Exit Points and the Updation of Cold Start Doctrine

April 22, 2009

The Army Commander’s conference is a much looked forward to biannual feature in the strategic calendar. The occasion, and like conferences in the other two services, is used by the forces, among other things, to sensitise the nation as to their preparedness and important decisions taken and measures underway. In April 2004, a major initiative of the Army was communicated, that of adoption by the Army of the Cold Start doctrine. Gen Vij had released the Army doctrine in the public domain as a two part document with one part for very restricted circulation and the other for wider dissemination. A background briefing by an army source to the media led to its being dubbed the ‘Cold Start’ doctrine, perhaps on account of the contents of the classified part. Over the years, Cold Start has acquired substance and has come to imply the Army’s readiness for offensive operations from a standing start, thereby the term ‘Cold Start’.

The Foreword to Indian Army Doctrine by then Army Commander, Army Training Command, mentions that it is to be updated every five years and reviewed every ten years. The Army Commander’s conference due this April end is of interest for the reason that it is now five years since promulgation of the Army doctrine. The lessons of most recent and severe test so far - of 26/11 - have no doubt contributed to updation likely underway as mandated. However, one issue requiring inclusion in the section on ‘End States’ that may not find mention is on how pressure involving all instruments of national power is to be orchestrated to bring about favourable conflict termination. Though the doctrine is service specific, it would do for the services and the government to flesh out the concept of ‘Exit Policy’ so thoughtfully included in the doctrine’s chapter on ‘Elements for Operational Success’.

The Army for its part is sensitive to the fact that military means are only one among many instruments at the State’s disposal directed at the political objective, such as political, diplomatic, psychological, economic and soft power resources. The doctrine describes ‘conflict termination’ as ‘the point at which the principal means of conflict shifts from the use of force to other means of persuasion’ and exhorts commanders to plan for the same when developing campaign plans. Since this is a politico-military exercise, the specifics have understandably not figured in the document. The remainder of this comment dwells on the concept further since conflict termination short of the nuclear threshold is critical to conflict between nuclear powers. While Cold Start is about getting into the conflict, equal attention has not been given to how to extricate from one. This is important in light of predictions regarding possible future 26/11 type attacks with the deteriorating situation in Pakistan.

The passage on ‘Exit Policy’ perceptively reads: ‘Victory may not always be an appropriate term to describe the desired outcome of an operation; it may have to be defined in other terms such as reconciliation, stabilisation (acceptance of the status quo) or acceptance of an agreed peace plan.’ This indicates that the Army has wisely jettisoned the concept of ‘decisive victory’ that had figured in its pre Shakti tests doctrine of 1998, Indian Army – Fundamentals, Doctrines, Concepts. Aware that in case ‘such acceptance is hesitant or reluctant, the prospect is of protracted involvement’, there is a definite need for greater reflection on how to bring this about. As the unending Operation Enduring Freedom has shown, protraction could prove prohibitively costly in terms of resources, reputation and lives.

In the Cold Start scenario, a concept of Exit Points at various stages of the conflict could be thought through. Cold Start envisages multiple thrusts across a broad front by pivot corps offensive resources, supplemented by strike corps resources stationed closer to the border, in division sized combat groups in a seamless continuum between mobilization and attack. Later strike corps offensive resources from cantonments further in depth are to foray deeper, again without a discernible hiatus. Since the Limited War doctrine calls for limitation in war aims in light of the nuclear backdrop, communication of these to the adversary persuasively would be necessary simultaneously with military measures applied in a ‘carrot and stick’ duet. The exit points are the circumstances in time and space at which the effort is to culminate for a particular exit point.

Exit points can be of the following possible types. The first exit point would be prior to launch of Cold Start offensives, in which the threat of war inherent in the crisis is utilized to extract the required concessions from the enemy. This was in evidence in early Jan 2002 in which the imminence of war brought about the speech of General Musharraf changing course on support for terror. The second exit point, ‘Early Exit Point’, is on launch of pivot corps offensive resources in the first phase of attacks after launch of Cold Start. The threat of escalation is required to be manipulated to bring about the necessary concessions. This is the preferred exit point in that the offensives, being of limited weight, would not be overly threatening. The next exit point that could be called ‘Late Exit Point’ is after launch of strike corps offensives into and beyond operational depth. This would be a critical juncture as Pakistan would likely take to nuclear signaling at this stage to stall further Indian penetrations. In case of recalcitrance of Pakistan, conventional war may continue and so must efforts at conflict termination. In this avoidable phase of the war, the exit point should be prior to threatening of a vital interest by advancing pincers. This could be called the Absolute Exit Point in deference to the likely progress of the war along the nuclear direction in case the objective is invested or captured. The last exit point, the Ultimate Exit Point, is in the immediate wake of a nuclear exchange terminating the exchange definitely and possibly also the conflict at the lowest stage of the nuclear ladder.

Having seen the multiple entry points of conflict termination efforts in an unfolding conflict, the national power resources must be so directed as to impact decision makers on the opposite side to come to terms at those junctures. Politically, the terms and conditions should be such as to be politically acceptable to the other side, even while not sacrificing own national interests. Diplomatically, they should enable face saving. The back channel needs to be activated for communicating the bottom line and discussing the terms. Along side even as the nuclear readiness levels are heightened as per the standard operating procedures, intent to abide by NFU (No First Use) pledge must be explicitly conveyed through existing CBMs (Confidence Building Measures) as the hotline between the foreign secretaries and the Military Operations directorates. Information War techniques must be employed to sensitise the other side that things could spin out of control or get better depending on the attitude to the terms taken by the leadership.

Such orchestration would of necessity be under time constraints. This means that the measures and time lines should have been thought through earlier in synchrony with the phase of military operations. This is a peace time activity involving the National Security Council, the Head Quarters Integrated Defence Staff and the service headquarters. Multiple channels to convey the twin menace and agreeableness in the message must continue to be operational through the war. These include existing diplomatic missions, good offices of friendly foreign states, states with influence such as China, back channels, Track Two networks and the official spokesperson. This exercise would be particularly fraught given the crisis environment, internal power centers speaking in multiple voices, and the requirement of security of decision makers in Nuclear Command Posts requiring them to be out of the public eye. It is on this account that operating procedures need to be worked out in advance so that the end game of Cold Start, that otherwise is only about the beginning, is not lost sight of. As the doctrine reminds us, 'disengagement from war is difficult because it develops its own dynamic and pace, which in themselves are unpredictable and could spin out of control.'

War is not only about joint war fighting but is an exercise of national power including non military instruments. The imperative to preclude nuclear first use by Pakistan that does not subscribe to NFU, would require getting it to acknowledge the gains in acceding to eminently reasonable Indian demands to traversing into the nuclear unknown. This would require maximizing of national power resources at pre-identified key exit points. Therefore, discussion of updating of the Cold Start doctrine cannot be in isolation or internal to the Army alone. The doctrine has provided the conceptual entry point. It is for the MOD and the NSC to take it to the logical conclusion.