In 2012, former Indian defence minister, Jaswant Singh, had reportedly told American journalist Tom Hundley, “There is no Cold Start doctrine… It was an off-the-cuff remark from a former chief of staff. I have been defence minister of the country; I should know.” India’s new army chief, by boldly shattering the wall of silence that surrounded the “Cold Start” concept for over a decade, and articulating his views regarding some other sensitive issues, may have triggered an era of “glasnost” in India’s defence discourse leading, hopefully, to a “national security renaissance” in the form of overdue reforms.
The year 2015 saw China issue a National Military Strategy, Australia putting out a Defence White Paper and the US delivering a Military Strategy as well as a Maritime Strategy. Amidst all this glasnost, India’s national security establishment has maintained a deafening silence for 70 years. This inexplicable reticence is ascribed, by some, to India’s pacifist tradition that has now mutated into “strategic restraint”, and by others, to political disinterest and bureaucratic indifference.
A facile excuse offered for this caginess is that open public discussion may compromise national security. In actual fact, it is obsessive secrecy, coupled with the accretion of power, that leads to what is known as a “security dilemma”. In this phenomenon, actions by one state, intended to heighten its own security, lead other states to respond with similar measures, resulting in heightened tensions and possibility of conflict. The perilous India-China-Pakistan triangular rivalry is rooted in many security dilemmas that have arisen from the unstated arms race — conventional as well as nuclear — currently underway. As a status-quoist power sandwiched between two revisionist neighbours, it is in India’s vital interest to initiate a bilateral or triangular security dialogue that will encourage transparency, build confidence and cool temperatures, especially in the nuclear domain.
The Cold Start issue, apart from its own salience, has implications for the long-awaited reforms in India’s national security arena that call for reflection at this juncture. The provenance of this concept goes back to the December 2001 terror assault on the Indian Parliament. In an uncharacteristic show of resolve and muscle, the government of the day ordered the mobilisation of its million-strong armed forces in the hope of coercing or compelling a recalcitrant Pakistan to behave. However, a three-week delay in positioning the Indian army’s “strike corps” at their launch pads not only revealed the ponderous nature of India’s mobilisation plans, but also permitted Pakistan to counter-mobilise, draw international attention to the South Asian “hotspot” and thwart an angry India.
Subsequently, army planners came up with an innovative concept that would forward-locate key units and enable full mobilisation within 48-72 hours from a “cold start”. At the heart of this concept was restructuring the strike corps into smaller “integrated battle groups” (IBGs) — compact, highly mobile formations with their own armour,
artillery and aviation support — that could respond swiftly to Pakistani provocations without crossing the “nuclear threshold”.
Apart from the political resistance that it evokes, the Cold Start concept will make gut-wrenching demands on an army still steeped in World War II paradigms of attrition warfare, hamstrung by an antiquated higher defence organisation. The IBGs will employ “manoeuvre warfare”, whose essence is agility and flexibility in planning as well as execution. This will demand dynamic leadership at all levels, as well as radical changes and the shattering of many shibboleths within our conservative army. Perhaps it is in acknowledgment of these challenges that the army had, so far, remained coy about taking ownership of this concept. In this regard, the new army chief seems to have taken the bull by the horns and may be contemplating a fresh start for Cold Start.
Cold Start represents a compellence strategy, meant to deter Pakistan from continued violations of Indian sovereignty by sponsoring cross-border terrorism. However, it has been deliberately misinterpreted by wily Pakistani generals, who now brandish tactical nuclear weapons, such as the Hatf IX missile — a dangerous stratagem, discredited and discarded by the nuclear powers during the Cold War.
As the Indian army’s September 2016 cross-border raids proved, Cold Start remains a practical proposition that needs to be adopted wholeheartedly, even as we acquire the complete wherewithal for its implementation. While more Indian glasnost about Cold Start would bolster deterrence and dissuasion, the formation of IBGs would transform our large armoured and mechanised forces and keep them in an offensive frame of mind. However, the political establishment needs to clearly understand that Cold Start could lead to full-scale war and contains the possibility of “deterrence breakdown” — contingencies they must acknowledge and prepare for, in all seriousness.
This discussion takes place at a juncture when India’s security faces grave perils — both internally and externally. The discourse will, however, remain purely academic unless India’s national security structure — anachronistic in the context of Cold Start — undergoes a virtual renaissance in three crucial areas.
Firstly, decision-making in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) continues to be languid and capricious, mainly because it is manned exclusively by an itinerant, generalist bureaucracy, unqualified to manage the complex issues of defence and security. The answer lies in integrating the three armed forces HQs with the MoD, so that expertise is pooled and civil servants and uniformed personnel work harmoniously, side by side. Decision-making will, automatically, see a dramatic transformation.
Secondly, the three armed forces badly need integration with each other, not just to enable implementation of modern warfare concepts like Cold Start, but to engender commonality in training, planning and equipment, as well as synergy or “jointness” in war-fighting. As experienced worldwide, the essential prerequisite for initiating jointness is the institution of a functionary — Chairman Chiefs of Staff or Chief of Defence Staff — who will, in consultation with the three service chiefs, provide military advice to the Raksha Mantri (RM) and PM. He will work alongside his co-equal, the defence secretary, who will constitute the source of advice on defence policy and finance to the RM and PM.
The third area that needs to be addressed is India’s half-empty arsenal, which calls for a drastic restructuring of India’s military-industrial complex. The feckless bureaucrats and scientists, entrusted for 70 years with defence production and defence R&D, have reduced the nation to the status of a supplicant where military hardware is concerned. Neither grandiose-sounding schemes, nor tinkering with procurement procedures will help — major surgery is the need of the day.
Interests of national security demand the urgent creation of an overarching “Ministry of Defence Technology & Industrial Production”, consisting of three departments (headed by a junior minister) charged with the development and production of land systems, maritime systems and aerospace systems. Each department should oversee many “clusters” composed of research laboratories (re-assigned from DRDO) coupled with appropriate production units (ordnance factories as well as defence PSUs). Each cluster should represent a “public-private partnership”, with FDI being sought wherever necessary.
The time for committees and task forces is long past because the way ahead is quite clear. A resolute political leadership should be able to overcome resistance from entrenched bureaucracies — civilian and military — and push through the renaissance that will place India’s national security on a sound footing and justify our colossal defence expenditure.