Taking ‘Cold Start’ out of the freezer?

General Bipin Rawat’s reference to Cold Start raises vital questions about what he means by the phrase and whether he was authorised to speak on the matter by the government

January 11, 2017 12:04 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:05 pm IST

Illustration: Surendra

Illustration: Surendra

In a w ide-ranging interview with India Today , the new Chief of Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat , appeared to drop a bombshell by acknowledging the existence of the army’s Cold Start strategy. Many defence analysts presumed the army had abandoned this limited war concept altogether, or narrowly focussed on streamlining mobilisation while still maintaining the fundamental Strike Corps organisation and doctrinal concept. Either Gen. Rawat has dispensed with 15 years of semantic gymnastics and simply referred to these “proactive strategy options” by their more common nomenclature, Cold Start, or, the Indian Army has been quietly reorganising its limited war concept along more aggressive, and offensive, lines with little fanfare. The government would be wise to clarify Gen. Rawat’s statements. Ambiguity surrounding Cold Start , which incurred real diplomatic and security costs for India without delivering deterrence benefits, did not advance the country’s interests when it was first announced, and such uncertainty is unhelpful today.

Pakistan-centric retaliatory option

What is Cold Start? At heart, it is part of the army’s attempt to develop a useable, conventional retaliatory option that punishes Pakistan for terrorist attacks against India without triggering wider conventional or nuclear escalation. In its more aggressive formulations, it was believed the aim was to create division-sized formations that could rapidly mobilise and carry out short-notice, retaliatory offensives of limited duration to quickly seize and hold Pakistani territory, while simultaneously pursuing narrow enough objectives to deny Islamabad a justification to escalate the conflict by opening additional conventional fronts or to employ nuclear weapons.

The perceived failure to mobilise the army’s Strike Corps in a timely fashion after the December 2001 attacks on Parliament was the impetus for Cold Start, and its official status has been the subject of extensive debate and controversy since it was first discussed in 2004. The idea originated with the army and has been publicly debated in think-tank circles, but it has never been formally accepted by the Indian government, which has repeatedly denied its existence. In 2010, the then Army Chief, Gen. V.K. Singh, declared point-blank that Cold Start did not exist. However, he did note ambiguously that the army possessed a “proactive strategy” for responding to Pakistan. This presumably referred to the conversion of IX-XII Corps near the border from defensive “holding” corps to formations called “pivot” corps which could more quickly undertake limited offensive operations while the main Strike Corps elements surged from the interior of India over several weeks.


Despite its lack of imprimatur, Cold Start has significantly shaped security dynamics on the subcontinent. For a brief period, Indian security managers might have believed that the ambiguity surrounding the concept’s status and the Indian Army’s ability to implement it generated enough uncertainty in the mind of Pakistani decision-makers to deter their support for militant attacks within India. This thesis was disproved, however, by the audacious 2008 Mumbai attacks and its aftermath. At the same time, the “threat” posed by Cold Start has been repeatedly cited by Pakistani authorities as proof of India’s hostile intentions and hegemonic designs. This, in turn, has provided a justification for Pakistan to build up, and build out, its nuclear forces, both increasing the sheer size of its nuclear arsenal (which carries its own risks of theft and nuclear terrorism) and developing lower-yield nuclear warheads and short range missiles, so-called tactical nuclear weapons, which are aimed at deterring — or in the worst case, defeating — a limited Indian military incursion.

Can India pull it off?

Although Pakistan has responded as if India has an aggressive limited war strategy, there is no public evidence that India remotely has the capability to adopt or execute such a doctrine. It is one thing to carry out a raid across the Line of Control with a handful of commandos. It is quite another to undertake a major cross-border incursion by armoured formations that seeks to capture Pakistani territory.

The army simply lacks the materiel and organisation to implement the more aggressive versions of Cold Start. It is not at all clear, for example, that the Indian Army at present possesses sufficient superiority in numbers of troops and armoured vehicles in the vicinity of the International Border to be able to overcome the Pakistan Army’s defensive and geographic advantages in a short conflict. Indeed, the large number of obsolete tanks and artillery pieces, not to mention critical shortages of ammunition and air-defence assets raises serious questions about the army’s ability to implement a Cold Start-style operation at all. Furthermore, sustaining offensive operations in Pakistan requires joint operations with the air force. Not only does the Indian Air Force lack the kind of close air support capability Cold Start would require, but army-air force cooperation is also beset by inter-service dysfunction. This has put India in the worst possible strategic position: claiming a capability that it does not have, but which provides justification for Pakistan’s aggressive expansion of its conventional and nuclear forces. Such an approach has rarely served a nation’s security interests.


A case for clarity

On balance, the formally unacknowledged limited war strategy has created more problems for India than it has solved. In this vein, Gen. Rawat’s comments appear to represent a puzzling reversal. Yet it raises the important question of what he meant by “Cold Start”. Was he simply dispensing with the euphemism of “proactive strategy options” and referring to India’s somewhat streamlined, retaliatory, mobilisation procedure — but no real doctrinal shift — as Cold Start? Or did he specifically mean that the Indian Army is indeed prepared to undertake multiple, short notice, armoured thrusts into Pakistan to seize and hold territory, representing a real doctrinal shift? More importantly, was Gen. Rawat given political authorisation to speak on the matter by the government or was he speaking too loosely? Cold Start’s status has been murky in part due to the fact that it is an army concept that has never publicly received approval from the country’s political leadership. It is important for Indian security to know if that has changed.

It is understandable that, in the wake of the September 29 surgical strikes, the Modi government would want to signal to Pakistan that all options are on the table in the event of another terror attack within India. However, if reviving Cold Start is part of that effort, it may markedly escalate tensions in bilateral relations with Pakistan without necessarily delivering a clear benefit, since there is still no evidence that India has the required capabilities to implement anything resembling Cold Start.

The term “Cold Start” has thus become one of the Indian Army’s biggest liabilities. The perception that its most aggressive form exists is the gift that keeps on giving to the Pakistan Army, which uses it to justify a rapid expansion of its conventional and nuclear forces. But given the wide range of operational concepts that the phrase “Cold Start” could refer to, casually invoking it without possessing the requisite capability to implement this perceived version continues to put India at a strategic disadvantage. It is time for both the army and the government to clarify what precisely its conventional doctrine is — not with bold euphemisms such as “Cold Start,” but by identifying its operational and strategic objectives and how it fits into India’s larger strategy to deter major militant attacks on the homeland. History is littered with tragic examples where discrepancies between perceived doctrine and actual doctrine have caused minor skirmishes to escalate into major wars. The continued loose talk of the so-called Cold Start doctrine puts South Asia in the unfortunate situation that it may be the next case, and this time with nuclear weapons in the mix.

Walter C. Ladwig III is a Lecturer in international relations at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Vipin Narang is Mitsui Career Development Associate Professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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