Understanding India’s ‘cold start’ doctrine
Jawaharlal Nehru laid a strong democratic foundation for India. TheIndian armed forces have since been kept on a tight leash by civilian governments in New Delhi. With policy dictating and controlling the levers of strategy, it could be concluded that many wars which the Indian military may have otherwise wanted against Pakistan were forestalled.
Of late, the Indian army’s controversial cold start doctrine (CSD) has been the focus of intense debate in Pakistani military circles over the past few years. Analysis and comments have appeared from time to time and last year the Pakistani army, fully backed by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) conducted a major exercise to beef up response options. A closer look at the CSD, however, reveals that there was, and still is, deep discord between the Indian political and military leadership on the worth of executing the punitive, Pakistan-specific CSD.
The government of Manmohan Singh has clearly distanced itself from the CSD with several senior government officials saying that they ‘never endorsed, supported, or advocated this doctrine’. In an interview last year, even the incumbent Indian army chief General VK Singh simply denied the existence of the CSD. “There is nothing called ‘Cold Start’ and as part of our overall strategy, we have a number of contingencies and options, depending on what the aggressor does. In recent years, we’ve been improving our systems with respect to mobilisation, but our basic military posture is defensive,” he said. The Indian army is currently conducting exercisesin Rajasthan, on the border with Pakistan, and it remains to be seen whether they are linked to the CSD in any way. But what can be safely assumed is that the Indian army is quite far from achieving the goal of remodelling; more specifically raising the eight independent battle groups (IBGs) required for CSD to be put into effect.
For the benefit of readers, India’s ‘cold start doctrine’ relates to the execution of a ‘limited war’ in nuclear overhang in response to a conventional attack. It involves moving forces quickly into unpredictable locations and making decisions faster than one’s opponent. The doctrine permits attacking first and mobilising later, thus increasing the possibility of a sudden spiral of escalation in hostilities. The problem is that the application of military power in a nuclear environment greatly reduces the space for errors with the burden of minimising mistakes clearly resting upon the initiator. Determining or exploiting that strategic space, beneath the nuclear threshold for a ‘punitive strike’, is easier said than done. Had this not been true, the ideal time for the execution of CSD by the Indians was following the November 2008 Mumbai attacks.
On account of the lack of territorial depth and concentration of population centres close to borders, Pakistan is at a distinct disadvantage. It would have little flexibility in the event an IBG lodges in some strategically important area. This is bound to generate a full potential response from the Pakistani military including employment of its latest weaponry, i.e. the Nasr-Hatf 9 (supposedly a tactical nuclear weapon) test-fired in April this year. With a single nuclear detonation by Pakistan, irrespective of whose territory it occurs on, India too could swiftly reverse its declared no-first-use policy.
It could be argued that the Indian army has nonetheless conducted several exercises in the past to validate the CSD. While the results of these exercises remain unclear, the makeover of a defensive corps into independent battle groups requires a sustained process and investment. It requires a fully integrated command and control architecture; improved fire-power potential; attending to various operational shortfalls including the replacement of obsolete equipment as well as considerably improving operational readiness of existing hardware.
The bulk of the equipment needed for operationalising the CSD by the Indian army, is already near the end of its service life. The T-90 main battle tank tanks, the main component in the IBGs, are reportedly running into serious problems, specifically issues with its thermal imaging system and difficulties in operating them in hot weather.
The under-production Arjun MKII main battle tank that performed well in comparative trials against the T-90s, is believed to be the world’s most expensive tank. It costs over eight million dollars apiece — which is almost four times the cost of the T-90s which Russia supplies. Hence, the 250 or Arjun MKIIs that have been ordered, are going to take a significant chunk of India’s defence budget. It is believed that the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy were initially reluctant partners in adopting the CSD.
In a limited war, the type of ‘dominance’ desired by the initiator is of central significance. The ‘end state’ must be one that meets the criteria of being perceived at least, if not more, as a ‘victory’. Also, what would be the extent of ‘punitive action’ in the CSD? Since the level of destruction has to be carefully controlled, it could invariably lead to only partial accomplishment of the aim. The political and psychological dimensions, nonetheless, demand that a bigger country, in a war with a smaller one, must be unmistakably seen as having overpowered the latter. So, even a stalemate would be perceived as a triumph of the smaller nation. The war in 1965 with the US in Vietnam and the USSR in Afghanistan against rag-tag militias are cases in point. There are serious doubts whether such an end state can be achieved by the Indians against the Pakistan army via the CSD, without India being put at undue risk.
Being inherently flawed and risky, there are not many buyers of the CSD even within the Indian military’s own ranks. It is unlikely that the concept will ever be integrated into the overall operational plans of the Indian army. The political leadership, too, is less likely to be ever on the same page with the military brass. In short, while the CSD may not be an empty threat, it definitely stands frozen — at least for now. And while threats cannot and must not be left to conjectures, overstating or assigning unnecessarily higher precedence to challenges that are not ‘clear and present danger’ means playing into the hands of the enemy and diverting precious resources which could otherwise come in handy for more important operations.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 19th, 2011.