Is the Indian Military Capable of Executing the Cold Start Doctrine?
How quickly can India mobilize and coordinate an armored thrust into Pakistani territory?
The Indian Army’s so-called Cold Start doctrine (CSD), also known as Pro-Active doctrine, a doctrine geared toward swift offensive operations into enemy territory, will be war-gamed in February, followed by field exercises in May, according to Indian media reports. News of the war games and military exercises earlier this month were followed by the test of the nuclear-capable Nasr close-range ballistic missile by the Pakistani Army Strategic Forces Command in late January. The development and deployment of the Nasr is seen by many analysts as a direct response to India’s plans to implement Cold Start in the event of conflict with Pakistan.
For a long time, India officially denied the existence of CSD. However, in January 2017, Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat for the first time publicly acknowledged the doctrine in an interview: “The Cold Start doctrine exists for conventional military operations. Whether we have to conduct conventional operations for such strikes is a decision well thought through, involving the government and the Cabinet Committee on Security.”
The remarks came as a surprise to many given that the Indian Army had apparently scrapped its limited war concept following then Chief of Army Staff General V.K. Singh’s public announcement that CSD did not exist, although he did acknowledge that the Indian Army possessed a “pro-active strategy” for war with Pakistan. Islamabad in response began building low-yield tactical nuclear weapons. Additionally, to bolster its deterrence posture, Pakistan continues to refuse to adopt a no-first use nuclear doctrine.
Cold Start was reportedly devised following the Indian Army failure to mobilize quickly in response to the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. India’s mobilization along the so-called Line of Control (LOC) in Kashmir, codenamed Operation Parakram, occurred at a slow pace and it took three weeks for the Indian military to move 500,000 troops and three armored divisions and support units (the so-called strike corps) to the border. (The Indian military also sustained around 400 casualties during mine-laying operations.)
The delay allowed the Pakistan Army to mobilize and move 300,000 troops including its own two strike corps, the Army Reserve North and Army Reserve South, to the contested border. Lacking strategic surprise, the Indian military withdrew after a 10-month standoff. In after action reviews, the military concluded that the size of the strike corps made them difficult to maneuver and that the lack of offensive capability of the so-called holding corps was a serious handicap for quick military actions against Pakistan.
As a result, CSD was developed by the Indian Army in 2004 to facilitate smaller scale, rapid, and decisive conventional offensive operations into Pakistani territory in the event of Pakistani-sponsored asymmetrical attack on Indian soil before the international community can actively intervene, and before Pakistan would feel compelled to launch nuclear retaliatory strikes to repel an Indian invasion. It is still unclear what CSD specifically entails, and senior Indian officers have on purpose remained ambiguous about it.
It appears that offensive operations in the spirit of CSD were carried in September 2016 when India conducted “surgical strikes” against terrorist camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The operation involved a heliborne unit and Indian Special Operations Forces, which, given Pakistan’s strong air defenses in the region, made some analysts skeptical about the precise nature of the operation. (Notably the Indian government decided not to implement CSD-type operations following the 2008 Mumbai attacks).
Yet in its purported classical (and most ambitious) conception, India’s limited war strategy under CSD calls for armored thrusts into Pakistani territory supported by mechanized infantry formations and air power within 48-72 hours at the outset of a military confrontation with Islamabad. These Blitzkrieg-style operations would heavily depend on close coordination between the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force given the pivotal role close air support and overwhelming conventional firepower would play in such a campaign.
Consequently, to make this invasion force nimbler and easier to coordinate, a complete reorganization of the Indian Army was envisioned. First, the army would strengthen its holding and pivot corps stationed along the LOC with new offensive capabilities: division-sized integrated battle groups (IBG) consisting of artillery, armor, and aviation elements each capable of limited offensive operations. These IBGs are central to the Indian Army’s offensive military doctrine and also featured in the Indian Army’s recently released Land Warfare Doctrine.
Second, the Indian Army would disaggregate three of its strike corps into division-sized IBGs and move them closer to the India-Pakistan border. One of the strike corps is also slated be restructured into a rapid reaction “saber corps,” according to media reports, reportedly capable of immediately conducting offensive operations into Pakistan in the event of a conflict.
All of the IBGs, equipped with artillery, armored personnel carriers, main battle tanks, and infantry fighting vehicles, would be capable of launching limited strikes (50-80 kilometers deep) along different axes of advance into enemy territory supported by air power. The Indian Army is purportedly now also planning to turn each of the three brigades of a division-sized IBG into an autonomous unit capable of independent military operations, although details remain murky and have not been confirmed by the Indian Ministry of Defense.
According to an October 2018 media report, a detailed IBG concept is expected to be finalized in six to eight months. General Bipin Rawat envisions that every IBG will consist of four to six infantry and armored battalions and two to three artillery regiments, next to air defense, logistical, signal, and headquarter units — overall 8,000 to 10,000 troops. Consequently, the size of the IBGs would fall in between an Army division and brigade in terms of manpower (a division on average has a strength of around 20,000 troops).
Rawat envisions that eight to ten such IBGs could be stood up against Pakistan while an equal number, albeit smaller sized due to the mountainous terrain, could be deployed against China.
However, according to multiple public sources, these structural and organizational changes, part of a four-point reorganization of the Indian Army by the chief of staff, have so far not been implemented. Indeed, there is no evidence that any IBGs have been stood up to date.
