Redefining Two-Front War
Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma (Retd.), Distinguished Fellow, VIF

On taking over as COAS, Gen Bipin Rawat, in December 2016 had said: “The two-front is a real scenario… the army, navy and IAF are now jointly very much prepared for such an eventuality.” In his first press conference as COAS, Gen Manoj Naravane spoke of “collusivity” between Pakistan and China and said this could be “both physical on land borders and in other spheres also” and this “collusivity was maximum around the Siachen glacier and Shaksgam valley”. With Chinese intrusions in Eastern Ladakh in 2020, and Pakistan’s continued belligerence across the Line of Control (LOC) and in Kashmir, the collusion between China and Pakistan, so clearly evident in peacetime, is likely to translate itself into simultaneous military operations during conflict situations.

However, among strategic thinkers there are diverse opinions. It has been stated that “…there are a huge number of reasons why this escalating two front scenario is logically untenable. Escalation doesn’t take place, because the twin Chinese precursors of fighting and talking break the enemy’s morale and the will to fight. Islamabad has seemed more concerned with the nuclear threshold in a defensive war with India and the quandary of dealing with India’s superior Navy and Air Force.”1 On the contrary “Whenever India has forgotten that it has two antagonists and let its guard down, it has paid dearly for it. …India continues to face the two-front conundrum’’.2 A full-fledged two-front war, where both Pakistan and China engage individually but simultaneously, in the western, northern, central and the north-eastern sector, is too distant a possibility for now. What could actually happen is that Pakistan may heat up the Line of Control (LoC) and move more troops into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit Baltistan area to put pressure on India. An important factor that prevents a two-front war is China’s reluctance for a war with India.3 Indian military officials have often stated that the armed forces are prepared for a two-front contingency. The subject has serious security ramifications for India and mandates deliberation.

How are Wars in 21st Century Conceptualised?

Clausewitz had defined war as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes war as “a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations.” What does an average Indian imagine when he/she hears the word war? The term ‘war’ inexorably transports minds of strategic leaders and the general public to historical context and images, which have left an indelible imprint. Many would reflect on 1962 India-China war exemplified by the 1964 movie Haqeeqat. Later day generations will remember the 1999 Kargil War, the first televised war of India. It is apparent that war in India is contemplated as an inter-state armed conflict, involving Pakistan or China as warring adversaries, with ‘collusivity’. However, since the Kargil War, scholars, military historians and analysts have created a very wide ambit of contemporary wars – proxy, grey zone, hybrid, multi-domain, asymmetrical, Fourth Generation, Network-Centric, information, to name but a few in the exhaustive list.

There are some quintessential posers that are in fact logical pointers. When will it be a war and when will it not be a war? Will it be war when a bomb is dropped, a missile launched, a cyber attack that affects national infrastructure and economy? Were terrorist attacks like in Mumbai in 2008, twenty soldiers martyred in Galwan or Kargil operations wars, or the last war that India fought was in 1971? Is an act of war different that actual war? Can these terms and concepts tell us something about the development of war of the future and what will be victory in war?

Answers to many of the above posers will indicate that we need to use only selected few means within our nation’s capabilities to impose our national will, without qualifying it as a war, an act of war, or simply aggression. This is by downplaying war and act of war, as conflict and skirmish. The term “act of war” is confusing as it is, implying that the same act could occur in the course of a declared war or even when war has not been declared. It invariably becomes a judgemental issue at the highest levels! An act of war can be a casus belli, or an action that justifies a military response, for example the attack on Indian Parliament in December 2001 resultant of which Op PARAKARAM nearly resulted in conventional war. Mumbai terror attacks of 2008 were not deemed as casus belli enough! The most important deduction is that most of these acts of war, like Balakot Attack, do not lead to war, though the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in June 1914 led to the Great War! However, as a sound measure, if India deems an act of war, it indicates that we can and most probably will, take appropriate reciprocal action, which may be short of full conventional war.

