x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

War against Pakistan and China? You'd need Napoleon

In what appear to be deliberately provocative remarks, India's most senior army officer has declared that the country needs to prepare for a two-front war with China and Pakistan.

In what appear to be deliberately provocative remarks, India's most senior army officer has declared that the country needs to prepare for a two-front war with China and Pakistan. Most of the Pakistani media dwelt only on that part of a lengthy statement at the end of last month by General Deepak Kapoor, the chief of the Indian army staff, and consequently it was scoffed at, even in political circles. But there is more to it than that.

To begin with, making contingency plans for all possibilities, however improbable, is bread and butter for all militaries in peacetime. But a two-front war is a nightmare scenario for any country, whatever its military strength. And the challenge of facing China's military forces by themselves should be sufficiently daunting for the Indians without adding the possibility of taking on Pakistan at the same time (indeed, Pakistan alone would be no walkover for the current Indian military).

It would seem, therefore, that Gen Kapoor is being unrealistic. But before attempting to understand the reasoning behind his assertion, let us examine what else he said. In preparing for the two-front strategy, Gen Kapoor listed four requirements: first, continuing to develop a "Cold Start" strategy; second, countering "both military and non-military facets of asymmetric and sub-conventional warfare"; third, enhancing "strategic reach and out-of-area capabilities" and attaining "operational synergy" between the three services; and finally, achieving a "technological edge" over India's opponents.

While "strategic reach and out-of-area capabilities" and achieving a "technological edge" over China appear over-ambitious, it is a sorry military that is still seeking to synergise its tri-service operations. The second requirement is an obvious necessity of the times. It is the first point that needs to be understood from a military perspective. Cold Start is a concept that the Indian military has been aspiring to for some years, to offset the advantage Pakistan enjoys of being able to assemble forces for war in a shorter period of time; an advantage offered to it by geography alone, because Pakistan lies linear to India, with little depth.

The Indian military is deployed in considerable depth, along both the Chinese border and the Pakistani one. In the event of a war with one of the two countries, some of the forces deployed against the other would have to be moved in support of those at war. Usually, this "assembly" of forces takes place before battle is joined. However, the concept of Cold Start envisages troops moving from peacetime quarters directly into battle.

In military parlance there is a concept referred to as "balance", which relates to the time-distance between forces; a force is said to be in a state of balance if it is capable of sustaining itself to achieve the assigned mission in a time period within which reserve forces can arrive, permitting the initial force to go further - whether in defence or attack. In attempting a Cold Start there is an inherent risk to the maintenance of balance between the forces that have joined battle and those leaving barracks to reinforce them. There are too many imponderables, and the operation has to be impeccably planned. This delicate state of balance between his forces lay behind Napoleon's success at the battles of Ulm and Austerlitz in 1805, when he defeated far superior forces. But then, that was Napoleon and he was at the height of his military powers. His attempt to repeat the feat ended in defeat at Waterloo.

Peacetime military leaderships are usually not trained to take risks; in fact, they tilt towards being over-cautious, although there are exceptions. This applies to the Subcontinent as much as anywhere else. It would be a bold commander who was prepared to undertake military operations without being certain of timely reinforcement. So the question arises, what provoked Gen Kapoor's remarks? After all, Pakistan is fighting a domestic war and making continuous overtures for peace with India. Relations between India and China have been steadily improving since the turn of the century; bilateral trade has almost tripled, and occasional hiccups such as the Chinese demands on India relating to the disputed territories of Himachal Pradesh are more tests of each other's tolerance than gestures of aggression; so why, and why now?

Almost certainly India is looking to the future, at a post-US withdrawal from Afghanistan scenario. Despite US efforts to build up Indian military capabilities as a counter-balance to growing Chinese strength, India remains conscious of its inability to meet China militarily or economically on equal terms. With the imminent US departure from Afghanistan, China is going to be the undisputed regional power and, without considerably increased assistance from the US, India will never be able to catch up with it.

Simultaneously, the US is committed to assisting Pakistan in its war against terrorists, even after it withdraws from the region. Was Gen Kapoor trying to raise the bogey of such a possibility to receive enhanced aid from the US? Or was he merely talking to his domestic audience in an effort to reassure them? And in any case, whatever his audience, were they listening? I suppose only time will tell.

Brig Gen Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer