New Delhi: In the nuclear age, there is little that conventional forces can do: See the mess of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and so forth. This is still more the case when adversaries possess nuclear weapons as does India, Pakistan and China. The territorial disputes between them cannot be resolved with the force of arms. Pakistan attempted that last in Kargil and failed. India made an effort to alter the Doklam dispute between China and Bhutan to its advantage in the Chicken’s Neck area but left no lasting impact besides mistrust. The geopolitical playbook concerning India, Pakistan and China further suggests this. If Pakistan attacks India, China will not join the war till such time Pakistan is existentially threatened by India. China has stakes in territories running down southwest from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to Gwadar port. It represents its lifeline to the Indian Ocean in the extreme case of sea denial on its eastern waters. The moment that China determines Pakistan is existentially threatened, it will open a second front against India. Fighting on two fronts cannot be an easy task for India whatever the forces’ chiefs say.

The playbook also provides scenarios in case India attacks Pakistan or China. In that event, the state not attacked by India will join the one that is attacked. A war situation works in strange ways. The aggressor always has to prove more than the attacked party. Time always seems to be running out for the aggressor. Political objectives must be clear and achievable. The objective may be no more than messaging as it was with the 1962 aggression. But if it is to stay and hold, the aggression sooner or later runs into problems. The situation has not changed since Roman times. There is almost no political objective that India can achieve with a war with Pakistan or China without provoking an all-out war that can go nuclear. PoK is out of reach of India. India cannot dream of conquering Tibet and making it independent like Bangladesh. China is not Pakistan. And 1971 cannot by any stretch of imagination become 2018. In other words, war is madness for India, Pakistan and China. Short of Armageddon, the present situation cannot be altered.

Which is why it is strange and disconcerting that the Indian Air Force should embark on a major exercise to test preparations for a two-front war. Exercises are fine. Armed forces carry it out at regular intervals. But it is the messaging and the objectives that are muddled. The air force chief describes the exercise like an excited schoolboy in the exact same words of a RAND text and incredibly admits of the plagiarism. Leadership standards dramatically have fallen in the forces (it is worse at the highest level of government) but this is still beyond the pale. In the age of drones and missiles, are we seriously preparing for massed air attacks on Pakistan and China? Would they sit back and fight a vintage conventional war for us? There are almost no political objectives that India can achieve with conventional attacks. Indeed, in Pakistan’s case without doubt, they would trigger a nuclear response. As aggressors, we would be to blame. Has anybody thought through these exercises? Do they fit an overall grand strategy that takes into account threats from China and Pakistan? It does not remotely look so.

The exercises are still continuing as news breaks out of a contemplated Defence Planning Committee to handle military strategy and geopolitics. While wishing the committee luck, it is difficult to resist saying it is a waste of time and money. One more government committee will not plug the gap of India’s absent grand strategy. The members of the committee are jaded government functionaries. Without meaning to insult individuals by taking names, they are past their creative prime if they had any. Long ago, Henry Kissinger said government service had a way of deadening creativity and brilliance. Risk-taking was anathema to bureaucrats. Preserving the status quo was all they were interested in. Separately, the military does not encourage creativity. Creativity runs counter to discipline and so it is abhorred in the armed forces. Where creativity rarely exists, it is of a tactical nature. Strategy requires prior political objectives to fulfil and this could only be provided by the political leadership. Indira Gandhi provided that in 1971 but she is exceptional. Independent India has not had a finer wartime leader before her or after. Such being the case, how will another committee of officials and services chiefs resolve India’s glaring geopolitical gaps?

The Narendra Modi government is handling the entire matter with customary clumsiness, with not the smallest creativity, and it will end in failure. If you do not know what you want, you will never know what to get. If you do not have a realistic assessment of threats, you cannot know how to meet them. These imponderables have to be joined with the unplumbable oceans of geopolitics and geo-economics. It needs great minds and insights to fit the jagged pieces into an organic whole. Governments seldom are reservoirs of talent and the Modi government has a particular knack of discouraging brilliance. Expect nothing from the planned committee. It will die an unmourned death with a change of regime.