When General Krishna Rao was the Chief of the Indian Army, he asked a relatively unknown corps commander to conduct Exercise Digvijay for testing a new doctrine for war against Pakistan. The doctrine called for massing of offensive army formations to strike deep towards politically important objectives, with aid from the Indian Air Force and Navy. It reached maturity with three “Strike Corps” being used in Exercise Brass Tacks, by the then famous General Krishnaswamy Sundarji. This vision of armoured formations slicing towards the Indus framed the strategic context for the expected all-out war between India and Pakistan. The strategy of dismembering Pakistan, however, faces a stalemate – ironically, Brass Tacks was also the first of many instances in which Pakistan brandished its nuclear weapons as a deterrent against conventional rout.
Some two decades later, the Army is reevaluating its options for breaking this strategic stalemate, and it has unveiled a new war-fighting doctrine called “Cold Start”. Cold Start calls for rapid deployment of “Integrated Battle Groups” comprising of elements of Army, Air Force, and if need be, Navy, to conduct high-intensity operations. These battle groups could be used individually for limited operations, or in conjunction for operations of greater scale. The one vital element that distinguishes Cold Start from its predecessor is that a decisive military victory is no longer held as the only goal of any war against Pakistan. Pakistan claims that the threat of a disastrous defeat or dismemberment would lead it to use nuclear weapons. By employing or threatening to employ the entire might of its offensive power, India would be signaling an intent that may be far disproportionate to its actual objectives. The purpose of the newly proposed doctrine, therefore, is to increase the range of options available to India for fighting and winning a war against Pakistan by moving away from an all or nothing strategy. A rapid deployment and quick securing of limited objectives can be used to achieve limited political objectives before international intervention kicks in or before the conflict spirals out of hand into a nuclear exchange.
The Indian Army initially attempted to fight a war in a nuclear backdrop by strengthening its abilities to fight a nuclear war and by adopting corresponding tactics. This approach stemmed from Pakistan’s declared willingness to use nuclear weapons on advancing Indian forces, especially those that looked like they were making vital strategic gains. The Army’s response was to boost the mobility of its formations by shifting to round-the-clock operations (as seen in Exercises Shiv Shakti, Vijay Chakra, and Poorna Vijay), and by practicing airborne drops for rapidly deploying key forces. These exercises also tested dispersal of formations to minimize impact of nuclear weapons, decontamination procedures, and logistics for formations advancing in contaminated areas. Through the nineties, attempts were also made to achieve integrated combat plans between the three services, most notably in Exercise Bhramastra. In sum, early thinking mainly concentrated on securing and retaining objectives under the assumption that nuclear weapons could be used at some stage in the conflict.
Operation Parakram, the full-scale deployment of India’s armed forces after the terrorist attack on the Indian parliament on 13 December 2001, was the biggest test of this doctrine of massed operations. Operation Parakram saw the IAF being deployed to combat stations in a matter of days; the bulk of the Indian Army was massed against Pakistan in two to three weeks. Subsequent reports have tried to portray the movement of the army formations as ponderous, but these reports downplay the surprise and concern felt by the Pakistani military at the rapidity of deployment of massive division and corps level formations over hundreds of kilometers. The reality was that the movement by key elements of II Strike Corps was rapid enough to prompt US intervention and caused the removal of the commander who authorized their deployment. The smoothness of the deployment exercise undoubtedly contributed to the Indian Army’s confidence in its abilities to initiate rapid deployments and operations.
However, unexpectedly rapid deployment was not sufficient to permit political initiative to be retained on the Indian side. There were significant elements not related to the actual speed of the movement that contributed to this loss of political initiative: the international community did not favor dismemberment of Pakistan; and the Indian response conformed to the predictable patterns established by the doctrine of massed warfare. It is difficult to say with any certainty whether the Indian government intended to use the massive deployment as a bargaining tool in itself or whether the deployment was really a precursor to all-out war. In either case, the actual experience showed that India’s intentions were gauged principally by the massing and movement of its strike formations.
The key lesson of Operation Parakram, therefore, was that an offensive strategy structured for dismemberment of Pakistan proved to be too inflexible to be calibrated to the prevailing geopolitical situation. The proposed doctrine seeks to make the deployment less predictable by taking the onus of attack away from the strike corps and placing it on the forward deployed “holding” corps of the army. Under the new dispensation, the army components of the battle groups would presumably operate under the command of the holding corps, and be deployed in smaller units that are based much closer to the border. Having key attack elements deployed much closer to the border reduces deployment time in two significant ways: the deployment distances are reduced; equally importantly, logistics requirements for the initial attack force are also reduced. The intended military objects are better masked by having a larger number of smaller units dispersed across the likely theatre of operations, and the inherent rigidity of having a predetermined objective (such as reaching the Indus) is replaced by the flexibility of being able to choose a breach for further exploitation. An equally important ingredient of this doctrine would be the substitution of massed formations with massed firepower. The army’s experience in Siachen and Kargil has led it to promote Artillery as a combat arm, and the two artillery divisions of the army constitute important maneuver elements in their own right. The emphasis on massed artillery firepower was demonstrated in the recently concluded Exercise Divya Astra; associated reports indicate that the army is now experimenting with the use of massed “100 gun” formations.
