India-China standoff: Need to be prepared for two-and-half front war (Part III of three-part series)

India's armed forces need to transform itself to deter and if necessary fight and win a two-front war, and ensure that both China and Pakistan will bear the consequences of military and national embarrassment, writes Lt Gen PR Kumar (retd) for South Asia Monitor 

Lt Gen P R Kumar (retd) Jun 26, 2020

“The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected,” Sun Tzu, The Art of War.

The Part I of this three-part series covered the India-China civilizational connect which prevented a confrontation let alone a conflict pre-independence of both countries, and genesis of the boundary impasse. In Part II, the resolution and way forward for resolving the issue was analysed which essentially calls for statesmanship, and atmospherics of ‘give and take,’ out of box thinking, avoiding irritants, and focus on national objectives and interests for the long term. 

This last part provides a flavour of the much-hyped ‘two-and-half front war,’ spoken of quite frequently whenever India’s sovereignty, integrity, security and strategic freedom of India is discussed. At the outset, one would de-link the narrative from the ongoing tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), and most importantly it is imperative to understand that armed forces/militaries do not go to war but nations go to war, and this fundamental truth must be addressed accordingly by every citizen, political parties and leaders. Conflict scenario due to space constraints are discussed at the strategic level, to showcase the immense scope, multi-dimensional nature and its complexity.


Emerging multipolar world, multi-domain security challenges both kinetic and non-kinetic, the rise of authoritarianism, nationalism and bilateralism, the threat of climate change, economic slowdown leading to trade wars and barriers, contest for strategic space and alliances is compelling all countries to carry out dynamic strategic balancing, leading to a turbulent international and regional security environment. Nations will now remain in a state of ‘constant engagement’. Geography and security related zones still conform except for the global players the US, China and to some extent Russia. The 24X7 multi-domain environment/activity has changed the security landscape globally and blurred the distinctions between peace and war, the scope of confrontational activities and even levels of conflict (blurring distinction between tactical to strategic). China has emerged as a global power with increasingly aggressive manoeuvres to expand its strategic space (from economic, political to military), ready to take on the USA and allies in an ideological confrontation. It is a truism that it will brook no interference from India in its quest for Asian supremacy. With deliberately unresolved boundary dispute (Out of 14 boundary disputes only two with India and Bhutan remain unresolved) and collusivity with client state Pakistan, India needs to be prepared for a two-front conflict, however, remote the probability may appear. War/conflict is not a game of numbers, however, the current comprehensive power ratios especially armed forces of India vis a vis China and Pakistan is challenging. 

India ideally seeks to adopt a credible deterrent and punitive deterrent posture against China and Pakistan respectively. For this our comprehensive national power (CNP), the national security apparatus, economic positioning, military modernization structurally, hardware and software (including true integration and jointness in form of Theatre Commands) needs to be transformed to create requisite capacities and capabilities to compete, confront and if necessary fight a two-front future war in a 24X7 multi-domain environment (MDE). Assertive China’s other interests (existential importance of BRI and CPEC), her relationship with Pakistan and South Asian nations, her suspicions about Tibet, dependence on the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), India’s growing alliances (US, QUAD), and her desire to maintain levers in the relationship with India suggests that a boundary settlement is not a Chinese priority at present. 

Emergence of multi-domain operations (MDO), environment, war and its impact on the future confrontations and conflict

