The Army Chief wrote the epitaph on Cold Start, stating, “There is nothing called ‘Cold Start’.” But it must be acknowledged that in its short shelf life of seven years it had spawned a cottage industry of commentators on it. Like the proverbial ‘blind men of Hindoostan’, they inspected Cold Start and found it viable or otherwise, depending on their avian nature as hawks or doves.
That Cold Start is no more is to be mourned since it did enliven strategic commentary, helped create a strategic culture and brought the Indian political and security establishment to see the military, finally, as a potentially usable instrument. Yet, that the doctrine remained untested owes to India’s grand strategy, characterized lately as ‘strategic restraint’. Strategic restraint is a coming to terms with limitations of force, brought on by things such as the economy and the nuclear backdrop.
The term ‘Cold Start’ for India’s conventional doctrine was conjured up in a media briefing by a ‘source’ on the sidelines of the Army Commander’s conference in the summer of 2004. The doctrine had been discussed in that conference but was adopted in the next conference in autumn that year. It was a culmination of the changes in the Army brought on by the lessons of the two preceding crises, the Limited War in Kargil and the subsequent exercise in coercive diplomacy, Operation Parakram.
Incidentally, even as military analysts made their careers dissecting it, the government in the form of the Ministry of Defence, took care never to refer to it. This suggests that it was a legacy of the previous government, with an image of being more defence-friendly. The NDA dispensation had taken care to bring out the nuclear doctrine while in power, tying India down to its expansive formulation of ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation against India or its forces ‘anywhere’. The threat was to create the space necessary to operationalize a proactive conventional war doctrine.
‘Cold Start’ was a limiting description of the doctrine. Cold Start refers only to the kind of capability the Army gave itself, of going into conventional operations from a standing start. This owed to its embarrassment in having taken three weeks to mobilize after the parliament attack, thereby seemingly losing an opportunity to administer punishment and thereby instill caution in Pakistan.
The doctrine envisaged a series of limited thrusts across a wide front into Pakistan by divisional sized forces. These served to capture territory, seize the initiative and provide a launch pad for strike corps to deepen the penetration. Enemy reserves would thus be forced to react and expend themselves. Attrition from the air would enable whittling down the Pakistani Army, seen as the center of gravity. The Army, suitably degraded, would be displaced from power post-conflict in Pakistan, enabling a democratic peace to ensue unlike the last time round post 1971.
The doctrine had much to recommend it. It brought India’s military advantage back into the reckoning despite nuclearization. It enabled taking the first tier of defences when they were unheld or relatively underdeveloped. This would have saved India from casualties, particularly in the mountains. This would have helped prevent the development of an attrition match as had occurred in the earlier wars. It would be a war fought on Pakistani territory, thus sparing India of the effects of the increasing lethality of war. Making early gains, India could call for early war termination on its terms. Since the nuclear threshold was to be respected, there would be no call for Pakistan to resort to nuclear weapons.
Nevertheless, the doctrine had its criticism. It was seen as narrowing the opportunity for crisis management and conflict avoidance through diplomacy. It would set South Asia a short fuse vulnerable to any passing bunch of self-interested jihadis. A default military reaction in real time would place the two states at odds with each other, playing into the hands of non-state actors who would expect to gain from the resulting instability in Pakistan.
It was deemed to be too deterministic about the location of the Pakistani nuclear threshold. It was taken as high, enabling operations to a limited depth. This was to be unmindful of the influence of a conflict environment on decision-making. It was politically naïve in its belief that knocking down the Pakistani Army would result in democratic forces prevailing. The jihadis could instead have come to the fore. This could be due to Pakistan using them in an Iraqi style asymmetric war against Indian conventional forces in Pakistani territory. Lastly, it was seen as part of the inter-Service rivalry, with the Army trying to set the agenda as the lead service, in reply to the Air Force’s intent of an ‘air alone’ strategy in an indigenous version of ‘Shock and Awe’.
The Cold Start period was India’s third doctrinal tumult. The first was a defensive one subsequent to the 1962 and the 1965 Wars in which the lessons of Ichogil canal were replicated across the front. The second was one of mechanized warfare, led by Sundarji. Cold Start therefore was long over due, since the Sundarji doctrine had been overtaken by overt nuclearization.
Thinking beyond the limitations of Cold Start is the direction of India’s fourth and forthcoming doctrinal tryst. Cold Start can be expected to be reckoned in history as a necessary bridge between India’s war-waging and war-deterring military.