The myth of a two-front war: three steps towards getting real on defence - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 12 March 2018

The myth of a two-front war: three steps towards getting real on defence

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 13th March 18

The conspicuously modest rise in the defence budget for 2018-19 highlights the mismatch between India’s grandiose strategic ambitions and our limited ability to fund them. Defence allocations, including military pensions, will rise by a token 8.1 per cent from the current year’s revised estimates of Rs 3.74 trillion ($58.45 billion) to Rs 4.04 trillion ($63.2 billion) next year. The usual suspects have lamented that this is far short of India’s “legitimate security needs”. But they seem to be overlooking the fact that successive Indian governments over the past two decades seem in agreement on what India can afford to spend on defence. In five budgets from 2009 to 2014, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government consistently allocated to defence just 16-17 per cent of its total annual spending. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has only continued that trend.

Yet, instead of cutting their coat according to their cloth, Indian planners and security commentators continue framing our defence objectives in the most unrealistic and expansive terms. Our military, they say, must be prepared to fight and win a two-front war, defeating Pakistan while simultaneously holding off China – a country with a far more capable military, which is unsurprising given that China’s GDP is four times India’s and its defence budget thrice as large. As if the two-front chimera were not enough, many commentators have redefining the peril as a two-and-a-half front threat, in which – besides a collusive threat from Pakistan and China – insurgents in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) join the party, tying up large numbers of Indian troops in safeguarding military supply lines and disrupting movement. In addition to all this, the navy must ensure we remain masters of the Indian Ocean.

If our crumbly defence edifice is to be saved from collapsing under the weight of these burdens, we must radically re-orient and scale down our objectives. The chorus from our strategic elites to raise defence spending from the present 2.18 per cent of Gross Domestic Product to at least 3 per cent is clearly unthinkable across the political spectrum. What would help, however, are three urgent shifts.

First, we must reframe our security objectives realistically. While a two-and-a-half front war is a theoretical possibility, it cannot be the basis of our defence planning – it is only a worst-case cataclysm that we could manage, as a last resort, through nuclear deterrence. True, the army chief, General Bipin Rawat, has exhorted the military to be ready for war on multiple fronts, but sitting in Delhi, he is vulnerable to political rhetoric. In contrast, two army theatre commanders – with their feet closer to the ground – have cautioned against a two-front war. In Chandigarh last fortnight, western army commander, Lieutenant General Surinder Singh, warned that “It is never a good idea, never a smart idea, to fight a two-front war”, pointing out that skillfully managing relations with China would also improve our leverage with Pakistan. Meanwhile, Lieutenant General MM Naravane, commanding the Shimla-based training command, stated that calming the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan required “statesmanship, not brinkmanship”, and that a lasting peace needed a return to the negotiating table. Other commanders in Kashmir, including the recently retired Lieutenant General DS Hooda, have said a comprehensive dialogue, involving all stakeholders including separatists, would calm the Kashmir valley.

It should be evident that the event of a two-and-a-half front war would represent the simultaneous and comprehensive failure of Indian strategy, diplomacy, border management and internal political management. Only the very rich can afford to structure their security for a worst-case scenario. Making this our benchmark for conventional defence capability warps defence planning, financial expenditure, troop deployment,  and the direction and aims of diplomacy. Strategic prudence calls for the country’s top security planners to collectively ensure that India is never reduced to a position where it faces full-scale war on multiple fronts.

The second urgent shift must be a root-and-branch reform of the military’s disastrous personnel policy. With over half the annual defence budget splashed on salaries and pensions, less than a quarter is left for equipment modernisation this year. The military has swelled to over 1.5 million personnel – 1,264,981 in the army, with the navy and air force accounting for another 238,562 personnel. Most of them serve for 17-19 years, retiring before they are 40 to continue drawing pensions for the rest of their lives. When they die, their wives or unmarried daughter continues drawing pension. With life expectancy increasing, the pension bill will soon exceed the salary bill.

Yet, little thought has been directed to why defending our mountain borders requires such expensive soldiers, mostly recruited from the faraway plains of India and rotated through high-altitude areas that they barely know and are physiologically unsuited for. Meanwhile, the military barely scratches the surface in recruiting from border areas to create units manned by locals to defend their own homeland. Wherever such recruitment has been tentatively attempted, as in Ladakh, Himachal, Uttarakhand and Sikkim, the units created – such as the Ladakh Scouts – have proven their superiority in their home environments. Such an approach is needed to create a large number of “National Guard” units, manned by local soldiers, recruited for 5-7 years with no pension liability. Based on the lessons that emerge, this “short service” model of recruitment should be progressively extended across the army, whittling down the pension bill. In the border areas, National Guard units would create employment where little exists, build national identity and boost local economies. This would require modifying state recruitment quotas to favour border states, but there is a clear strategic and economic rationale for doing so.

