LONDON — Recently the Indian Army chief, Gen. Deepak Kapoor, drew attention when he suggested at a training command seminar that India is preparing for a “two-front” war with Pakistan and China as it brings its war-fighting doctrine in sync with emerging scenarios to firm up its “Cold Start” strategy.
After strengthening its offensive capabilities vis-a-vis Pakistan by creating a new Southwestern Army Command in 2005, India is now concentrating on countering China effectively in the eastern sector. Kapoor said there is now “a proportionate focus toward the western and northeastern fronts.”
Pakistan reacted predictably by describing India’s move as reflecting a “hegemonistic and jingoistic mindset” and betraying a “hostile intent.” It urged the international community to take notice. The Pakistani security establishment apparently viewed this as an opportunity to once again press upon the Americans the need to keep Pakistani troops on the India-Pakistan border rather than on the Afghanistan border to fight Taliban forces.
China, on the other hand, did not choose to respond to the issue directly. The two states have begun a dialogue at the defense secretary level. Chinese analysts have expressed concerns in recent years about India’s growing military ambitions and the purported shift in India’s “passive” defense strategy to one viewed as “active and aggressive.”
It was the Kargil conflict of 1999 that exposed Indian vulnerabilities as Pakistan realized that India didn’t have the capability to impose quick and effective retribution. The Indian Army chief at the time had famously commented that the forces would fight with whatever they had, underscoring the military’s frustration over the inability to procure needed arms.
Only because that conflict remained largely confined to the 150-km front of the Kargil sector did India manage to gain the upper hand. Then, in 2001, came the standoff between the Indian and Pakistani armies across the Line of Control after the Indian Parliament was attacked. Again, India lacked the ability to carry out surgical strikes against Pakistan because of the unavailability of suitable weaponry, including night-vision equipment.
The nuclear aspect is important because it is one reason why elements within the Pakistani security establishment have become more adventurous. Realizing that India would be reluctant to escalate a conflict to the nuclear level, sections of the Pakistani military and intelligence have pushed the conventional envelope in using various terror groups to launch assaults on India.
For India this presents a structural conundrum: Nuclear weapons have made a major conventional conflict with Pakistan unrealistic, yet India still needs to find a way to launch effective but limited military action against Pakistan.
After Operation Parakram (2001-2002), the Indian Army tried to develop a new doctrine to find an answer to Pakistan’s growing recklessness. Thus was born the Cold Start doctrine, which basically states the effort to acquire the ability to launch quick, decisive, limited strikes under the nuclear umbrella, and to seize some territory — before the international community can intervene — to be used as a postconflict bargaining chip.
As this doctrine is evolving, it’s not clear how effective it would be in making sure that a conflict remains limited. Moreover, the army has found little support for it from the other two services. Nor has the civilian government shown interest in the venture.
Yet, the Cold Start doctrine has remained in the limelight as the national security establishment searches for policy options vis-a-vis Pakistan. Execution of the doctrine, a work in progress, would require proper equipment, which India must acquire on a priority basis.
For the army to make the acquisitions, it will have to surmount a number of entrenched problems in defense procurement. The 1999 and 2001 crises forced the government to react by boosting defense expenditures, but political compulsions reasserted themselves soon afterward.
When the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government came to power in 2004, it ordered the investigation of several arms acquisition deals. Furthermore, a series of defense procurement scandals since the late 1980s have made the bureaucracy risk-averse, thereby delaying acquisitions.
The labyrinthine military procurement process has crimped spending on defense, even as Pakistan has acquired U.S. technology the past several years because of its involvement in the “war on terror.” And while China’s military modernization has gathered momentum, the modernization of the Indian Army has slipped behind by as much as a decade.
So, the Indian Army chief was stating the obvious when he talked of India’s preparing for a two-front war. Unlike in Pakistan and China, though, strategic policymaking in India is the sole preserve of the political leadership. And Indian policymakers have yet to sign on to this much-talked-about new doctrine.
Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London and is a visiting fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.
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