Monday, 28 March 2022

Russo-Ukrainian War: Implications for India's Cold Start doctrine

Does the Russo-Ukrainian War bury Cold Start?

Does the Russo-Ukrainian War bury Cold Start?

Cold Start is the colloquial term by which Indian strategic analysts term India’s conventional war options against Pakistan. The term, as does the concept it denotes, has had a chequered history. It made an appearance sometime in early 2000s. General ‘Paddy’ Padmanabhan when being interviewed post retirement on his experience of Operation Parakram, the Indian mobilization against Pakistan in face of the terror attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001, had used it first. He was referring to the move afoot that he initiated to get offensive formations on an operational footing in quick time from a ‘cold start’. The lesson learnt from early days of Operation Parakram was that these took longer to mobilize than could be militarily useful in a crisis. Since crises brought on by terror attacks were unpredictable, they would have to be agile enough to take to the offensive from a ‘cold start’.

The term soon acquired the status of a doctrine with the then army’s public information chief in a briefing to journalists on a publicly released official doctrine of the army used the term, thereby making in stick in unofficial lexicon to the 2004 doctrine. That the doctrine envisaged a speedy start to proactive offensive operations remained unacknowledged in its early years, since its release coincided with the onset of the United Progressive Alliance government which professed restraint as a strategic doctrine and was in the midst of an outreach to Pakistan over the 2000s.

When an opportunity to test the doctrine came by in 2008, at Mumbai 26/11, the army passed up the opportunity, averring it was unable to give a guarantee that Pakistan’s nuclear threshold would not be crossed in case it went on the offensive in reprisal for the terror attack. The army then jettisoned Cold Start, though working towards cutting down mobilization schedules from a week to less than 72 hours. It shifted to proactive contingency operations which in retrospect can be taken as forerunner to surgical strikes, credit for which has been appropriated by the successor government of Narendra Modi.

Modi upped the scale of surgical strikes, besides going public with these for their electoral benefit, something his self-effacing predecessor had not done, though having undertaken some surgical strikes on a lower scale of his own. With surgical strikes having revealed the hand, the new Modi-appointed chief, General Bipin Rawat, went public with the badly kept secret that Cold Start was to be resurrected from its cold storage. The doctrine was to be given teeth with integrated battle groups (IBG) formed, with an objective-specific all arms structure. Jointness would provide the airpower heft to their firepower.

This was an adaptation to the nuclear age in South Asia, indubitably on since 1998. The Kargil War, merely a year after the two states, India and Pakistan, went nuclear that May, signified that to the Pakistani army going nuclear did not make war obsolete. Borrowing a page from the Pakistanis, the Indian army chief, Ved Malik, opined that there was space for a limited war below the nuclear threshold. This was the genesis of Cold Start, which is some 20 years down the line being followed through to fruition. Over these years, Indian army was ambivalent on the what to do with its offensive strike formations and followed the precepts dating to the World War II, modified for nuclear conditions in the Cold War doctrinal thinking on operational maneuver groups and AirLand Battle of the respective sides then. Since strike corps continue to exist, it is not certain where Cold Start and IBGs are at the moment. The ongoing efforts at taking forward jointness in terms of conjuring up theatre commands may finesse this matter. Till then, strike corps and nascent IBGs – combat commands equivalent strike forces controlled by offensive corps headquarters – appear to be India’s conventional crown jewels.

That the national security establishment remains as unimpressed by such doctrinal shifts as was the Manmohan Singh government when contemplating its options post 26/11, is clear from National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval at a speaking engagement last year at Pune ruling that wars as we know it are pass̩. Now Doval also has the Russo-Ukrainian war to inform his judgment. He would be even less liable to buy into a conventional military operation, howsoever nuanced by IBG employment buttressed by surgical air and missile strikes, given that the primary difference between the Russo-Ukrainian dyad and the India-Pakistan one is that both putative belligerents in the latter case are nuclear powers. In fact, one of the significant insights from the ongoing war in Europe is that Ukraine would not have been in its present position, had it retained nuclear weapons. The guarantees that allowed it to give up nuclear weapons - those from it backers to its west and those of its invader to its east Рdid not quite work. Despite this difference, it may be worthwhile to see if there are any lessons that India could take away from the conflict.

A major similarity is the extended frontage, shallow depth attacks. Cold Start was also visualized as being conducted along an extended front but only to operational depth, so as to not trigger any nuclear red lines that Pakistan might have. The Russians have attacked from three sides – Kiev in the north, along Ukraine’s eastern border till its southern portions in the Donbass and along the south to capture the Black Sea coast.

