By Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab
There is more to the Indian Army’s (IA) Cold Start doctrine than has been written about. Western analysts view it as the forerunner of nuclear war between India and Pakistan, Pakistani writers decry it as a grave instability factor in an unpredictable relationship, and the US, according to Wikileaks has called it ‘a mixture of myth and reality’. These assessments make the doctrine a revolutionary idea.
However, this is not how the IA views it. For the IA, Cold Start has been an evolutionary process, stemming from Operations Vijay (1999 Kargil conflict) and Parakram (the 10-month military stand-off between India and Pakistan from 18 December 2001 to 16 October 2002). Hence, let alone the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), the highest decision-making body headed by the Prime Minister, the IA has not put its doctrine for clearance of the defence minister either. Interestingly, the army chief in 2004 introduced the doctrine as Cold Start to the media. Once the latter went into an overdrive with interpretations, a panic-gripped IA renamed Cold Start as ‘pro-active strategy’ in 2006, making the distinction that the IA will not cross into Pakistani territory the moment hostilities commence. All it desired was to reduce its war mobilisation time to match that of the Pakistan Army.
But clearly, this is not how the world, especially Pakistan saw it. Calling it provocative and a factor for instability, Pakistan used Cold Start to bolster its preparedness against India. Confirming this, last November during an alumni’s meet at Cooperative Monitoring Centre (CMC) at Sandia Laboratories in the US, one Pakistani defence analyst told the Indian visitors, that Indian Army’s Cold Start doctrine forced Pakistan to work on Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW).
So, even as the IA recoiled from the term, the Cold Start coinage has stuck. It has probably not occurred to the IA that its doctrine is a mix of both: Cold Start along the Line of Control (LC) in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), and pro-active strategy on the International Border (IB). However, instead of being incident-related like the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai at Pakistani Army’s behest, the IA should prepare to initiate war at a time of its own choosing to achieve total surprise. This is to nullify the strategic and operational advantages of the Pakistan Army (PA). At the strategic level, the Pakistan Army (PA) alone decides issues of war (why, when and how) with India, and this, at the operational level, gives it wider choices and options not available to the IA.
The actual potential of the IA doctrine is predicated on two simple truths: Given the preponderance of IA numbers in J&K, a Cold Start is doable there. And, given Pakistan’s elongated geography, as the IA can never match the Pakistan Army’s war mobilisation, it should adopt the pro-active strategy on the IB. While Cold Start is real and not a bogey, the pro-active strategy has serious strategic, operational and even psychological limitations.
What should the government and the IA do? Adopt two phases: Preparatory phase starting now until 2014. By this time the bulk of the US and Nato forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan and a new government after the General Elections would have assumed office in Delhi. Thereafter, commence the conduct phase, if necessary. Meanwhile, the Manmohan Singh government would need to work on the preparatory stage, which involves three actions: strengthen J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah’s hands; start meaningful bilateral talks with Pakistan; and provide critical equipment to the IA. The first requires that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act be gradually lifted from most districts of the state, and talks between New Delhi and the Separatists start which would then encourage them to talk with the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir leadership meaningfully. Simultaneously, New Delhi should reach out to the Pakistan Army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani directly as by 2014 he would have outlived the present civilian leadership there. He matters, and appears to be in agreement with the Musharraf formula for Kashmir resolution, as otherwise the ceasefire on the LC started on 16 November 2003 would not have held. The final action would be to plug operational gaps, especially of the field artillery needed for the Cold Start in J&K, by desired procurements for the IA.
The IA, between now and 2014, should gradually withdraw bulk of its 62 Rashtriya Rifles battalions and three brigades on counter-insurgency duties (nearly 100,000 troops), and pave the way for the paramilitary force (CRPF) and the J&K police to assume CI responsibilities in the state. As part of this responsibility, these forces could subsequently be employed for rear-guard duties and protection of IA’s internal lines in the state, in case of a war with Pakistan. The IA, meanwhile, could use half of its withdrawn CI troops (about three divisions) to occupy a 15km belt along the entire LC, with two defined aims: check infiltration on the LC by additional roving troops, and train for war to achieve Northern Command (responsible for the J&K theatre) war objectives. With three divisions of additional troops at hand, and provided adequate artillery is available in the theatre, what stops the IA from regaining Hajipir bulge from Pakistan in 2014 — provided it is a pre-emptive and not an incident-triggered attack. With Pakistani reserves for its 10 corps (responsible for Kashmir) on the Afghanistan border, and General Kayani focussed there, in 2014, the IA would have adequate troops to undertake another military thrust in Jammu division. While the main thrust could be between Poonch and Chhamb in Jammu, a secondary thrust could be launched into Tithwal-Keran sectors in Kashmir. Kotli could be the firm base for troops assaulting Hajipir. Wouldn’t this be Cold Start?
