While the details of India’s Cold Start Doctrine (CSD) have been kept ambiguous, its existence has been the worst-kept secret since its inception in 2004. The term “cold start” is of colloquial origin and was not used in the 2004 publication Indian Army Doctrine, with the Army itself preferring the term “Pro-Active Doctrine.” Hence, until this January, when the new Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat called the doctrine by its better known name, its existence was unconfirmed. With the naming ceremony coming to an end, it is perhaps time to move on to the larger question of how Pakistan has responded to CSD, about which there has been precious little debate in the public forum in India. Slowly but surely, Pakistan has devised a conventional response to CSD, even as India’s myopic threat assessment remains focused on the nuclear developments.
The genesis of CSD lies in the squandered hope for peace that overt nuclearization in the subcontinent had ignited. Despite India and Pakistan testing nuclear weapons in 1998, the Kargil War in 1999 and the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 showed that nuclear weapons could not stabilize the region — quite the contrary. In the wake of the attack on the parliament, India launched Operation Parakram, which entailed military mobilization along the Line of Control (LOC) and the International Border. However, the operation could not achieve its objective as it took a month for Indian troops to mobilize, by which time Pakistan had counter-mobilized and international pressure had built to de-escalate. Learning its lesson, the Indian military changed its doctrine from a defensive one to a more offensive posture by adopting the Cold Start Doctrine, with the objective of finding space for a limited conventional war under the nuclear umbrella. By bringing about structural and organizational changes in line with CSD, Indian army planned to mount an attack within a short time frame in case of grave provocation.
Pakistan’s response to CSD has been two-fold — the induction of tactical nuclear weapons in a bid to lower its nuclear redlines, while shoring up its conventional capabilities. Its view of CSD is informed by the golden rule: hope for the best, prepare for the worst. On the one hand, Pakistan asserts Cold Start is an unviable plan as India lacks the capability and initiative to implement it; on the other hand, Islamabad eyes with suspicion Indian military spending and military modernization, arguing that such actions threaten to fuel an arms race between the two neighbors.
While Pakistan’s nuclear response to CSD has dominated the narrative, it is the conventional response that was devised first. In the last few years of General Musharraf’s presidency, especially between 2004 and 2007, India and Pakistan were engaged in backchannel negotiations and came tantalizingly close to finding a solution to the Kashmir issue. Then the 2007 Lawyers’ Movement forced Musharraf out of power and a new leadership took charge. With General Kayani as the new chief of army staff, the threat from India came back into focus, and so did the perceived risk of CSD. Given India’s military capability and its declared Cold Start Doctrine, Kayani believed that Pakistan could not afford to let its guard down as the country prepared according to “adversaries’ capabilities, not intentions.” He went on to give his assessment of the timeline by which India would be able to operationalize CSD — two years for partial implementation and five years for full — betraying the urgency he attached to a counter-response.
Between 2009 and 2013, the Pakistan Army conducted military exercises codenamed Azm-e-Nau to formalize and operationalize a conventional response to CSD. At its conclusion, Pakistan adopted a “new concept of war fighting” (NCWF) that aims to improve mobilization time of troops and enhance inter-services coordination, especially between the Army and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). To this end, Pakistan Air Force’s aerial exercise High Mark was conducted alongside Azm-e-Nau III in 2010, which saw the participation of over 20,000 troops from all services in areas of southern Punjab, Sialkot, and Sindh along Pakistan’s eastern border with India. The 2010 exercises were the largest conducted by the Army since 1989. PAF’s exercise High Mark, conducted every five years, synchronizes the Air Force’s response with Army maneuvers, covering a vast area from Skardu in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south. As per military sources, with the implementation of the NCFW, the Pakistan Army will be able to mobilize even faster than India. This should worry India as CSD’s raison d’etre lies in the short reaction time it requires to launch an offensive. If Pakistan is indeed able to mount a counter-offensive even before India fires the first shot, literally and figuratively, it blunts the effectiveness of the Indian military doctrine.
The seriousness with which Pakistan is pursuing its conventional force build-up can be inferred from the military acquisitions made since it initiated the military exercises to validate NCWF. As per SIPRI data, there has been a sharp increase in military expenditures by Pakistan to acquire armaments, with 2010 being the peak year. In the seven year period between 2010 and 2016, there was a 58 percent increase in total expenditures compared to the years from 2003 to 2009. The categories that saw the sharpest increase were aircraft, armored vehicles, and missiles, all of which enhance conventional war fighting capability, as opposed to counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations. While expenditures on armored vehicles went up 76 percent, purchases of aircraft and missiles saw a whopping increase of 114 percent and 127 percent, respectively.
The security community in India should re-assess the efficacy of CSD in the face of developments across the border. By taking into account both the conventional and nuclear response by Pakistan, India needs to ponder whether course-correction would suffice or whether its time to go back to the drawing-board.
Meenakshi Sood is a researcher with the Center for Land Warfare Studies (the Indian Army’s think tank) in New Delhi, India. She holds an MPhil and MA in International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University.