The threat of India’s two-and-a-half front war
Nations fight on two strategic arenas — the economic front and the national mindshare. While Pakistan and China extract high economic costs, the rapidly rising “half front” is internal. Unless confronted, internal schisms will be far more lethal
For some time now, there have been discussions about India facing the possibility of a “two-and-a-half” front war. These conversations are usually about the preparedness and capability of our armed forces, our political leadership, and the national will to face the apocalyptic eventuality.
In recorded history, armed conflicts have a beginning, an engagement phase and eventually, a declaration of cessation. But in reality, wars begin long before conflicts are formally declared and continue well after they end, because while armed conflict may be a component of war, nations continually fight on two other strategic arenas — the economic front and national mindshare. By that construct, India is already engaged in a two-and-a-half front war.
Our first, and supposedly primary front, Pakistan, has been waging a war of attrition with India for over two decades now. Leveraging unconventional warfare, Pakistan has achieved several objectives with relatively minuscule investment. First, it permanently ties down a substantial portion of our armed and security forces along the western borders and the Kashmir Valley. Second, the manpower intensive nature of counter-insurgency consumes a huge portion of the defence budget, leaving little room for modernisation. Third, Pakistan operates from a position of advantage because, while it takes hundreds of thousands of troops to maintain a state of control, all it requires is a few dramatic terror attacks to shatter that sense. And last, in partnership with China, Pakistan has blunted India’s advantage of having a theoretically larger armed forces, and continues expanding its insurgent terrorism regardless of international condemnation or punitive attempts by India.
The political road map of mainstreaming the Valley through economic resurgence hinges on sustained long-term peace and stability, to attract investment, and for its returns to fructify. Pakistan, however, has demonstrated the ability and intent to stall that at will.
Our second, comparatively dormant front against China has swelled to magnitudes unprecedented since the 1960s, whose implications to both the economy and national mindshare are debilitating. It costs a lot of money to maintain a fighting formation at, say, a peace location such as Chandigarh. But the cost of maintaining the same formation in a high-altitude area such as Ladakh is much higher. The extended supply chains, all-weather logistics, wear and tear on equipment and personnel, fuel, flying hours, and the usage of expensive military platforms bleed us economically.
All expenses related to security come at a massive opportunity cost. Every time a new corps is raised, it diverts millions of dollars and tens of thousands of personnel from “nation-building” activities — which are growth-oriented revenue inflows -- into “nation-defending” activities, which are undoubtedly necessary and noble, but essentially draining cost outflows. Every time India has to match troop deployment with China, it is competing with a country with six times its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and thrice its defence budget. The irony is that with a trade deficit of $30 billion, India is probably also paying for the Chinese troops deployed against us.
Essentially, both Pakistan and China have drawn India into an economic war that costs us exponentially more, just to maintain the status quo against our two adversaries — one of whom is poorer, yet extracts a higher price from us, and the other much richer and hence drains our resources. In addition, both Pakistan and China have intensified dimensional fronts in the form of a narco-war, weapons influx, and electronic and psychological warfare. China also holds India by the supply chain jugular — especially in the communication and transportation sector, both vital for nation-building and national security.
Contrary to jingoistic proclamations, the real scorecard of war is never about the number of persons killed or aircraft shot down. It is about which country is compelling its enemy to expend more resources, thereby degrading the latter’s economic progress. The telling example is the breakup of the erstwhile Soviet Union, which was imploded by the United States (US) — economically, not militarily.
The “half” of the two-and-a-half front traditionally signified long-running internal conflicts such as the Maoists, Northeast insurgencies, and sporadic disturbances. However, that half is now rapidly growing in size, footprint, global perception, and most importantly, affecting the national psyche and investor confidence. Regardless of the power of any government of the day to dictate national security policies, they have just a fraction of the GDP, limited political bandwidth and only five million troops to implement those policies. Approximately two million of the armed forces and 800,000 of the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) are already overcommitted, undermanned, and under-equipped, even against sanctioned strengths.
The remaining 2.2 million state police are woefully inadequate even for regular policing and law and order, as is evident in every police study. It is these limited troops which have to be rushed around like chess pieces within the nation and its borders. Thinning out troops from the Northeast to augment the China front leaves a hole that is immediately exploited — like the ambush of a colonel in Manipur. Similarly, any attempt to pull troops out from Kashmir finds a riposte in the targeted killings of civilians.
India’s burgeoning internal “half front” is its Achilles Heel and our adversaries will be certain to expand it. In addition to unresolved smouldering tinderboxes such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and farmers’ protests, our nation is facing multiple internal fronts, ranging from economic degrowth, ravages of the pandemic, increasing sectarian violence, parochialism, exclusion, regionalism, and most dangerous of all, divisive narratives. No nation can fight on the security or more importantly, the economic front, if swathes of its citizenry feel marginalised, persecuted or excluded from the mainstream.
Such narratives were the bedrock of severe turmoil in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In fact, the gambit of war by any country is dividing the national unity of their adversaries and degrading their ability to leverage full national capacity.
Doctrines of war are replete with disasters of opening a second front, let alone two-and-a half fronts. Strategic prudence dictates that national resources and mindshare always focus on one front at a time, and if absolutely necessary, even deprioritise one of the other fronts to retain dominance in the crucial front.
India’s internal half front has the potential to balloon into a more than full front if its expansion is not arrested immediately, and unless that happens, there is no way we can meaningfully address even one of our major threats — let alone two.
Raghu Raman is the founding CEO, NATGRID
The views expressed are personal