Being Unserious

Why threats of Cold Start and TNWs are mere rhetoric

Pravin Sawhney

The Indian media loves referring to Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW) just as their Pakistani counterpart relish citing Indian Army’s Cold Start doctrine. These terms make sensational front-page stories.


One such incidence happened with the Indian Air Force (IAF) chief, Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa at his media interaction on October 5. Asked how India would tackle Pakistan’s TNW, the air chief said, “We have a draft nuclear doctrine which will take care of nuclear weapons.” After a pause, he added, “The Indian Air Force has the capability to locate, fix and strike targets across the border.”

Except for one newspaper, all others reported the next day that ACM Dhanoa had confirmed the ability to locate, fix and target Pakistan’s TNW. Well, he did not really say that; in his exuberance or naivety, he allowed the media leeway to quote him out of context. Much on expected lines, Pakistan’s foreign minister Khawaja Asif, who was in Washington, felt obliged to warn India of ‘dire consequences’ adding that ‘nobody should expect restraint from Pakistan either’.

Cold Start and TNW are globally recognised terms, but they have different connotation in the context of India and Pakistan. Cold Start was first mentioned in 2004 to the media by the then Indian army chief, General N.C. Vij. He did this without consulting the government and the air force, because, within months, once the import of what he had said sunk in, Cold Start was re-named ‘pro-active strategy’, which is what it was. But the damage had been done, which we will discuss later.

Cold Start meant instant crossing over into enemy territory once the decision to wage war was taken. Cold Start implied surprise, suggesting that war preparedness existed to maintain the swift tempo of operations. Given Pakistan’s elongated geography and high-profile assets close to the border, it was bound to ring alarm bells in Pakistan.

The proactive strategy, on the other hand, is meant to reduce the Indian Army’s war mobilisation time, and retain the element of surprise with phases of offensive actions crafted to unhinge the enemy so that it makes wrong operational assessments and commits its reserve forces (strike or offensive formations) early in war which could then be decimated by air and land firepower.

Unlike Pakistan, India has a problem in mobilisation of its strike formations — a consequence of geography. Since Pakistan operates on interior lines, it can mobilise its holding or defensive formations to move into battle locations in 72 to 96 hours. Its strike formations can be mobilised for crossing the border simultaneously. This is not the case with India.

Given India’s sub-continental size, the Indian Army operates on exterior lines of communication with its strike formations spread across the hinterland. While it can mobilise its holding formations in 72 to 96 hours, the strike formations would take between 10 to 15 days. Historically, this provided a tremendous advantage to Pakistan in the initial stages of war. However, the problems will be accentuated as any war is expected to be intense and short (lasting no more than two weeks) since international pressure for a ceasefire on account of nuclear weapons would be enormous.

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