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Nuclear Implications of the ‘Two Front’ Formulation

Ali Ahmed was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • January 29, 2010

    A ‘Two Front’ conflict is a ‘worst case’ scenario that has exercised military minds at least since 1963 when Pakistan sought to curry favour with China by ceding the trans-Karakoram Shaksgam area. That a joint threat was perceived by India ever since is evident from late Field Marshal Manekshaw’s insistence in April 1971 that any military confrontation in East Pakistan be postponed to winter so that Pakistan could not bring to bear the ‘China factor’. A combination of India’s diplomacy since the late eighties and military preparedness demonstrated in the Wangdung incident has ensured that the ‘worst case’ scenario does not arise. While this will continue to be the endeavour, the military for the sake of deterrence and as a professional obligation requires thinking through the implications of a ‘two front’ conflict.

    Here two scenarios are taken up: one, a collusive attack on India by China and Pakistan, and, two, opening up of India’s second front by the other power in case India is engaged in a conflict on the other front. As to the first albeit unlikely one, India may need allies who can threaten meaningfully to widen the conflict. With respect to avoiding the second, precedence of 1971 War exists in orchestrating strategy so as to restrict the war to only one front. The third scenario, of Indian contemplation of proactive offensive action on both fronts, is likely only in case it wishes to pre-empt the first when inevitable and imminent.

    Such thinking has been done earlier. Writing in wake of the 1971 victory on security in the coming decade, K. Subrahmanyam stated:

    India will have to develop and keep at readiness adequate forces to deter China and Pakistan from launching an attack either jointly or individually and in case deterrence fails to repel aggression effectively…faced with the possibility of two adversaries, our aim must be to hold one and reach a quick military decision with the other. It is obvious that the latter can only be Pakistan. Consequently, our force requirements must be planned to achieve this aim (‘Our National Security’, Economic and Scientific Research Foundation, 1972).

    Similar reflection was done also by Jasjit Singh a couple of decades on, though he did not envisage in the improved conditions on the China front then prevailing a ‘two front’ situation. Given the economic constraints of the mid-nineties he opined at a Seminar at the USI on ‘Impact of decreased defence spending on the armed forces’ (USI, 1996) that against Pakistan there was a need to keep conventional ‘deterrence’ capabilities honed, while against China a ‘dissuasive’ posture would suffice. To him developing a conventional deterrent capability in the North was likely to strain our economy considerably. However, he required that “there is no reduction in the dissuasive capability for the foreseeable future till further substantial and formalised improvement in relations.”

    The current debate was initiated by K. Subrahmanyam acknowledging in his Indian Express column that, “Professionally, Indian armed forces officers have a duty to anticipate such adventures by our potential adversaries in future and plan to forestall them. It would be justified to think about such a contingency...” He is however, of the opinion that, “the international situation has radically changed with the end of the Cold War” and that “most strategic opinion today discounts the possibility of a war among major powers with nuclear weapons.” Therefore he avers that “the choice of the term ‘two-front war’ appears to be inappropriate.” He instead prefers that, “In such circumstances what should be planned for is exercise of deterrence and dissuasion in each case using the most modern technology available.”

    The crucial question remains as to the response in case deterrence fails. The military’s options could be called for in short order. Doctrinal preparedness enables relevance by preceding such an eventuality. Strategies of response would require being mindful of prevalent doctrine. In case Indian Army had continued with an attritionist mindset, it would not be able to cope with the political demands on it in such circumstance. Therefore its shift over the past decade has been warranted. This is arguably the appropriate doctrine to underpin conflict strategy, even if a war of manoeuvre in a short, limited war, is not, in the event, the preferred political choice. Not enabling the option would be a lapse on part of the Service.

    That this movement has made an impression across the border is evident from Pakistan’s Army Chief stating, “Proponents of conventional application of military forces, in a nuclear overhang, are chartering an adventurous and dangerous path, the consequences of which could be both unintended and uncontrollable.” This implies that the conflict option would have to be deliberately thought through, along with alternatives to conflict being discussed in interdisciplinary forums alongside as suggested by Subrahmanyam, particularly since the nuclear angle, perhaps alluded to by Kayani, requires being factored in. What is its profile in a ‘Two Front’ War?

    India professes No First Use as a principal plank of its nuclear doctrine, one diluted to an extent by the tenet of consideration of the nuclear option in case also of a major CBW attack. China also subscribes to the NFU, though believed to be qualified by it reserving the right to use nuclear weapons first on its own territory. In case territories it claims are taken by it as its ‘own’ then these would not be covered by the NFU. The Indian perspective of the Chinese NFU has it that it does not apply to Indian areas claimed by China. Pakistan, on the other hand, not having declared its nuclear doctrine, is believed to be preserving the option of ‘first use’.

    For the single front phase in this scenario, with respect to an India-Pakistan initial phase, deterrence stability has been assessed as existing up to a point. The arguable expectation is that Pakistan’s high nuclear threshold permits limited Indian conventional attacks. In case of an initial phase of an India-China confrontation, war expansion would be against grand strategies of both states that privileges economic growth. But in case China, nursing superpower ambitions and out to ‘teach India a lesson’, is met with a face-altering bloody nose by India, it could find in its NFU caveat an opening for nuclear resort. In the reverse scenario, in case of Chinese ‘hordes’ poised to sweep into the plains along the rivers Brahmaputra or Teesta, a repeat of Nehru’s speech leading to evacuation in Tezpur is unlikely. Instead India in self-defence may rescind its self-imposed NFU as a first step, thereby giving itself the option of nuclear first use.

    In the collusive case, the two adversaries would attack under the perception of relative advantage. Nuclear use would not likely figure in their initial calculus. India, under pressure, could contemplate rescinding the NFU with the intent of nuclear signalling. This may be the minimum necessary in case the adversaries apply nuclear pressures by also brandishing the nuclear card. This would have operational dividend in making any enemy advances cautious and thereby slower. Declaring nuclear thresholds may deter the enemy threatening these, depriving them of war gains of significance. Balancing nuclear capabilities of allies could deter enemy nuclear use. However, the danger is in tempting a joint first strike, leaving India only a much degraded second strike capability. However, any semblance of even victory subsequent to nuclear use may be a worse outcome than losing the war. Therefore, restricting any nuclear resort to the lowest possible level makes sense. This has implications for the Indian deterrent based on the promise of infliction of ‘unacceptable damage’, needlessly disadvantageous in a two front situation.

    In the second scenario of war expansion from two to three powers, in case of an initial India-China conflict, NFU, howsoever qualified, of both can be expected to hold since in the middle term future only limited border wars can be envisaged. Neither state would wish to let the dangerously escalatory nuclear card enter into the equation. In case of Pakistan joining in hyena-like, it would rely on its conventional capability since the nuclear card would be dependent on the senior partner’s intent. India, if pressured, may resort to nuclear signalling at best, since it cannot reasonably prefer the alternative of limited nuclear war that may result.

    The nuclear ‘backdrop’ carries dangers even in a single front. This is exponentially more so in the ‘two front’ situation, particularly since a move to rescind the NFU tenet of doctrine may be necessary.

    Even as the military can be expected to delve into the issue, avoiding the predicament through diplomatic manoeuvre, deepening interdependence, managing extra-regional partnerships and evolving appropriate regional security forums are the more pertinent implications for grand strategy.