Massive troop mobilisation along its border by the Indian armed forces is not a new idea to India’s politico-military set up. Such intents were demonstrably clear specifically through Operation Brass Tacs in 1987 under larger umbrella of what is now referred to as the Sundarji Doctrine, named after General Krishnaswamy Sundarji the Chief of Army Staff of the Indian Army from 1986 to 1988. Between November 1986 and March 1987 the Indian Army mobilised 400,000 soldiers within 100 miles of India’s border with Pakistan. These actions of the late 1980s to some extent find embedded seeds of India’s Cold Start military doctrine that specifically came into prominence as a retaliatory military strategy against Pakistan in the aftermath of the attacks on the Indian Parliament in 2001 by Pakistan based terrorist organizations.
India’s Cold Start traces its 21st century origins to India’s mulling of a response in the aftermath of the attack on Indian Parliament in 2001, carried out by two Pakistan based terrorist organizations; the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, as per India’s National Investigative Agency (NIA). By January 2002, India had mobilized more than 500, 000 troops along the Line of Control (LoC) under the banner of Operation Parakram. The post-attack retaliation, riding on high domestic sentiment of retributive justice, pushed Indian establishment to try its Cold Start strategy and the strategy proved to be a rusted attempt barely meeting any criteria of the country’s response.
Although this was India’s largest force mobilization since the 1971 war with Pakistan leading to the creation of Bangladesh, many loopholes in such a strategy were noticed. The Strike Corps of the Indian Army, around whose agility and effectiveness this doctrine revolves, took close to three weeks to move as a mass mobilising force close to the border with Pakistan. The time window proved comfortable for both the Pakistan Army as well as the Pakistani establishment. The Pakistan Army was quick to counter-mobilise in response to Indian Army’s advance and its government had enough time to draw the international community’s attention towards India’s massive force mobilisation directed against Pakistan, thereby undercutting two of Cold Start’s key intentions. The doctrine largely remained in ‘freezer’ until some recent developments that carry convincing reasons to suggest that the strategy might well be in the process of being honed.
India’s Cold Start military doctrine finds its ideological mornings in its breakaway tradition from the Indian Army’s conservative strategy vis-a-vis Pakistan primarily recognised as ‘strategic restraint’. There are enough reasons to believe that India’s Pakistan policy under the incumbent government in New Delhi has swayed from extending an olive branch of diplomacy to multiple moves suggestive of a gradual strengthening of its Cold Start doctrine; hitherto understood only limited to being India’s Pakistan-centric bluster.
Negated for years by Indian Army Chiefs, military strategists, the larger strategic community and above all successive governments, besides being written off by analysts, the Cold Start doctrine had become the Indian strategic community’s Loch Ness Monster: claimed on the back of little evidence. However, the Nessie finally seems to have been sighted with the newly appointed Indian Army Chief himself mentioning the Cold Start doctrine in a recent comment. In the process, he also became the first senior military man to not just confirm the doctrine’s existence but to advocate for a strategy in its defense.
‘Cold Start’ Under Modi: Subtle Twists
That India’s Cold Start has been acknowledged by none other than the Army Chief himself, there should be no doubts about the doctrine’s existence in its hibernating form in the policy interregnum since 2002. It couldn’t have been the Defence Minister pulling a rabbit out of his hat. His acknowledgement should be a seen as a definite pointer towards a policy resurrection that has been underway, at least since the change of the government in 2014. However, the Cold Start doctrine as we know it might be getting reshaped as per current security needs and altered threat perception of India vis-a-vis Pakistan. The Pakistan policy which is getting shaped under the Modi government might well end up as a different version of the Cold Start than how it began.
The Modi government’s bold announcement of the ‘surgical strikes’ by India on terror launch pads that followed a spate of terrorist strikes from across the border was among the first signs that bridged the gap between this government’s electoral rhetoric and actions on ground. The surgical strikes were premised on one of the key strategies of Cold Start; one that specifically targeted an enemy with short rapid armoured thrusts across the border that worked on highly effective and integrated command and operation. The Cold Start doctrine that tries to employ high level of integration between the troops mainly through its division-size Integrated Battle Groups (IBG) was replicated to some extent in the surgical strikes. The surgical strikes worked on the coordination between various platoons of the Indian Army when firing from one unit distracted the Pakistani Army’s attention creating opportunity for the other attacking unit to conduct operations on terror launch pads. This tactic of the Indian Army can be seen as having been modelled on the strategic binary that is central to Cold Start doctrine; Holding Corps/Pivot Corps and the Strike Corps. Under the Cold Start the Holding Corps are placed in division-size units along the LoC with engages the enemy while the Strike Corps (consisting of two armoured and one infantry division) would attack in short rapid armoured thrusts. While the surgical strikes by India missed the mass force mobilization characteristic of Cold Start, it might very well have been the twist added to the doctrine in its latest avatar. A massive force mobilization’s perceptive deterrence and fear characteristic of the traditional Cold Start policy, in India’s case, has only backfired through a nullification of the surprise element and the time involved both of which are prerequisites of an effective response strategy.
