You are here

India’s Cold Start Doctrine and Strategic Stability

Brig Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd.) is Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. Click here for details profile [+}
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • June 01, 2010


    India and Pakistan have fought four short wars since independence, including the 1999 Kargil conflict. Though relations at the strategic level continue to be reasonably stable, instability persists at the tactical level. The Pakistan Army and the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate) have waged an unrelenting proxy war against India in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and elsewhere since 1988-89 through mercenary mujahideen belonging to international terrorist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Tayebba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), among others. However, India has steadfastly conducted its counter-proxy war operations within its own territory – mainly to avoid the risk that military strikes across the Line of Control (LoC) may escalate to full-fledged conventional conflict, with the attendant risk of nuclear exchanges. The Indian military leadership nevertheless believes that there is space for limited conventional conflict below the nuclear threshold.

    On December 13, 2001, ISI-backed Pakistani mujahideen had attacked India’s Parliament. This unprecedented escalation in Pakistan’s proxy war had led to widespread demands for punitive retaliatory strikes. Immediate air strikes and limited ground action inside Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) would have sent the right message and would have been acceptable to the international community. However, India’s leaders chose to wait for the Indian armed forces to mobilise fully before initiating punitive action. The three Strike Corps (each comprising one armoured division, two to three infantry divisions and one independent armoured brigade, an artillery division or independent artillery brigade and ancillary support elements) took about three weeks to mobilise because of the long distances at which their major components were located from the border during peace time. By then, substantial international pressure had been brought to bear on India to desist from initiating any offensive action, not the least because the United States and NATO/ISAF forces had launched a campaign against the Taliban to effect a regime change in Afghanistan and needed Pakistan’s support for the logistics sustenance of their forces.

    Quest for a New Doctrine

    After the 2001-02 military stand-off and India’s frustration at not being able to launch a swift military response, the Indian Army began to look for a new doctrine that would enable the country to achieve its political and military aims in a short war without running the risk of crossing Pakistan’s nuclear red lines. The doctrine was premised on two major elements. Certain readjustments were carried out to enhance the offensive operations capability of “Pivot” corps (defensive or ground holding corps), so as to make it possible to launch offensive operations virtually from a “cold start” to deny Pakistan the advantage of early mobilisation. This was to be combined with moving Strike Corps cantonments closer to the border, enabling them to deploy quickly.

    It is believed that the second element of the Cold Start doctrine conceptualises a number of “integrated battle groups” (IBGs; divisional-size forces) launching limited offensive operations to a shallow depth, to capture a long swathe of territory almost all along the international boundary. The success achieved by the IBGs would be exploited by one or more Strike Corps, where possible, but without crossing Pakistan’s nuclear red lines. The captured territory would act as a bargaining chip to force Pakistan to wind down its institutional support to Jihadi elements. The overall aim would also be to destroy the Pakistan Army’s war waging potential through the application of asymmetric firepower from the ground (through long-range medium guns, rocket launchers and surface-to-surface and cruise missiles) and by way of massive air-to-ground battlefield air strikes. The logic behind the generation of massive asymmetries of firepower is simple: since it would be difficult to bring to battle and destroy Pakistan’s strategic reserves (Army Reserve North and Army Reserve South) through deep manoeuvre in a short, limited war, their combat potential can be substantially degraded only through the sustained application of ground-based and aerially delivered firepower.

    Impact on Strategic Stability

    There are many punitive options short of war available to India to raise Pakistan’s cost in waging a proxy war. The Cold Start doctrine is one of them and is a work in progress. The doctrine has been carefully designed to avoid crossing Pakistan’s nuclear red lines through large-scale offensive operations with Strike Corps deep into Pakistan. By limiting the application of force to divisional-sized thrusts across the international boundary, it carefully avoids risking escalation of any future conflict to the nuclear level. Indian military analysts are convinced that when all the elements of the Cold Start doctrine are in place, Pakistan will be deterred from waging its proxy war for fear of effective Indian retribution. However, Pakistani analysts see the Cold Start doctrine as a dangerous doctrine that is inherently escalatory. It has been adversely commented upon by Pakistan’s military and political leaders.

    The Cold Start doctrine is a work-in-being. Its implementation would have major ramifications for strategic stability in South Asia. It would have a stabilising influence in the sense that it will build confidence in the Pakistan Army that India has no desire to dismember Pakistan through large-scale Strike Corps-led offensive operations deep into the country. Its major disadvantage would be that it provides India a viable option for launching low risk shallow-thrust offensive operations in the plains in response to a grave provocation, for example a Mumbai-type terror strike with credible evidence that the perpetrators had the backing of the Pakistan Army and the ISI. While India’s initial military response would probably be limited to the areas across the LoC in Jammu and Kashmir, should Pakistan choose to escalate the situation by launching retaliatory strikes in areas across the international boundary, India may be forced to implement its Cold Start doctrine immediately by launching several divisional-size IBGs into Pakistani territory all across the Western front. This would unhinge the Pakistan Army as it has virtually no counter options.

    The new doctrine may, therefore, be perceived to be destabilising by Pakistanis, despite all the precautions that India might take to avoid crossing Pakistan’s nuclear red lines. Hence, the Cold Start doctrine is a good doctrine from India’s point of view, but one that could adversely impact strategic stability since Pakistan’s nuclear strategy is premised on countering India’s conventional military superiority with a nuclear shield.

    Brigadier (Retd.) Gurmeet Kanwal is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal