The term ‘Two Front War’ is, perhaps the most used word by the military strategists of our great nation. Most of them do not even bother to define the ‘Two Fronts’, assuming that the reader already knows it. A look at the globe would indicate that by virtue of our location on the globe, we have a 360 degree threat. We are surrounded by a peculiar combination of tiny nations with no ‘muscle’ power and failed/nearly failed states, in north, east and west and have the busiest sea lane of communication in the south. Mention of this fact of strategic importance is considered essential because our pseudo military strategists have conditioned the Indian public to look towards north and west only. A peep into History would tell us that we invariably failed to protect national sovereignty, whenever invaders came from the south, our sea borders, be it British, Dutch or Portuguese. It is being stated so candidly at the beginning of the article to sensitise ourselves about our vulnerable southern border.
Reverting to the term ‘Two Front’ war essentially implies threats from China and Pakistan simultaneously. One front is always active since we are perpetually in a state of war with Pakistan since partition barring few periods of ‘uneasy’ calm. Before venturing into typical military parlance of assessing strength and weaknesses of the three nations, discussion on whether a ‘Two Front’ war scenario is possible and probable or not is essential.
In case of Pakistan, a high intensity conflict is possible during any time of the year due to identical weather conditions prevailing in both nations of similar terrain as well. But in case of China (ex TAR) the weather matrix comes into play more than the military capability. It was the ‘RUSSIAN WINTER’ not the ‘RUSSIAN ARMY’ that defeated the GERMAN PANZERS. Rest is history.
Indo-China border (read erstwhile Indo-Tibet border) in the North experiences some of the most adverse weather during the months of October to March every year due to intense cold. Situation is somewhat better as we travel eastwards to Arunachal Pradesh, but only marginally. Extreme cold causes severe strain on man and machine, which is further aggravated by some of the most inhospitable/difficult terrain and altitudes of over three kilometre (10,000 feet). Campaign season, therefore, has to take into account the extra-ordinary conditions for survival and logistics during peak winter months (October to March). Subsequently melting snow has its own problems.
After having mentioned the weather, next important issue is defining the military objectives of our adversaries. In case of China, it could be termed as accession of Arunachal Pradesh and in case of Pakistan it is accession of Indian held portion of Jammu & Kashmir. Next and final issue would be assessment of reasons for the Chinese intervention; Would China intervene to support Pakistan or would it be for achieving her own military objectives? A study of Chinese past would show that China has never intervened in any conflict unless Chinese interests were directly affected. Would accession of J&K by Pakistan meet any Chinese objective? The answer is a straight forward ‘NO’. China would, therefore, never intervene militarily merely to support Pak objective of annexing entire J&K. Sounds extremely simple. Indeed it is, but ironically our military strategists and pseudo intellectuals fail to digest this elementary fact. What China wanted in the region, she has already annexed; China occupies 37,185 sq. km of Aksai Chin region; In addition China was gifted an area of 5,187 sq. km by Pakistan to build Karakoram highway. Look at the globe carefully, China needs nothing more. Their focus on Arunachal is not merely territorial, it is religious as well due to Tawang monastery. It is, therefore evident that China will not engage with India militarily for the sole reason of aiding Pakistan. China may, rather will, in foreseeable future attempt to annex Arunachal with weak government at the centre in India.
Digital evaluation of Chinese military, specially PLAAF, would be the most essential parameter to arrive at logical conclusion. During 1962 war, our political masters did not use fully operational Indian Air Force because of their belief that the then non-effective Chinese Air Force will bomb Calcutta.
Somehow, the fear of the Dragon made us believe the ‘unbelievable’ and even now makes us assign unrealistic operational capability to Chinese Air Force (PLAAF). The fact is that elements of Chinese Air Force based in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) have extremely limited capability due to operating environment and Chinese Air Force elements based in Mainland China can strike targets deep in India only at their peril. In terms of number of aircraft, the Chinese Air Force is the largest air power segment in our neighbourhood. Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is the third largest in the world. When we in India look at PLAAF capability, we examine PLAAF operational capability ex Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). PLAAF operations from mainland China, though feasible, will have little effectiveness due to distances involved.