Third and finally, as recommended by numerous committees – the Kargil Review Committee in 1999, a Group of Ministers in 2001, the Naresh Chandra Task Force in 2016 to name three – the government must go ahead with integrating the service headquarters with the defence ministry. Currently, the army, navy and air force each have their own headquarters, staffed by uniformed officers, who must get sanctions for most subjects (expenditures, promotions, appointments, procurements) from the defence ministry, which is staffed almost entirely by civilian administrators with little military domain expertise. Given the deep institutional animosity between these two headquarters, even the simplest task is complicated and delayed, often out of sheer perversity. Combining them would yield many benefits: the chance for both to recognise and harness each others’ competencies, the reduction of decision-making layers and the creation of a benign civil-military relationship in which the political leadership, the bureaucracy and the military actively work together in achieving national security objectives.


  1. Truly well said, sir!

    The tragedy with our national defence management in general, and with our armed forces leadership, particularly the Army, is that most of them have ended up believing the pervading political rhetoric, and the publicity campaign for reassurance of the public at large. Accordingly, conclusions of success are pre-drawn while wargaming and scenarios so painted, and voila,the premise and hypothesis stands validated! The issue is further compounded by the indifference and neglect meted out to tactical on-ground training whereby no tactical training infrastructure worth its name has been created apart from field firing ranges. The Army Training Command exists merely as a precis printing organisation, and as a disempowered inspection authority of a limited number of training institutions on account of turf wars within the Army.

    The Territorial Army organisation, meant to serve the purpose of specialised National Guards as proposed by you, have been reduced to full-time paramilitary role and mere adjuncts of regular Army regiments.

    No one and nobody within and without the organisation is seriously attending to the urgent necessity to re-align the military organisational, structural or composition profile to suit modern and futuristic conflict environment in line with the national capacity to finance and fund. All we continue to hear is refrains and laments about percentages of GDP of defence allocations.

  2. You have a valid argument but even then there has to be vast increase in defence spending to reach some form of balance with China. Otherwise I fear our troops are being set up as cannon fodder for the inevitable conflict which will occur in the next 10 years. Unless of course we compromise with China, which we may be forced to do.

  3. We are the largest importer of arms in the world. We need to stop this first. Only then we can afford large armed force.
    Learn from china they make their own rifles to fighters to destroyers. They iterate the designs quickly after learning from issues.
    Here we have issues persisting in INSAS for decades, but everyone sleeps.Then imports.
    The Tejas goes through A to Z OC, but no induction.
    We start testing towed artillery ATAGS, but want to import 1100 same caliber mounted on trucks !
    We invite 10 ASEAN heads and out comes T-90 rolling instead of Arjun.
    You have considered 1.5 million in armed forces, our central,police forces too have increased head count.
    Sadly our MoD and HQ lack concept of national pride here.

  4. GOOD information

  5. Great article! Glad to see such a pragmatic analysis of our defence planning. If only the planners at MoD, IA, IAF and IN had a realistic expectation of our defence budget, our defence procurement wouldn't be a such a joke.

  6. Well written and pragmatic. I offer the following comments:-

    (A) What would India's options be in case China did resort to conventional aggression in Ladakh and Arunachal to steadily and systematically acquire territory? Think about Doklam and the response. Nuclear attack? Really? Don't think so.

    (B) A study needs to be done about the number of civilians drawing pensions from the defence budget and what percentage is eaten up by people who are essentially non combatants. A defence pension is earned through hard effort and should be a matter of pride. There is a need to reduce the bloat and pay civilians through other means rather than use the defence budget to provide employment and then pensions for those who don't actively defend.

    (C) creation of border militias can only augment the effort not replace regular army. Do you really want your country to be defended by half baked wild illiterates with assorted training? Would they also risk life and limb for short service non pensionable terms? Soon they would organise and demand life llos compensation etc. Ladakh scouts are pretty much specialised high altitude troops but now equivalent to regular army for pay etc. So the solution would be closer to creating state militias. However that wouldn't be able to meet the combat numbers required to fight in case of actual war.

