Sunday, 2 March 2014

cold start lite is not enough


By Ali Ahmed, PhD*

Published in Agni, Oct-Dec 2013, Vol XV, No. VI


In the wake of the Kargil War, India developed a Limited War doctrine.  The key elements of this doctrine are that it is ‘proactive’ and ‘offensive’. It is ‘proactive’ in the sense that while being strategically reactive, for instance to a terror provocation emanating from Pakistan, it is proactive at the operational level in choosing the time and place of conventional response and shaping of the battle. It is ‘offensive’ in terms of its intent of taking the battle to the enemy, fighting on and making gains on enemy territory and in its aim-plus of punishing the Pakistani military. Since these two ingredients have to reckon with the nuclear backdrop, limitation has been worked into the doctrine in terms of shallow depth of attack operations and choice of such areas being limited to those that would not provoke the proverbial nuclear ‘redline’, such as for instance avoiding a thrust towards Lahore. This limitation is what makes for the doctrine being characterised as a ‘Limited War’ doctrine. The media short-hand for this is ‘Cold Start’, highlighting its supposed reliance on being quicker-off-the-blocks than Pakistan’s army that has hitherto enjoyed a mobilisation differential. The change from its previous edition, the Sundarji era conventional doctrine of Second World War style armoured operations, has been in the rethinking on strike corps employment that was thought to be too flirtatious of nuclear thresholds.

Given the nuclear dimension over the past quarter century, and unmistakably so ever since both states going overt in 1998, on the face of its being ‘proactive’ and ‘offensive’ would be to be unmindful of the nuclear overhang. In fact, while arguing for the nuclear deterrent during the covert years, its proponents, including the redoubtable K. Subrahmanyam, had argued that changed nuclear equations would make war redundant and would therefore brighten the chances for peace with Pakistan. Instead, Cold Start has replaced the ‘Sundarji (conventional) doctrine’ and it is not certain if this change over is cognisant of continuing nuclear dangers.
In the chronological narrative, inception of the doctrine is at a conference at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in January 2000 in wake of the Kargil War. The Kargil War had brought home to the Indian military that there was a conventional space between the subconventional and nuclear threshold for military exploitation. Even as conceptualisation of the change was underway, the ‘twin peaks’ crisis - Operation Parakram - intervened. The ‘twin peaks’ refer to the spikes in tension immediately following the parliament attack and the terror attack in Jammu the following summer. In neither event could India exercise its conventional power. The first time round, its strike corps apparently took too long to mobilise and in the second instance, they were so programmed, by all three being poised in Rajasthan, that they would invite a nuclear reaction from Pakistan. The limitations of India’s ‘all or nothing’ approach, signified by the ‘Sundarji doctrine’, were clear. The 2004 document – Indian Army Doctrine - was the outcome of ‘lessons learnt’.

Limited Nuclear War?

The conventional doctrine, in nutshell, countenances a quick mobilisation followed by multiple offensives across a wide front. The doctrine caters for the changed nuclear reality by envisaging that military advances would be to limited depth in light of possible nuclear thresholds. Limitation has been brought about by the need to avoid triggering the envisaged nuclear thresholds of Pakistan. These thresholds are often taken to be along four dimensions: military attrition, territorial losses, economic viability and internal stability. In the event, concerted offensive action by the three wings – land, sea and air - of the Indian military would simultaneously nudge all four thresholds directly and indirectly. The cumulative physical and psychological impact would tend to unhinge - and possibly lower - the nuclear retaliation threshold. Interestingly, escalatory possibilities that attend offensives are to be innovatively utilised to make Pakistan back down. This explains India’s across-the-board thrust for ‘escalation dominance’. The idea is to be set to prevail at any level Pakistan may choose to escalate to, thereby dampening any tendency in Pakistan to escalate. Pakistan is expected to rationally choose to lose cheaply than more resoundingly at the next higher level.

As can be expected, Pakistan has come up with its own answers. At the conventional level, it has, through its Azm e Nau series of exercises since 2009, attempted to undercut any gains India’s conventional offensives could make. Alongside, in the nuclear plane, it has postured a lower nuclear threshold, for instance, by inducting battle field nuclear weapons, the Nasr nuclear-tipped missile system. At the end of the Azm e Nau IV wargames in the summer of 2013, Pakistan has expressed its confidence in stymieing India’s Cold Start thrusts by returning the mobilisation differential in its favour. This would force India to move a notch higher in its conventional exertions.

