A few months after India’s lightning victory over Pakistan in the 1971 War, the doyen of Indian strategists K. Subrahmanyam wrote: “India will have to develop and keep at readiness adequate forces to deter China and Pakistan from launching an attack either jointly or individually and in case deterrence fails to repel aggression effectively…faced with the possibility of two adversaries, our aim must be to hold one and reach a quick military decision with the other. It is obvious that the latter can only be Pakistan. Consequently, our force requirements must be planned to achieve this aim.” (1)
The lynchpin of India’s strategy in the event of a joint China-Pakistan attack should be two-fold. One, launch a multipronged blitzkrieg into Pakistan and capture chunks of territory 50-80 km deep. This will ensure a quick capitulation without setting off fears in Islamabad that India wants to break it up as in 1971. Only if Pakistan wants, will the war escalate to the nuclear stage.
Two, against China the Indian strategy should be offensive defence – absorb the initial wave of attacks, decimate the adversary’s forces massed in Tibet, its airfields, highways and support infrastructure, without escalatory attacks on the Chinese heartland. Quick reaction mountain divisions should be able to form an impenetrable wall that acts as a meat grinder for the invading forces.
New Approach to War
If India is to survive a combined assault by two nuclear-armed and implacable adversaries, operational synergy among the three forces must be at the heart of strategic planning. According to former army chief Deepak Kapoor, “For this, joint operations, strategic and space-based capability, ballistic missile defence and amphibious, air-borne and air-land operations must be addressed comprehensively.” (2)
After acquiring a greater offensive punch along the entire western front with Pakistan by the creation of a new South-Western Army Command, India is taking steps – albeit belatedly – to strategically counter the military asymmetry with China in the eastern sector. This is being done via the fast track construction of a new network of roads and railways that will take the Indian Army’s strike formations from their bases in central and northern India right up to the Himalayas so the Indian Army can field a balanced fighting force at a number of places. The army must be able to amass forces quickly at the border while the IAF strikes at Chinese deployments.
The second edition of the Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces (JDIAF-2017) leaves no doubt that both the political leadership and the military brass are moving away from strategic timidity and embracing the concept of strategic offensive. Released by former admiral Sunil Lanba, the Chief of Naval Staff, JDIAF-2017 declares: “India has moved to a pro-active and pragmatic philosophy to counter various conflict situations.” (3)
The language of the document indicates India’s commanders feel they have finally been given a free hand to deploy the full might of the country’s vast armed forces in future wars. India’s elite strike forces will no longer sit idle waiting for the opportune moment, which never came in the previous wars.
The document says: “Conflict will be determined or prevented through a process of credible deterrence, coercive diplomacy and conclusively by punitive destruction, disruption and constraint in a nuclear environment across the spectrum of conflict.” Translation: India will henceforth adopt kick-them-hard tactics.
General Sidney Giffin of the US Air Force, who in 1965 wargamed a joint China-Pakistan attack on India, concluded that China’s constant gambit is to “shift the military balance so as to assure Indian inability to crush Pakistan”. (4) It is time to expose the fallacy of this calculus. India’s objective, in case of a collusive attack, should be to take away this prized Chinese pawn by using the opportunity to finish the Pakistan problem once and for all.
If war starts, the Indian Army’s Proactive Military Strategy (5) aims multiple blitzkrieg strikes across the border to capture “bite-size” chunks of territory. This will put Indian troops in Lahore and Sialkot – the Pakistan Army’s Punjabi heartland – within 72-96 hours.
The attack will be led by 8-10 division-sized integrated battle groups (IBGs) plus a rapid reaction “saber corps”. All of the IBGs, equipped with artillery, armoured personnel carriers, main battle tanks, and infantry fighting vehicles, would be capable of launching limited strikes along different axes of advance into enemy territory supported by air power. Every IBG will consist of three to six infantry and armoured battalions and two to three artillery regiments, next to air defence, logistical, signal and headquarter units – overall 5,000 to 8,000 troops. (6)
Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat envisions that eight to 10 such IBGs could be stood up against Pakistan while an equal number, albeit smaller sized due to the mountainous terrain, could be deployed against China.
The army’s Proactive Military Strategy works alongside coordinated and simultaneous attacks by the air force and navy. The idea is to overwhelm the enemy’s defences and unhinge his decision-making ability.
