The Cold End of Cold Start Doctrine?

13 Oct, 2010    ·   3258

Yogesh Joshi delineates the viability of a ‘limited war’ strategy exemplified by the Cold Start

Recently, the Chief of Army Staff General VK Singh officially announced the demise of the Cold Start Doctrine. Under the threat of nuclear war, the possibility of use of force as a state policy in the region was under serious strain.  Cold Start was supposed to make the military usable in the region. The cold end of Cold Start is therefore puzzling.

Cold Start doctrine was touted as an answer to Pakistan’s asymmetric warfare in the sub-continent and its use of terrorism as an active tool of state policy. Both Kargil and Operation Parakram were eye-openers for the military in this regard. They underscored two important points. First, it is very hard to undertake a normal conventional attack against Pakistan under the threat of a full-blown nuclear exchange between the South Asian rivals, where Pakistan has left no stone unturned to convey to the whole world. This is evident in its first-use nuclear doctrine and the theory of nuclear redlines. Second, the inordinate delay in moving the Indian war machine, as was the case during operation Parakram, allows Pakistan to sell the moral hazard of nuclear war between the two states effectively to the international community, especially the USA.

So how was the Cold Start doctrine supposed to overcome these hurdles? The fundamental premise was based on an assumption that there exists strategic space between a nuclear catastrophe and terrorism based proxy war within which a limited conventional war can be fought. The idea was to keep the threshold of the war to such a level that Pakistan would not be able to use its nuclear weapons. Since, as Thomas Shelling has argued in The Strategy of Conflict, conflict under the shadow of nuclear weapons is a non-zero sum game in the sense that both parties have a common interest in avoiding nuclear exchange, bargaining is always a possibility. India’s cold start doctrine assumed this mutual interest in avoidance of nuclear exchange. In other words, the strategy was to call out Pakistan’s bluff. Secondly, this was to be done in a blitzkrieg manner- lightening fast. As Ali Ahmed has delineated, the doctrine aimed at massive but limited thrust across the border using the so called Integrated Battle Groups- a fire power packed modern swift action forces which can move rapidly across the border and hold small territories which were to be used as hostages’ vis-à-vis Pakistan while bargaining for a political settlement. This would not give international community time to respond to Pakistan’s blackmail of using nuclear weapons.

The Indian Army doctrine of 2004 discussed these possibilities. In line with these ideas, the Indian Army held a number of major military exercises on the western front applying the operational modalities which a Cold Start strategy encompasses. Divya Astra(2004), Vajra Shakti ( 2005), Desert Strike ( 2005), Sanghe Shakti (2006) and Aswamedh( 2007) were some in this line.  Even organizational changes were brought about. The new southwestern army command was result of these new designs of limited warfare. This shows that a considerable amount of attention and resources were devoted towards operationalizing this new limited war concept.

A number of problems abound the idea of Cold Start. Four of them have been explicitly identified by Walter Ludwig in his paper in International Security. These are the problem of Goal Setting, Misperceptions, Mission Creep and Geography of the region. These are, according to him, peculiar to the South Asian region. However, there is a systemic problem which engulfs the idea of strategy in the nuclear context. As Kenneth Waltz has said, “nuclear weapons dominate strategy.” It is easy to strategize war. However, it is equally hard to calibrate it. Nuclear weapons deter both nuclear wars as well as conventional wars because war is a continuum not a discrete set of actions. Cold Start attempts to compartmentalize war. This is conventional thinking. The history of Cold War is an apt example of this dynamic. One cannot separate existence of nuclear weapons from the use of force.

Intellectual chaos surrounding strategic studies literature on limited war in the nuclear age is another indicator. It is still hard to say whether innovations in strategy really helped policy makers to solve the conundrum of use of force and concomitant possibility of nuclear exchange in the world where absolute weapons rule absolutely. The proponents of limited war strategy and by default Cold Start base their analysis on a deductive logic derived from game theory and logical necessity. However, the fundamental problem with this kind of deductive reasoning is that, unlike physical sciences, there is no way you can test the validity of one’s hypothesis. There has been no precedent in history where a calculated limited nuclear war under nuclear shadow has been fought. On the other hand, the history of Cold War has shown time and again that testing such a possibility, though logically derived, is rendered untenable by the very existence of nuclear weapons.