MDO envisions the nation deploying and employing all facets of comprehensive national power (CNP) including the military (not exclusively) and especially game changing technology - from diplomacy to economic leverages, fighters to destroyers, space shuttle to the submarine, cyber to satellites, social media to psychological operations, Artificial Intelligence (AI), big data to networks, tanks to attack helicopters, munition factory worker to hacks - working together intrinsically as one, to overwhelm the adversary with attacks from all domains: land, sea (including sub surface), air, space, cyberspace, psychological and networks centric operations, dense urban, information influence operations (IIO) including social media. Future wars will blur the distinction between war, peace and confrontation. Battlespace has expanded, converged and compressed all at once (truly oxymoronic); tactically, by bringing kinetic and non-kinetic effects to bear from any place in the world and, strategically, by being able to challenge the deployment and echeloning of forces into the fight at all places simultaneously (even US homeland is no longer safe from kinetic and non-kinetic attacks; missiles, cyber, psychological, network attacks). To illustrate, an ICBM/PGM/ cyber virus/trade sanctions/HALE drone can be launched from any part of China and will impact the close support area/forward localities, military rear areas, and concurrently military and civilian targets across the length and breadth of the country. Similarly, an Indian ICBM/Brahmos/ Prithvi missile/perception mgt operations launched from near the LC/LAC can target a LAC bunker or a strategic/operational target in Tibet and even mainland China depending on the range of domain/weapon system. 

The Chinese seem to believe that ‘quantity has its own quality’ and mass-produces and sell defence related systems. MDW calls for a change of thought process, ‘a transformation and not just modernisation’. We need to go beyond the current joint manship and synchronization of operations, and thus the requirement of Theatre Commands. On the multi-dimensional chessboard, the facts of geography, the ambitions of the strategy and the realities of politics and technology all interact. In the Indian context, especially with reference to borders, use of land power remains the most the conclusive instrument of strategy and ‘whether or not land constitutes the principal geographical medium on which combat is waged, the strategic effect must ultimately have its way in a territorial context’. One would like to categorically state that from a strategic and military point of view, for India to take its destined place as a regional power in the mid-term and a global power in the long term, we need to be an economic, diplomatic, continental, maritime, air, space, cyber, military, economic, technological and information power– a multi-domain power.   

Important International and National Security Truisms 

‘No permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interest’; at best we may obtain intelligence, material and moral support; We need to be prepared to fight alone. 

Blurred distinctions between war and peace, and tactical to strategic operations.

Deterrence potency of even global powers have diminished, impacting their capabilities to dictate global affairs.

Non-kinetic verticals often stay below nations red lines, defy attributability, making proportionate response difficult. 

Hostile remote LC/LAC regions provide the impetus for adventurism. 

Lack of a formal written/promulgated India’s strategic doctrine/National Security Strategy (NSS). 

‘The now permanent, strategic China-Pakistan collusive partnership has brought in the whole new equation, with much more expanded assistance in multi-domain expected from China even in case of an Indo-Pak war’, and also waging a proxy war. 

Statistical ratios also provide a narrative

Everyone understands that wars are not based on just numbers, however, today smaller nations with low populations are very unlikely to become major powers. Numerous think tanks provide data on a country’s CNP especially military force ratios of which Lowy Institute, Australia ( provides very detailed interactive data. Readers should surf for very interesting deductions and can also read ‘The sobering arithmetic of a two-front war’ by Abhijnan Rej, ORF Special Report, 10 Jul 2018. It is apparent that even with partial force application by China (up to 30 percent) and full force application by Pakistan the numbers are challenging for India. 

Two-and-half front scenarios. 

Firstly, China initiating conflict against India with restricted political and military the aim, as an all-out war is improbable due to numerous considerations of international power equations, economic and political considerations, competing strategic alliances, nuclear-weapon states status, slow Chinese decline in economic growth and internal security compulsions, the priority of other regions like South East and East Asia nations and seas, Taiwan, inability to control IOR,  and with Pakistan entering the conflict sensing a strategic opportunity especially regarding Kashmir. This is the most likely scenario; secondly, India carrying out pro-active operations against Pakistan and China joining the conflict (unlikely)/drawn in due to political or even existential considerations [while existential may sound ludicrous, I firmly believe that the success of BRI of which CPEC is a pivotal part is existential to CCP to meet growing aspirations of a restless Chinese populace; thirdly, a planned orchestrated two-front war by China and Pakistan with synergy in all domains. All three being nuclear weapon states complicate the already combustible situation and invite early global intervention. However, unstable pre-occupied world security (COVID?) and the lure of ‘out of proportion strategic gains’ in a short swift war could create conditions for this scenario. Will provide the stiffest challenge for India. 

