesson to India. The political leaders then got convinced that India needed to shed the self-imposed restrictions and instead, embark on rebuilding its military power. Also, the 1962 conflict not only buried the charmed concept of “Hindi-Chini Bhai–Bhai” for good; but also fuelled an enduring enmity and lack of trust between the two countries.

It will be interesting to note that today, though, China’s military is being taken as a force to reckon with at the global level due to their reforms, modernisation and technological developments, the fact remains that China has not fought any war post 1979. China had launched an offensive in response to Vietnam’s actions against the Khmer Rouge in 1978. The war lasted for 27 days and finally, after suffering losses, China withdrew. Though China claimed victory in this war, but the fact was that Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia continued until 1989.

Interestingly, Chinese military had other failures too prior to 1979, where they suffered and withdrew without achieving any objective. Besides the war in Vietnam, China has also suffered defeat during the Chinese-North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950-53, Nathula clash of 1967 and Sino-Soviet border conflict of 1969 over the Zhenbao Island.

However, China may boast of few instances of victory such as taking over of Tibet and successfully crushing the uprising in 1959, China- Burma border campaign where they succeeded in evicting Kuomintang in 1961, successfully establishing control over Paracel Islands of South Vietnam in 1974 and supressing the Uighur Muslims. Notwithstanding, one must also not overlook the fact that PLA is more of an army of CPC than China as a country. So, is PLA really battle hardened and truly dedicated towards their country? Doesn’t look like.

But we are well aware that China has been investing heavily in military modernisation for the last two decades. It is a fact that they enjoy technical superiority in many domains like anti-ship missiles, cyber and space capabilities, even to the extent of posing threat to the US as well. Besides developing anti-access denial and long-range attack capabilities, China, today, is far ahead in the domain of non-contact warfare to include electronic, cyber and space domains. It is believed that in 2019, as part of a cyber campaign, the US utility companies and financial institutions were targeted by the Chinese State-sponsored hacking group APT10. China’s Anti Access Area Denial system will help keep the US forces away from their coast. China has built military bases including airports on the islands in the South China Sea. China also has an ambient presence in the Indian Ocean Region from the Strait of Hormuz to the Strait of Malacca

China has, reportedly, also test-fired the S-400 long-range SAM system besides developing HQ-19 with ballistic missile defence capability. China thus, looks well beyond the confines of our ‘Northern Borders’, with total emphasis on ‘non-contact warfare’ based on a credible plan in the electronic, cyber and space domains with emphasis on winning wars under informatised conditions duly supported by an overwhelming superiority of force multipliers. China is moving rapidly towards modernising the PLA by 2035, creating a world-class force by 2049.

Conflict with Pakistan

India and Pakistan have fought several wars since August 1947. Soon after independence, Pakistan had managed to successfully push across the border a large number of armed tribesmen duly supported by the Pakistan Army close to Srinagar. Fierce encounters took place and the Indian Army managed to push the Pakistani forces back beyond a line when the ceasefire was signed in 1949 which later on was accepted as the LOC. As a result of the ceasefire, the remaining area of Kashmir known as Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), could not be freed from Pakistani control.

The second war took place in 1965 when Pakistani soldiers once again attempted to cross over into Kashmir to ignite insurgency. This was followed by the third full scale war in December 1971 when civil unrest had taken deep roots in East Pakistan seeking independence. India was badly affected as the entire region was thrown into turmoil with massive influx of refugees. India was left with no choice but to intervene militarily.

Then came another intrusion attempt by Pakistan in Siachen, resulting in the Kargil conflict in 1999, which of course remained localised and did not escalate into a full-scale war for various reasons.

Apart from these military actions, India has faced a number of major Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attacks on non-military establishments such as the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, blast in Samjhauta Express in February 2007, attack on Taj Hotel Mumbai in November 2008 and the suicide car bombing in Pulwama in February 2019 that killed 40 CRPF personnel. Apart from these flash points, terrorism in Kashmir Valley, terrorist attacks on military targets and frequent actions on the LOC continue as always.

China – Pak nexus

In the 1962 conflict, strangely, China withdrew from Tawang despite this being a much-publicised dispute related to their claim over Arunachal Pradesh being part of Southern Tibet. But on the other side, they chose to retain control over 2000sq km of alpine desert in Ladakh which was totally uninhabited with no resources. This was taken as an insignificant gain for China at that time, but the importance was realised only later when it connected Tibet and Xinjiang, or to say Lhasa with Kashgar, giving them the most strategic advantage, they were looking for to set course in not so a distant future. Though India claimed Aksai Chin as part of Ladakh, but for China, it was always an integral part of Tibet.

