By ramping up the concept of integrated blitzkrieg style warfare, India is signalling its intent to inflict quick strikes on Pakistan before a stalemate occurs, argues Rakesh Krisnan Simha
India and Pakistan have fought four wars, in 1948, 1965, 1971 and 1999. Each of these conflicts was launched by the Pakistani military with the knowledge that if its military thrusts failed, its patrons – the US and China – could be relied upon to work the diplomatic back channels, get the world media to raise the alarm, and issue veiled threats, thereby bringing pressure upon India’s political leadership to call off its attack.
India’s military strategy was different. After the defending corps along the border soften Pakistan’s frontal positions, the mechanised columns of India’s elite Strike Corps would roll across the border, destroy the core of the Pakistan Army and slice the country into two, giving the political leadership a huge bargaining advantage.
All this sounds like a bullet-proof strategy. But since the Strike Corps were based in central India, a significant distance from the international border, it took up to three weeks for these three armies – comprising hundreds of thousands of troops – to reach the front.
Because of the long mobilisation period, the intervention by Western nations and the truce-happy nature of its political leadership, India’s military brass could not use its strike forces to their full potential.
After the 1971 war, Indian war planners such as Lt General K.K. Hazari had written about the need for a new strategy to decisively defeat Pakistan instead of continually being forced to accept virtual stalemate. The military brass realised New Delhi would continue to fold under Western pressure the moment India’s armoured columns entered Pakistan. Speed was, therefore, of the essence in any future war.
In 1975, a study group under General Krishna Rao took forward the process in organisational and material terms. Things picked up when General Krishna Rao became the army chief. In ‘Digvijay to Divya Astra: A Paradigm Shift in the Indian Army’s Doctrine’, Y.I. Patel writes: “When General Krishna Rao was the Chief of the Indian Army, he asked a relatively unknown corps commander to conduct Exercise Digvijay for testing a new doctrine for war against Pakistan.” The corps commander was General K. Sundarji.
The new doctrine called for massing of offensive army formations to strike deep towards politically important objectives, with aid from the Indian Air Force and Navy. Patel adds: “It reached maturity with three Strike Corps being used in Exercise Brass Tacks, by General Sundarji. This vision of armoured formations slicing towards the Indus framed the strategic context for the expected all-out war between India and Pakistan. The strategy of dismembering Pakistan, however, faces a stalemate – ironically, Brass Tacks was also the first of many instances in which Pakistan brandished its nuclear weapons as a deterrent against conventional rout.”
Heat on Pakistan
In December 2001, in response to the attack on the Indian Parliament, India launched Operation Parakram – moving 500,000 troops, three armoured divisions and three Strike Corps to the border. However, the long mobilisation period of three weeks removed the element of surprise, allowing the Pakistan Army to move 300,000 troops to the border. The standoff led India to conclude that the size of the Strike Corps made them difficult to manoeuvre and that the lack of offensive capability of the so-called Holding Corps was a serious handicap for quick military actions against Pakistan.
Cold Start was designed to run around this logistical Maginot Line. This integrated strike warfare doctrine – known within the Army as the Pro-Active Conventional War Strategy – reorganises the Indian Army’s offensive power away from the three large strike corps into smaller Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) that combine mechanised infantry, artillery and armour in a manner reminiscent of Russia’s operational manoeuvre groups during the Cold War.
According to Dr Subhash Kapila, an international relations and strategic affairs analyst, Cold Start aims to seize the initiative and finish the war before India’s political leadership loses its nerve. “The long mobilisation time gives the political leadership time to waver under pressure, and in the process deny the Indian Army its due military victories,” he says. “The new war doctrine would compel the political leadership to give political approval ‘ab-initio’ and thereby free the armed forces to generate their full combat potential from the outset.”
In January 2017, Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat for the first time publicly acknowledged the doctrine: “The Cold Start doctrine exists for conventional military operations. Whether we have to conduct conventional operations for such strikes is a decision well thought through, involving the government and the Cabinet Committee on Security.”
According to General Rawat, every IBG will consist of four to six infantry and armoured battalions and two to three artillery regiments, next to air defence, logistical, signals and headquarter units. Each IBG would have around 10,000 troops as opposed to the old division, which on average had a strength of around 20,000 soldiers. Eight to ten such IBGs could be arrayed against Pakistan while an equal number, albeit smaller sized due to the mountainous terrain, could be deployed against China.
