It was an unusually warm afternoon in the autumn of 1935. Adolf Hitler sat under a tent, faithful Guderian seated next to him, reviewing maneuvers of tanks and armored vehicles, on the plains of Kummersdorf. Every now and then, he would glance at Heinz Wilhelm Guderian’s classic “Achtung Panzer”, the tank man’s Bible.
It was early evening when Hitler suddenly rose from his chair. Guderian got up, unsure of what was going on inside Hitler’s mind. Hitler could be extremely temperamental. He looked at Guderian and keeping his hand on his shoulder in an unusually familiar gesture, he said looking at the rolling tanks, “That is what I want – and that is what I will have.”
German strategic thinking had evolved from the writings of Carl Von Clausewitz, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder and Alfred von Schlieffen. But it was the defeat in the First World War and the humiliating Treaty of Versailles that violently changed German thinking. This violent change brought with it anti-Semitism, National Socialism and a spiritual connect with ancient Rome. In 1933, it catapulted Adolf Hitler to power. The Nazi Party was a one-man dictatorship and drew heavily from the Prussian (German) military masters. When Hitler started rearmament in direct contravention of the Treaty of Versailles, his vision was the Alfred von Schlieffen’s ‘Schlieffen Plan’ and Guderian model of warfare; heavy concentration of armor, fast moving infantry, total air superiority and mass deployment of mobile artillery. Hitler had a galaxy of military geniuses with him – Guderian, Schmidt, Model, Manstien, Rundstedt, Goering, Rommel and many more.
On 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland. So swift and brutal was the assault that the world could only stare awestruck. This was Blitzkrieg, Germany’s “lightning war”. Europe fell to Blitzkrieg and it was this “lightening war” that saw Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the USSR. Blitzkrieg was knocking at the doors of Moscow. The Germans never officially used the word Blitzkrieg. Most denied its existence. But the world understood it for what it really was. In the words of the immortal Maj. Gen. JFC Fuller of the British Army “Speed, and still more speed, and always speed was the secret, and that demanded audacity, more audacity and always audacity.”
India went down a similar path. For too long, we had adopted a defensive posture. Our methods were too straitjacketed and hidebound. Unknown to many of our own generals at Army HQ in New Delhi, the Indian Army’s Sundarji Doctrine of warfare was about to collapse.
On 13 December 2001, five Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists armed with AK 47s, grenade launchers, pistols and explosives attacked the Indian Parliament. Nine Indians (Delhi Police, Parliament Security and a gardener) were martyred in the attack. All five terrorists were killed. India responded by trying its hand at coercive diplomacy and launched Operation Parakram. For months, both the Indian and Pakistan Armies stood eyeball to eyeball at the border.
India could have seized the initiative. India could have done so much more than just sitting at the border for months. But it did not. The holding Corps of the Indian army were ready for battle in 72-96 hours. The three Strike Corps (I, II and XXI Corps) based in Mathura, Ambala and Bhopal respectively, took over three weeks to mobilize and reach their operational areas. And by the time they reached the Pakistan border, Gen. Pervez Musharraf had gone on national TV in Pakistan to condemn the attack on the Indian Parliament and promise that Pakistan’s territory would not be used as a base for terror. The US intervened and put tremendous pressure on India not to launch attacks on Pakistan. Musharraf reduced India’s political justification for war, to zero.
There is a certain “national mood” for war. And there is a certain momentum. India failed to capitalize on both counts. Both the armies went back to their barracks, with nothing to show for it.
Indian military thinkers came to the conclusion that the entire Sundarji Doctrine was flawed. You could not have holding Corps in a defending role at the border and attacking Corps deep inside Indian Territory. It was too cumbersome, unwieldy and slow. 21st Century wars required lightening fast reflexes. India needed its army’s attack elements to cross over into Pakistan much faster. We needed to reduce the mobilization time from 21 days to 48 hours. In many ways, we needed to do what Germany did in Poland on 1 September 1939.
The template was probably the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Israel fought a vicious six-day war against Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. And Israel won against a numerically superior enemy, fighting on different fronts. Israel won because they understood that surprise, speed, ferocity and deception win wars. Whether it was neutralizing the enemy air force when it was on ground, lightening armor thrusts through lightly defended gaps or the use of paratroopers, Israel fought like a nation possessed.
The concept of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War possibly became the core of the new Indian Army warfare doctrine. There were other operations like Desert Storm and Desert Shield, which were dissected, threadbare. This new doctrine stressed on fast moving Integrated Battle Groups, duly supported by the Air Force and Navy. It conceived a war fighting method that would catapult India into full-fledged battle in 48 hours. Someone likened it to an automobile engine, which did not need warming up before moving, an engine that could start at ambient temperature.
