The Army Chief has let India know that war cannot be ruled out, that too with our two adversaries. What he has kept under wraps is what nuclear weapons mean for such a war. This was not how it was meant to be. Nuclear votaries when India went nuclear went to great lengths arguing that with nuclear weapons in the kitty, on both sides, there would be no call to war and all sides would be forced to settle their disputes without recourse to war. Alas, the Army Chief has put paid to the myth of a nuclear peace.

The long-time doyen of Indian strategic community, K. Subrahmanyam, was leading lobbyist for India going nuclear. In the mid-eighties, he argued that since Pakistan has nuclear weapons, India must also get them. This would prevent Pakistan from using the nuclear asymmetry to its advantage and trying to wrest Kashmir. Both sides having nuclear weapons would result in a settlement of the Kashmir problem and bonhomie on the subcontinent.

He estimated that ‘If both India and Pakistan were to have nuclear weapons, a situation of stable deterrence is likely to result in all probability … This is a perfect though an extremely unpleasant setting for mutual deterrence. Once that sets in the Kashmir line of control will become an international border.’

In the mid-nineties, arguing in relation to China, he said that nuclear weapons possession by India would give it the confidence to settle its boundary dispute with China as then both will be on equal footing.

What does the record say? Has it proven Subrahmanyam right? It is easy to see in today’s standoff with both Pakistan and China, peace is not at hand. 

Speaking at the end of the stand-off at Doklam, the Army Chief talked about a ‘two-front war’. At another lecture at the start of the confrontation in Doklam, he said that India faced a ‘two and a half front war’, the half in apparent reference to the rest of India with its multiple insurgencies and fault-lines.

The ‘two-front war’ formulation is not new. Writing in wake of the 1971 victory, 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.’

The China part of the problem receded over the years since with China adopting a low profile as its growth indicators started climbing through the eighties. By the late eighties, it was receptive to India reaching out to it. The outreach by Rajiv Gandhi culminated in a peace and tranquility agreement in the early nineties, enabling India to concentrate on the Kashmir problem then aggravating its relations with Pakistan.

The economies of both countries grew steadily in the period, with China a way ahead, having had a head start of over a decade. A growing profile positioned China as an emerging power contesting the hegemony of the US as the sole superpower, a hyperpower, in the post-cold war era.

During the 2000s, USA in hope of containing China embraced India. India, miffed by Chinese support for Pakistan, also gravitated to the US. Coinciding with the US ‘pivot to Asia’ foreign policy  - the rebalancing of the US focus from Europe and the Middle East toward East Asia, India too shifted its sights from the western to the eastern front.

The implications of this shift for India’s military doctrine meant the army moving beyond the cold start doctrine of quick response on the Pakistan front through proactive conventional operations. The new conventional operations doctrine for limited war on the western front  was designed to facilitate a ‘quick military decision’, as envisaged by Subrahmanyam. Having shifted to cold start by mid 2000s, the army was ready to shift its focus eastward and measure up to a stronger foe, China. In this period, the capability for  holding an operation on the eastern front was strengthened by addition of two mountain divisions in Arunachal Pradesh.

Forty years on, the phrase ‘two-front war’ surfaced again and was deployed to sell the need for a mountain strike corps. In a major doctrinal conference in a closed-door setting in late 2009, the then Army Chief reportedly mentioned,”.....even as the armed forces prepare for their primary task of conventional wars they must also factor in the eventuality of a ‘ two-front war ‘ breaking out.”

The UPA government caved in, as it was wont to do over anything and nothing at its fag end. Its preference was for the border to remain calm, with border incidents that started occurring on a regular basis during that period being passed off as routine patrol movements by both India and China.

The NDA II considers itself as having a more robust outlook to security. It however began cautiously, daunted by the economics of raising the mountain strike corps since Jaitley handled both the finance and defence portfolios early in its tenure. It initially decided to settle for a truncated version of the offensive corps. This accounts for the hiatus in the phrase ‘ two-front war’ being bandied about.

The phrase has returned to the headlines again, to cover the ‘go ahead’ for completion of raising of the mountain strike corps. The standoffs with the Chinese such as at Chumar on the eve of the Chinese premiers first visit to India to meet Modi at Ahmedabad in October 2014, have increasingly got greater visibility. The longest such a standoff, of over 70 days, at Doklam, provided the backdrop to the Chief’s warning.

The Army Chief has said that nuclear weapons do not deter war. War can break out on either front and can acquire ‘two-front war’ proportions. Though war creates the conditions for use of nuclear weapons, the Chief in not mentioning the usage of nuclear weapons can be said to have been economical with the truth. However, he has only been true to doctrine. The joint doctrine put out by the Armed Forces in April fought shy of making any reference to nuclear weapons. It depicted war as if South Asia was in pre-nuclear age.

What we have therefore is a situation in which war can break out any time, according to the Army Chief. All our nuclear arms are unable to deter this. However, in steering clear of a mention of such war going nuclear, such a threat has been glossed over.

The Indian belief is that even if nuclear weapons do not deter war, they deter nuclear weapons. To begin with, this is a belief it first needs to sell to its western neighbor. Both cannot be right: Pakistan believing that India would not go to war and India believing that Pakistan would not go nuclear.

The Army Chief in his reasoning on outbreak of war had said that the war could happen with China in case salami slicing of Indian territory continues by China and with Pakistan because of the continuing proxy war. This means that it is not either of the two countries launching war on India but India resorting to war. The ‘two-front war’ image comes about in case of Pakistan takes advantage of an India-China conflict.

If conflict can ‘gradually emerge’ to quote the Army Chief, the Chief had also better come clean on what the military believes might happen with nuclear weapons. Silence amounts to the same prevarication India resorted to over acquisition of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons have not resolved our problems. Nuclear weapons cannot stop war. It might just turn out in the event of war that having nuclear weapons cannot stop nuclear weapons from being used either.


  • Subrahmanyam, K. (1986), “Nuclear Deterrence” in his (ed.), India and the Nuclear Challenge, New Delhi: Lancers, p. 287.
  • Subrahmanyam, K. (1972), Our National Security, New Delhi: Economic and Scientific Research Foundation, p. 53.