The crux of Cold Start is:
· Pakistan must not enjoy the luxury of time. The IBGs would launch attacks within hours.
· These battle groups will be fully integrated with the Indian Air Force and naval aviation, and launch multiple strikes round the clock into Pakistan.
·Each IBG will be highly mobile unlike the Strike Corps.
· Ominously for Pakistan, the IBGs will be based close to the border. India’s elite strike forces will no longer sit idle waiting for the opportune moment, which never came in the last wars.
Calculus of war
In a Harvard paper on Cold Start, Walter C. Ladwig writes, “As the Indian military enhances its ability to implement Cold Start, it is simultaneously degrading the chance that diplomacy could diffuse a crisis on the subcontinent. In a future emergency, the international community may find the Battle Groups on the road to Lahore before anyone in Washington, Brussels or Beijing has the chance to act.”
Cold Start is also aimed at paralysing Pakistani response. Although its operational details remain classified, it appears that the goal would be to have three to five IBGs entering Pakistani territory within 72 to 96 hours from the time the order to mobilise is issued. “Only such simultaneity of operations will unhinge the enemy, break his cohesion, and paralyse him into making mistakes from which he will not be able to recover,” writes Gurmeet Kanwal, former director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.
Agrees Ladwig: “Multiple divisions operating independently have the potential to disrupt or incapacitate the Pakistani leadership’s decision making cycle, as happened to the French high command in the face of the German blitzkrieg of 1940.”
Also, rather than seek to deliver a catastrophic blow to Pakistan (i.e., cutting the country in two), the goal of Indian military operations would be to make shallow territorial gains, 50-80 km deep, that could be used in post-conflict negotiations to extract concessions from Islamabad.
Where the Strike Corps had the power to deliver a knockout blow, the IBGs can only “bite and hold” territory. This denies Pakistan the “regime survival” justification for employing nuclear weapons in response to India’s conventional attack.
Tactical nukes: Pakistan’s back-up
Pakistan has declared it will launch nuclear strikes against India when a significant portion of its territory has been captured or is likely to be captured, or the Pakistani military suffers heavy losses.
At the same time the Pakistani military is taking out another insurance policy – through battlefield nuclear weapons. The message is that Islamabad is prepared to use these compact warheads, which can be launched on purpose-built short range rockets, such as the much hyped Nasr, in the early days of war.
This can be interpreted in two ways. One, Pakistan has come round to the thinking that it can never defeat the Indian Army. Two, the Pakistani generals believe Cold Start cannot be allowed to stymie their plan to bleed India “with a thousand cuts”. In their view, achieving nuclear deterrence is not a victory but to stop their proxy war against India would be a defeat. This is not something to be taken lightly as it shows that the Pakistani elites want perpetual conflict with India in order to control Pakistani resources for their own benefit.
Calling the bluff
What if Pakistan uses tactical nuclear bombs against the Indian Army’s Battle Groups the moment Cold Start is initiated? In Kapila’s view, Pakistan’s low nuclear threshold is a myth – perpetuated and planted by Western academia and think tanks. This suits the needs of the conservative American establishment in whose eyes India is a long-term rival and Pakistan a useful, if unreliable, ally. Unfortunately, India’s political leadership and its uncritical media have been brainwashed into believing that Cold Start has apocalyptic consequences.
“Nuclear warfare is not a commando raid or commando operation with which Pakistan is more familiar,” says Kapila. “Crossing the nuclear threshold is so fateful a decision that even strong American Presidents in the past have baulked at exercising it or the prospects of exercising it.” Pakistan cannot expect India would sit idle and suffer a Pakistani nuclear strike without a massive nuclear retaliation.
Concrete moves have been taken to bring Cold Start to readiness. In October 2018, the biennial Army Commanders Conference in New Delhi cleared the formation of the IBG – self-contained fighting units comprising of elements of air power, artillery and amour. As against the antiquated fighting formation of corps – each comprising 8-10 brigades, with a brigade having 3-4 battalions of 800 fighting men each – an IBG is likely to have 6 battalions.
Shortly after the harvest season in 2019, the army will test the efficacy of IBGs as part of an exercise under its Western Command in Punjab. The corps-level exercise will test two types of configurations of the IBG – one for offensive roles, which during hostilities involves cross-border operations and the other for defensive postures to withstand an enemy onslaught. During the exercise, IBGs will be used instead of brigades. A brigade comprises of about three to four units, each having about 800 troops.
