Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Cold Start: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

Speaking on the sidelines of an Army Day function, the Army chief has stepped back from his earlier stated position that ‘there is nothing called Cold Start’. The Times of India, that has kept a sharp eye on the meanderings of India’s conventional doctrine, the so-called Cold Start, since its inception in 2004, reports on the Army fine-tuning its ‘proactive strategy’.

The chief is reported as saying, “A lot has changed since the days of Op Parakram. If we did something in 15 days then, we can do it in seven days now. After two years, we may be able to do it in three days.” Apparently, the Army is now working towards further cutting down this mobilization timeframe to 72 to 96 hours.

This means that Cold Start remains alive and kicking, with all the implications that its critics have registered in light of the nuclear backdrop. The Army approach to nuclear weapons is encapsulated in Gen Singh’s reply: “I and my Army are not bothered about who has nuclear weapons. We have our task cut out and we will progress along that.”

It is not that he is not cognizant of dangers, but believes in the efficacy of deterrence. Deterrence, in his words, implies: “Let's be quite clear on it... Nuclear weapons are not for war-fighting. They have got a strategic significance and that is where it should end.”

The problem appears to stem from the conventional and nuclear spheres being kept distinct in India. The underlying logic for this is that India believes that nuclear weapons are political weapons and not for war-fighting, as mentioned by the General. The conventional doctrinal domain is seen as the preserve of the military. For the military, being historically little integrated at the nuclear strategy-making level, the interface between the conventional and nuclear doctrines and strategy is limited. As a result the two are undertaken autonomous from each other.

The military thus ends up relying on questionable deterrence logic. The nuclear logic reasonably in the nuclear age should be one of war avoidance. The reinvigorated ‘Cold Start’ unveiled by the Chief banks on nuclear deterrence. Is this enough to convince the political decision-maker to allow launch of the ‘proactive strategy’?

The deterrence logic subscribed to is that the likelihood, if not inevitability, of the spiral of nuclear exchanges on introduction of nuclear weapons into a conflict, would see Pakistan worse off at the end of it all. This would ensure that it does not resort to first use in first place. In light of Pakistani self-deterrence, India can then proceed to administer conventional punishment for sub-conventional provocation. Since this would be a Limited War, not intended to invade or occupy its territory, first use thresholds will be steered clear of.

The belief that conventional assertion is possible owes to the belief that Pakistan has gained more from nuclearisation, taking advantage of the ‘stability-instability paradox’. The paradox has it that nuclear dangers having receded by mutual deterrence, Pakistan can get away with being venturesome at a lower level. To them, this space for proxy war has to be denied to Pakistan by India ceasing to be self-deterred by Pakistan unveiling its tactical nuclear weapons.

Instead, the argument goes, India must deter Pakistan’s nuclear use threat by credibly threatening to ‘finish’ it as a state and society. The National Security Adviser used the term ‘massive’ twice over in his interaction at the end of the lecture delivered in honour of K Subrahmanyam on his birthday this week. The latest think-tank phraseology is: “… India will annihilate it with its nuclear arsenal.” This is intended to keep Pakistan in its nuclear senses, enabling India’s punishment of Pakistan with its conventional forces come I-Day, ‘Incident Day’.

This is entirely plausible, but neglectful of a consequence that must inform decision-making in India’s Political Council of the Nuclear Command Authority; the political domain of nuclear decision-making being distinct from the strategic. The key consideration is brought about by Pakistani vertical proliferation to an arsenal numbering in three digits.

This ensures Pakistan would have enough surviving warheads for counter-retaliation to even a ‘massive’ punitive retaliation by India. While the consensus is that India would ‘survive’ while Pakistan would not, what such advocacy neglects are the effects such retaliatory nuclear strikes will have on India environmentally, as a polity, and as a society.

Clearly, ‘massive’ punitive retaliation must be ruled out. This may embolden Pakistani nuclear first use in a low threshold mode. This can best be avoided by refraining from taking the first step in the proactive strategy option. This can be done by removing it from consideration by making progress in the second round of talks now ongoing since 26/11. Else the option will remain on the table, as the Chief has unwittingly let on.

The political decision-maker would require bearing the infirmity in strategic thinking at the conventional-nuclear interface as he listens to strategic level advice on ‘I’ Day.

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