“We are going to test-bed the IBGs very soon. I am suggesting that we be integrated in peacetime to save the time wasted in ‘integrating’ while going for combat,” Rawat said in a November 2018 interview. “Various battalions [of infantry, armored, artillery, signals, and engineers] are already assigned to an area and we now want them to be ready in peacetime.”
Notably, there is very little public evidence that the Indian Army is capable of executing CSD in the event of a new military confrontation between India and Pakistan at the moment or in the near future. Next to the ambivalent results of a number of Indian war games practicing various aspects of CSD in the last years, a cursory look at Indian military hardware reveals major deficiencies and capability gaps that would hinder the current execution of large-scale offensive operations against Pakistan.
For example, the Indian Army still lacks a sufficient number of operational modern main battle tanks (MBT), in particular T-90SMs, the most advanced version of the T-90. Also, the majority of indigenously developed third generation Arjun MK-I main battle tanks are currently grounded due to various technical problems and missing spare parts. An upgraded version of the Arjun is currently under development but it is unclear when it will become operational.
Furthermore, the Indian Army lacks self-propelled tracked howitzers for close artillery support. Only in May 2017 did the Indian Ministry of Defense decide to go ahead with the purchase of the first batch of 100 modified K-9 Vajra 155 mm/52 caliber guns. Overall, the Indian Army will need at least 250 self-propelled guns for its strike corps. (The Indian Army took delivery of the first batch of ten K-9 Vajra 155 mm/52 caliber self-propelled tracked howitzers in late 2018.)
In addition, the army lacks advanced mobile air defense systems to cover the advance of armored forces. For example India will only begin receiving its first out of five regimental sets of Russian-made Almaz-Antei S-400 Triumf air defense systems (NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler) in October 2020.
Even more critically, the Indian military has been suffering from a chronic ammunition shortage for the past two decades. Current ammunition levels would only last for about 10 days of high intensity war. The Indian Ministry of Defense has taken steps to address this problem, by, for example, purchasing 66,000 anti-tank shells from Russia in 2014, but new ammunition is only slowly trickling in to replenish depleted stocks. The Indian Army continues to lack 68,000 anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) of various types and around 850 launchers.
“The Indian Army is looking for stopgap measures to quickly address this capability gap by inducting new ATGM systems as quickly as possible,” I wrote elsewhere. “The service is reportedly pushing for a fast-track procurement of 2,500 third-generation shoulder-fired ATGMs and 96 launchers through a government-government contract.” The ATGM capability gap, however, is expected to persist at least until 2022.
Additionally, the Indian Air Force currently lacks the close-air support capability necessary for swift armored thrusts into Pakistani territory. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s (HAL) Light Combat Helicopter only completed weapons trials this month. The interservice rivalry, partially influenced by the fact that CSD has been developed by the Indian Army, has also made integration and synchronization of air-ground operations challenging (air assets of the Indian Navy only play a minor role in CSD).
For example, the Indian Air Force insists that its principal mission remains air-to-air combat and strategic bombing, which has caused consternation between the former and the Indian Army Air Corps. “For a number of years, the Indian Army has been engaged in a tug of war with the Indian Air Force over who should operate [a] future fleet of Apache gunships,” I explained. “The Army initially asked for the gunships to be inducted into its ranks, or for the Air Force to at least share the helicopters with the ground forces.”
Joint-service warfare as required by CSD also mandates a network-centric warfare capability, that is the ability coordinate geographically dispersed forces, including unnamed aerial vehicles and satellites, with advanced communications technology in a timely manner. However, the Indian military is only slowly building up a robust capability in this field. Indian reconnaissance, intelligence, surveillance, and target acquisition capabilities would also currently not be able to support a full-scale and swift implementation of CSD.
Next to the low operational readiness rate of most Indian military hardware and the lack of modern equipment, the perhaps most glaring deficiency is the lack of thousands of trained military officers. The Indian Army alone is short of 7,300 officers, according to the Indian government.
Looking at all of these deficiency and gaps, it is perhaps then not unfair to conclude that CSD is still in an experimental phase and remains a “mixture of myth and reality,” as a leaked 2010 assessment by the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi put it. Yet India’s opponent apparently cannot take comfort in that assessment.
Pakistan has taken the threat of CSD seriously, building up its tactical nuclear weapons arsenal on the one hand and shoring up its conventional military response on the other. In response to CSD, the Pakistan military has also adopted a so-called New Concept of War Fighting (NCWF) in order to improve interservice coordination and reduce the mobilization time for the Pakistan Army. Some Indian analysts worry that Pakistan at this stage can mobilize faster than India as a result of NCWF.
This assessment is in line with a recent analysis that argues that Pakistan’s conventional military deterrence is more robust than commonly assumed.
Should Pakistan indeed be capable of mobilizing its conventional military forces faster than India, the principal purpose behind Cold Start — deploying overwhelming conventional forces across the Pakistani border before the Pakistani military could exploit its defensive and geographical advantage — would be void. It would call into question the whole rationale behind the Indian military leadership’s embrace of a doctrine that not only apparently fuels the buildup of Pakistan’s conventional and nuclear forces, but also ups the chances of political and military miscalculations on both sides in the event of a major crisis.