Cold start: India’s pro-active offensive operations doctrine for war in the plains

The War College Journal | Aug 4, 2016

The term Cold Start is still being used colloquially, especially in think tanks, and is used to depict India's pro-active offensive operations doctrine in this article. The pre-Operation Parakram doctrine for offensive operations was based primarily on employing the combat potential of India's Strike Corps to advance deep into Pakistani territory to capture strategic objectives and to bring to battle and destroy Pakistan's Army Reserve and Army Reserve so as to substantially degrade its war machinery.

“Cold Start doctrine marks a break with the fundamentally defensive military doctrines that India has employed since gaining Independence in 1947” – Walter C Ladwig lIl

On the Brink of War: Operation Parakram, 2001-02

India and Pakistan have fought four wars since both countries became independent in August 1947, including the Kargil conflict of 1999. While the relationship is fairly stable at the strategic level, it is marked by instability at the tactical level and can be characterised as a classic case of the prevalence of the “stability-instability paradox’.’ Since 1989-90, the Pakistan Army and the ISI have been fighting a proxy war with India through organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) that send trained terrorists recruited by them to “bleed India through a thousand cuts”. Both in 2001 and November 2008, India and Pakistan came close to war due to the impact of major terrorist strikes on sensitive targets.

Soon after the al-Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001, terrorists belonging to the Pakistan based LeT attacked the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) Legislative Assembly at Srinagar in October 2001. This was followed by a partially successful attack by LeT terrorists on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi even as it was in session on December 13, 2001. Indian public opinion was outraged and the government felt compelled to take strong action. On December 16, 2001, the Indian armed forces were ordered to mobilise for war.

Operation Parakram, India’s first full-scale military mobilisation since the 1971 war with Pakistan, brought the two nations close to war on at least two occasions. The first “window of opportunity”, as several Indian analysts have come to call it, presented itself around early January 2002 when the Strike Corps of the Indian Army had completed their lumbering mobilisation. However, the United States (US) and other Western governments stepped in with some astute diplomatic manoeuvres that resulted in General Musharraf ’s commitment in a nationally telecast speech on January 12, 2002, that Pakistan will not permit any terrorist activity “from its soil”. This led India to back off from going to war but the troops remained in place.

The second occasion came after a terrorist attack on the family quarters in the Indian Army garrison at Kaluchak near Jammu on May 14, 2002. By this time the Pakistan Army had also mobilised and was poised in its defences. Several fighting units of Pakistan’s 10, 11 and 12 Corps had been diverted from the Western front, where these had been engaged in the joint fight with the US and NATO forces against the remnants of the Taliban and the al-Qaeda, to the Eastern front against India and it was possible that even large-scale offensive action may have led only to a stalemate. Despite high-pitched rhetoric and sabre-rattling, war did not break out though the armed forces continued to remain in a state of readiness. The orders to stand down were finally given by the Government of India on October 16, 2002, and the 10 month long military stand-off between India and Pakistan came to an end. A mutually observed cease-fire came into effect on November 25, 2003.

Many operational and logistic lessons were learned during the long military stand-off with Pakistan. Perhaps the most important lesson that emerged was the need to reduce the inordinately long time period that India’s three Strike Corps needed to mobilise for war. By the time these elite formations were ready to be launched across the IB, the international community had prevailed on India to give General Musharraf an opportunity to prove his sincerity in curbing cross-border terrorism. The Army has debated the mobilisation challenge for a long time, as brought out in Praveen Swami’s interview with General S Padmanabhan, India’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS) during Operation Parakram.

“You could certainly question why we are so dependent on our strike formations,” he said, “and why my holding Corps do not have the capability to do the same tasks from a cold start. This is something I have worked on while in office. Perhaps, in time, it will be our military doctrine…”

Since then Indian Army planners have worked hard to reduce the mobilisation time and come up with a new doctrine for offensive operations that would achieve the desired military objectives without risking escalation to the nuclear level. After deliberation at length during the biannual conference of the Army’s Commanders-in-Chief in April 2004, chaired by General N C Vij the COAS, the adoption of the “Cold Start” doctrine that is to be executed by “Integrated Battle Groups” was announced. Subsequently, General V K Singh, then COAS, said during a media interview, “There is nothing called ‘Cold Start’. As part of our overall strategy we have a number of contingencies and options, depending on what the aggressor does.” However, the term Cold Start is still being used colloquially, especially in think tanks, and is used to depict India’s pro-active offensive operations doctrine in this article.