To cope with Pakistan’s nuclear card, Cold Start has apparently been pruned to ‘Cold Start lite’ or ‘Cold Start Minor’. This explains a former army chief arguing that there is nothing called Cold Start. Since Cold Start became difficult to sell to politicians, rightly mindful of the nuclear threat, the shift has appropriate conventional retaliation to Pakistani terror provocations. This is aimed at ending the impunity of the Pakistani army and ensuring that it pays a price for terror by proxy. Cold Start therefore is no longer ‘wide front – multiple thrust’ but is conventional retribution restricted to capture of a few key locations and air inflicted attrition to Pakistani military and terror assets. The former is to bring home to the Pakistani army high command the seriousness of India’s intent which the latter alone cannot convey. Military action across the various lines of varying degree of authority that India shares with Pakistan – IB, LC and AGPL - has the advantage of turning the diplomatic screws on Pakistan in a way that a stand-off, ‘air alone’, retaliation cannot.

The intent is to pose a decision dilemma on Pakistan: accept the beating or escalate. India’s preceding efforts at ‘escalation dominance’ are to persuade Pakistan against the latter. The intended political affect is a psychological blow to the military in Pakistan, opening up greater space for mainstream civilian political forces in that country. Operationally, the idea is to militarily catalyse external diplomatic and political pressure internal to Pakistan to bear on Pakistani army’s adventurism. It is possible that with NSCS orchestration, such politico-diplomatic goals can be militarily mid-wifed. 

However, two problems could arise. The first is that setting back the Pakistan army does not necessarily translate into gains for mainstream political forces in Pakistan. It would open up a vacuum in which extremism could spread. This is more likely in case of religious nationalism being prompted by the military set back. Political implications of Cold Start have not attracted as much attention as the strategic implications. The second, at the strategic level, is in Pakistan army wanting to preserve its post-hostilities position within Pakistan’s power structure, could up-the-military-ante. It would be under pressure from Islamist lobbies and from their sympathisers within the army. This would in turn force Indian exertion up a few notches. This may entail India either reinforcing a failure or opening up new fronts and fresh objectives. Escalation thus could lead up to the nuclear dangers ‘Cold Start lite’ was designed to avoid. Even if India’s advantage continues, it would be at a higher price; and at an uncertain rung up the proverbial ladder of escalation, a nuclear price.

For its part, to obviate nuclear deterrence breakdown, India’s nuclear deterrence is based on ‘assured retaliation’. Te promise of ‘unacceptable damage’ is intended to heighten the adversary’s nuclear threshold in order to provide space for the offensive posture of Cold Start. India believes nuclear weapons deter nuclear weapons and not war. Thus, there appears scope for war, albeit a Limited War. The declaratory nuclear doctrine has a proviso that such retaliation would be of higher order, ‘massive’, levels. This makes nuclear doctrine reminiscent of ‘massive retaliation’. Pakistan’s posturing of lower nuclear threshold suggests that it finds ‘massive’ nuclear response by India less than credible, in face of its nuclear numbers that have reportedly crossed the three figure mark. Since it can pose threat of like punishment on India, even if broken-backed, India may be forced away from ‘massive’. Therefore, Pakistan’s introduction of nuclear weapons into the conflict would be to threaten a nuclear war, albeit, a Limited Nuclear War. In its thinking, India, unwilling to chance the price, would then desist from exercising its conventional advantage.

India continues to invest in its conventional advantage for the sake of ‘escalation dominance’. It believes that Cold Start lite, is not provocative of nuclear thresholds, even lowered ones predicated on the likes of Nasr. However, the underside of escalation dominance is in Pakistan’s resort to the nuclear card: at first for posturing and at the crunch, at lower order levels. ‘Escalation dominance’ at lower order levels would entail an ability to sustain fighting, including nuclear warfighting and conventional operations in a nuclear environment. This obviously implies also having in play an exit strategy for ending the conflict at that level. Escalation dominance, or ability to prevail at the next higher level, is not good enough since prevailing then would be more costly. Therefore, escalation dominance cannot alone inform strategy. De-escalation, conflict end games and exit strategies are equally if not more significant. Doctrine has to evolve in this direction it the military instrument is to retain its relevance. 

Doctrinal recommendation

India needs doing two things: one each at the conventional and nuclear levels. At the conventional level, it needs to supplement Cold Start lite with an explicit Limited War doctrine. Cold Start lite is a useful response to Pakistan’s threatened lowering of the nuclear threshold. It denies Pakistan any reason or legitimacy for going nuclear by pruning objectives. However, as seen in the preceding discussion, there are escalatory possibilities that need to be contended with. This can be done by adoption of an explicit Limited War doctrine. While the current doctrine is taken as a Limited War one, it is not self-consciously one such. That it is a Limited War doctrine is an interpretation, not one that the doctrine itself admits to. The assumption is that that all wars will be limited, an assumption that the test of war might find insufficient. An explicit doctrine would look at competing saliencies up the ‘ladder’ to define prospective ‘exit points’. It will mesh the political-diplomatic with the military, enabling arrival at a military plateau and also de-escalation. Such a doctrine will therefore not be military’s alone, but an NSCS-led product of an ‘all of government’ effort.