In order to evaluate PLAAF capability ex TAR, understanding of regional geography and terrain is absolutely essential. Of the seven Military Regions (MR) of the Chinese Armed Forces only two are opposite India. LANZHOU MR is opposite Ladakh sector and CHENGDU MR is opposite north eastern region. The MRs are further sub-divided into Military Districts (MD). MDs facing us are:-
- Chengdu MR. Two MDs in this region are Yunan (opposite Myanmar) and Tibet (Xizang) (opposite Assam, Sikkim and Arunachal)
- Lanzhou MR: South Xinjiang MD (opposite UP, HP and Ladakh). East Xinjiang faces us adjoining Ladakh.
There are 15 operational bases in these two regions from where PLAAF can launch air operations. If the airfields located in probable Tactical Battle Area (TBA) are considered the number reduces to a mere five. These airfields are:-
- Khotan (Lanzhou MR)
- Kongka Dzong (Chengdu MR)
Except for Khotan, the other four airfields are at an average location of around 4000 metres. Khotan at 1400 metres is nearly at same elevation as Srinagar. Pilots, who have operated from Srinagar, would understand the problems better. Simply stated; an aeroplane and human being is affected by altitude in identical manner. Both start puffing and panting with increase in altitude. Load carrying capacity drops markedly. Due to high true air speed at altitude corresponding to same indicated air speed, landing and take off run are excessively long. Remaining ten airfields in the region are Kashgar, Kunming, Paoshan, Jekundo, Chengdu, Petun, Mangshi, Nagchuka I&II and Kantse.
PLAAF continues to depend upon obsolete/obsolescent aeroplanes viz Q-5, IL- 28, J-8, Tu-16 etc. Modern fleet comprises of a mix of Su-27/30 and indigenous JF-17. Even these will reach the TBA with minimal load due to distances involved. Q-5, IL-28 and J-8 are ineffective in terms of radii of action and load carrying capacity. Tu-16 can be used with sufficient load but its employment in hilly terrain is highly doubtful. Radar cover at medium and high level is satisfactory in spite of vintage radars being operated. However, low level cover is virtually non-existent/ineffective due to terrain and fewer number of radars. Most of the airfields have dedicated radar located at the base. First generation air defence weapons are the only protection available. Deployment of low level SAMs is limited.
Airlift capability of PLAAF is extremely limited due to exponential reduction in carrying capacity at high altitude. For instance an IL 76 of the IAF, which can carry 40 ton from Chandigarh to Leh. But on return trip Leh-Chandigarh, it will barely carry less than half the load, may be lesser. Likewise heli-lift capability reduces exponentially. Even as a concept, using helicopters for large scale troop/equipment transfer within TAR is well nigh impossible. For instance, Mi-17, which can lift around 2000 kg at sea level, will carry a mere few hundred kg at PLAAF airfields. Capability to air drop a fully equipped battalion size force is simply unachievable.
Enhancement of Capability with Force Multipliers
Force multipliers viz. mid air refuellers, airborne warning and control systems, if used by PLAAF will enhance their capability by a few notches but will still remain well below the force levels required to cause any substantive attrition.
For six (normally eight) months in a year (October to March), operations will be severely affected due to extremely low temperatures, icy strong surface winds and extensive ice accumulation over the runway. Few airfields, particularly in Chengdu MR are affected by extensive fog. Sustained day/night operations are virtually impossible.
PLAAF Capability ex TAR at a Glance
Only effective strike element are Su-27/30 and JF-17. Even these machine will operate with severe load penalty.
- Airfield infra-structure cannot support large scale and sustained operations.
- Extremely limited night operations are possible.
- Tactical Battle Area can be approached from very few directions due to terrain.
- Nearest Indian airfields viz Bareilly, Gorakhpur, Bagdogra, Hashimara, Jorhat, Gauhati, Tezpur, Chabua, Mohanbari and nearly a dozen Advance Landing Grounds will be around 4-500 km in most cases.
- Air Defence infra structure is extremely limited and is in pockets.
Chances of successful interception of IAF strike element in TBA is virtually NIL. However strike elements targeting PLAAF airfields will/may face air defence aircraft.