Limited War in a Nuclear Environment

On the Indian Sub-continent, conventional war in future is likely to be a point somewhere midway on a continuum that encompasses the almost 70-year old “no war-no peace” low intensity limited conflict along the LoC and the AGPL with Pakistan, as also Pakistan’s ongoing proxy war, and a possible border conflict along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. While a conflict with China will remain confined to the mountains, a conflict with Pakistan could unavoidably spill over to the plains in certain contingencies. Since a future war is likely to spin out of ongoing conflicts on land, it will be predominantly a land battle. Gaining, occupying and holding territory and evicting the enemy from any Indian territory occupied by him will remain important military objectives. It is well recognised by Indian military planners that it will not be possible to conduct a successful land campaign without overwhelming and sustained support from the IAF by way of air-to-ground strikes by Fighter Ground Attack (FGA) aircraft in the contact, intermediate and the depth zones. Only a joint Air-Land campaign can possibly achieve the military objectives of limited war in the Indian context.

Indian political and military leaders and strategic analysts believe that there is clear strategic space for a conventional conflict below the nuclear threshold because nuclear weapons are not weapons of warfighting. They are convinced that for Pakistan it would be suicidal to launch a nuclear strike against India or Indian forces, as it would invite massive retaliation. Soon after the Kargil conflict, then Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes had expressed the view that conventional war can still be fought and that covert proxy wars are not the only option. “Conventional war remains feasible, though with definite limitations, if escalation across the nuclear threshold 1s to be avoided.”

It was in this context General V P Malik, the COAS, had said during a seminar titled “The Challenge of Limited War: Parameters and Options”, held at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, on January 6, 2000, that there is space for offensive operations under the shadow of a nuclear umbrella. Even during limited war, offensive operations need to be planned as only such operations can provide a decision. Offensive operations enable military commanders to impose their will upon the enemy and are designed to achieve strategic and operational objectives quickly and at least cost. Dynamic characteristics are the hallmark of offensive operations and include taking the initiative, the exploitation of emerging opportunities, the maintenance of momentum and tempo and “the deepest, most rapid and simultaneous destruction of enemy defences possible”.

The late General K Sundarji, former Indian COAS, a perceptive military thinker on matters nuclear, wrote in 1992: “If the damage suffered by Indian forces (due to a Pakistan nuclear strike) is substantial, national and troop morale would demand at least a quid pro quo response. There might even be a demand in some quarters for a quid pro quo plus. response.” After almost two decades of Pakistan’s proxy war and particularly after the perfidious intrusions into the Kargil district of J&K in the summer months of 1999, the terrorist strikes at Mumbai in November 2008 and repeated incidents of terrorism since then, the national mood is rather grim. In case Pakistan chooses to cross the Nuclear Rubicon and launches a nuclear strike on India, the Indian Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) will be forced to consider resorting to massive nuclear retaliation on counter-value and counter-force targets. However, it is not a decision that the Political Council of the NCA will take lightly.

Cold Start and Integrated Battle Groups: Re-organising for Offensive Operations

Most Indian analysts believe that it would be prudent to limit offensive action to shallow penetration across the IB so as to avoid the risk of crossing Pakistan’s nuclear “red lines” but that such shallow thrusts must be launched all along the front to maximise both territorial gains and the destruction of Pakistan’s military potential. This must be done early, without waiting for the time consuming mobilisation of the Strike Corps to be completed. As offensive manoeuvre elements that are part of the holding or pivot corps reach their assembly areas, these must be launched early to beat Pakistan’s shorter mobilisation cycle. The need for the Indian Army to be able to mobilise quickly and launch multi-pronged offensives into Pakistan (‘Cold Start’), as well as the need to mass firepower rather than forces when planning to fight in a nuclear environment, prompted the search for some fresh thinking about force structures for offensive operations.