What if Pakistan uses tactical nuclear bombs against the Indian battle groups the moment they enter Pakistan? If Pakistan uses its battlefield nuclear weapons on the advancing Indian armoured formations, it is faced with two existential problems.
One, by using nuclear weapons on its own territory it will make these regions a wasteland for decades. India may lose a couple of divisions, but 150 million Pakistanis will be drinking radioactive water for the remainder of their lives. Unlike Japan, which rebuilt Hiroshima and Nagasaki very quickly, dirt poor and nuclear war-ravaged Pakistan may not be able to rise for centuries.
Two, India’s doctrine of “Assured Retaliation” ensures that any form of introduction of nuclear weapons into a conflict would result in massive punitive retaliation. According to Manpreet Sethi of the Centre for Air Power Studies, “Unacceptable damage for Pakistan would constitute no more than four or five 20 kiloton nuclear weapons on 5-6 major cities.” (7)
Basically Pakistan – or at least Pakistani Punjab – would cease to exist after that. India must avoid targeting Balochistan, the Pakhtun areas and Sindh (except Karachi which is now a non-Sindhi city) to show Pakistan’s minorities that India’s conflict is solely with the despotic and barbaric Pakistan Army. These regions will in all probability break free and become independent like Bangladesh. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa may eventually merge with Afghanistan.
What if China issues a nuclear threat? Since India’s nuclear arsenal has around 120 warheads (plus additional fissile material to produce 2,600 more) it should be enough of a deterrent to the Chinese not to risk Beijing and Shanghai for Islamabad and Karachi.
Air Power is Key
A succession of air chiefs has declared the IAF cannot fight a two-front war without a minimum of 42 squadrons. When war breaks out, it is the air force that is the first to take both offensive action and defensive measures. A strong air force that makes Indian airspace impregnable is therefore a must.
The Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is the second largest air force in the world with more than 2,800 planes, including 1,900 combat aircraft. Of these, 120 are long-range H-6 bombers of which India has no equivalent, and according to the IAF’s combat doctrine there are no plans to have dedicated bombers in the future. China is also reportedly working on a stealth bomber codenamed H-18.
The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has 750 aircraft of which 450 perform combat roles. Most of these are Chinese junk, but the 100-odd F-16s constitute a potent threat. While the Pakistani F-16s belong to an earlier era, some of these have been upgraded with modification kits by Turkish Aerospace Industries. As Turkey license produces the F-16, in a crunch situation it could supply more F-16s to the PAF.
One cannot rule out the possibility of other Islamic countries lending their aircraft to Pakistan, as happened in the 1971 War when Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE and Turkey provided warplanes and Iran provided landing facilities to PAF aircraft.
The IAF currently has over 1,700 aircraft of which 900 are combat aircraft. As India replaces older MiGs, the Su-30 fleet is likely to touch 300 aircraft – an impressive number for such an expensive and large aircraft. The IAF also has nearly 90 upgraded MiG-29s, which are far superior to the F-16s, plus there are around 45 upgraded and highly capable Mirage 2000 fighter bombers. During the 1999 Kargil War, both the MiG-29 and Mirage-2000 had performed brilliantly. With the Russian jets providing top cover and keeping the Pakistani F-16s well away from the border, the Mirage-2000 was able to bomb Pakistan Army positions across the LoC with impunity.
However, with China and Pakistan having a combined total of 2,350 combat aircraft versus the IAF’s 900 jets, there is a pressing need to restore some parity. The current fast track purchases of Sukhois and MiG-29 will to some extent fill the gap created by political indecision. But it could take until 2030 – when all 36 French Rafales plus addition medium role fighters and indigenous Tejas warplanes are inducted – before India finally has the optimum 42-45 squadrons which the IAF has been requesting since the 1950s. However, even with its current diminished fighter squadrons, the IAF has a huge qualitative edge and can neutralise Pakistan’s air power early on in a conflict.
SFC Sukhois: India’s Mini Air Force
A key role will be played by a little-known wing of the Indian military – a mini air force which is most likely under the Strategic Forces Command (SFC). The SFC has asked for two squadrons of nuclear capable strike aircraft to be used conjointly with land-based and submarine launched ballistic missiles. Around 40 Su-30 MKIs are being converted at Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd to carry the BrahMos-A supersonic cruise missile. This batch of Sukhois will also have hardened electronic circuitry to shield them from the electromagnetic pulse of a nuclear blast.