At the nuclear level, India prefers to believe that nuclear weapons deter nuclear weapons, and not war itself. It wishes to keep the conventional option open for response to Pakistan’s sub-conventional provocation. However, the onus of choice to go nuclear being with Pakistan means that the nuclear dimension cannot be wished away. A nuclear doctrine posited on ‘unacceptable damage’ means that India opens itself to receiving ‘unacceptable damage’ in return. The ‘unacceptable’ cost has to be weighed against the minimalist aims of Cold Start lite that may have led up to the nuclear juncture. Even if Pakistan pays a higher and no doubt a prohibitive cost, there is no call for India to sustain a cost asymmetric with the original aims. This means that avoiding damage must inform Indian nuclear deterrence thinking rather than the ability and willingness to inflict damage that currently under-grids nuclear deterrence thinking. Inflicting unacceptable damage in return for receipt of unacceptable damage makes eminent sense. Creating the conditions for receipt of unacceptable damage by disproportionate nuclear retaliation amounting to unacceptable damage to lower order nuclear attack(s) makes little sense.

 Therefore, to bring its conventional advantage back into the reckoning India would require ensuring a departure of its ‘operational’ nuclear doctrine from its ‘declaratory’ nuclear doctrine: shifting from ‘massive’ to ‘assured’ retaliation, the degree of retaliation being dependent on nature of Pakistani nuclear first use. This amounts to recourse to the ‘Sundarji nuclear doctrine’ that had envisaged quid pro quo and quid pro quo plus levels of retaliation options. Doing this enables India to think of plausible answers to Pakistan’s Nasr; thereby enhancing nuclear deterrence.

War-gaming this may be useful for the argument. In case of Pakistani terror attack, India may choose Cold Start lite over Cold Start. Cold Start lite in itself is not provocative of nuclear thresholds as is Cold Start per se. However, selective attacks could either meet with Azm e Nau practiced formations that may place victory beyond reach. Or they could be successful, leading to Pakistan’s decision dilemma to either up-the-ante or give in. In the first case, India may be posed the decision dilemma of escalation. This may have nationalist and organisational reasons impelling it; after all India cannot be expected to retreat after its proactive operations suffer a bloody nose. In the second case, Pakistani giving up the fight would be to play into India’s hands since India would be seeking to discredit the Pakistani army. The army seeking a way out may well escalate by either evicting India from its gains or attempting to take territory elsewhere. The competitive mobilisations, with nationalist and media frenzy in the background in both states, will see both cross thresholds unintended at the outset. This may bring Nasr into the equation.

India would then be faced with a nuclear strategy choice of responding at a lower order level or according to the dictates of its declaratory doctrine. Pakistani deterrence in terms of numbers surviving an Indian strike of ‘unacceptable damage’ or ‘massive’ levels cannot be wished away. India would be severely set back and for at least a generation. If this is brought about by terror provocation, one that is not necessarily Pakistani establishment sponsored, then it would be strategic imbecility to expose India to such a strike. Clearly, then India needs a ‘tit for tat’ nuclear response; one informed by the need to keep nuclear war limited with damage avoidance as political rationale.

            It emerges that two areas need working on: limitation at both conventional and nuclear levels as recommended.


The foremost policy relevant conclusion is that India needs to arrive at an explicit Limited War doctrine. Even so, it must be mindful that Limited War has its limitations and the nascent, and perhaps fledgling impulse distancing the military from a default resort to Cold Start in favour of Cold Start lite, should be taken to its logical conclusion. Cognizant of the nuclear-conventional interface, India needs to make the structural changes necessary, in particular the creation of the CDS or permanent COSC in order that orchestration of the military and diplomatic instruments for political ends is made feasible.

Conventional doctrine has been an under-studied field in India. While nuclear doctrine and counter insurgency doctrine, that have aura of urgency, have received attention, conventional doctrine has remained elusive. This owes to the perception that the doctrinal domain is internal to the military. However, the nuclear backdrop makes continuing with this misperception is untenable. Limitation needs to attend both the conventional and nuclear realms of military application. Diplomacy has to be interwoven into the doctrine to enable exploitation of exit points for suitable end games. Clearly, this is easier said than done. What needs doing alongside is to repair foreign relations in a manner as to create a reasonable buffer between the military instrument and its seeming utility as a strategic policy choice. 

* Ali Ahmed, PhD is author of the forthcoming The Doctrine Puzzle: India’s Limited War Doctrine, Routledge India. He blogs at