The half front refers to internal disturbance/insurgencies in union territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, Northeast states and the real threat of LWE (Left Wing Extremism which currently consumes 90 districts across 11 States as per Government of India).

Strategic overview of conflict

Having highlighted challenging force ratios and the emerging MDO scenario, one should also, understand that it is not 1962, and our current force structures coupled with the attrition filled Himalayan terrain where the scenario is likely to pan out, will allow our Armed Forces to adopt (limited) punitive posture against Pakistan and dissuasive posture against China with limited offensive capability. The vital role of the Air Force which enjoys a strategic advantage of operating from lower altitudes against China (with diminishing assets it needs an urgent push in numbers and technology to fulfil its role of counter-air and counter surface operations which are both battle-winning and battle changing capabilities), and of the Navy which can cause considerable attrition to both Chinese and Pakistan naval assets if they manage to draw them into the IOR the region bears mention. It is important to highlight that it is very little possibility to switch our forces and resources between fronts (applicable to both Army and Air Force while the Navy will need to deploy along both the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal), and there will be almost total situational awareness with the adversaries given Chinese capabilities (our own capabilities are moderate unless we persuade the US to chip in as Russia is likely to remain neutral). We discuss a well-orchestrated joint China-Pakistan pro-active operation.  

The confrontation being political, it could be ‘to teach India a lesson and show the world’ her power projection potential of an ‘Arrived Super Power’ (in the process, humiliate India/impact India’s aspirations), while Pakistan would like to resolve the Kashmir valley equation to her advantage. J&K is the only area where there is physical collusiveness between China and Pakistan and East Ladakh is vulnerable because of terrain, remoteness and sector segregation, mech forces operating conditions and own lack of infrastructure. Operations could start as an aggressive competition and confrontation using both kinetic and non-kinetic means but could easily escalate to a broader conflict. Deploying and employing land, maritime and air resources and routes and bases through other immediate neighbours cannot be ruled out. 

Getting to more specifics, China and Pakistan operating along our Northern and Western Borders (both prosecuting MDO pan India in hinterland also), we anticipate his employment of fires across domains - cyber, computer, Information Influence Operations (IIO) especially social media, hybrid, electromagnetic spectrum, space, application of PDIME (political, diplomatic, information, military and economic) during peace (constant competition) and the imposition of their will with increasing tempo, focus and lethality just prior to the conflict to try and achieve his political and military aims, without fighting. Shifting gears to actual combat both countries will employ their air assets including attack helicopters, ISR capabilities, special forces, rockets, missiles and artillery to degrade our strategic, operational and tactical assets and military forces, isolate the battlefield, and then employ his offensive forces to defeat our land and air forces in detail. Permanent terminal objectives even in the event of a full-scale war are most likely to be Chinese perception of his traditional borders which in Ladakh are close to the current LAC and in the Eastern Front includes the state of Arunachal Pradesh. 

For Pakistan, he would like to capture maximum territory in J&K and along our Western borders to use for strategic bargaining in the Valley. Except for the physical land boundary disputes, there is no other territorial or maritime disputes with China. However, terminal objectives would be dictated by their political aim translated into military objectives, battlefield success in terms of real estate, domains, battlefield casualties (especially Chinese) and vulnerabilities, India’s response especially military including resolve and warfighting potential, international reactions and the nuclear dimension; the same is being war-gamed on a regular basis at the strategic and operational level within our armed forces. 

The intensity of hard and soft power would be nothing like the nation and our troops would have experienced. We have one of the most battle-hardened troops in the world, but the intangible effect of psychological and information operations, isolation, lack of situational awareness, operating in a degraded environment coupled with a 360-degree conflict with no front, rear and flanks will certainly impact them; if we do not train, prepare and have the capacity to counter and negate their design of conflict. China will wage such a war; however just as a stalemate for India is considered a defeat, when we launch pro-active operations against Pakistan, the same is applicable to China.  Their aim would be to achieve their political and military objectives swiftly. Our internal situation will be handled adequately by the Central Armed Police Forces with the Army deployed at more sensitive sites and in reserve. The logistics trains will be well protected and systems are in place to ensure smooth chain supply without disruption with ample contingencies.