So, they called it Cold Start.
Cold Start is India’s new war doctrine, which envisions a conventional conflict in the shadow of Pakistan’s nuclear capability and its willingness to use WMDs if threatened. Unlike the Sundarji Doctrine, which was based on massive retaliation and dismembering of Pakistan, Cold Start has different ambitions. It acknowledges the possibility of a limited war and seeks to take advantage of it. Former Chief of Army Staff Gen. V.P. Malik states, “Space exists between proxy war/low-intensity conflict and a nuclear umbrella within which a limited conventional war is a distinct possibility.”
Cold Start is based on the premise that (even) Pakistan has a nuclear threshold. It will not use nuclear weapons in retaliation before that threshold has been reached.
Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) will form the core of this strategy. And the strategy is based on speed, audacity, overwhelming firepower, superior planning and total surprise. IBGs will largely comprise of heavy and fast moving armor, mechanized infantry, artillery and other firepower elements of the army duly supported by Air Force assets like fighter jets and helicopter gunships. In certain cases, the Indian Navy will close-support these IBGs.
These IBGs may be based in Jammu in J&K, Amritsar and Moga in Punjab and Suratgarh, Bikaner, Barmer, Jaisalmer and Palanpur in Rajasthan.
IBGs, eight in number and each the size of a division, will make lightening thrusts inside Pakistan, going in 55-80 kilometers. The holding (pivot) corps will carry out limited offensive strikes, while maintaining their defensive posture. Cold Start seeks to attack multiple objectives simultaneously. It is believed that Pakistan’s command and control & decision making structure will come under severe pressure in such a scenario.
The aim is to seriously degrade Pakistan’s will to fight, inflict severe damage to its war-fighting infrastructure and disrupt their decision-making capabilities.
Having stated the obvious, it is now time to reflect on a strategy and have related objectives that our policymakers think are achievable by military force. Cold Start may not cleave Pakistan into half, but it has the sheer capability to cause extreme damage, both physically and psychologically. The Pakistanis know this.
This brings us to two questions that our policymakers must address. One, how do we contain this conflict? All wars have a soul of their own, and amongst the drumbeats and hysteria, its very possible for the government of the day to come under pressure and expand the scope of the conflict. Two, how can we stop it from going nuclear? If either of these two things were to happen, Cold Start would have failed to meet its objectives. The Pakistanis know this, too.
It will be in the interest of Pakistan to exponentially increase the scope of conflict. They would want it to spiral out of control so that the distinct possibility of a nuclear conflict can horrify the world. Pakistan bases all its adventures on this one fact, and it’s a good policy, too. No country wants two nuclear powers to go to war. Ever since John von Neumann coined the term Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), a theory based on the assumption that in the event of a nuclear war, both belligerents will cease to be functional nation states; MAD has been accepted at face value.
So, Pakistan pushes the MAD envelope. India sees Cold Start as a highly effective strategy in the niche grey area between the first terror strike sponsored by Pakistan and MAD.
“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”, noted Helmuth von Moltke the Elder. Simply stated, however much planning and detailing you do, Plan A will be so much candyfloss in a desert storm. This brings us to the importance of initiative at the local commander level. The problem with initiative is that the senior commanders have to let go. It is still debatable if that is wise, in such high intensity operations being conducted under the shadow of nuclear war. However, like in all wars, in this case too, devolution will be decided immediately after the first contact with the enemy.
All war is based on Murphy’s Law, which states, “If anything can go wrong, it will”. Funny? Yes. True? Also yes.
Pakistan is geographically narrow, with a length of approximately 1000 miles but an average width of not more than 300 miles. If you were a tourist driving an SUV, unhindered, you could start at Jaisalmer after an early 7 am breakfast, stop over for a late lunch at Quetta, Balochistan at 3 pm and be in Spin Buldak, Afghanistan by 6 pm. You would need to refuel your vehicle only on reaching Afghanistan.
Now you understand why Pakistan is terrified. And now you understand why Pakistan has ignited insurgencies in Punjab (Khalistan movement) and Kashmir. It is always looking for that elusive mirage of strategic depth because wars need land to fight. Pakistan does not have land. But the next best thing is influence. Influence in Kashmir and Punjab give it depth and fifth columnists, Indians who will support Pakistan in times of war. Lack of land is the reason why Pakistan always attacks India first, because it makes better tactical sense to fight a war on someone else’s land. Imagine a scenario in which India’s 3 Strike Corps penetrate deep into Pakistan. Then, it’s either nuclear war or goodbye Pakistan.
Some experts claim that Cold Start is still in the experimental stages. That’s not true. It may not have been battle tested because that needs a war, but for the past 12 years the Indian Army has been honing it to a fine edge.
