With a new doctrine officially promulgated in October this year, the Indian Army has recast its view of conventional war in South Asia. Media reports refer to a new strategy for offensive operations, called "Cold Start", which envisions highly mobile formations on hair-trigger alert being mobilised. Regardless of speculation, however, some important new features of the doctrine are poorly matched to the concept of limited war, one of the strategic options being considered by India.
The New Doctrine and Decision Cycles
Two elements of the doctrine stand out as critical innovations. The first is an emphasis on manoeuvre and greater jointness between the services, using integrated formations that seamlessly combine all necessary combat arms. This is a recognition that mobile and independent formations can wage war with higher intensity. The second is an emphasis on information warfare, especially network-centric warfare, an operative principle behind the much-hyped Revolution in Military Affairs. This is a notion that aims to maximise the integration of war-fighting elements, from sensor to shooter, with all command and support elements, and disrupt this integration in the enemy. Taken together, these innovations should increase the speed, intensity, and coordination of Indian military operations.
The combined effect of these principles would be to shorten, and thereby improve, the Indian military's decision-making in war. The speed and efficiency of a military force's Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action (OODA) loop is a factor critical to the success of an operation. Shortening its own decision cycle, and disrupting the enemy's decision cycle, allows a force to change the ground reality fast enough to leave the enemy constantly reacting to an inadequate understanding of the situation. The key is maintaining the initiative, continually disorienting the enemy through rapid and unpredictable change in tactics. The ultimate result should be strategic paralysis of the enemy, so that it is blind, disoriented, confused, and incapacitated, thereby offering a faster and more efficient way of fighting and winning conventional war.
This type of warfare has been the hallmark of all major US campaigns from the first Gulf War in 1991 to 'Operation Iraqi Freedom' in 2003. A critical feature of both wars against Iraq, however, was that escalation was anticipated. The perceived threat of a chemical or biological attack against advancing forces or allies like Israel was very real, but these risks were accepted as manageable in the pursuit of the greater objectives. War could be waged intensely and rapidly, with the operational goal of disrupting the enemy's decision cycle, and with an acceptance that the enemy may resort to WMD use.
This is not the case in South Asia, where the risk of escalation upto a nuclear exchange is clearly unacceptable. Indeed, the notion of limited war in South Asia, discussed in India since the Kargil War, aims to circumvent just that nightmare scenario, by implying the possibility of conventional military operations below the nuclear threshold.
Decision Cycles in Limited War
A limited war against Pakistan can only be waged and kept limited if India's intentions are clearly known to be limited and, just as importantly, if Pakistan is willing to accept limited losses. In limited war, therefore, strategic management is at least as important as operational war-fighting, and both of these aspects must be organically fused. Where the military stakes are modest, national-level calculations of how to prosecute the campaign and when to cease hostilities become decisive. For the crisis to be managed and escalation to be controlled, both sides need to clearly communicate their strategic end-game.
A campaign that seeks to surprise and shock the enemy - which the new doctrine seems to aim for - threatens to dangerously undermine enemy decision-making. Network-centric warfare may allow a more efficient operational conduct of the war, but it leaves the enemy's decision-makers less informed and less certain of the progress of the war, when information and clarity are most needed. Their leadership may well err on the side of caution and not risk escalation, but imposing extreme disruption and unpredictability on a nuclear-armed adversary may have the opposite effect. There is an elevated risk of confusion, with mixed signals and internal pressures to act leading to errors in judgment and unplanned escalation.
A doctrine is a planning and training tool, not a strategic policy declaration. India's new army doctrine, however, seems to run counter to the recent thinking on limited war, by emphasising joint manoeuvre warfare and network-centric warfare. Disruption of the enemy's decision-making process is normally a military virtue, and in those terms the new doctrine is militarily sound. But, if a limited conventional war between nuclear rivals is prosecuted in line with this doctrine, it could quickly escalate into catastrophic success.