Cold Start, Cold Progress

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By Simran R. Maker – In April 2004, India announced its Cold Start doctrine, aimed at facilitating rapid responses to serious provocations from its adversaries. Cold Start takes an offensive approach to battles on India’s Western border with Pakistan via strategies that reduce detectability and accelerate mobilization. In July 2010, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Mehmood Qureshi warned India against implementing Cold Start, threatening that Pakistan would respond in force. In actuality, Cold Start is not a near-term threat for Pakistan, and peace talks should not be hampered by fears of this six-year old proposal to update India’s military strategy.

For twenty-three years before Cold Start, India had been operating under the guidance of the Sundarji doctrine – one that former Defense Minister George Fernandes noted as maintaining India’s character as a “non-provocative” country with a tendency toward “defensive defense.” The very idea of Cold Start then, marks the birth of an alter ego of sorts.

Cold Start was conceived in the aftermath of the New Delhi Parliament attacks in December 2001.  India realized that it could not mobilize its forces to its Western border as rapidly as some Indian leaders would have liked. The fractures in India’s own approach became frustratingly self-evident. Cold Start was born two years later as an answer to the slow political decision-chains and strategic flaws in the dispositions of the corps themselves. Addressing these concerns through a shifting doctrinal approach was seen as necessary to modernize India’s defense approach for the twenty-first century.

According to an in-depth analysis by Walter C. Ladwig III in 2007, Cold Start was still in the experimentation phase and years away from the implementation phase. Today, examining three significant and tangible signs – active forces, defense spending, and acquisition trends – it seems Cold Start is still not near implementation. First, a study of International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Military Balance (MilBal) catalogues from pre-Cold Start (2003) to present (2010) reveals that the total armed forces active troop count is exactly the same at 1,325,000 listed. Further, MilBal 2010 still lists three strike corps, where Cold Start entails a conversion of the original three large strike corps into eight smaller integrated battle groups (IBGs).

Second, India’s defense spending continues to suffer from bureaucratic slashes and political targeting. The Stockholm International Peace and Research Institute reports India’s military expenditure as 2.8% of GDP in 2003 and 2.6% of GDP in 2008, in its most recent calculation. On July 23, 2010, Indian Defense Review observed that this undersized defense allocation has “just been enough to keep [the] forces fed, clothed and paid [with] very little left for modernization or capability accretion,” leaving the country’s forces “unable to even replace wastages due to normal wear and tear or expiry of shelf life of sensitive items.”

Third, evidence shows that acquisitions since 2003 are not facilitating Cold Start. Cold Start is an army-centric doctrine, primarily requiring updated equipment for ground forces. Main Battle Tanks would be one good indicator of progress, increasing in number only slightly between 2003 and 2010 – from an estimated 3,898 to 4,047 tanks in working condition. Another strong warning would be a substantial increase in mechanized infantry for the proposed IBGs. Two examples prove little positive growth: (1) In 2003, the Army had 157 active armored personnel carriers (APCs) and another 160 in store. Estimates show that there are 317 active APCs in 2010. Activating the 160 stored APCs could easily have accounted for this precise difference. (2) The armored infantry fighting vehicles (AIFVs) were estimated at 1,600 in 2003 and 1,455 in 2010, actually decreasing by 145 units or 9%.

Another telling sign that Cold Start is far from being a reality is India’s aging fleet of Soviet-era fighter jets. Cold Start relies on the Indian Air Force (IAF) to provide critical air support to the Army. The IAF’s ability to do so effectively depends on the acquisition of capable fighter jets. The RFP process has itself been drawn out over more than ten years. For instance, talks on joint development of a fifth generation fighter aircraft known as PAK-FA with Russia have been brewing since the 1990s. It took till 2007 for even a tentative agreement to be signed, however, and early 2010 before PAK-FA finally embarked on its first test flight. Developers do not expect it to be ready for training and use till at least 2017. Given the slow progress thus far, that does not look like a hard deadline.

In addition to these material and physical shortfalls, India cannot presently afford to focus solely on Pakistan. It has pressing concerns about China, splitting the army’s attention between two borders to create what former Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor called “a proportionate focus towards the Western and Northeastern fronts.” With so much on its plate, there is noticeable discord between India’s strategy as an alter ego with a new doctrine of offensive capability and its default modus operandi of defensive defense. In a battle of personalities, India as Dr. Jekyll is winning; that in itself should be a reassurance to Pakistan. This is not to say that India will never be capable of ironing out the wrinkles between strategy and capability, but for now it seems to be more focused on other priorities, and so would be the advice for Pakistan.

Photo Credit: Indian Army’s T-90 Tanks in Action, 2008: by Cell 105. 

Simran R Maker was an intern in the Security for a New Century Program at the Stimson Center

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