China later ceded over 750 sq km of territory to Pakistan and in return, Pakistan recognised Chinese sovereignty on 800 sq km of territory in Northern Kashmir and Ladakh. The 1962 war with India, thus resulted in a major strategic gain for China. Since then, the claim of ownership of Arunachal Pradesh by China, apparently has been only a “Drum to Beat” once a while for distracting or attracting attention depending on the prevailing situation, circumstances and motive.

China’s Own Compulsions

With gradual shift of focus from the Middle East, the US has now started to look more at the Asia-Pacific Region considering China as a long-term threat. The South China Sea and Taiwan are, therefore, a matter of concern for China.

China has a huge irreversible investment in the CPEC passing through the disputed territories of Aksai Chin, POK and finally turning Gwadar port into a Container Port. The possibility of this port turning into a base for the Chinese Navy in the future cannot be ruled out. China already has a military base in Djibouti. Besides the slowing economy, China is also vulnerable to ongoing simmering unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang province. This vulnerability can be exploited by the Western powers.

This is why China does not want to annoy the terrorist organisations in Pakistan which are capable of cross-border terrorism and provide support to Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Considering China’s global aspirations, under the prevailing circumstances, China may not prefer to get involved in a war with India directly as an aggressor. A war with India will not only inflict a heavy dent on their economy pushing it behind by many years compared to other powers of the world especially the US, but will also provide an opportunity for the US to take strategic advantage in the South China Sea and Taiwan further strengthening Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and other alliances in the Asia-Pacific Region as a front against China. Though India is not a part of any military alliance, the Nation has very close relationship with major countries including Russia, the US, Israel, France and close neighbours such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, serving and safeguarding each other’s indispensable mutual interests. Thus, a direct attack by China on India, will not only invite the US fleet into the Asia-Pacific Region, but will also enlarge the conflict spectrum attracting other allies of the US and India too.

Pakistan – A Conundrum

Apart from the compelling fixation on Kashmir, more for ensuring their own survival as a country than anything else, Pakistan has also been harbouring a desire for long to pursue Ghazwa-e-Hind to establish an Islamic Caliphate in India. Any attempt by Pakistan to achieve this objective, is likely to be supported by the Arab countries.

Pakistan is a poverty-stricken country reduced to total bankruptcy with insurmountable fiscal deficit. Internal strife in Baluchistan, Khyber Pakhtunwa, Gilgit Baltistan and Sindh is getting out of control and so is the increasing societal and ethnic divide. The public image of the Pakistan Army has also hit a new low where radicalisation is believed to have sipped in. They are now being seen as a parasite on national resources and incapable of defending the country anymore.

 The Real Emerging Threat Domain

In a Two-Front War scenario that India always seems looking at, who will be the main aggressor ,China or Pakistan ? Today, under the prevailing global security scenario, neither Pakistan nor China are actually in a position to be the main aggressor against India.

However, notwithstanding the prevailing situation in Pakistan, just in case this nation chooses a suicidal option to wage a war against India on the pretext of saving their persecuted Muslim brethren in Kashmir playing the victim card and indirectly enhancing the credit of their own Army in the eyes of countrymen as well as garner support from the International Community especially the Muslim World to save their country from breaking down, then will China join overtly or covertly? In such a scenario, China will not only deploy its ground forces close to the LAC posing as a potential threat in the offing essentially to tie down India’s dual-tasked formation from moving out, but will also enhance the uninterrupted military supply and other administrative support to Pakistan. Will China stop at this? China, today, has moved far ahead in the domain of non-contact warfare.

The cyber-attack on Mersk Company in Ukraine, one the largest shipping company in the world, had successfully shut their entire IT infrastructure and had brought activity at the ports to a grinding halt for three days, is one of the best examples of Non-Contact Warfare being deployed during war by state backed actors. Are we prepared today to foil such a cyber-attack by China on our Railway Network, Banking System, Medical emergency services and Power Grid? Do we have adequate safeguards against China’s space warfare capability to take down Indian satellites which will directly affect the operational capability of Indian Navy? There is, somehow, a belief prevailing that State- sponsored cyber-attacks leading to catastrophic failure of critical infrastructure are unlikely to take place as most countries have mutual as well as collective pacts confirming that cyber weapons will not be used against critical information infrastructures. Country like Russia has also specifically stated that any attack in the cyber domain will be constituted as an attack in the physical domain and will be retaliated in all domains. Notwithstanding, one must not overlook the fact that even though, there are pacts in place wherein countries have committed to not using cyber warfare against one another, but the nature of cyber-attacks is such that it is almost always difficult to pinpoint the source of the attack. Are we, therefore, actually ready to fight the so called Two-Front War in ‘Multi-domain of today’s prevailing hi- tech era’?

