cold start doctrine

Written by Sarah Faraz 10:47 am Current Affairs, International Relations, Pakistan, Published Content, Research Papers

Cold Start Doctrine: The Idea of Limited Scale War & South Asian Insecurity

The article identifies the historical background of the Cold Start doctrine and relates it to the idea of limited war, exploring the dimensions of limited war and its possibility in South Asia.
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Ms Sarah Faraz is a Political Science graduate from Kinnaird College for Women.


The Cold Start doctrine was first introduced in 2004, aimed at modifying the traditional approach to war. It seeks to fight limited duration war while keeping in mind the new nuclear dilemma; a wide range of other elements support the doctrine in modernizing the fighting technique. The Indian Cold Start doctrine imagines applying direct ground powers for numerous assaults, without giving any battle indicators to the foe.

Historical Background

The base thought behind the idea of Cold Start doctrine has been taken from the military-based idea of Blitzkrieg, which was embraced and put to a fruitful test in WWII by General Guderian of Germany who planned to move the tanks with versatile infantry and cannons. The thought was to meet with the speed of tanks with backup devoted air power.

The rationale behind the methodology of utilizing various components of arms was essential to give speed, versatility, and fire capacity to the assaulting power, and, in this way, hitting the adversary with one genuine blow. It was Blitzkrieg thought which really permitted the German powers to get through the acclaimed French Maginot Line which was viewed as impenetrable.

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The idea of the Cold Start doctrine in India was initiated after “Operation Parakram”, which was followed by 2001 terror attacks on the Indian Parliament, suspected to have been sponsored by Pakistan. The operation in turn exposed major gaps in India’s military power to carry out offensive measures, resulting in the slow mobilization of Indian troops along the Indo-Pak border.

The Indian army took almost a month to prepare and reach its destined location, opening the way for two things: first, it gave time for Pakistan to take up defensive measures against India, and second, it invited International actors such as the United States to pressure the Indian government.

Thus, in 2004, India developed its Cold Start doctrine and in 2009 made an official claim by the then Army chief, Deepak Kapoor saying, “a major leap in our approach to conduct of operations has been the successful firming-in of the ‘Cold Start’ strategy”.1

Essential Elements of the Cold Start Doctrine

cold start doctrine

The CSD will require the Indian army to divide itself into eight smaller forces, that is, integrated battle groups (IBGs). The task of these forces would be to respond quickly to any terror attack within 72 hours of commands. The attack waged by these forces would be a surprise attack on eight different places simultaneously.

The forces would highlight selective aims and targets so as to avoid mismanagement and time consumption. Day and night attacks would be conducted when the chances of enemies’ response are the least. The IBGs would be accompanied by tanks, artillery, and air support as well, providing a complete package of backup supplies, and network-centric warfare and electronic warfare capabilities of the Indian army would be employed for maximum effect    

Limited Scale War and South Asia’s Stability

Defining the Concept of Limited War

The concept of limited war goes back to the 19th century when many theorists and political analysts propagated the idea that political end goals could be achieved using means other than the traditional military ones. These means, according to Clausewitz from the 19th century and Liddell Hart from the 20th century, were termed as a limited war.2

Liddell Hart believed that total all-out war made little sense, given both parties possess atomic power.  He believed that knowing the parameters of war and still going along with it was an attempt of “mutual suicide”.3 Robert Endicott Osgood defines limited war as the one with restricted purpose/limited goals, which doesn’t demand the use of military power to be resolved.4

He moves on to further explain the concept by adding the elements of limited geographical area and selective targets, which don’t disrupt the normal working of its social, economic, and political life of a state.5 In another of his study, Osgood mentions that limited war uses limited resources of the military’s total capacity by keeping limited aim and targets.

