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The advantages of ‘Cold Start Minor’

Ali Ahmed was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • December 13, 2010

    The Army Chief’s response to Timothy Roemer that “There is nothing called ‘Cold Start’,” contained in the Wikileaks released missive of the US Ambassador to the State Department, only restates the Army’s position. The Indian Express (09 September 2010) had also reported the Chief as saying the very same thing, There is nothing called ‘Cold Start’.” The media has been quick to pronounce, in the words of one headline, “the collapse of Cold Start’.”

    Lost in the storm in the media tea-cup has been what the Chief has said in addition in both instances. In refuting Roemer, he stated, “We know what has to be done … things (are) in place … We practice our contingency depending on situations. We are confident that we will be able to exercise the contingency when the time comes.” The phrasing is reminiscent of his September 2010 statement: “As part of our overall strategy we have a number of contingencies and options, depending on what the aggressor does.”

    This, though reinforcing Roemer’s conclusion that ‘Cold Start’ has its limitations, indicates that the Army and, by extension, the military, is not without options. In other words, it has already anticipated that Cold Start amounts to conventional war, albeit a Limited War. This, being escalatory, may not be the preferred response to Pakistani sub-conventional provocation. Therefore, it has not deterred Pakistani provocations. What then are the alternatives and would these deter Pakistan any better?

    Military watcher with India Today, Sandeep Unnithan, has outlined what the Chief called ‘contingencies’, and writes: “Army officials confirm that the search is on for a new limited war doctrine that envisages a swift response without the army having to cross borders. It is likely to be 'airpower start', with air force jets joined by naval strikes and artillery assaults across the border.” Where he errs is that Cold Start constitutes the Limited War doctrine. The other options he refers to instead are on the sub-conventional level short of war.

    The Director of the Centre for Land Warfare Studies indicated as much (“India’s Cold Start Doctrine and Strategic Stability,” 1 June 2010), when he stated, “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.”

    This puts the responses on the subconventional and conventional levels in perspective. While India executes its subconventional options, its Cold Start option on the conventional plane serves to deter any escalatory response from Pakistan. This would keep the conflict at the subconventional level, serving India’s and the region’s larger interest of avoiding war. In case Pakistan were to choose the escalatory route, ‘Cold Start’ can pre-empt such a Pakistani reaction. The perceptive Mr. Roemer, and a well-informed Defence Attache, have observed as much in their missive to Foggy Bottom: “Cold Start is not India's only or preferred option after a terrorist attack. Depending on the nature, location, lethality, public response, and timing of a terrorist attack, India might not respond at all or could pursue one of several other possible options.”

    What are these “other possible options”? In case of another Mumbai 26/11, India has the option of ‘airpower start’ or ‘surgical strikes’, supplemented by artillery and naval firepower. Sub-conventional operations have been referred to cryptically in the Army’s Doctrine for Sub Conventional Operations (Shimla: HQ ARTRAC, 2006), thus, “Border skirmishes are also not covered in this document due to security reasons. These will be dealt with in accordance with operational plans of the concerned Commands and Integrated Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence (Army).”

    The Army Chief has said that 43 terrorist training camps exist across the border, of which 22 are in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. These could be targeted not only with firepower but also by sub-conventional operations such as raids or heliborne operations. Additionally, the opportunity is also one for inflicting costs on the Pakistan Army directly. Being the fount of proxy war, it needs to have the perception of impunity ended.

    Doing so may entail tactical operations along the Line of Control. ‘Air alone’ may not be adequate since Army-dominant Pakistan may counter on land. Seizing the initiative on land may entail proactive launch of ‘operations’ not amounting to ‘offensives’. Objectives for these can have defensive or offensive connotations. Defensive objectives would be those that remove vulnerabilities or neutralize Pakistani advantages, such as dominating posts or those with deep observation into own territory. Terrorist launch pads could be taken over. Offensive objectives would be those that pose a threat, that otherwise require to be eliminated in preliminary operations. This way, in case of Pakistani escalatory reaction, these can help further offensives in greater depth.

    That this would come at a price must be reckoned with. Firstly, Pakistani reaction may provoke the launch of Cold Start. With the preliminary measures being taken by India alongside, these could be misinterpreted as more expansive Indian intent, thereby inciting escalation. Secondly, the ceasefire along the Line of Control and Siachen would break down. India has had some benefits in terms of a more alert and active counter-infiltration posture in the absence of firing. Managing an active LoC will consequently be more difficult in light of the heightened infiltration that would inevitably follow.

    Thirdly, the choice of objectives could influence Pakistani reaction. The very resort to a sub-conventional counter, keeping Cold Start in abeyance, indicates that India is not interested in escalation to conventional level. This would require communicating to Pakistan through the nature of contingency plans.

    The principles should be: defensive objectives; military targets; retrieval of forces sent across; strict rules of discrimination for negligible collateral damage; early termination of operations; strategic proportionality; operational balance; and conduct in conjunction with diplomatic and information war offensives. A refinement of plans through the prism of Protocol I of Geneva Conventions, even though India is not a party to these, would help maintain the political high ground, dominate the moral space and prevent military over-extension.

    Even while conveying to the Pakistani military an unmistakable message, it would not alter the political equations in favour of extremists. The increased threat of this possibility would enable the Pakistan Army, seeking self-preservation at the political apex, to settle for an altered reality. It would enable conflict termination at the lowest escalatory level. For a better peace to emerge in a negotiated settlement, diplomats need to get a draft ready with the political masters well in advance. Contingency plans are not quite the military’s own.

    The advantages of such a course of action are many. The government can pre-empt and thereby defuse compulsions of internal politics. Externally, India would announce its arrival as a responsible strategic player. The military is more amenable to control than other less visible prongs that India may employ, unspoken intelligence operations seldom factored in strategic considerations.

    Lastly, workable options short of war, as ‘Cold Start Minor’ suggests, serve as deterrent informed by the logic of ‘leaving something to chance’. It would alert the Pakistan Army enough to impose self-restraint and keep provocations below India’s proverbial ‘level of tolerance’. For these to disappear altogether would require culmination of the peace process, currently somewhat desultory.