A tactical nuclear warhead on an air-launched BrahMos-A fired from a super-manoeuvrable Su-30 MKI won’t just further enhance the IAF’s strike capability (and the aircraft’s survivability because the pilot can fire it from Indian airspace or far from enemy air defence batteries) it would also complicate the enemy’s defence planning. It is a lot easier for India to destroy Pakistani war fighting capability because not only is Pakistan relatively smaller but it has also concentrated its defences in one province, Punjab.
The Indian armed forces must not fight a war of attrition but instead they should wipe out the enemy’s war fighting capacity while losing a minimal number of men and material. The key to this is the deployment of cruise missiles.
Taking lessons from the 1991 Gulf War, India became the first country outside the two superpowers to go in for cruise missiles in a big way. More importantly, it is the only country that has gone in for supersonic cruise missiles, raising several regiments of the BrahMos.
The 280-500 km range BrahMos could be the Brahmastra (super weapon) that could swing the war India’s way. The sudden and stealthy impact of missiles can be highly demoralising to the enemy, eroding his resolve. When volleys of BrahMos missiles start thudding into the enemy’s defences, tanks, air bases, ships, and command and communication centres, it will hasten his capitulation.
Against Pakistan, the targets are obvious. A saturation cruise missile attack will within minutes utterly cripple the country’s command and control centres, including the Pakistani Army Corp headquarters in Rawalpindi. Other critical targets that must be wiped off the map within the first few hours of the conflict are nuclear power plants, including the Kahuta ‘Death Star’ where the majority of the “Islamic” bombs are manufactured; the Sargodha Central Ammunition Depot west of Lahore where most of these warheads are stored; ballistic missile bases in Gujranwala, Okara, Multan, Jhang and Dera Nawab Shah; the Karachi Port, Pakistani’s only major harbour and its Naval HQ; and ordnance factories that manufacture tanks and fighter aircraft.
A pre-emptive strike will ensure Pakistan’s offensive capability is effectively neutralised. This is what the US military achieved in the first eight hours of the 2003 Gulf War against Iraq, and India too must develop this capability.
India has deployed the BrahMos Block III against China, and this version has trajectory manoeuvre and steep-dive capabilities for mountain warfare. (8) The new Block III missiles are designed to steep dive at 70-degree angles to hit targets on the rear slopes of mountains. This has obvious application against China.
The introduction of the steep dive BrahMos has “spooked the Chinese military” (9) to such an extent that the People’s Liberation Army Daily complained: “India deploying supersonic missiles on the border has exceeded its own needs for self-defence and poses a serious threat to China’s Tibet and Yunnan provinces.” (10)
With IAF Sukhois being configured to carry the miniature BrahMos-A, India will be able to reach Chinese territory in a massive arc that includes all of Tibet. India must have enough firepower to cause considerable damage to Chinese military assets in the Western Theatre Command (Tibet), forcing the PLA to replenish its forces from its heartland more than 1,500 km away. These supply lines can be struck by Indian strike aircraft.
India has five BrahMos regiments – each made up of four launch vehicles and 90 missiles. They offer war planners a tantalising option compared with manned jet fighters because the advantages are zero risk to pilots, pinpoint accuracy and lower costs. A made in India Sukhoi-30 costs $75 million while a BrahMos missile costs $2.7 million.
The supersonic strike option is probably the most inspired decision the Indian military and political leadership has taken in the past three decades. According to Brahmos Corp General Manager P. Pathak, “The (missile’s) accuracy makes it especially useful in attacking military targets in urban areas where reduced collateral damage is a priority. Indeed, cruise missile technology has been developing alongside the rapid development of computer technology, positioning systems and propellant technology. As a result, India is able to field a system from the air, without the need for additional aircraft.” (11)
Forward Deployed Navy
On the seas, the Indian Navy enjoys vast superiority with a range of platforms, including stealth warships equipped with supersonic anti-ship land attack missiles. It is very likely that Karachi port will stop functioning and an economic blockade of Pakistan will be in place within hours of declaration of war. While Pakistan’s sea trade will cease to exist, India has many ports in the south and east which will keep operating.
The Indian Navy – in cooperation with the US and Japanese fleets – is able to track Chinese naval assets from the moment they leave their bases in the South China Sea and enter the Bay of Bengal via the chokepoints of the Malacca Straits. These chokepoints are constantly watched by India, the US and Japan and information on them is constantly swapped. If there’s war, the Indian Navy will have the coordinates of every PLA Navy warship, submarine and fishing boat – and which way they are going.