For India, as already highlighted, formidable terrain friction along the LAC, LC and AGPL where the land wars will be fought (Pakistan or India could initiate conflict across the international border where the dynamics are in our favour) will consume troops of the attacker (high ratios of six to nine times) and will be to our advantage. Our dug in well-fortified and stocked positions will continue to hold ground despite being encircled or bypassed and will need physical clearing, own effective general and close fire support (artillery, rockets, missiles, EW, optimum use of attack/armed helicopters, cyber W), strategic and operational logistics, timely ammunition, equipment and troop reinforcements, synergized counter-air and counter surface support, opening up of new/different fronts/areas, newly acquired strategic lift capabilities and most importantly conduct of Theatre MDO and keeping a major portion of our strategic strike forces (four strike Corps including the Mountain Strike Corps) largely uncommitted for limited offensive ops/riposte and continuously recreating reserves will ensure slow grinding attrition based defensive operations unbalancing and stalling their offensive.  While it will be a challenge, we must keep increasing our military capabilities to impose prohibitive costs to deter this adventure. 

As of now, it is appreciated, that in case of a two-front war, we can defend ourselves, launch limited offensive operations, and cause prohibitive degradation of aggressors’ armed forces to thwart his political and military objectives, given the proven ethos, training, combat experience, resolve, leadership and professionalism of our armed forces. 

The Way Forward

Given the international and regional dynamic security situation, our national economic situation, the slow pace of indigenization (Make in India), the operational necessity of holistic capacity and capability building of our armed forces as a pivot of CNP is a strategic imperative. It will be pragmatic to have a two-phase strategy to strengthen and optimize our national security apparatus viz Phase 1 – Immediate future (3-5 years) and Long-Term Plan (beyond five years). Some essential national and military measures are listed below:

Immediate Future (3-5 years) (will automatically spill over into long term)

Strategic direction for the nation and the armed forces and formal and if necessary government orders leading to true Tri-services integration and commencement of Theatre Commands raisings (already on). 

Increased budgetary allocations are imperative for national security. This will have to be done for a long period, as envisaged by experts to 3 percent of the budget. 

Re-structuring MoD and all three services. The impetus to ‘Make in India’.

Place ITBP along LAC under the operational control of the army.

Roadmap, planning and implementation to fight a two-front war in MD Environment. 

Longer Term Measures 

Build requisite strategic air and sealift capability. 

Modernisation of the armed forces. 

Minimum Stock Levels (MSL) of munitions, equipment and spares and setting the stage for the technological upgrade of armed forces. 


Future wars are going to be very complex, intense, multi-dimensional with the blurred distinction between competition, confrontation and conflict, with diminishing power of deterrence, and ambiguity of attribution and commensurate retribution. India must be prepared for a two-and-half front escalating security and war scenario. Continuous building of CNP of which the military is an inescapable and operational imperative needs to be done with focus, dedication and ‘whole of nation approach’. Our armed forces need to transform itself to deter and if necessary fight and win a two-front war, and ensure that both China and Pakistan will bear the consequences of military and national embarrassment. We must continue the process as a national endeavour now. “You can have peace. Or you can have freedom. Don't ever count on having both at once.," Robert A. Heinlein, an American science-fiction author, aeronautical engineer, and retired Naval officer. 

(The writer, an Indian Army veteran,  was Director-General of Military Operations. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at


Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, Fontana, London, 1989, p. 111.

The sobering arithmetic of a two-front war by Abhijnan Rej, ORF Special Report, 10 Jul 2018. Open-domain source material and very accurate based on 10 years input from ten IISS Military Balance volumes from 2009 to 2018. 

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