What then has changed in the term war? Three pointers are addressed in this context:-

  • First, it is apparent that in 21st Century wars are being conducted between state and non-state actors, like in Afghanistan or Syria. This dissimilarity is noteworthy in context of the traditional perceptions that war will only be fought between nation-states. Obviously this implies that though wars follow some rules of engagement, like avoidance of collateral civilian casualties, non-state actors resorting to terrorism and violence will have no such compunctions. In this context Pakistan focuses on asymmetric capabilities and gray-zone tactics, like use of proxy groups and covert military forces seeking to push its objectives, while staying below the threshold. This also gets proven by the 26 November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai and the 14 February 2019 Pulwama attack, the latter having been owned up by Pakistan Minister in their own Parliament in October 2020. With the large committal of force in combat against Pakistan sponsored terrorism, this is indeed WAR, albeit in gray zone!
  • Second; Nation-states have fought wars, and later sought peace and moved ahead to better relationships. Germany and France are cases in point. Apparently as states seek peace and harmony with other states values, objectives and ideals, there can be long term cessation of hostilities. However, war will not be over, if the opposing nation is founded upon contestation as its very identity, like in the case of Pakistan against India. Naturally, as this adversarial nation cannot impose its will, it simply does not use armed conflict to achieve its goals. In case of China, as discord with neighbours develops with its geopolitical ambitions and expansionist formulations, natural tendency will be to lean increasingly towards being aggressive in engagement and armed conflict. In fact, intensive focus on counter-insurgency/ counter terrorism tends to relegate likelihood of conventional wars to clichés – short, limited, localized, intense, and the like.
  • Third; Technological advancements are shaping up infinite number of possible trends in the future of warfare. Increasing modernization and professionalization of the military forces of China is evident in information warfare domain and technologies like drone-swarms, rocket forces/ missiles, artificial intelligence, high powered microwave, autonomous systems, space warfare and robotics. This transformation even in China is so rapid that the doctrinal and strategic changes are unable to keep pace. Two emerging technologies relative in non-kinetic domains - cyber and autonomous systems, demand contemplation in responding to the attack with kinetic force. Even the question of whether a cyber attack constitutes ‘WAR or not’ is pivotal. It may be difficult to determine what constitutes a proportionate response to a cyber attack, also due to plausible deniability. For fully autonomous systems, concerns revolve around whether a machine with an authority to take a life could be deemed to have initiated a war!

With the above discussion, wars’ definition has very wide spectrum, in pursuance of imposition of national will. War is obviously no longer only armed conflict, but is a continuum of engagements that includes use of violence by non-state actors. A weakening of the state’s monopoly on violence, and usurping of space by non-state actors and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and related advances in military technology have amended the paradigm of the definition of WARS. Cyber and information warfare have contributed to the blurring of the distinction between peace and war by creating uncertainty as to what constitutes conflict, in turn, the kinds of response that is appropriate. This concept leads to a new approach, and requires strategic leaders in India to rethink traditional characteristics of warfare and the definition of war itself.

What is denoted by ‘Front’ in Two-Front War?

In contemplating two-front war, especially in the context of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, with two diverse but colluded adversaries, strategic geography matters immensely. The region abounds with disputed borders, each having differing connotations, the Line of Control (LOC), the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) and the Line of Actual Control (LAC). By the quirk of destiny, India has on its North and West two colluding adversarial neighbours. Of these, China is a near super power and has made technological strides in war fighting. India retains a strong wedge of Saltoro Range-Siachen Glacier and the Sub-Sector North of Eastern Ladakh (the Shyok River Valley and the super high altitude areas denoted by Karakoram Range-Daulat Beg Oldie) that deny a direct connect between the two. An additional issue that merits consideration is the transformation in Gilgit-Baltistan by the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Because of the enormous advantages for China – geo-politically, economically, prospecting in resources, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan will increasingly be inundated with Chinese, managers, supervisors and workers (many of them ex-PLA). Apparently, the collusion across the LOC is becoming increasingly seamless.