However, the game changer for the Indian Navy would be if it can squeeze the PLA Navy in its home bases. Since Chinese flotillas are now a permanent presence in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal, the Indian Navy must create a Pacific Fleet specifically for the South China Sea. It doesn’t have to be based round the clock off China – the flotilla can travel in and out of the South China Sea. This would be on the pattern of the US Navy’s deployments to the Sea of Okhotsk and the Black Sea, which Russia has long wanted to turn into Russian lakes, but without success.
The mere mention of an Indian Pacific Fleet will set off alarm bells in Beijing, but it would be the best way to show that two can play the game. A Pacific Fleet – able to rest and fuel in Japan or Vietnam – will allow India to target the Chinese from the east for the first time. Great nations – or nations that hope to be great – must launch missions that signal the seriousness of their intent. Fighting China in the Himalayas is one thing but taking the war to the Han heartland is what a great nation like India should do.
India’s primary goal if confronted with a collusive attack should be to destroy Pakistan as a viable entity. At the same time, it should decimate Chinese forces in Tibet through an offensive-defence strategy and hold the dragon to a draw. No matter what the outcome of the war, Pakistan should never ever have the capacity to become a threat to India. In fact, it should be defanged and neutralised. Minus its vassal, China’s ability to target India would also diminish considerably.
Self-belief is a huge factor in winning wars. While many sections of the leftist media and many seculars belittle the armed forces, thankfully Indian soldiers do not subscribe to such defeatist views. Don’t forget that India has defeated Pakistan not once but in four successive wars. It is India’s misguided magnanimity that allowed Islamabad to live another day.
Against China, the results have been mixed. In 1962 Jawaharlal Nehru threw the Indian Army into a war that it wasn’t prepared to fight. But in 1967 India turned the tables on its larger adversary at Cho La where a massive PLA force was battered into submission and forced to withdraw 3 km from the border. The Indian Army killed as many as 340 PLA soldiers while losing only 65 of its own.
The point is India’s soldiers will get the job done if given the right tools.
With the PLA progressing towards full mechanisation and informatisation and making big strides in integrating IT and technology in their service units, India must also transform from having a military based on quantity to a military based on quality. Integration of network centricity, decision-support systems, information warfare and electronic warfare into operational plans will offer the technological edge required to sustain and win wars.
As the American historian Will Durant wrote after analysing the causes of India’s repeated invasions by Islamic hordes and European countries, “A nation must forever love peace but keep its powder dry.” (12)
1. K. Subrahmanyam, ‘Our National Security’ (1972), page 53
4. Sidney Giffin, Crisis Game, page 136
7. Ali Ahmed, India’s Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia
9. National Interest, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/what-china-has-fear-indias-brahmos-missiles-96166
10. Missile Defence Advocacy Alliance, https://missiledefenseadvocacy.org/other-news/china-begins-to-feel-nervous-as-india-prepares-to-deploy-brahmos-missiles-in-the-north-east/
12. Will Durant, History of the World, Vol 1, Our Oriental Heritage
Featured Image: Bharat Shakti
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Rakesh is a globally cited defence analyst. His work has been published by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi; US Air Force Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies, Alabama; Russia Beyond, Moscow; Hindustan Times, New Delhi; Business Today, New Delhi; Financial Express, New Delhi; BusinessWorld Magazine, New Delhi; Swarajya Magazine, Bangalore; Foundation Institute for Eastern Studies, Warsaw; Research Institute for European and American Studies, Greece, among others.
As well as having contributed for a research paper for the US Air Force, he has been cited by leading organisations, including the US Army War College, Pennsylvania; US Naval PG School, California; Johns Hopkins SAIS, Washington DC; Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC; Rutgers University, New Jersey; Institute of International and Strategic Relations, Paris; Institute for Strategic, Political, Security and Economic Consultancy, Berlin; Siberian Federal University, Krasnoyarsk; Institute for Defense Analyses, Virginia; International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, Washington DC; Stimson Centre, Washington DC; Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia; Center for Strategic & International Studies, Washington DC; and BBC.
His articles have been quoted extensively by national and international defence journals and in books on diplomacy, counter-terrorism, warfare, and development of the global south.