The capture of Hajipir would deny the shortest 35km link-up between Poonch and Uri to the PA, remove the threat to Gulmarg, and will be a major psychological victory for India. It could be argued that changes on the LC will not be acceptable to the US and the international community as was seen in the 1999 Kargil conflict. The PA then was forced to maintain the sanctity of the LC and withdraw its forces from Indian territories. The attack on Hajipir and elsewhere on the LC will be a different ballgame. Considering that Pakistan, despite repeated assurances, continues to maintain terrorist camps close to the LC, supports infiltration, and has refused to ban Jamaat ud Dawah (the religious umbrella for the Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba) which comprises bulk of outside terrorists in J&K, it is essential for India to close major ingress routes. This alone would demoralise the infiltrators and their Pakistani backers. To capture Hajipir and to straighten other enclaves on the LC that facilitate infiltration is a legitimate Indian aim.
Two questions will crop up: What about the Chinese presence in POK and Ladakh? And, will Pakistan use its nukes? The People’s Liberation Army is unlikely to have a direct role in a J&K limited war between India and Pakistan. As an assurance, the IA could allot and airlift two divisions for the 14 corps sector in Ladakh. To recall, 39 and 6 divisions were airlifted during Operation Trident in 1986 during the Sumdorung Chu crisis by the then army chief, General K. Sundarji against China. To be sure, the IA, after allotting half of the RR troops in J&K along the LC belt, will have the other half (three divisions) for use in 14 corps. The acclimatisation of troops and other operational logistics details could be worked out keeping surprise in mind. If India is careful not to use its air force for the Hajipir operation, the PA will be in a dilemma to expand the war beyond J&K. As far as nukes are concerned, the possibility of their use by the PA in J&K theatre (Called Azad Kashmir in Pakistan) is remote. There will, after all, be no threat to Pakistani mainland, and GHQ Rawalpindi will be averse to loosing Kashmiri people’s sympathy for Pakistan permanently.
Once the war spills over to the rest of India (if indeed it does), the IA’s pro-active strategy will come into play with best military options available (by re-capturing Chicken’s neck, IA’s 10 division of 16 corps could seriously threaten the southern flank of Pakistan’s 10 corps) on the so-called ‘Working Boundary’ by Pakistan, the area between Chhamb and Sialkot which is a traditional battlefield. This has become feasible with the creation of IA’s south-western command, and raising of 9 corps as part of the western command.
What is the pro-active strategy? Instead of the counter-offensive strategy that the IA has traditionally employed against the PA, which with the advantage of operating on interior lines of communications can mobilise its holding and offensive formations simultaneously, the new strategy as the name implies will be pro-active or offensive in conduct. It will have three elements. One, the holding corps, which have been re-named pivot corps and have been provided with enough combat punch, will have the ability to be launched within 48 to 72 hours, establish a bridge-head and break-out to shallow depths (10 to 15km) along the entire IB. Meanwhile, eight battle-groups (each battle-group will be a division size self-contained force around an armoured brigade) drawn from the three strike corps will be launched within 96 hours in an escalatory mode. The battle-groups will build up on the successes of the pivot corps and go deeper into enemy territory depending upon the theatre of operations. Finally, the strike corps, while retaining enough combat capabilities after shedding the combat groups, and with its command and control and ethos intact, will get up to seven days to decide (depending upon how the war progresses and how soon and where the PA decides to launch its offensive formations) from where to be launched. Once launched, the strike corps will take under its command all elements of the battle-groups and pivot corps available along the axis. During peace-time, however, the IA’s strike corps, 1, 2 and 21 train with the south-western, western and southern commands respectively. The IA is also considering having an army’s strategic command to centrally hold long range potent firepower assets like BrahMos, and conventional ballistic missiles including Prithvi and Prahaar required for the depth battles.