In March 2004, the Indian Army first demonstrated the various aspects of Cold Start in a war game called Operation Divya Astra (Divine Weapon). The aim was to deliver a potent and fatal strike into the heart of Pakistan. The location of the exercise was the famous Mahajan Field Firing Ranges in Rajasthan, approximately 75 kms from the Pakistan border. The scenario comprised of Army and Air Force elements penetrating fixed enemy fortifications. It was a mechanized assault supported by artillery and ground attack aircraft.
In May 2005, the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force launched a joint exercise in Jalandhar area, about 75 kms from the Pakistan border. The exercise was called Operation Vajra Shakti (Thunder Power). In nine days of simulated attacks and counter-attacks, the Indian Forces were able to penetrate 30 kms into enemy territory and set the stage for the Strike Corps for follow-on deep penetration attacks.
Just six months later, the Indian Army launched Operation Desert Strike in Rajasthan’s Thar area. The aim of this war game was two fold. One, to synergize XXI Corps with the Indian Air Force, and two, to defeat an enemy (Pakistan) using preemption, dislocation and disruption. 25,000 troops took part in this exercise, which deployed fast moving armor, paratroopers dropping behind enemy lines, fighter aircraft and helicopter gunships of the Indian Air Force.
May 2006 saw the Indian Army launch Operation Sangh Shakti (Joint Power). This exercise was in many ways a sequel to the May 2005 Operation Vajra Shakti. Ambala based II Corps was the focus of this major exercise. 1 Armored Division, 14 Rapid Division and 22nd Infantry Division war-gamed a scenario in which a lightening thrust through the Cholistan Desert would cleave Pakistan in half. An interesting fact about this exercise was that for the first time the Indian Army dropped the pretense of using the code name Red Land for Pakistan and Blue Land for India. The enemy was Pakistan and the operational brief to the Corps Commander II Corps was to attack Pakistan and break it into two.
The fifth major exercise designed to test and put Cold Start through its paces was launched in May 2007 in the Rajasthan desert. It was called Operation Ashwamedh.
I Strike Corps tested its network-centric warfare strategy. In a typical “fog of war” scenario, Operation Ashwamedh was designed to slingshot I Strike Corp into battle. With helicopter gunships providing cover, armored columns moved at unheard of speeds into “enemy” territory. Paratroopers, mechanized infantry units, artillery and infantry provided the thrust. Operation Ashwamedh was an out-and-out offense war game. For one week, night and day, the entire I Corps was the hammer and Pakistan was the anvil. The Indian Air Force provided tactical and close air support.
At a tertiary level, a few important capabilities were tested across these exercises. Night fighting capabilities, fighting in built up areas (FIBUA), special forces deep penetration strikes etc were tested simultaneously. For example in Operation Divya Astra, combat engineers bridged a 60-meter wide canal, all in 30 minutes. This bridge was capable of supporting tanks and armor.
Operation Ashwamedh met all its war objectives. Speed was required and so was audacity. I Corps delivered on both requirements, impressively. And I Corps moved at “supernatural speed”.
The lessons learnt from these war games were imbibed and improved upon again in 2012 during Operations Shoor Veer and Rudra Akrosh, and in 2016 during Operation Shatrujeet.
The big win in these exercises, apart from other critical parameters, was network centricity. Indian commanders seemed at ease with the latest global technology, and real-time intelligence gathered through satellite imagery and UAVs reduced decision making time, helping the commanders be as flexible as the situation demanded.
The big loss was inter-services coordination. It still is.
A war doctrine is effective only as long as it achieves its stated objectives. Simply put, the objectives of Cold Start are to damage and degrade Pakistan’s war machine and severely disrupt its decision-making ability.
Pakistan has nothing to counter Cold Start with. The best they have been able to come up with are tactical nuclear devices; small nuclear weapons which can be used against advancing IBGs. But Pakistan feels that the world will understand the use of tactical nuclear weapons because they will be used on the Indian Army but inside Pakistan’s territory.
We must always keep in mind that whatever we do, Pakistan’s first response will always be to exponentially and immediately expand the scope of the conflict.
That is the flexibility Cold Start must have, to be a scalpel when needed and a broadsword when it must.
Mjölnir, the legendary hammer of Norse legend had the power to level mountains. But the person wielding it had to be worthy. That was the only condition. Cold Start is fearsome in its potential for sudden destruction, but our policymakers must be absolutely certain, beyond a shadow of doubt, what they wish from this divine hammer.
As the legendary inscription on Mjölnir declares, “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor”.
The next major terror attack will come, and as always, from Pakistan’s soil. That much is certain. There is no stopping it. What will be the construct of our retaliation is a question we must ask ourselves.
Till then, the hammer waits.