The spring and autumn peace initiatives of 2003 led to the subcontinent being treated to an Indo-Pak cricketing spectacle early this year. But with a fresh military menu being served up in the form of the new army doctrine countenancing ‘Cold Start’, the hawks may be back. 'Cold start' is a euphemism for mobilizing military forces faster than international diplomacy can defuse an Indo-Pak crisis. The details are expected to follow in another six months when the new doctrine has the imprimatur of the Navy and Air Force at the Combined Commander’s Conference scheduled yearly in autumn.

‘Integrated Battle Groups’ (Cold Start) is the Indian Army’s cryptic answer to the nuclear standoff witnessed between India and Pakistan during the ten month long Operation Parakram in 2002. Presently only the Army Commanders appear to have endorsed it at their early summer meet, the first of their biannual meetings. That the Army would take the initiative is understandable in that it was the Army that had been found wanting off the blocks during both Operation Parakram and the Kargil-induced Operation Vijay earlier.

During Operation Vijay it had taken the Army up to one and half months to get its act together in giving what eventuated in a fitting reply to Pakistan’s adventurism. In Operation Parakram, launched in the wake of India’s very own 9/11, the dastardly terrorist attack on parliament in Dec 2001, the Army is reported to have taken three weeks to mobilize its armoured might. Even though the then Army Chief, the articulate and media savvy Gen ‘Paddy’ Padhmanabhan, did get the message across at his Jan 11, 2002 press conference that India meant business, his wily counterpart Gen Musharraf managed to take the wind out of India’s sails by his now famous ‘about turn’ speech against terrorism of the very next day, Jan 12, 2002.

It has been conjectured that the interim between India's slow mobilizing in 2002 and being ready on the blocks was exploited skillfully by Pakistani diplomacy, seized as it already was then with its role of ‘frontline’ state for the second time round, this time against its own former surrogate, the Taliban. As a result the pressure mounted by the US was such that India prevaricated, with the mobilization being termed by its spin doctors as ‘coercive diplomacy’ worthy of India’s Chanakyan tradition. However, the ‘sacking’ of the Indian General in command of the leading Indian strike corps in late January 2002 for jumping the gun suggests otherwise. General Paddy’s telegenic performance was perhaps somewhat premature and a likely resultant of the need to preempt General Musharraf rather than as a true reflection of the preparedness of India’s mobilized armed might, two weeks into the crisis.

The Army's strike corps have been designed to strike deep at politically important objectives so as to bring about favourable war termination, a favourite scenario being to cut Pakistan into two at its midriff. Since Pakistan has made it fairly self evident that its ‘nuclear redline’ is not so high as to countenance an Indian penetration that deep, India has had to rethink its reliance on having three strike corps to Pakistan’s two. The problem posed by Chagai, Pakistan's tit for tat answer to India's nuclear blasts at Pokhran II, is only now being grappled with.

The Indian Army therefore has had to come up with some answers. The doctrine currently doing the rounds of South Block is purported to be based on brigade sized ‘integrated battle groups’ that will offset two disadvantages of the ‘strike corps’ concept of Sundarji vintage. The first is that these groups being smaller would be quicker off the blocks in what is being termed as ‘Cold Start’, thereby positioning India better at the political level in the diplomatic game.

Second, and more pertinently, these would be able to undercut Pakistan’s yet unstated nuclear doctrine of ‘first use’ by striking at shallow objectives that do not necessarily compel Pakistan to cross its nuclear threshold. These groups would lack the punch to go for Pakistan’s innards, the erstwhile role of the ‘strike corps’. Therefore ‘military necessity’ would not be of the order to permit Pakistan morally and legally to ‘go nuclear’.

Smaller battle groups would also be more survivable, presenting smaller fast moving targets even if Pakistan were to contemplate the nuclear option against them. Several of these moving into Pakistan would also pose Pakistan the problem as to which one to tackle and with what. The idea is to paralyse Pakistani leadership with this decision dilemma while making quick territorial gains to be bartered post conflict on the negotiation table in return for Pakistan’s promise of good behaviour with regard to Kashmir. It is expected that the next round will be swiftly over since the US led international community would not want to grapple with the nuclearised aftermath of any future subcontinental conflict.

At present there is no indication that the Air and Naval counterparts of Army Commanders are mulling over the same doctrine at their coincident early summer meetings elsewhere. It would appear that the ‘integrated’ in the ‘integrated battle groups’ is a reference only to the Army’s own complement of tools – artillery, armour, mechanized infantry, the additional special forces being raised and possibly helicopters. Integrating the Air Force into this would be decidedly more difficult because the Air Force is yet in the Douhet era wherein the aim of air power was to pulverize the centre of gravity of the enemy. If it were to be now told to be merely an extension of the Army’s artillery, there is likely to be an inter service bureaucratic war in the offing.

For its part, the Navy too sees its role as strategic in nature. During Operation Vijay and Operation Parakram, it had sailed forth into the Arabian Sea so as to seal off Karachi and blockade the Pakistani coast. It would not like to have the Army undercut its expansive role, on which its sustenance, expansion and aircraft carrier in the pipeline are predicated. Indeed the Army may already have its answer in the simultaneous release of the India’s first naval doctrine at the Naval commander’s conference.

But turf wars are the least of the dangers that loom ahead.

First, in keeping with its mandate of furnishing the political leadership military options, the Army has tried to work around the problem posed by Chagai and revealed during Operation Parakram. The danger is that in doing so it is attempting to bring war back as an option into political calculus. If it takes as little as a bunch of fanatics with automatic weapons to spark of a subcontinental crisis with nuclear overtones, then to make ‘war’, howsoever restrained, appear as a viable option to address similar crisis in the future is itself a danger.

It took as little as a bunch of fanatics with automatic weapons to spark of a subcontinental crisis with nuclear overtones. And now, 'Cold start' attempts to bring war back as an option into political calculus; this in itself a danger.
Second, the Air Force and Navy have not betrayed any indication that they are aware of the nuclearisation of the subcontinent and its implications. Blockade of Karachi and destruction of vital installations within Pakistan could well prove as provocative as pincers launched by India’s strike corps. The Army alone appears to be aware of the need to factor in the possibility that Pakistan’s nuclear redline could well be low.

But the concept is not being adopted tomorrow, either. There is no indication that the idea of integrated battle groups has originated in the Integrated Defence Staff, the joint body serving as a proto unified services head quarter. It may not be any time soon before the services adopt the doctrine to serve as blueprint for the next war situation. This interim requires to be exploited to revisit the primary lesson of the nuclear standoff known to history as Operation Parakram – that the military tool is obsolescent in the nuclear age.

Operation Parakram may have had the unintended consequence of revealing to the politicians the limited utility of military force. In fact, this lesson could have led up to the spring and autumn initiatives of 2003 towards peace that resulted in the grand Indo-Pak cricketing spectacle of this year. But with a fresh military menu being served up in the form of the new army doctrine countenancing ‘Cold Start’, the impetus to reconciliation underway could also lose ground and the hawks will surely be back to sup.