A departure is the Russian bid for an early investment of Kiev in order to, from the line-of-march, trigger a capitulation or internal coup in Ukraine, sparing them the bother they are now subject to, not having succeeded in their coup de main operation. Avoiding nuclear red lines might have kept Cold Start offensives from threatening such value objectives.

Whereas Cold Start presumes an early start to operations, truncating crisis timelines, this was not the case with the Russian invasion. It was predicted by the United States (US) weeks before the event, giving the Ukrainians enough time to prepare militarily, including by stocking up defensive weapons helpfully sent in by the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Even so, the unreality of a conventional war in the 21st century was such that when the Russians did invade, their egregious violation of international law was somewhat of a surprise. 

The invasion itself has similarities with the Cold Start script. It was with limited aims and with limited forces in terms of numbers and the use of force. They set about the invasion with less than 200000 soldiers, part of several battalion battle groups.  Not wanting to alienate the populace of kin ethnicity, they were initially mindful of the firepower employed. They had two sets of aims: some rhetorical such as denazification, and, a second set, political and substantial, such as the taking over of the Ukrainian separatist region of Donbass, demilitarization to levels assuring Russian security interest and that Ukraine remain out of NATO. Accordingly, their offensive was caliberated to take over Donbass, open up a land corridor between the sliced off Crimea and Donbass, thereby also restricting Ukrainian access to the Black Sea coast. Operations elsewhere, such as along Ukraine’s eastern border were to tie down Ukrainian forces lest they interfere with the main thrusts in the  south east and south and the operations aimed at Kiev were to either trigger a regime change, failing which they were to pressurize Kiev into conceding.

As things have turned out, Russia has bogged down to an extent. Its Kiev operation has been counter-productive in strengthening Ukrainian resolve, also ascendant with the support it has elicited for Ukrainian war effort. It is possible that the investment of Kiev has drawn away forces that could have been used elsewhere to wrap up by now. Russia seems to have messed up with its political aim of intimidating the Ukrainian government distracting from its military objective of making territorial gains rapidly.

This summary of the war so far has lessons for any Cold Start-based conventional operations India might undertake. Cold Start would have the political aim of reeducating the Pakistanis on the virtues of temperance. Since Pakistan is largely controlled by its military, the military aim would be to give it a knock, hoping that doing so displaces it from atop the Pakistani hierarchy, or , at worst, the punitive action makes it rethink its India strategy.

The foremost lesson has already found mention: that Pakistan is a nuclear power and Cold Start may not be an appropriate instrument to address India’s Pakistan problem. That said, India would do well to follow the China model. China in its 1962 War on India and its 1979 War on Vietnam was politically sensible enough to declare victory and retrieve to its start line, even though in the latter, unlike in the former, it had received a bloody nose. Therefore, India will do well not to get its regional power gander up and ego ensnared.

This is easier said than done. The successor strategy to Cold Start - proactive operations strategy – has it that IBGs would make a run for it at war outbreak. It bears reminding that the Pakistani having followed the Indian discourse have wargamed the contingencies and prepositioned forces accordingly. They would prove difficult customers. Consequently, India – not wanting the IBGs to be shown up – might have to release reserves to get the better of the Pakistanis. This would up the ante into the No-Go nuclear terrain. In short, the political leaders must be willing to lose face.

There is a lobby that thinks Pakistan Occupied Kashmir could be a Donbass equivalent for India and that gains made across the LC are gains kept. This misses the fact that the terrain there is apt for irregular war. India would be hard put to retain gains.

The take away from the humanitarian consequences of the Russian invasion is that the suffering needs being multiplied manifold, since the population figures here are higher. This will not only hamper operations, but prove a CNN ambush.

The influx of foreign fighters into wars elsewhere, such as those in Iraq and Syria, has repeated itself in Ukraine, with Ukraine calling for a mercenary legion to join on its side. To the extent this is a right wing influx, it puts paid to Putin’s denazification cover story. In Pakistan, this will an irregular counter can be expected in real time, with Pakistani Punjabi numbers buttressed by Talibani and Islamist fighters. The political aim of mollifying Pakistan would be dead at birth itself.

While this might sell Pakistan down river to Islamist extremism, the political mirroring effect in India needs factoring in too. India, under a nationalist regime, might not see this as a problem, but a gain of sorts.

Therefore, it appears that the Russo-Ukrainian War has put the epitaph on Cold Start: a doctrine laid to rest since it was not worth chancing. This begs the question of India’s future doctrinal direction. On this NSA Doval may have set the ball rolling with his observations that conventional wars are obsolete. What takes the place of military-dominant wars is a mystery left for another post, since the Russo-Ukrainian War suggests that humankind is not done with wars as yet.