Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria has said that India is prepared to fight a two-front war, if needed. This collusive threat from Pakistan and China is a reality — even if the possibility remains bleak — staring at us.
But behind this assertion of preparedness lie important questions that must be asked to ensure that India fights fit.
I don’t blame the Indian Air Force (IAF) chief for saying that India is prepared for a two-front eventuality even though he knows very well the huge challenge it poses and the capability gap that exists in the Indian military to truly fight that war and win. What else can we expect the Air chief, or for that matter the Army or Navy chiefs, to say when a journalist asks whether India is prepared to fight such a war or not?
The fact that India is going for a large number of emergency procurement in wake of the border tensions with China shows that we are far from being prepared to fight a full-fledged two-front war.
To effectively counter the two-front crisis, India needs to put itself in a higher gear and have the vision to go for piecemeal deals or tactics, depending on the situation.
The only occasion in the recent past when someone from the military brass came close to publicly admitting the reality of India’s defence capability was former IAF chief B.S. Dhanoa, who in 2016 as the Vice Chief had said that his force does not have enough numbers in case a two-front war involving China and Pakistan breaks out. However, as the IAF Chief, he maintained, officially, that India did have the capability.
Many senior officers, in private, often speak about the challenges of a two-front war, but always underline that Indian soldiers are mentally prepared to fight and will not shy away from any challenge. However, while the collusive threat of Pakistan and China is a real worry in the current context, one needs to take a step back and look at the writing on the wall.
A full-fledged two-front war, where both Pakistan and China engage individually but simultaneously, in the western, northern, central and the north-eastern sector is too distant a possibility for now.
What could actually happen is that Pakistan may heat up the Line of Control (LoC) and move more troops into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit Baltistan area to put pressure on India. An important factor that prevents a two-front war is China’s reluctance for a war with India.
India’s air power lacks fire
Looking at the IAF, one finds that while it is well-equipped to meet a two-front challenge in terms of the logistics support it enjoys — a large fleet of fixed and rotary-wing transport aircraft such as C 130J Super Hercules, C17s, IL 76s, Chinooks and Mi17 V 5s among others— it does lack the needed fire.
Of the sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons, the IAF is currently operating only 30 and its fleet includes legacy fighters such as the MiG 21 Bisons and Jaguars. The Rafale is, indeed, a morale booster for the IAF but India currently operates only five of them. And even when the remaining 31 finally come in, their numbers will remain too less.
India’s air defence system, too, is not better than what the Chinese or the Pakistanis have. The IAF Chief was candid enough to admit that China’s strength lies in its missiles. India has ordered a new air defence system — the S-400 — from Russia. Apart from this, India has also completed phase one of the indigenous Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) programme. Air defence is something that India seriously lacks. A medium-range surface-to-air missile system that was to be developed indigenously by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) with Israeli collaboration remains a work in progress even a decade after the contract was signed with the IAF.
The underwater capability
The Indian Navy can easily take on Pakistan and put pressure on China. But fighting a two-front war is a different ball game. China has been on a massive modernisation drive — major military powers of the world have taken note of Beijing’s naval might.
A big gap between the Indian and Chinese Navy is the underwater capability. China has, at least, 50 operating submarines, including those capable of carrying out nuclear attacks, as against India’s strength of 15. China’s nuclear missile submarine strength could be bigger than global estimates. Anyone from the Navy would admit that while frigates, corvettes, destroyers and aircraft carriers do give the much-needed punching power, the deadliest of them all are the submarines — they lurk under water and can be used for both defensive and offensive operations.
In Army, India has hope
When it comes to the Army, there is no doubt that the Indian soldiers are battle-hardened with war experience under their belt, but that alone cannot bridge the huge differential with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). It is often said that India is not the India of 1962. One must also understand that even China in 2020 is not the China of 1962.
Yes, a traditional war between India and China on the ground will prove to be extremely costly for the PLA because the Indian soldiers will do everything to stand the ground and give a strong reply, as they did in Galwan Valley on 15 June. However, modern warfare is not just about boots on the ground. It encompasses new fighting capabilities that include cyber, psyops, space and much more. Militaries world over have already started integrating Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology into their operational capabilities. As for India, we are still very far from getting to use such technology.
The Army is still in the process of equipping its soldiers with a basic modern firearm. It remains undecided on the future of tank warfare and is yet to meet some of the basic modernisation needs of the troops who fight more with their sheer grit and determination, rather than any state-of-the-art equipment.
Views are personal.