Cablegate: Cold Start - a Mixture of Myth and Reality


DE RUEHNE #0295/01 0471345
O 161345Z FEB 10

S E C R E T NEW DELHI 000295


EO 12958 DECL: 10/01/2020


Classified By: Ambassador Tim Roemer. Reason: 1.4 (b,d).
1. (S/NF) Summary: The Indian Army’s “Cold Start Doctrine” is a mixture of myth and reality. It has never been and may never be put to use on a battlefield because of substantial and serious resource constraints, but it is a developed operational attack plan announced in 2004 and intended to be taken off the shelf and implemented within a 72-hour period during a crisis. Cold Start is not a plan for a comprehensive invasion and occupation of Pakistan. Instead, it calls for a rapid, time- and distance-limited penetration into Pakistani territory with the goal of quickly punishing Pakistan, possibly in response to a Pakistan-linked terrorist attack in India, without threatening the survival of the Pakistani state or provoking a nuclear response. It was announced by the BJP-led government in 2004, but the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has not publicly embraced Cold Start and GOI uncertainty over Pakistani nuclear restraint may inhibit future implementation by any government. If the GOI were to implement Cold Start given present Indian military capabilities, it is the collective judgment of the Mission that India would encounter mixed results. The GOI failed to implement Cold Start in the wake of the audacious November 2008 Pakistan-linked terror attack in Mumbai, which calls into question the willingness of the GOI to implement Cold Start in any form and thus roll the nuclear dice. At the same time, the existence of the plan reassures the Indian public and may provide some limited deterrent effect on Pakistan. Taken together, these factors underline that the value of the doctrine to the GOI may lie more in the plan’s existence than in any real world application. End Summary.

What It Is and What It Is Not

2. (S/NF) As we understand it, Cold Start is an operational plan devised by the Indian Army and designed to make a rapid and limited penetration into Pakistani territory with the goal of quickly punishing Pakistan over some event, such as a Pakistan-linked terrorist attack in India, without threatening the survival of the Pakistani state or provoking a nuclear response. Cold Start is not a plan for the comprehensive invasion or occupation of Pakistan. Cold Start is said to have been formulated after the Indian Army’s slow and drawn-out 2002 mobilization in response to the fatal 2001 Pakistan-linked terror attack on the Indian Parliament. The lengthy process of mobilization, lack of strategic and operational flexibility, and the resulting lack of any element of surprise drew criticism from Indian politicians and opinion leaders, which prompted Indian Army planners to devise Cold Start. (See Reftel for further details on Cold Start’s genesis).

3. (S/NF) In order to avoid the Indian Army’s slow and lumbering military mobilization process and preserve the element of surprise in attack, Cold Start attacks could begin within 72 hours after the attack order has been given, and would be led by armored spearheads launched from prepared forward positions in Punjab and Rajasthan. As described, the plan emphasizes speed and overwhelming firepower: armored formations and accompanying infantry would advance into eastern Pakistan with limited goals in terms of distance and in terms of duration. Although the plan reportedly has a significant air support component, it is unclear to us how much joint versus parallel planning has taken place. We have not heard of a major operational role for the Indian Navy or parallel sea-launched attacks. (Reftel provides further analysis of the military aspects of Cold Start doctrine and implementation).

4. (S/NF) A positive attribute of Cold Start from the Indian perspective is that the short 72-hour time period between decision and attack could shield the GOI from international pressure to refrain from taking military action against Pakistan. India’s prolonged 2002 mobilization period gave the international community notice of Indian troop movements and allowed plenty of time for a series of Western interlocutors to lobby GOI leaders. Even if the plan is never actually implemented -- and there is considerable question as to GOI intent to ever implement it -- news of Cold Start’s existence has already paid dividends to Indian policymakers by providing reassurance to the Indian public that the GOI has the means to punish Pakistan for attacks on Indian soil without triggering potential mutually-assured nuclear destruction. From the Indian perspective, the unimplemented plan has the added virtue of accentuating Pakistani discomfiture and angst, which in theory may have some deterrent value.

Prospects for Cold Start

5. (S/NF) As noted above, GOI intent to ever actually implement Cold Start is very much an open question. The Cold Start doctrine was announced in April 2004 by the BJP-led government that was replaced shortly thereafter by the Manmohan Singh government, which has not since publicly embraced Cold Start. A political green-light to implement Cold Start, fraught as it is with potential nuclear consequences, would involve a highly opaque decision-making process and would likely necessitate broad political consensus, a factor that could prolong the time between a precipitating event such as a Pakistan-linked terror attack and Cold Start deployment (which in turn could reduce the element of surprise). We lack firm details of the decision-making process that the political leadership would use in the event of an incident that would trigger consideration of Cold Start or other military action against Pakistan. The precise function of the Cabinet Committee on Security in ratifying decisions to take military action, the character of the military’s advisory responsibilities to the Cabinet, the possible ad hoc nature of decision-making in the upper levels of the Indian government and the role of Congress Party figures like Sonia Gandhi in this process are not clearly understood.

6. (S/NF) If the GOI were to implement Cold Start given present Indian military capabilities, it is the collective judgment of the Mission that India would likely encounter very mixed results. Indian forces could have significant problems consolidating initial gains due to logistical difficulties and slow reinforcement. Reftel sets forth in detail the various resource challenges that India would have to overcome, challenges that range from road and rail transportation to ammunition supply. In addition, Cold Start’s reliance on swift mobile advance would have to contend with a large number of built-up populated areas in Pakistan that the Indian Army did not have to face in 1971, the last time it advanced in force into Pakistani Punjab and Sindh.

7. (S/NF) Indian leaders no doubt realize that, although Cold Start is designed to punish Pakistan in a limited manner without triggering a nuclear response, they can not be sure whether Pakistani leaders will in fact refrain from such a response. Even in the absence of a Pakistani nuclear response, GOI leaders are aware also that even a limited Indian incursion into Pakistan will likely lead to international condemnation of Indian action and a resulting loss of the moral high ground that GOI leaders believe India enjoys in its contentious relationship with Pakistan.


8. (S/NF) We think that the November 2008 Pakistan-linked terror attack in Mumbai and its immediate aftermath provide insight into Indian and Pakistani thinking on Cold Start. First, the GOI refrained from implementing Cold Start even after an attack as audacious and bloody as the Mumbai attack, which calls into serious question the GOI’s willingness to actually adopt the Cold Start option. Second, the Pakistanis have known about Cold Start since 2004, but this knowledge does not seem to have prompted them to prevent terror attacks against India to extent such attacks could be controlled. This fact calls into question Cold Start’s ability to deter Pakistani mischief inside India. Even more so, it calls into question the degree of sincerity of fear over Cold Start as expressed by Pakistani military leaders to USG officials. Cold Start is not India’s only or preferred option after a terrorist attack. Depending on the nature, location, lethality, public response, and timing of a terrorist attack, India might not respond at all or could pursue one of several other possible options. Finally, several very high level GOI officials have firmly stated, when asked directly about their support for Cold Start, that they have never endorsed, supported, or advocated for this doctrine. One of these officials is former National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan, who has recently been replaced. While the army may remain committed to the goals of the doctrine, political support is less clear. ROEMER

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