- Airlift capability of PLAAF is grossly inadequate for any large scale transfer of troops/equipment by air.
- Conventional tipped SSMs will also have little or no effect, even if used by PLAAF.
PLAAF capability ex TAR is severely limited and would remain so, irrespective of the acquisition and/or employment of more modern aircraft, which might be in their inventory by 2020. PLAAF elements based in mainland China will have no substantive effect in overall PLAAF performance ex TAR. Indeed, if our diplomacy fails and PLAAF operates out of bases in Myanmar and Bangladesh, our problems will increase exponentially. PLAAF operating out of TAR poses no worthwhile threat to our land forces provided the IAF is given free hand to operate. Chinese land forces can/will be decimated in the TBA.
Over the past 30 years, PAF has been gradually reducing in strength and fire power, although new F-16s from USA and JF-17s from China have bolstered the strike element marginally.
Serviceability and operational utilisation of JF-17s is a cause of concern to China and Pakistan. Mirage variants and F-7P (MiG-21 variant) are in poor state of maintenance due to acute shortage of spares. As of now, Pakistan does not have enough throw weight to keep more than dozen IAF bases inoperative, all at the sametime. PAF capability to support/augment ground forces is severely limited due to insufficient numbers in their inventory. In the prevailing geo-strategic scenario, PAF is unlikely to acquire any modern 4th/5th generation fighter from western countries. Chinese JF-17s are the only latest acquisition, but are supposed to have serious operational problems on account of aero-engines.
Overall, IAF squadrons continue to deplete as the years go by due to flawed acquisition policy. Even if induction process were to commence in real earnest on 01 January 2018, earliest date of arrival of aeroplanes will be 31 December 2025. IAF would be a 27 squadron Air Force by then. However, due to large scale induction of Su-30 MKI, the throw weight capability has been enhanced by nearly 400%, when compared with the throw weight capability in 1971, the last high intensity conflict. Addition of force multipliers have also added more muscle as well as operational flexibility. But current levels of 32 Squadron worth of fighters will be stretched to the limits in case of a two front war lasting around 30 days. Concern of the IAF, however is not the shortage of the platforms; concern is critical shortages of weapons. Our PGM inventory is woefully small and is unlikely to grow in foreseeable future. The primary reason being prohibitive cost factor since we do not produce a single PGM. Every weapon is imported. IAF needs to shed the mystical 45 Fighter Squadron mindset. Sooner the better. We peaked at 39.5 Squadrons and are now placed at 32 Squadrons. IAF also needs to look at acquiring medium lift capability in large numbers. Our five operational commands need to be equipped with at least two squadron worth (24 aircraft) of medium lift wide bodied transport aircraft in 20 ton category.
Pakistan is an intelligent adversary and is unlikely to fight a full scale war. But should it decide to engage with India in a high intensity conflict, the air war will be fought on the ground. Sleeper cells supporting Pakistan will decidedly target our military installations, air bases in particular. Military installation security or the lack of it might just become the nemesis we fear most. Deep scar has been left on Indian psyche due to ignominious defeat in 1962 coupled with sustained false propaganda by intellectually bankrupt military strategists over the years by assigning fictional capability to conventional Chinese military, PLAAF in particular, we keep scaring ourselves by imagining a simultaneous Two Front War scenario. Two Front war scenario involving China-Pak is an unlikely scenario due to following reasons:
- Pakistan does not have the muscle/fire power to last out a 30-40 day war. In any case, current instability along the LOC is as good as perpetual low intensity war, which has tied down nearly quarter million soldiers of Indian Army along LOC.
- China is militarily not capable of neutralising Indian Military elements and occupy more territory and hold on to it.
Conclusions are based on realistic DIGITAL APPRECIATION as against inaccurate process of ANALOGOUS APPRECIATION leading to incorrect findings.
Note: Nuclear exchange with China and/or Pakistan is beyond the scope of this paper.
Gp Capt TP Srivastava has served for over three decades with the IAF, flying the MiG-21 and MiG-29. He has authored a book titled “Profligate Governance: Implications for National Security” dealing with national and international affairs, specific military affairs, geo-strategic scenario etc. He is currently based in the NCR and writes extensively on defence and security related issues.