A New Twist on India’s ‘Cold Start’?

By Adelia Saunders, Research Intern, Center for Strategic Research


Is the Indian army’s new long-range plan, including a “mountain strike corps” along the Chinese border, simply an attempt to increase its offensive capabilities in disputed frontier areas? Or is it the revitalization of the controversial “Cold Start” doctrine?

In January 2011 Indian Army Chief V. K. Singh announced a new Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP) for 2012-27 that would enhance the offensive capabilities of Indian forces deployed along the border with China. A new “mountain strike corps” would allow India to more rapidly counter Chinese incursions into disputed areas, part of  an ambitious plan to transform the Indian army into a more offensively-oriented “lethal, agile and networked force.” This announcement came just months after Singh assured reporters that India had abandoned “Cold Start”—a controversial military doctrine intended to give India the option of a rapid conventional strike in response to an attack by Pakistan or its proxies. Yet despite the LTIPP’s clear focus on China, the plan includes what Pakistan sees as some of the most provocative tenets of “Cold Start,” – and its impact on the region could be similarly destabilizing.

The Indian Army’s desire for a “Cold Start” capability dates back to the December 2001 terrorist attacks on India’s Parliament. India blamed the attacks on Pakistan-backed militants, and attempted a military response. But it took weeks move offensive forces from bases in the center of the country to the Pakistani border. In the meantime, the United States intervened with a diplomatic resolution that left many within India’s military establishment profoundly dissatisfied. With a “Cold Start” doctrine in place, Indian strategists argued, their forces would be able to quickly mount a punishing but limited invasion of Pakistani territory in a future crisis.

Unveiled in 2004, “Cold Start” was designed to allow three to five light “integrated battle groups” to launch a limited penetration of Pakistani territory within 72-96 hours of an attack. The doctrine has been blocked by internal political and logistical challenges and has never been implemented. It has also been a point of concern for U.S. officials, who’ve been buffeted by complaints from the Pakistani military, which sees “Cold Start” as a sign of aggressive Indian intent and a major reason why Pakistan’s armed forces cannot shift in greater mass from the Indian border to fight insurgents along the border with Afghanistan. In September, Indian Army Chief Singh formally denied the existence of “Cold Start.”

But Singh’s subsequent January announcement of the LTIPP seems to suggest that the spirit of family:Times New Roman;”“Cold Start” has survived the doctrine’s official repudiation. Like “Cold Start,” the LTIPP would require a dramatic overhaul of India’s military infrastructure to allow for rapid mobilization. This implies a significant reorientation of Indian military strategy from defense to limited offense. Presumably, the new mountain strike corps could be used to punish foreign aggression but not provoke nuclear escalation—a key assumption underpinning the “Cold Start” doctrine.

In a departure from “Cold Start’s” specific focus on Pakistan, Indian military officials say their new offensive capabilities would be directed at China. However, an important component of the LTIPP would allow India to quickly transfer troops and equipment from one mountain war zone to another, making it possible for India to fight both historical adversaries simultaneously. As a result, any increase in offensive capability along the Chinese border has implications for Indo-Pakistani stability.

So, while India’s Pakistan-centered “Cold Start” doctrine may have been shelved, the LTIPP’s emphasis on taking the fight to India’s adversaries will likely exacerbate an Indo-Pakistani security dilemma, just as “Cold Start” did. China’s reaction to news that India is bolstering attack forces along its border could also lead to a greater military build-up on the Chinese side, feeding into a regional arms race, adding incentives for nuclear proliferation, and increasing the chances of armed conflict. As India rises, its more agile military stance is not unnatural or unexpected—but it seems likely to have a destabilizing effect on a region already primed for conflict.


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Filed under Regional Studies, South Asia, Strategic Studies

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