More integration required
Integrated strike warfare as required by Cold start mandates a network-centric warfare capability, that is the ability to coordinate geographically dispersed forces, including unnamed aerial vehicles and satellites, with advanced communications technology in a timely manner. The Indian military is slowly building up a robust capability in this field. Indian reconnaissance, intelligence, surveillance, and target acquisition capabilities would also currently not be able to support a full-scale and swift implementation of Cold Start.
Although Cold Start is army-specific, there is no way the Indian Army can fight a major war without Indian Air Force support. Massive waves of Sukhoi Su-30MKI, MiG-29 jet fighters and Mirage-2000s will have to be deployed in the air to achieve air superiority, thereby preventing Pakistani fighter aircraft to come near the war zone. Devoid of air support, the frontal elements of Pakistan Army will be pulverised in the initial hours of battle.
However, there is a problem. The IAF is not convinced about its role in the army’s Cold Start doctrine for a future war. The strategy envisages the air force providing “close air support”, which calls for aerial bombing of ground targets to augment the fire power of the advancing troops(BLURB).
The growing tension between the two services is evident in a statement of air vice-marshal (retd) Kapil Kak, deputy director of the air force’s own Centre for Air Power Studies. “There is no question of the air force fitting itself into a doctrine propounded by the army. That is a concept dead at inception,” Kak said. “The air force has the primary task of achieving ‘air dominance’ by which Pakistan’s air force is put out of action allowing the army to act at will.” The IAF sees little necessity to divert frontline fighter aircraft for augmenting the army’s fire power.
This intra-service standoff implies two things. One, the IAF and the Indian Army need to sit together and work out a joint plan. Two, army aviation must be enlarged to the extent that it gets a min air force of its own. This isn’t farfetched as it sounds – the US Navy has its own army, the US Marine Corps, and the Marine Corps has its own air force. At the very least, the Indian Army must be given its own ground attacks jets and attack helicopters.
Lessons from the US
During the Cold War, the two primary services of the American military forces, the US Air Force and US Navy, both operated in individual bubbles. The navy was forward deployed while the air force was mostly kept for the defence of the continental United States. Both the services maintained separate and unique operating mindsets and lacked any significant interoperability features.
That changed with the first Persian Gulf War in 1991 during which the USAF and US Navy developed exceptional cross-service harmony in their conduct of integrated strike operations. The seamless integration allowed thousand aircraft raids into Iraqi airspace that made it virtually impossible for the Iraqis to put up even a semblance of a fight. Instead of competing, both rather mutually supported and reinforced one another in the achievement of joint strike-warfare goals.
This should be a lesson for India’s three services, which incidentally worked together brilliantly in the 1971 War to pound Pakistan day and night, utterly destroying its war fighting capability within a space of just 14 days.
Even more pressing are the chronic shortages that have plagued the Army since independence. For example, it still lacks a sufficient number of tanks. Artillery, which is the key to any large scale attack, has been severely degraded. It is only under the Narendra Modi government that orders have been placed for self-propelled and towed howitzers for close artillery support. The total requirement is for 1,800 guns so it’ll take at least a decade to meet that goal.
Again, mobile air defence systems to cover the advance of armoured forces are only now beginning to see the light of day. The first of five S-400 Triumf surface to air missile regiments are slated to arrive in October 2020 –provided the Russians are able to meet production deadlines.
The military has also been suffering from chronic ammunition shortages, with the levels just enough for 10 days of fighting – although it’s increased from four days during the previous government.
The good news is unlike the previous decades, there is a real sense of urgency in the Army. Since Operation Parakram, the Army has reduced the mobilisation time of its Strike Corps from over three weeks to around one week. Senior officers say the forces have exercised as constituted battle groups at least six times since 2004. Each of the identified units knows where it will be deployed.
Without firing a shot
The beauty of Cold Start is it may never have to be used because it calls Pakistan’s nuclear bluff at the outset. Secondly, if at all Pakistan uses tactical nuclear warheads on Indian armoured columns thundering towards its cities, it would only be destroying its own Punjab heartland. Most Pakistani cities are close to the border and would become uninhabitable while India would lose only a small part of its army.
Cold Start also works to undermine the much smaller Pakistani economy. According to the Pakistani media, the threat of the Indian Cold Start doctrine and increase in India’s defence budget has prompted the Pakistan government to sharply increase its defence budget, further increasing the strain on that country’s fragile economy.
( By special arrangement with Geopolitics magazine, where it had first appeared)