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Col. Virander Kumar was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • September 13, 2011

    ‘Cold Start’ as a military doctrine to deal with Pakistan has occupied a lot of media and mind space in the media and the strategic studies community. What has been hitherto overlooked is the fact that China could well take a page out of India’s Cold Start idea and replicate it along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Given its military presence and the build-up of infrastructure network in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), China appears to have given itself such a capability. It is this apprehension that under girds the calls from the Indian armed forces and the strategic community that the threat be taken seriously and necessary steps taken with utmost urgency. It is therefore imperative that the Rs. 12,000 crore upgrade the military has pitched for, and which the Ministry of Defence has reportedly asked to be revised downwards, be reappraised.

    Whether India is capable of enacting a Cold Start or not is best left to defence planners. However, it may be worth evaluating as to what in this concept could appeal to China. ‘Surprise’ is an important and sometimes decisive aspect of war. Surprise can also be achieved by mentally dislocating the adversary’s thinking. Cold Start is one method of achieving surprise. Considering that the movement of a large force consisting of mechanised elements, i.e. tanks, armoured personnel carriers, self propelled guns, etc., is difficult to conceal in today’s world, one method of achieving surprise is through the choice of place and timing of employment of this decisive force. This flexibility is to be provided by balanced mechanised elements placed close to the border over a large frontage. Thus, limited operations by forward placed and well balanced fighting groups with no or reduced mobilisation time is the crux of the ‘Cold Start’. Though the adversary would generally be aware of the quantum of forces including the mechanised element deployed across the border, quick mobilisation and the choice of the actual objective would be a surprise factor. The main decision dilemma for the adversary would be the use of its reserve forces at the appropriate place before the break out of the main strike element.

    If this concept were to be applied by China in the mountainous region with modifications, how could it be implemented? The employment of a considerable force including Special Forces to cut off the limited axis of maintenance along with tactics of infiltration over a wide frontage all along the border would leave India at the receiving end. This would also give a different dimension to the concept, which is generally associated only with mechanised warfare.

    China’s development of infrastructure across the border is no news. Its defence budget has increased from about $17 billion in 2001 to $91 billion in 2011. Some estimates in fact put China’s actual expenditure at two to two and half times the official budget. In 2010 the US state department’s annual report to the US Congress on China’s military strength had estimated China’s actual expenditure to be $150 billion instead of the announced defence budget of $81.3 billion. Compared to this, India’s defence budget in 2001-02 was $13.5 billion and it has increased only to $36.03 billion for 2011-12. The vast network of roads and railways developed by China in the TAR, which borders India from eastern Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh, splits our response without the possibility of switching forces. In contrast, China can easily mobilise forces comparatively easily within the TAR, thus retaining the flexibility to field a balanced fighting force at a number of places.

    India has large tracts of boundary under dispute with China and the fact that China has resolved boundary disputes with other neighbours indicates that a high level of mistrust continues to strain the bilateral relationship. India remains concerned about China’s close military relationship with Pakistan and its growing foot print in the Indian Ocean, Central Asia and Africa. Further, given the terrain in the Eastern sector and the possible threat of a Cold Start from China imply the building and maintenance of high force levels at a number of places/sub sectors. A recent report of the Pentagon suggests that China, by virtue of its huge military infrastructure build-up in Tibet, is in a position to mobilise more than 30 divisions (each with over 15,000 soldiers) along the LAC within a month, thereby outnumbering Indian forces by a ratio of at least 3:1. The ratio may be much higher considering that selected thrust lines will be used as per China’s choice. The moot question is what would stop China from deploying the additional forces all along the border in a similar fashion as envisaged in India’s ‘Cold Start’ doctrine.

    The Indian military establishment has tried to address the issue by asking the government of India to raise a strike corps consisting of approximately 35,000 troops besides the two other divisions (approximately 30,000 troops) which have already been raised. However, increasing the numbers of troops is only one part of the solution and probably a less expensive measure. At the same time, greater resources need to be deployed in order to develop infrastructure in the difficult areas along the China border. While troop strength can be raised in a time frame of two to three years, infrastructure development to enable sustained military mobilisation and maintenance of the same may take decades. The expenditure for infrastructure development will run into hundreds of thousands of crore. But the reality is that even the proposed expenditure of Rs. 12,000 crore forwarded by the military establishment is yet to be approved. It is imperative that the issue of greater resources is given due importance in accordance with the magnitude and the gravity of the situation both at the MoD and political levels. Continuing the present approach will affect India’s long term interests. The lessons learnt from history must not be forgotten.

    While it can debated whether China is in a position to do a Cold Start or not, its preparation to achieve such a capability cannot be denied. The positioning of a few Sukhoi-30s or even the raising of a strike corps, though a good start, is not sufficient in themselves. Considering the type of terrain, India’s response has to start earnestly and early since it is a time consuming process. The overall development of the Eastern region will not only further the military aim but also improve the socio-economic condition of the region. The bureaucracy has an important role to play in shepherding the military’s recommendations. And the necessary political direction will demonstrate that India is up to the challenge.