India has been following a military doctrine which is defined as “a nonaggressive, non-provocative defence policy based on the philosophy of defensive defence.” According to Robert Ladwig between 1981 and 2004, India followed the so-called “Sundarji doctrine.” Under this doctrine, “seven defensive “holding corps” of the Indian Army were deployed near the border region with Pakistan. … The units consisted of infantry divisions for static defence, mobile mechanized divisions that could respond to enemy penetrations, and a small number of armoured units.” The aim of these holding corps was to halt the enemy advance. In case of a war with Pakistan, the three strike corps were to attack “in the Rajasthan sector and penetrate deep into Pakistani territory to destroy the Pakistan Army’s two strike corps (known as Army Reserve North and Army Reserve South) through ‘deep sledgehammer blows’ in a high-intensity battle of attrition.”

The first time limited war as an option was discussed in the Indian strategic circles after the Kargil war 1999. The Kargil conflict which took place only one year after the overt nuclearization of the two countries in 1998 falsifies the assumption that with the introduction of nuclear weapons in South Asia war is no more an option between India and Pakistan. The conflict clearly indicated that despite nuclearization, both can still have armed conflict.

The then Indian defense minister, George Fernandes, was the first Indian leader to articulate the concept of limited war as an option. In January 2000, he stated:

India’s success [in Kargil] was due to the ability of our defence forces to fight and win such a limited war at a time, ground and means of fighting chosen by the aggressor. If India can beat a professional military force equipped with modern firepower, at the ground (with Pakistani forces on dominating heights) and time of Pakistani choice with the initiatives also in their hands, then India can beat Pakistan anytime, anywhere.

This view provided Indian defence establishment a justification to keep a large conventional force and also signal to Islamabad that India can still use force against it if required to achieve its policy objectives.

The limited war debate in India has a very strong group of strategic thinkers believe that this is a very risky proposition and that it can lead to further escalation.

The cold start doctrine of the Indian military: Too cold to start or a real concern?

The “cold start” doctrine was formulated in the wake of the year-long mobilization of the Indian military and its subsequent strategic relocation which was considered a euphemism for failure in achieving the stated objectives of the campaign.

In a post-mobilization analysis, the Indian strategic and defence community realized the flaws in the military doctrine the Indian army was following and came to the conclusion that it was no more useful. Therefore, in April 2004 the Indian army gave the idea of “cold start” doctrine. The aim of this limited-war doctrine was to initiate such a conventional strike against Pakistan that would cause a significant harm on the Pakistan army before the international community could intervene to resolve the dispute.

Courtesy: ZEE News

According to further details, under the cold start doctrine, the Indian army will be divided into eight smaller division-sized “integrated battle groups” (IBGs). To provide highly mobile fire support the IAF and naval aviation will be helping IBGs operations through close air support. The major element of the doctrine will be speed: rapid mobilization of forces to achieve quick victory before the outside powers like the US and China could intervene on behalf of Pakistan. An Indian attack against Pakistan under this doctrine will use maximum firepower and will continue day and night until the military objectives are achieved. In the next war, the Indian army will not aim at cutting Pakistan into two as was the case in its previous military engagements with Pakistan. In fact this time it will, according to Walter Ladwig, aim “to make shallow territorial gains, 50–80 kilometers deep that could be used in post-conflict negotiations to extract concessions from Islamabad.”

The advocates of this doctrine point out a number of advantages of this doctrine: because of the smaller size of the battle groups, the speed and mobilization will increase and at the same time, the duration and the cost of mobilization and logistic requirements will decrease. It is also assumed that the cold start doctrine will keep the war well under the nuclear threshold of Pakistan; hence Pakistan will not have the justification to use nuclear weapons. According to the proponents of the doctrine, Pakistan, when faced by eight thrusts into its territory instead of three, would be hard pressed for options as to where to concentrate its response and is likely to commit mistakes. This will also create problems for its intelligence organizations, and in case as a desperate measure, Pakistan decides to use nuclear weapons against the invading forces, the marching Indian divisions will provide Pakistan with much smaller targets than corps.

India’s cold start doctrine is offensive in nature. Pre-emptive attack is one of the important elements of this offensive policy. To counter any Indian pre-emptive attack, Pakistan may have to retaliate with nuclear weapons. The offensive posture and rapid deployment strategy leaves little time for intervening and mediating and increases the chances of the conventional war turning into a nuclear war. Its military badly harmed and some of its territory captured in the swift multi -pronged strike, it is assumed Pakistan would opt for first use but on its own territory to dislodge the enemy. Contemplation of such a possibility makes the doctrine dangerous for the stability of South Asia.

Can India be utterly sure of the fact that it can undertake a limited conventional operation against Pakistan without crossing Pakistan’s nuclear redlines? Although many Indian strategic thinkers would like to believe that they are aware of Pakistani redlines, the fact remains that they are not.

Walter Ladwig is correct in his assessment that “Given Pakistan’s lack of strategic depth, even small incursions employing the Cold Start doctrine’s bite-and-hold strategy could pressure Pakistan to escalate the conflict. The effects of the security dilemma and the relative incentives to overreact to an opponent’s actions are easily magnified in this relatively compact geographic space.” He continues, “As India enhances its ability to achieve a quick military decision against its neighbour in a future conflict; Pakistan will come under increasing pressure to rely on its nuclear arsenal for self-defence. An operational Cold Start capability could lead Pakistan to lower its nuclear red line, put its nuclear weapons on a higher state of readiness, develop tactical nuclear weapons, or undertake some equally destabilizing course of action.”

The most important question that needs to be asked is what objectives will be set for any strikes under the “cold start doctrine” on Pakistan? And in which geographic area? As Pakistan lacks strategic depth, any strike is likely to threaten Pakistan and prompt it to respond in a way the Indian planners might not be able to contemplate. The cold start war doctrine is a risky proposition because the Indian army, which increasingly regards its political leadership to be spineless and thinks had that not been so they would have finished the “Pakistan problem” a long time ago, could initiate such a situation to prove their point. One has already witnessed this tendency during the 2002 stand-off. Although New Delhi failed to operationalize this doctrine post Mumbai attack crisis, Islamabad considers this a real possibility and a serious threat and has revised its strategy and included tactical nuclear weapons to counter it.

Rizwan Zeb is consulting editor of Pakistan Review. He is also associate editor of the Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs (Sage). He is a former Benjamin Meaker professor, University of Bristol, UK; visiting scholar India-South Asia Project, Foreign Policy program of the Brookings Institution, Washington DC, USA. He specializes in South Asian Security Affairs and has researched and published extensively on Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine, security and learning. Few of his publications on the subject (and used for preparing this article) include Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons: How Safe is Safe Enough? Transparency versus Opacity, Defence and Security Analysis, Volume 30, Issue 3, 2014; Pakistan’s Nukes: How Safe is Safe Enough? Swords and Ploughshares, Vol XVIII / No. 1 / Fall 2010, Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security (ACDIS), University of Illinois; Deterrence Stability, Nuclear Redlines and India-Pakistan conventional Imbalance, Spot Light on Regional Affairs, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, 5, April-May 2009; David versus Goliath? Pakistan’s Nuclear Doctrine: Motivations, Principles and Future, Defense and Security Analysis, Vol. 22, No. 4, pp. 387–408, December 2006. He holds a PhD from University of Western Australia. He also studied at Gordon College Rawalpindi, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan and the Uppsala University, Sweden.