Technology is the backbone of any military power. While we have a strong IT sector in the civilian arena but somehow, cyber-warfare capabilities have not been prioritised for far too long. Besides the land, sea, air and space, the cyber domain has also become a very critical dimension of today’s warfare. Today, all major developed countries are rapidly enhancing their capabilities in cyber, space, robotics, directed energy and electronic warfare.

India’s Choice to Real Threat

When India claims to be fully prepared for a ‘Two-Front War’, it implies that the Nation is well prepared to engage the adversaries not only on multiple fronts but in multi-domains, as well. The possibility of China posturing along the Northern Front and simultaneously unleashing multiple domains retaining deniability for its actions, facilitating Pakistan in any military action initiated by it, appears a more controlled action with prevailing geopolitics. Then, where does the much talked about “credible deterrence” and “rebalancing of forces” fit in? War is never fought and won on mathematical calculation and theoretical equation of forces. As such, India must prioritise capability building in multiple domains.

The war with Pakistan and China will not be restricted only to Western and Northern Fronts but instead, will spread across the entire spectrum. From India’s Northern Border, the nearest significant economic target on the Chinese soil is 2800 km away which is well beyond reach by any measure today, less Agni missile.

India should, therefore, seriously consider developing three-dimensional manoeuvre capability with missiles striking up to Pearl River Delta Harbour. China’s real vulnerability lies on its Eastern Front which constitutes almost 91 percent of its population covering 33 percent of the Chinese landmass. All industries, business and economic hub centres are spread all along the Eastern Coast with Pearl River Delta itself constituting 1/3rdof China’s export. The Indian Ocean and the Indo- Pacific Region will turn into a hot bed. The Indian Ocean Region is a major global seaborne trading route for China. Now, the time has, therefore, come to commence building expeditionary forces and provide  more teeth to both the Indian Navy and the IAF. India also needs to establish military bases in critical locations such as Djibouti, Seychelles, Mauritius, Australia, Japan and in locations close to Southern China. India, at the same time, must also continue with strong economic linkages with China, but on own terms, and at the same time, work towards rebuilding strong military alliance with the traditional friend Russia.

As Future Looks

History of India is replete with stories of repeated invasions that did not remain confined to land routes only. India always failed to check the invaders who came across the oceans be it the Dutch, the Portuguese or the British. Today over 70 % by volume of international trade in goods and energy commodities like oil, coal and natural gas is transported by sea through the Indian Ocean Region. Trade and energy dominance by power blocs is largely dependent on reliable and secure oil and gas supply. Since the bulk of it is transported through the Indian Ocean Region, any blockage will lead to threatening the global or the regional economy. India, therefore, needs to expand her effective and dominant reach deep into blue waters much beyond the world sea trade lanes extending from the Strait of Hormuz to the Strait of Malacca and be capable of protecting not only her own trade and energy security interests, but also be strong enough to provide logistics support and protection to other trading nations passing through the Indian Ocean Region.

With the kind of technological development that has taken place and the race to ensure trade and energy security by world powers to ensure dominance, India’s war with Pakistan and China in the future, thus, will not remain confined to Western and Northern geographical fronts only, but instead it will spread to multi domain opening up number of fronts for India to tackle.

Somehow, over a period of time, as a consequence of repeated assurance being given about being prepared to fight a Two-Front War and referring to raising of mountain corps, creating Integrated Battle Groups, border development, creating dual tasked formations, rebalancing of forces etc, the Two-Front War scenario somehow, started to appear confined only to two specific geographical regions and directions.

Finally, under the given circumstances of the unfolding threat scenario in not too a distant future, India may have to consider, apart from tri- service integration and theaterisation, handing over the operational charge of all three services, BSF and ITBP to the Chief of Defence Staff in order to ensure better coordination and optimum utilisation of all military resources under a single umbrella of command and control.


By Lt Gen Abhay Krishna, (retd)
(PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM, ADC, (Retd) is former Army Commander of South Western, Eastern and Central Army Commands, Indian Army. The views of the author are personal.)

Comments are closed here.