The pre-Operation Parakram doctrine for offensive operations was based primarily on employing the combat potential of India’s Strike Corps to advance deep into Pakistani territory (Figure 1) to capture strategic objectives and to bring to battle and destroy Pakistan’s Army Reserve (North) and Army Reserve (South) so as to substantially degrade its war machinery. As is well known, India has three Strike Corps; that is, the Mathura based 1 Corps, the Ambala based 2 Corps and the Bhopal based 21 Corps. While it was considered prudent to hold back one Strike Corps as a countervailing force and a strategic reserve, it was expected that up to two Strike Corps would be launched across the IB in both reactive as well as pro-active scenarios. This concept was evolved in 1981-82 and tested in Exercise Digvijay when General Krishna Rao was Army Chief. It was further refined during the famous Exercise Brass Tacks IV in 1987 by General K Sundarji as Army Chief and was accepted as the Army’s doctrine for offensive operations in the plains.

The success of deep strikes with Strike Corps is dependent to a considerable extent on a long warning period. The mobilisation process of staging forward the Strike Corps from their peace time locations in Central India by rail and road to first concentration and then assembly areas is laborious. If a fleeting opportunity is to be exploited, the strike formations must be capable of launching an offensive operation from a cold start. Within 72 to 96 hours of the issue of the order for full-scale mobilisation, three to five strike division battle groups must cross the IB straight from the line of march. They should be launching their break-in operations and crossing the “start line” even as the holding (defensive) divisions are completing their deployment on the forward obstacles. Only such simultaneity of operations will unhinge the enemy, break his cohesion and paralyse him into making mistakes from which he will not be able to recover.

To resolve the dilemma of long mobilisation periods, the options available are to either move some cantonments forward and bring these closer to the IB or find suitable means to enhance the offensive combat potential of the holding of pivot corps, or a combination of these two options. As formations of the holding or pivot corps are located much closer to the IB and can be fully mobilised in less than a week, enhancing their combat potential would enable them to commence offensive operations while the main combat echelons of the Strike Corps are still in the process of completing their mobilisation. Each of the holding or pivot corps will need to creatively re-adjust its deployment so as to relieve a division-sized force for offensive operations and will have to be given additional mechanised forces so that they can launch offensive operations virtually from the line of march. This is the essence of the Cold Start doctrine that is to be executed by “Integrated Battle Groups” . It has been boldly conceived and will require methodical execution to be implemented successfully.

According to Brig Arun Sahgal (Retd), “The Cold Start doctrine… (marks) a shift in the Indian Armed forces, in general, and the Indian Army, in particular, from defensive reactive strategic thinking to a more pro-active approach to leverage conventional Indian force superiority by seizing the initiatives early in any confrontation. The doctrine envisages converting holding formations (deployed on defensive tasks on the border) into strong pivot formations capable of providing launch pads for strike formations… the thought process revolves around creating a number of division sized all arms Integrated Battle Groups that could be launched at shortest possible notice (48 to 72 Hrs) from the launch pads or lodgements provided by the pivot formations. Eight to ten such battle groups are envisaged.’’” Another member of the strategic community has written: “The new “Cold Start Strategy” visualises the use of eight ‘Integrated Battle Groups’… (meaning) eight integrated armoured division/ mechanised infantry division sized forces with varying composition of armour, artillery, infantry and combat air support – all integrated.”

Several permutations and combinations are possible to make the Cold Start concept work. One of the options could be to create several division or division-plus size “Battle Groups” of the size and capabilities of Russia’s famed OMGs (Operational Manoeuvre Groups). Each one will need to be specifically structured to achieve designated objectives in the terrain in which it is expected to be launched and yet be flexible enough for two or more of them to be grouped under a Strike Corps HQ to bring to bear the combined weight of their combat power on a common depth objective. Hence, the Strike Corps HQ should be capable of taking under command division size battle groups at short notice to achieve given objectives so as to exploit the success achieved during the initial offensive operations launched by the integrated battle groups. With such planning, both the options, i.e. launching Strike Corps to reach deep objectives and integrated battle groups to reach shallow objectives will remain available to the theatre commanders. In fact, they can begin by launching integrated battle groups at a large number of points across the front and, depending on the prevailing strategic situation, exploit the success of some of these with the Strike Corps.