This is the theory part. In actual practise, there are innumerable hurdles for successful implementation of the pro-active strategy. Let’s take nuclear weapons. The PA is in complete control of its nuclear weapons, which include TNW with sub-kilo ton yields. In stark contrast, the military in India is not in the nuclear weapons loop. A defence service chief who attended the meeting held by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh three days after the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai to discuss the military option against Pakistan confirmed to FORCE that nuclear weapons were not discussed. Army commanders never discuss nukes in war-games and whenever asked they are content to say that nuclear aspects would be taken care of by the government. As India’s civilian leadership is ignorant about military matters, it will be hesitant to accept the nuke red-lines drawn by the IA for conventional war-gaming against Pakistan. On government pressure, the IA red-lines will be less than 15km even in the desert theatre where possibilities of deeper ingress exist. All plans and hopes of the IA undertaking the manoeuvre war to operational depth are unlikely to fructify.
What if the PA uses TNW to stop a major Indian advance? It is unlikely as the PA nearly matches the IA at the operational level of war in critically important theatres on the IB for a short and intense conflict. This is also proof that the PA will not use its nukes early in a war, certainly not in the first week of war by when intense international pressure for ceasefire would come to bear on both sides. Thus, all analysis in the academia on the declaratory and employment policies of India and Pakistan need not be taken seriously.
By default, not being in the nuclear weapons loop, it is good that the IA does not consider nukes in its pro-active strategy. But, it has four serious operational level shortcomings. One, the pro-active strategy demands enormous operational flexibility like swift switching of forces across corps zones, rapid attachment and detachments of forces, bold and not piecemeal induction of troops into the contact battles, and importantly, the need for higher army leadership to curb its tendency to run tactical battles by sidestepping operational commanders. This requires a leadership at all levels of high intellect and character capable of directive style of command.
Two, the IA lacks across the board wherewithal to implement the pro-active strategy. From artillery, to armour, infantry combat vehicles, air defence, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, night fighting, adequate missile and ammunitions, there are glaring deficiencies. According to a media report, the IA needs Rs 41,000 crore to meet its existing operational needs. Unfortunately, senior army commanders suffer from the national malady of bragging. Hence, it is safe to conclude that they usually have 50 per cent of what they claim. For example, when pushed to the wall during the 1999 Kargil conflict, the then army chief, General V.P. Malik told the media that the IA will fight with whatever it has. It did not have much as large numbers of artillery was brought to the Kargil sector from other theatres (obviously taking a grave risks). Moreover, overnight aircraft were sent to Russia and Israel to procure spares and ammunition. Had the PA been prepared to enter into a full scale war, FORCE believes that the IA would not have fared well.
Three, work on the required infrastructure and strategic movements are half-hearted. The need to have forward accommodation for battle groups which are to join the war early has not commenced. This makes one wonder if the IA has indeed finalised its pro-active strategy and sealed the finer details. Similarly, there appears tardy progress on the finalisation of troops and equipment movement by Indian railways (rolling stocks) and private road transports. During Operation Parakram, while the mobilisation was ordered on 18 December 2001, troops were ready only around 8 January 2002. Besides Rs 8,300 crore, 130 soldier’s lives were lost in the rush to get ready for war. This is an unacceptably high price to pay. There is both a need for better standing operating procedures and timely availability of rolling stock if the IA is to meet its time lines. And lastly, the IA could do a lot more to improve its training ethos.
Probably, the most important thing required to execute the pro-active strategy is the need for an offensive mind-set amongst commanders. IA commanders especially at higher levels have a defensive outlook. This has to do with over two decades of successful counter-insurgency operations in J&K and elsewhere. The fence erected in 2004 along the LC adds to the siege mentality. When there are laurels, honours and promotions to be garnered in counter-insurgency operations, why would any commander stick his neck to go offensive for the command and corps war objectives in J&K? The IA takes pride is saying that its soldiers are trained for all theatres of war. Is an officer who has won medals fighting terrorism in J&K motivated enough to think aggressively of taking the war deep inside Pakistan, is the question that requires introspection.
Given such limitations, is the pro-active strategy a bogey? No. Even if it fails to deliver the desired results, it would strengthen a holding operation on the IB for the Cold Start to be successfully executed in J&K. It is not important if the IA moves a few kilometres inside Pakistani territory, but it should straighten the enclaves and bulges that favour infiltration on the LC. This is worth fighting for.