    (D) a study needs to be done on the percentage of money spent from the defence budget on human resources vs the portion of the pie eaten up by DRDO and defence PSUs etc. Considering the vast sums of money spent fruitlessly on maintaining these behemoths for so many years there is a need to relook at funding. The armed forces are only as good as the people who man it. The endeavour should be on getting top quality people and looking after them instead of benignly sustaining white elephants

    (E) .Make the bureaucracy accountable and create a think tank to educate policy makers. People who poorly manage a food distribution system for the public cannot be expected to matter the nuances of war and deliver timely results. As a consequence we have the paralysis of analysis and corruption. It's a shame that the army doesn't even have a competent small arm!

    The two and a half front war is a grim reality and the proximity of Pakistan and China make it more so. The war will be conventional and bloody. Even more so if we aren't prepared to deliver a swift and befitting reply. The Nike deterrent won't work in such a scenario unless we are looking at annihilation. The nuke policy is another story altogether

  7. Short service for jawans to whittle down the pension bill may not work.

    If after a stint in the army a person has to establish himself professionally in the civil stream, why would he volunteer to spend 5 to 7 years of his prime without long term benefit.

  8. Cut the flab instead we are increasing it by creating mountain corps. Restructuring is the need of the hour. We simply cannot afford to have the extra flab in our military. Kick the butts of the MOD babus so that they understand the nation and its military is more important than their egos. And also of DRDO, Ordnance Factories, and HAL - we are partly in mess due to these idiots not performing; we end up importing expensive stuff. DRDO top brass should have been sacked after they spent our money building silver chariots ( baap ka paisa hai!

  9. A very well written article and to the point. Hope someone is listening!

  10. The age of retirement should be raised to 45 years for ORs with a provision to extend to 50 years subject to medical fitness. In the US Army, the retirement age is 55 years. The Russians have independent brigade groups composed of all arms reporting to theatre commanders. Need to eliminate the field force concept (Corps) which was of Second World War vintage. May need an additional theatre in the East. Cut Area/Sub Area/ Communication Zones which are parking slots. Flab needs to be cut across the board. Too many bandsmen, ceremonial units, flights of aerobatic aircraft. Regimental centers need pruning and rationalising. Field Artillery regiments could have 24 guns. Will reduce number of regiments by 25%. This was in effect during the Second World War. The forces have become staff oriented. Having Theatre commands in Calcutta, Lucknow and Pune needs review. Need to think out of the box.

  11. The retirement age being 55 years in the US Army is a misnomer, a misunderstanding of the facts. The fact that the US Army, like most modern armies today, has a normal tour of duty of three years for most of their rank and file below a certain rank or grade, for both officers and men. Only volunteers and those found fit on screening get further extension and promotion. Hence, the retirement age cited is only applicable to such selected soldiers, not across the board.. That would be akin to terms of service in our parlance.

  12. Angad Singh. It is a well written article. It is regr ettedto note that we do not learn anything from our past mistakes. Our defence preparations are at the same level as they were in 1962. Somehow the Indian armed forces have been functionin on 'juggad' system. So far we ave been successful to some extent. The policy makers believe that this sysytem can continues16 March 2018 at 02:38

    It is a well reasoned article. Similar comments have appeared in the past as well. It is regretted to note that our policy makers and decision makers have not learnt any lessons from the history. The Indian Armed Forces have somehow have been able to work on 'juggad' or cannibilasation system and we have been successful to a great extent. Thus the requirement of armed forces are being downgraded and ignored for decades. Hardly anything has been done to produce even light armaments despite having Ordnance Factories. The fate of Arjun Tank is well known to all of us. If we want tat armed forces be capable to take care of our unfriendly neighbours, we have to pay proper attention to provide modern equipment, clothings and wherewithals to Indian Armed forces. It is a baneful fact that we do not have national interests in view but only parachoial approach. This is not going to help us. The second most important aspect that has been continuously ignored is that the morale of the man behind the machine is ignored. This aspect requires to be handled properly. The armed forces personnel have not been properly looked after so far as their pay, perks and pension are concerned. They are being treated as second rate citizens which is a very sad state of affairs. The major portion of the pay and and allowances portion goes to civilians who are non-combatants and an average man feels that lot of money is being spent on pay and pension of armed forces. These civilian personnel be made part of some other department so that the defence budget is used for combatants. It is highly regrettable that the veterans have to fight their own Ministry who are supposed to safeguard their welfare and interests.They should not be forced to look over their shoulders after their retirement.


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