As India’s relations with both China and Pakistan continue to deteriorate, the country’s policy-makers must reflect on the unpleasant possibility of a ‘two-front’ war with both countries. Whether or not such a war would be overtly collusive between China and Pakistan ~ that is, whether they would pre-plan a joint attack on India or it would be a case of strategic opportunism ~ it is clear to many in positions of authority that the Indian military remains fundamentally unprepared for such a challenge.

India is the world’s sixth largest economy with nominal GDP and the third largest in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP). Since 2014, the country’s economy has been the world’s fastest growing, surpassing China. India topped the World Bank’s growth outlook for the first time in fiscal 2015-16, during which time the economy grew 7.6 per cent of the GDP and in this fiscal it has come down to 7.3 per cent due to demonetisation and GST, albeit in the long run. There are reports of Chinese academics calculating China’s 2018 economic growth at 1.5 per cent, rather than the official 6.5 per cent. In view of the impact of tight fiscal and monetary policies on their daily lives, the government has lowered its major macroeconomic targets and projected the possibility that the economy will slow down to around 5.2 per cent in 2018.

Pakistan’s economy is in a shambles, and there is very little hope of its revival anytime soon. The task ahead of Pakistan’s Prime Minister is daunting. Its economy survives on bailout packages from global organisations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and allies like China and the US. The country has received around a dozen bailout packages in the past 40 years.

Despite the fastest growth rate in the world, India’s defence outlay has been 1.58 per cent of the GDP (lowest since the 1962 war) among its adversaries ~ China and Pakistan. China’s defence outlay is 3 per cent and Pakistan’s 2.5 per cent of the GDP. This has severely affected the modernisation of Indian defence forces. However, the purchase of ad hoc strategic weapons like the Rafale multirole combat fighter jets from France, the S-400 missiles system from Russia, and the indigenously built Arihant submarines are a ray of hope for defence modernisation. In order to dominate over its adversaries, India has to allocate its defence outlay to around three per cent of its GDP to make the army strong enough to face any two-pronged attack in the future.

As India’s relations with both China and Pakistan continue to deteriorate, the country’s policy-makers must reflect on the unpleasant possibility of a ‘two-front’ war with both countries. Whether or not such a war would be overtly collusive between China and Pakistan ~ that is, whether they would pre-plan a joint attack on India or it would be a case of strategic opportunism ~ it is clear to many in positions of authority that the Indian military remains fundamentally unprepared for such a challenge. But it can also be argued that a two-front force ratio (ratio of Pakistani and a fraction of Chinese inventories to India’s) has evolved and varied considerably over time. China continues to rapidly modernise and numerically increase its military (through significant increases in defence spending) while Indian military preparedness flounders. It also points to an urgent need to make qualitative and quantitative improvements in the Indian military.

In terms of the ratio of Pakistani main battle tank (MBT) to India’s, the latter has steadily lost its advantage. In 2007, this ratio stood at 0.61, which by 2016 had risen to 0.85. The same pattern reappears when it comes to China, where the MBT ratio has risen from 1.89 in 2007 to 2.23 in 2016. For the total number of combat capable aircraft, the situation is marginally better. In 2007, this ratio for Pakistan was 0.64, which ten years later decreased to 0.56. The total aircraft ratio between China and India has also decreased in the same period, from 3.12 to 2.87. Nevertheless, the Chinese superiority in these two areas is striking.

The Pakistan/India frigates ratio increased between 2007 and 2016. While the strength of the Pakistani frigate fleet has remained constant during this period, the size of the Indian fleet has decreased by two vessels, from 16 frigates in 2007 to 14 in 2016. As expected, China enjoys dominance over India in the size of its frigate fleet. In 2015, the ratio between the two fleets was 4.07. It dropped the following year due to a decrease in the Chinese fleet by four ships. What is, however, quite striking is the overall decrease in the size of the Chinese fleet ~ from 68 ships in 2011 to 53 ships in 2016. This is very probably the result of Chinese naval modernisation that puts a premium on technological quality over quantity.

Even at 20 per cent Chinese deployment, the artillery two front force ratio (TFFR) increased from 0.69 in 2007 to 0.73 ten years later. It suggests a move away from artillery pieces towards short-and medium-range precision- strike missiles in order to have the same tactical effect. In India, some limited moves in this direction have been made with the deployment of Brahmos missiles to the border with China. However, it is the serious depletion of the Indian Air Force’ strength ~ from 870 to 803 combat capable aircraft, between 2012 and 2016 ~ along with a 21 per cent increase in the number of such People’s Liberation Army – Air Force (PLAAF) aircraft in that period that explains the plot.

The TFFR for tactical submarines went up from 1.24 in 2007 to 1.33 in 2016, with a peak of 1.44 in 2010 and 2011 (assuming 20 percent Chinese deployment). Assuming 30 per cent Chinese deployment, the TFFR in 2016 stood at an alarming 1.71. However, the total number of tactical submarines of both India and China has declined. The figure in India fell from 16 in 2007 to 14 in 2016, while China’s declined from 59 to 53. The latter is, again, a reflection of China decommissioning older equipment in favour of more and more lethal submarines, including Type 093 (Shang-class) nuclear- powered attack submarines (SSNs). The TFFR for all combat capable naval aircraft stood at a little more than one in 2016 (assuming 20 per cent Chinese deployment). However, this is one aspect whose trend is reassuring for India. Between 2014 and 2016, India added 26 combat- capable naval aircraft to its inventory. This is perhaps due to the commissioning of the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya (Russian: Admiral Gorshkov) to service in 2013 and in preparation to induct another aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, in 2020.

China plans to operate five aircraft carriers in the near future, including two nuclear-powered ones that would be launched around 2025 to meet the evolving strategic shifts, according to Chinese military experts. China officially confirmed that it is building its third aircraft carrier which is stated to be “bigger and mightier” than the other two warships, a move by Beijing to bolster its bluewater navy capability to operate far from its shores.

Officials say the rapid acquisition of aircraft carriers by China is of concern to India too, as the Indian Navy, which is operating aircraft carriers since 1961, is currently operating only INS Vikramaditya. The homemade INS Vikrant is expected to launch sea trials in 2020.

Despite its stuttering economy, Pakistan is buying 600 T-90 tanks to fill the lacuna in its combat efficiency with that of India. Narendra Modi’s government wants to build its defence industry through its “Make in India” programme, hoping to create jobs and cut huge import bills. But India often prioritizes price, awarding contracts to state-owned defence firms that invest little in research and development, promise to score contracts and abandon many projects halfway, according to a report drafted by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

(The writer is former Senior Professor, International Trade. He may be reached at [email protected])