The Cold Start hypothesis

BEREFT of a stated nuclear doctrine, Pakistan obdurately plans to use tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) to neutralise Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) if launched by India across the border against Pakistani proxy war terror strikes.

The Cold Start hypothesis

AT THE READY: Standard Operating Integrated Procedure is the need of the hour.

Maj Gen Raj Mehta (retd)

Maj Gen Raj Mehta (retd)

BEREFT of a stated nuclear doctrine, Pakistan obdurately plans to use tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) to neutralise Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) if launched by India across the border against Pakistani proxy war terror strikes. Does this ploy throw cold water on India’s ‘Cold Start’ doctrine? Is Pakistan’s adaptation of an outmoded Cold War tactic implementable?  Can nuclear wars be ‘tactical’? Is India’s no-first-use (NFU) policy ‘didactic’ (patronising) or ‘persnickety’ (irritatingly detailed) as former NSA Shivshankar Menon, author of Choices – Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy (2016), puts it? 

He has set the cat among the pigeons. He states that: ‘Circumstances are conceivable in which India might find it useful to strike first, for instance, against a nuclear weapon state that had declared it would certainly use its weapons, and if India were certain that adversary’s launch was imminent.’  His reiteration of the NFU doctrine as the only doctrine that makes sense may provide cold comfort to Pakistani N-war planners. This is because Menon has opened the NFU statement to several interpretations, not all of which are reactive. He negates the proposed Pakistani employment of N-weapons for ‘tactical’ warfighting by saying that: ‘Nuclear weapons are primarily a political weapon…rather than effective warfighting weapons’. He reinforces India’s stand that Pakistani usage of ‘tactical’ N-weapons will invite strategic retaliation: ‘First strike equals aggression’. 

For the lay reader, it is necessary to trace the genealogy of why the Cold War tactic of ‘tactical’ nuclear bluff became germane for Pakistan. Op Parakram (2001) under Gen S Padmanabhan, the then Army Chief, was the ‘tipping point’ that made Pakistan take note of a fundamental Indian doctrinal change. It was India’s full-force mobilisation in retaliation against Pakistan’s attack on our Parliament. Announced with much publicity, it ended in stasis. Within the well-deserved criticism that followed was, however, concealed a doctrinal nugget called Cold Start. A change in warfighting outlook was in the offing before Op Parakram. The three strike corps were full of men of steel who would launch from secure bases provided by willing ‘holding’ corps. The strike corps intent was to cut wide Panzer swathes into Pakistan, stopping short of the hazy nuclear ‘red line’. Their intent was to threaten Pakistan’s strategic east-west communications, thereby forcing it to call off its proxy war.

The reality was different. Firstly, Pakistan had been putting up Maginot/Bar-Lev defences to convert tank country into tank obstacles. Secondly, the mobilisation of strike elements tucked in Gangetic plains and beyond needed time; a critical commodity in war. Thirdly, the defensive corps, identified as service-providers for strike elements, began thinking out-of-the-box. The defensive corps, chafed by extended Op Parakram inaction, started identifying themselves as ‘pivot corps’ that could perform offensive operations, even as hinterland forces took time to launch. Instead of being a defensive deployment, a pivot corps could, within hours, pivot on its own deployment to cut through enemy defences caught by surprise because of an unanticipated observe-orient-analyse-decide-act (OOADA) loop.   

The pivot could equally be premised on the enemy’s ‘shock’ to reach shallow enemy objectives without inviting an all-out war. Formulated at an Op Parakram press conference by Gen Padmanabhan, the much-maligned operation carried a sting — created in countless operation room shelters in hot desert, windswept plains, foothills, corridors of power in Army Commands and headquarters. In Indian reckoning, Cold Start threw cold water on Pakistan’s Kargil boasts of nuclear bullying. 

Admiral Verghese Koithara in his book, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces,  says he is uncertain whether Cold Start has apex political support. The Army sometimes makes ambivalent comments about Cold Start but Pakistan is worried because of the resultant stability-instability paradox. This theory states that ‘when two countries have nuclear weapons, the probability of direct war between them decreases, but the probability of smaller conflicts between them increases’. The Cold War USA-Soviet example is of no direct war between them but proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan. Cold Start exploits this paradox and Pakistan seeks denial by using tactical nukes. 

The question arises: What is it about Cold Start that has Pakistan in such paranoia? In Pakistani perception, it allows India to launch up to eight IBGs from holding corps into shallow offensive operations, even as strike corps mobilise from hinterland garrisons. This IBG offensive taking off from a literal zero warning would be supplemented with lethal weapons such as Brahmos, Nirbhay ALCMs and Prahaar/Pragati ballistic missiles. Such ‘lightning’ action would upset the Pakistani deployment and reaction calculus.   

Reviving the Cold War hypothesis, Pakistan says its sophisticated 60-km range Nasr Hatf IX multi-tube TNW-enabled ballistic missile is an antidote to the Cold Start. Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations Directorate (ISPR) claims that Nasr adds ‘deterrence value to Pakistan’s strategic weapons development program’ and carries ‘nuclear warheads of appropriate yield/accuracy with shoot-and-scoot attributes’. It suggests that Pakistan has a single integrated operational plan (SIOP) that marries up TNW usage with conventional warfare command and control; a claim watchers find implausible except with a pinch of Pakistani Khewra rock-salt.  

Long-serving Strategic Plans Division (SPD) head, Lt Gen Khalid Ahmed Kidwai, in 2015, said Nasr enhanced deterrent capability ‘at all levels of the threat spectrum’. He said  ‘having tactical nuclear weapons would make war less likely’. Air Commodore Adil Sultan, Director Research, SPD, however, claims that Pakistan’s TNW posture is a repeat of the Cold War stance. He quotes General Kidwai who claims that Nasr effectively ‘pours cold water on Cold Start’. Albert Mauroni, a US analyst, also supports this TNW construct. 

Analyst Vipin Narang, MIT-based nuclear analyst, writes that even as the majority of Pakistani strategists see the TNW mindset as providing ‘full-spectrum deterrence’ and a counterweight to deter Cold Start ambitions, others like former SPD, Brigadiers Naeem Salik and Feroz Khan doubt whether Pakistan has the ‘wherewithal for battlefield management and escalation control’. Analyst Micheal Krepon backs the majority global view that TNWs are ‘unwise’ and ‘strategically unsound’. This opinion is reinforced by simulation studies of TNW hit tank losses which have been found insignificant. This is because the overpressure of 45psi needed to destroy tanks will need a literal rain of TNWs which is not possible. 

Let ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons be Pakistan’s favourite oxymoron even as the newly-formed Defence Planning Committee refines NFU/Cold Start. Work is also needed on our SIOP for the time when the nuclear armageddon dawns. 

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