Last week India celebrated its 68th Republic Day, the highlight of which is an elaborate parade to show off India’s military might (pictured). Soldiers goose-stepped and tanks rolled down Rajpath, New Delhi’s main ceremonial thoroughfare, as India's president, Pranab Mukherjee, and this year’s guest of honour, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, looked on. Fighter jets screeched overhead. The annual display was particularly pointed this year, coming barely three weeks after Bipin Rawat, India’s new army chief, acknowledged in an interview the existence of the country’s “Cold Start” military doctrine. What is Cold Start and why did General Rawat, who took office on December 31st, mention it in public?
Cold Start is the name given to a limited-war strategy designed to seize Pakistani territory swiftly without, in theory, risking a nuclear conflict. It has its roots in an attack on India’s parliament in 2001, which was carried out by terrorist groups allegedly used as proxies by Pakistan’s powerful intelligence services (ISI). India’s response to the onslaught was a flop: by the time its lumbering Strike Corps were mobilised and positioned on the frontier, Pakistan had already bulked up its defences, raising both the costs of incursion and the risk that it would escalate into a nuclear conflict. Cold Start is an attempt to draw lessons from this: having nimbler, integrated units stationed closer to the border would allow India to inflict significant harm before international powers demanded a ceasefire; by pursuing narrow aims, it would also deny Pakistan a justification for triggering a nuclear strike. Yet India has refused to own up to the existence of the doctrine since it was first publicly discussed in 2004. Nor was its rumoured existence enough to stop Pakistani terrorists from launching devastating attacks in Mumbai in 2008, killing 164 people.
One reason for India to keep its cards close to its chest is that it may not be capable of acting on Cold Start. Indeed, India’s army chief admitted to civilian leaders after the 2008 attacks that his battalions were “not ready for war” with Pakistan. It probably did not help that India’s political leaders never signed off on it either, as a leaked diplomatic cable from 2010 suggested. Yet things have taken a different turn since an assault last September on the Indian garrison of Uri in Kashmir, which left 19 dead. In a departure from India’s traditionally defensive posture, the government responded by authorising “surgical strikes” along the frontier, targeted at “terrorist launchpads” and “those protecting them”. By acknowledging the doctrine, which would demand a more potent retaliation than these commando operations, the army seems keen to signal that it has a range of strategic options, introducing an element of unpredictability in its response. Political leaders may have also come closer to embracing it. The government of Narendra Modi has shown keen interest in national-security matters, moving India into the world's top-five defence spenders, addressing servicemen’s grievances and mulling a wholesale revamp of the armed forces’ structure.
Whether the strategy will prove effective remains to be seen. By pursuing Cold Start, the army may have reaped “the worst of both worlds”, says Walter Ladwig, a scholar at King’s College London. Should it come after a terrorist attack prepared with the ISI’s knowledge, India’s response would lack the element of surprise. That makes Cold Start a dubious deterrent. And Mr Rawat’s recognition of the doctrine’s existence provides further reason for Pakistan to develop “tactical” nukes—tiny warheads that could easily end up in inexpert or malevolent hands. The risk of overreaction on Pakistan’s side is heightened by India’s continued obfuscation about what exactly the concept means, making the whole premise seem misguided. Indeed, Pakistani officials have already threatened to use nuclear weapons, should India put Cold Start into action. In conventional war, confusing an enemy can lead to victory; when two nuclear powers are involved it is a surer step towards a disastrous draw.