Contextually hence, while a boundary is well-defined and regulated by law, border is a specific edge of the country or an area, something that can be clearly marked. Border is usually an official line that marks where one country/area begins and another ends. Au contraire, a Front or Frontier is something more general, not a specific line, but an area, near the border. Post Kargil even LOC received sanctity, clearly indicating that loss of territory was unacceptable. Similar indications have been given to the Chinese about the LAC in 2020 in Eastern Ladakh. A ‘Front’ can thus be a politico-geographical area, lying beyond defined borders of a State, but in its proximity, into which expansion could take place, implying maybe a dynamic entity, or a buffer between two nations! Despite the contested nature of LOC, AGPL or LAC, there are no buffer zones, the Lines are reasonable well defined and should not be denoted as Fronts!

Does Two Front War need re-definition?

As argued above the traditional definition of war as “inter-state armed conflict” is henceforth not the only description of war; it may not be an act of armed aggression but even covert or overt actions by adversarial states and non-state actors ‘to impose their will with or without violence’. War can be an act of aggression by a country against another with which it was normally at peace, though Chinese aggression in Eastern Ladakh is yet not war! Method of this imposition of will; may be as traditionally conceptualised in India, decimation or destruction of war-machine and infrastructure or even capture of Prisoners of War. However, modern war have unlimited geographical dimensions. Amount of damage caused by “conventional” war is usually catastrophic compared to one caused by a terrorist attack, though 9/11 did lead to the US Global War on Terror, most especially on Afghanistan.

It is essential to contemplate on the concept of battle-field and battle-space. It is apparent that battlefield is the linear interpretation of a battle, inter-relationship between location and time, where immediate battle/s occurs. Indeed battle-field must not be narrowly interpreted by usage of the word ‘field’. In considering battle-space one has to examine conduct of modern battles, which have unified dimensions of air, sea, land, space, informational, electro-magnetic spectrum (ESM) and cyber. Battle-space conceptually mandates preparations for full spectrum warfare the final product from processing all information. Hence battle-space war-fighting strategy is contingent on real-time situational awareness, based upon state of the art digitized intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) system. Apparently battle-space is a much widened concept that is relevant even in peacetime, which faces incessant cyber, ESM and informational attacks – the newer realms of warfare that blur distinctions between peace and war. Contextually, hence, modern war will transcend well beyond what is understood as Two-Fronts, that is, a conventional battlefield in proximity to the LOC, AGPL, LAC, International Border (IB) and the maritime territories, towards the much enlarged concept of battle-space.

In sum, it is apparent that the two adversaries, China and Pakistan clearly cohabit together in Pakistan and Gilgit Baltistan, may have conjoined objectives of imposing their collective will and have subsumed peace and war in a singular manner against India. War fighting has transcended to additional domains of cyber, space, ESM, precision guided long range projectiles, unmanned and manned aerial vehicles, while territorial warfare will always remain relevant upon diktats of geography, contested borders and military capabilities. This formulation encourages India to clearly define the ambit of battle space in the two-adversarial context. It is argued that the strategic concept in peace and war must necessarily be more encompassing, as armed conflict is only one end of the spectrum of war fighting. Two-Front War once actualised in Indian context will be a modern war, but not fought on Two Fronts or battlefields; it will no longer be only an armed conflict but a continuum of engagements from peace to war exploiting the complete battle space. Our creation of capabilities ought to be accordingly focussed!

  1. Raja Menon A Two Front War Was Never On the Cards, The Wire, 17 Sep 2020 accessed at
  2. Jayant Prasad, India’s continuing two-front conundrum, 22 Jun 2020, The Hindu, accessed at
  3. Snehesh Phillip Alex, ACM Bhadauria said we’re ready for two-front war with China-Pakistan, but there are deficits, The Print, 06 Oct 2020 accessed at

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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