If the Modi government’s two key appointments are anything to go by, a reinvigoration of Cold Start was already underway since the change in government in 2014. Picking up Ajit Doval for the National Security Adviser’s (NSA) post was the first step by the Modi government towards a strategic response to growing cross-border terrorism from Pakistan and the spur in separatist sentiment in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The so called Doval Doctrine forms the rubric of a counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency strategy that have been exemplified by some of government’s recent moves. The Doval Doctrine has a specific strategy in dealing with Pakistan: one that places India’s past responses to Pakistan as ‘defensive,’ its current approach as ‘offensive defense,’ and its possible future strategy as ‘offensive’. India’s approach towards dealing with Pakistan has depicted a transitional nature, already having overcome its ‘strategic restraint’ past and gradually moving towards an offensive stance. India’s current ‘offensive defense’ phase is more about fortifying its troop positions along the LoC than about unprovoked assault on the enemy. It is no wonder then, that in recent times border security has received serious policy attention like it rarely did in the past despite cross-border attacks. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) set up committee to suggest ways to tighten security along Indo-Pak border. With the Madhukar Gupta committee already having submitted its report, the implementation of the reforms might be hastened. Some of the steps to boost border security near the LoC have already been taken. Installing over 200, 000 floodlights near the border areas, a five-layer border security comprising laser walls, drones and satellites etc are already planned, together with a planned complete sealing of the India-Pakistan border by 2018.
The Modi government’s second appointment also has the underpinnings of aggressive strategy towards Pakistan that forms the core of Cold Start. that The current Indian Army Chief’s controversial appointment, circumventing at least two senior officers than him, could also be seen as another reason why the Modi government is ready to bet for an aggressive policy towards Pakistan than its immediate predecessor government. In his appointment as the next Chief of Army Staff, Lt Gen Bipin Rawat superseded Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief Eastern Command who was first in the line of seniority, and Lt Gen P.M. Hariz, Southern Army Commander who was second. The government's defence for jumping the gun was Lt Gen Rawat's abilities which it quoted as "best suited among the Lt Generals to deal with emerging challenges, including cross-border terrorism and proxy war from the west, and the situation in the North-East." With Lt Gen Bipin Rawat's tremendous hands-on experience of serving in combat areas, and at various functional levels in the Indian Army over the last three decades the government anticipates a more forceful Pakistan strategy among against other threats, but more importantly with decisive execution style and intent. Gen. Rawat’s twin field experience at the LoC with Pakistan and the Line of Actual (LAC) with China is a natural follow up to the subtle policies and decisions undertaken by the Modi government towards emboldening its strategies in the border areas.
The Modi government is also preparing for the last stage identified in the so called Doval Doctrine: Offence. India’s renewed Cold Start strategy seeks to make a leap from offensive defence to offence, through a significant bolstering of its armoured capabilities near the border. This is intended to be achieved by strengthening the mechanised infantry and induction of more terrain friendly yet more lethal equipment. Here, India’s plans to commission both the ultra light M777 howitzer guns from the US and the 9 Vajra-T, the 155-mm/52-caliber self-propelled howitzer from South Korean assistance will add to the troops’ effectiveness, precision and manoeuvrability in mountainous regions near India's borders with both Pakistan and China. The offensive element in the latest avatar of Cold Start is also likely to be augmented by the Indian Army's decision to deploy over 460 new T-90SM main battle tanks (MBTs) along India’s border with Pakistan. The new T-90SM MBT is the latest and most modern version of the T-90. It is expected that close to 500 T-90SM MBT tanks, divided into 18 regiments, will replace its older version T-90 Bhishma tanks near the border with Pakistan, thereby making the future possibility of rapid armoured thrusts across the border into Pakistan more effectively possible in a war scenario. The 36 Rafale fighter jets bought in fly-away condition, besides the already operating Sukhois by India, are likely to provide teeth to the air-support dimension of the Cold Start.
Under the present government, the Cold Start strategy is being nurtured and strengthened through a gradual process that is subtly underway ever since the government formed its first cabinet. This is largely being done to bring the military’s capabilities at par with the vast promises that Cold Start wraps under its belt. One of the main reasons why Indian Army failed at quick mobilization of its forces near the LoC in 2001-02 was because of the extant gap between capabilities and intentions of the Cold Start doctrine. The Modi government has tried to fill that gap through a slow process involving defence acquisitions, mechanisation, technology and integration to bring more efficacy to both the infantry and the armoured units.
If the conduct and subsequent political owning up of the surgical strikes in September last year was an under-the-veneer leg of Modi’s Cold Start, the latest conscious acknowledgement by the Army Chief should be seen as reflective of future portends of India’s Pakistan policy.
Assistant Professor in International Relations For Asia
Netaji Institute For Asian Studies
1, Woodburn Park, Kolkata - 70002