The unpredictability, increased pace of deployment, employment of massive firepower, and initiation of unrelenting combat operations aids in retaining political and military initiative by controlling the decision making and response cycle of the opponent as well as concerned international opinion. While full development of integrated battle groups envisaged by the doctrine would require additional purchases of combat systems as well as a significant restructuring of the command apparatus of the Indian military, some fundamental elements of the army components of the battle groups can be put together rapidly and easily through a redeployment of existing army assets. Furthermore, the Cold Start Doctrine is a conceptual move that makes Indian response to external provocation less predictable and more flexible than the currently employed doctrine of massed offensive, and opens up the possibility of intense but limited and controllable conflicts. It therefore poses a credible counter to the Pakistani strategy of state sponsored terrorism combined with nuclear blackmail.
The Cold Start doctrine has many merits and may be executable with existing resources and planned purchases. However, there are significant blocks to its formal acceptance outside the Indian Army. The most important block is that of political acceptance. Independent India fights its wars with very close political oversight and control. A doctrine that calls for rapid response and initiation of intense combat operations raises the possibility that political controls may become less effective, and that the combat commanders would have far greater latitude for independent initiative than would be deemed acceptable. Cold Start would be a non-starter without civilian institutions that can develop the political framework and objectives to support a rapid response doctrine, and without a politico-military command structure that can withstand the increased decision making tempo generated by the intense combat operations.
The Integrated Defense Headquarters and the Chief of Defense Staff are seen by the army as institutions that would help implement the politico-military framework for supporting this assertive doctrine. The attempt to portray “Cold Start” as an integrated, tri-service doctrine is perhaps part of the Army’s approach to getting its vision of joint warfare implemented. However, there are inter-service realities that the Army has to address, before it can hope to have acceptance for the Cold Start Doctrine. The navy may not be averse to this vision, because elements such as “Integrated Battle Groups” find ready consonance in the Navy’s own adaptation of the “Forward from the Seas” doctrine and its vision of rapid deployment groups. The primary doctrinal block; one that surfaced most famously during Exercise Bhramastra and the Kargil War of 1999, is the issue of joint warfare between the army and the air force. The two services have a very different view of how joint operations should be conducted. In essence, the army believes that the modern wars are best fought under a unified command, where one commander controls unified formations from all three services. The air force, on the other hand, believes that the different services should coordinate their plans but fight the war separately, in order to achieve integrated political and military objectives.
In the Indian Air Force’s view, assigning air force units by geographic command would cause a gross underutilization of air power. In comparison to army formations that have to be assigned a clearly defined and relatively limited operational area, an air force squadron or wing can operate over hundreds or thousands of kilometers; it can be redeployed in hours or days if required. Likewise, strike targets are defined very differently for the air force, and limiting a squadron of multi-role combat aircraft for close air support or air cover places artificial and unacceptable constraints on employment of air power. Worse, it nullifies IAF’s considerable numerical and qualitative advantages over PAF by allowing PAF to concentrate in a spatially limited theatre of operations. It follows from this doctrinal outlook that the Indian Air Force will likely be opposed to “integrated battle groups” and the command structure for conducting integrated operations as envisaged by the army.
Cold Start, therefore, is at cross-roads. The army, as the proponent of Cold Start, bears the primary responsibility for winning formal acceptance for the doctrine; it faces the necessity of making certain vital choices about how it wants to move forward with its vision. In framing this doctrine as an integrated doctrine, and in calling for integrated battle groups with a presumptive unified command, the army appears to be pushing for its view of joint warfare. This view has faced stiff resistance in the past from the air force, and is very likely to get bogged down in a familiar, unproductive turf battle.
The second choice, and a more pragmatic one, would be to limit the vision to an “Army Only” doctrine, and use it to assemble army all-arms formations that can be rapidly employed for some limited but intense combat operations. It should be noted that the publicly reported parts of Cold Start are conspicuously vague on details of how air or naval power would be employed, and they reveal the army centric focus of the proposed doctrine. A truncated Cold Start such as this would certainly find much greater political acceptance. Since it would not presume to dictate the Air Force’s doctrine, it would not encounter resistance from that quarter either. However, such a “pragmatic” compromise would constitute a significant diminution of the boldness of vision and the power of ideas embodied by a full-blooded and integrated doctrine that melds the greatest strengths of all three services.
A true “Cold Start”, then, is really a call for a true joint warfare doctrine with all its attendant institutions. Such a doctrine is premised on the existence of a politico-military framework that can direct the awesome forces unleashed by a modern military. These institutions cannot be built on inflammatory or adversarial rhetoric, or by imposition of one service’s vision on another. An accommodative approach, then, constitutes the third and most promising of choices. It is possible to have a modern joint warfare doctrine that is uniquely tailored for India’s geopolitical constraints, one that can meld the Army’s presence with the Air Force’s reach. There are several common resources that the two services use, notably in areas such as electronic warfare and intelligence gathering. The Air Force’s exploits in Operation Safed Sagar, notably the bombing of the Muntho Dhalo logistics node of the intruding Pakistani Army, show how coordinated planning and operations can be used by two distinct operations to achieve one common military objective. If the ongoing debate over Cold Start can move past the usual turf battles and power plays, it can produce a strategic vision worthy of a resurgent, shining India.