Affirm Cold Start as a work in progress or admit that it never left the drawing board. Either would render advantages—operational or political—that six years of ambiguity has not.
Shashank Joshi has a readworthy piece for RUSI on India’s ability—or rather, inability—to fight conventional wars against Pakistan or China, in the light of Gen. Deepak Kapoor’s reported statements in December about planning for a two-front war, and the announcement in 2004 of the equally infamous ‘Cold Start’ doctrine.
Leaving aside, for a moment, whether Gen. Kapoor’s remarks were uttered, accurate or correctly-interpreted (briefly: possibly not, probably not, and definitely not), something does need to be said about Cold Start, which has been the subject of considerable interest and study, particularly outside India. For a quick sampling, see Walter Ladwig in International Security, Shaukat Qadir in the Daily Times, and Dan Blumenthal in The Wall Street Journal.
The main problem with Cold Start is that, well, it’s really No Start. The doctrine was a direct product of the failure of the Indian Army, and especially its armored units, to play a critical role during the border mobilisation of 2002 (Operation Parakram). With the subcontinent nuclearised, and the air force and navy likely to assume enhanced roles in the event of limited wars between India and its neighbours, the army was—rightly—concerned about becoming increasingly irrelevant.
In the six years after Cold Start has been announced, it remains unclear, and unlikely, whether the doctrine has been acknowledged or adopted by the other services, let alone civilian leaders. And unlike Pakistan, or even the United States, where the military exercises considerable control over doctrine, a doctrinal development of this magnitude in India necessitates the active participation of the political leadership. As K. Subrahmanyam writes:
[T]he Indian army chief is not the final authority to decide on the strategy to be adopted in case of any hostilities…Unlike in China, the Indian army does not function under party control with a military commission which excludes the prime minister and has a majority of the military leadership and is dominated by it. In other words, strategic policy-making in India is exclusively a political function and not a military one.
So, we have here an announced doctrine that has not been operationalised and apparently not been bought into outside the army. The national security establishment maintains an ambiguous stance on whether, and how much, Cold Start fits into its strategic planning. Is that a problem?
Yes. For two reasons. First, the army’s armored units have continued to be focused on a doctrine that is unlikely to be employed in the event of even a limited war in a nuclear environment, in which air power is likely to play a greater role in any case. The army clinging to Cold Start is in many respects impractical, and diverts resources and attention from more meaningful and creative endeavours related to its military preparedness.
Second, the political costs of leaving the doctrine announced but unexplained are not insignificant. As is its wont, Pakistan has framed Cold Start as evidence (or is it “literature“?) of imminent Indian plans to initiate hostilities or invade. India also gets questioned unnecessarily by friendly powers for its apparent recklessness in contemplating limited warfare in a nuclear environment.
The responsibility lies with the Ministry of Defence and the national security apparatus, if not the Prime Minister himself, to affirm Cold Start as a work in progress or admit that it never left the drawing board. Either would render advantages—operational or political—that six years of ambiguity has not.
Related: My co-blogger over at The Filter Coffee made similar observations three months ago.