India Prepares for a Two-Front War

There is one country responding to China's military build-up and aggressiveness with some muscle of its own. No, it is not the United States, the superpower ostensibly responsible for maintaining peace and security in Asia. Rather, it is India, whose military is currently refining a "two-front war" doctrine to fend off Pakistan and China simultaneously.

Defending against Pakistan isn't anything new, and Delhi has long viewed China with suspicion. But in recent years India has been forced to think more seriously about an actual armed conflict with its northern neighbor. Last year Beijing started a rhetorical clash over the Dalai Lama's and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visits to Arunachal Pradesh state, which China claims as its own. In the two years before that, Chinese border incursions into India almost doubled. Not to mention China's massive military buildup and concerted push for a blue-water navy.

In response, the Indian military is rewriting its so-called "Cold Start" doctrine. Cold Start's initial intent was to provide the armed forces with more rapid and flexible response options to Pakistani aggression. The Indian military believed that its ground forces' slow and lumbering mobilization after the 2001 terrorist attacks on its parliament played to Pakistan's advantage: International opinion turned against decisive Indian military action. Delhi also worried that its plan to send in heavy forces to weaken Pakistan was unrealistic and might well trigger a nuclear response.

But as China has grown more aggressive, Delhi has begun planning to fight a "two-front war" in case China and Pakistan ally against India.

So Indian strategists searched for military solutions that would avoid a nuclear response but still provide a rapid retaliatory punch into Pakistan. The resulting doctrine was built around eight division-sized "integrated battle groups"—a combination of mobile ground forces backed by air power and tied together through an advanced system of sensors and reconnaissance capabilities. The Indian Army would advance into Pakistan and hold territory to use as leverage to end terrorist attacks launched from Pakistani soil.

But as China has grown more aggressive, Delhi has begun planning to fight a "two-front war" in case China and Pakistan ally against India. Army Chief of Staff General Deepak Kapoor recently outlined the strategy: Both "fronts"—the northeastern one with China and northwestern one with Pakistan—would receive equal attention. If attacked by Pakistan and China, India will use its new integrated battle groups to deal quick decisive blows against both simultaneously.

The two-front strategy's ambitions go even further: In the long term China is the real focus for Indian strategists. According to local newspapers, Gen. Kapoor told a defense seminar late last year that India's forces will "have to substantially enhance their strategic reach and out-of-area capabilities to protect India's geopolitical interests stretching from the [Persian] Gulf to Malacca Strait" and "to protect our island territories" and assist "the littoral states in the Indian Ocean Region."

Of course the existence of a new doctrine does not make it an operational reality. But a cursory glance at India's acquisition patterns and strategic moves gives every indication that India is well on its way to implementation. Delhi is buying and deploying sophisticated command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance networks; supersonic cruise missiles; lightweight towed artillery pieces; and new fighter aircraft with supporting electronic warfare and refueling platforms. India has already bought C-130J aircraft from the U.S. for rapid force deployment. The navy is planning to expand its submarine fleet, to acquire three aircraft carriers, and to deploy them with modernized carrier-based fighter aircraft. In addition India plans to deploy fighters and unmanned aerial vehicles at upgraded bases on the Andaman and Nicobar islands in the eastern Indian Ocean.

India is not looking for a fight with China: It simply understands it is prudent to develop a military that can deter Beijing. President Obama's accommodating stance toward China and his apparent lack of interest in cementing partnership with Delhi have focused Indian minds, as have his failure to invest in resources his Pacific commanders need.

While America has a strong interest in sharing the burdens of checking China's expansionism, it should be concerned when its friends react in part to a perception of American weakness and Chinese strength. Ultimately, the U.S. is the only country with the power and resources to reassure its allies they need not engage in costly arms races with China. But first the U.S. must identify Chinese military power for what Asian allies know it to be: a threat to peace in Asia.

Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Christen Best

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