There is some evidence to suggest that the new doctrine is being seriously tried out to test its efficacy. “Exercise Sanghe Shakti,” held over one week in Punjab in May 2006, was designed to test the Indian Army’s new concept for offensive operations in the plains. This was done in a series of annual exercises that have included Poorna Vijay (2001), Vijay Chakra, Divya Astra (May 2004), Vajra Shakti (May 2005) and Desert Strike (November/December 2005), all of which were aimed at concentrating and coordinating firepower and fine-tuning Army-Air Force joint operations in a strategic setting that was premised on operations in a nuclear environment. The COAS had said during Exercise Vajra Shakti that it had been conducted with a nuclear backdrop, and that battle procedures had been refined and ‘high synergy’ had been achieved with the IAF” Exercise Sudarshan Shakti (2011) was also designed to test the validity of Cold Start and integration with the IAF

According to Brig Arun Sahgal (Retd), “A major advantage accruing from these exercises was increased confidence in the viability of the Army’s Cold Start doctrine and considerable reduction in mobilisation of offensive formations….Army’s Strike Corps managed to reduce days if not weeks in mobilisation time. An additional and extremely important perspective of these exercises was that these were carried out in an environment where nuclear, biological and chemical weapons had been employed, giving the Army much needed operational experience for operating in a contaminated environment.’’

The “pivot” or “holding” Corps have been provided significant offensive capability that is integral to them. According to General J J Singh, the then COAS, “they have been assigned roles, which are offensive as well as defensive… The decision making has been left to theatre commanders, depending on their assessment and evaluation of the situation.’’ If the peace time locations of these offensive formations can be changed to areas that are closer to the western border, these will be in a better position to launch trans-international border operations from the line of march to achieve surprise even as the pivot Corps to which these belong is still in the process of deploying in its defences. Only innovative measures of this type will lead to success in short and sharp future Indo-Pak conflicts that may spill over to the plains.

Concluding Observations

Among US analysts, Walter C Ladwig lists several advantages of the Cold Start doctrine: Divisions deployed on the border can be mobilised more quickly than Strike Corps; division sized offensive thrusts will not seriously risk nuclear retaliation from Pakistan; multiple divisional thrusts could ‘incapacitate’ Pakistan’s decision-making; a larger number of thrusts enhance the probability of achieving surprise; and, in case Pakistan opts to use nuclear weapons, divisions present smaller targets. However, he goes on to write that despite the Indian Army’s intentions, it risks provoking or escalating a crisis on the Sub-continent that could breach the nuclear threshold.
“Cold Start heightens concerns about misperception because the doctrine explicitly seeks to confuse Pakistani forces and disrupt their decision making cycle. Although in conventional war, disorienting the enemy’s leadership is a virtue, in a limited war between nuclear powers, transparency and the clear signalling of intent are required to prevent escalation.”

On balance, the Cold Start doctrine is a good beginning in India’s quest to deter Pakistan from waging its peculiar brand of proxy war through mercenary radical extremists under the shadow of its nuclear umbrella. Conventional conflict between two nuclear armed neighbours must be avoided at all costs. However, the seeds of potential conflict between India and Pakistan are contained in the territorial and boundary dispute over Jammu and Kashmir. It is possible that India’s threshold of tolerance may be exceeded in future and a conflict may again break out in Kashmir. In case such a conflict spills over from the mountains to the plains, the full combat power of the Indian Army must be employed to destroy the combat potential of the Pakistan Army. This aim can be achieved by a skilful combination of offensive operations and offensive defence.

In the coming decades, India’s military genius will lie in finding a suitable via media for launching meaningful offensive operations as well as maintaining strong countervailing forces in a calculated and calibrated manner. The acid test of political guidance and the art of generalship will be to achieve India’s military aims quickly without running the risk of crossing Pakistan’s nuclear threshold, before the international community can blow the whistle for a cease-fire. If this is not done successfully, the next war will be as futile as the last few that India has fought — and may result in some horrific mushroom clouds over the Indian Sub-continent.