The Indian administration seems to have fully adopted the idea of limited war in its rivalry with Pakistan as explained by the former chief of the Indian army General A.M. Vohra, who believes that the idea of all-out war has become obsolete and so has the occupation of states, thus in order to achieve limited political goals, the application of limited war is taken into account without “bringing the enemy down to his knee; and not missing the opportunity to bargain and bring an end to hostilities”.6

Limited War below the Nuclear Threshold

The nuclear doctrines of both India and Pakistan maintain the idea of withholding “credible minimum deterrence”, the underlying idea of which is to possess enough nuclear weapons that could deter the enemy from making any pre-emptive move against the other. This is the implication of the deterrence theory, which, in the case of Pakistan, is the protection of its national security and deterring the enemy against all forms of aggression.7

However, analysts find a degree of ambiguity between the declared nuclear doctrine of both India and Pakistan. The Pakistani nuclear doctrine maintains defense against India as its core and openly lays down parameters under which Pakistan would possibly raise its nuclear threshold.

These parameters as explained by General Khalid Kidwai, Director General Strategic Plans Division, include: India attacks Pakistan and captures a large part of its territory; India destroys Pakistan’s land and air forces; India blockades Pakistan by economically strangling it or destabilizing it politically; and when India creates a large scale internal subversion in Pakistan.8

The Indian nuclear doctrine, according to analysts, is an open-ended and ambiguous policy plan which keeps the option of involving conventional force always open for itself, which indeed exploits the space of limited war and would fail to keep the conflict below the nuclear threshold.9

Another major dilemma that exists under the current nuclear policy of both states is their stance on “No First Use” (NFU). The formal nuclear policy of Pakistan is not based on the idea of NFU, rather Pakistan maintains the stance that its nuclear weapon will be used first if “the very existence of Pakistan as a state is at stake”.10

Rodney W. Jones believes that due to the prevailing asymmetries in the current defense capabilities of both states, Pakistan feels vulnerable to Indian aggression. The Pakistani leadership, under such circumstances, would focus on enhancing its deterrence capability, especially its nuclear power for self-defense. Thus Pakistan while keeping this insecurity paradox in mind has refrained from adopting nuclear NFU policy.

India, on the other hand, has maintained the NFU stance and successfully projects itself as a responsible nuclear state. However, this strategy of NFU does not bind India from making other ”punitive strikes” or surgical strikes.11 Further, it is almost impossible to predict India’s threat perception and possible retaliation along with its intention and capacity to conduct pre-emptive strikes and the level and extent of conventional forces involved in it.

The new Indian strategy of Cold Start has also placed a question mark on Indian attempt to wage a limited war in South Asia, since the doctrine talks about the making of quick and swift attacks, capturing small chunks of land in the enemies territory, enhancing the night-time capacity to conduct war, decreasing the mobilization time of the army, and developing small yet strengthened IBGs.12

The Possibility of Limited Scale War in South Asia

Any limited-scale armed conflict has all the potential of escalation to a full-fledged nuclear war which would have a direct repercussion to South Asia’s stability. There are several reasons13 — goal setting, political objectives, misperception, agency, and geography — why a limited-scale conflict is not a possibility in the region of South Asia. The Pakistani administration along with the military has clearly set goals and conditions under which it would be bound to use its nuclear power.

Pakistan has clearly maintained its goals and so has India under its Cold Start doctrine. In order to be able to conduct a limited-scale war, having a clear political objective is the need of the time and hence demands a correlation between the means and the ends in order to prevent the escalation of a conflict. However, clearly defined political objectives, in theory, can not be implemented in practice.

Political objectives are very important because of the existing discontent between the political and the military elites. The lack of cooperation and understanding between the said parties causes a failure to all the well-defined objectives and policies, which India has already faced during Operation Parakram.

Both India and Pakistan have a high degree of misperception regarding the other in terms of military power, political stability, and economic strength to carry out an armed conflict. The intention of the Indian military to wage limited war may not be perceived by Pakistan in the same way.

Since Pakistan clearly maintains an “offensive defense” policy, any act of aggression from the Indian side would be perceived as a direct threat to the national security of Pakistan. Thereafter, a violent response by Pakistan would likely be responded by another violent response but on a larger scale and thus misperception cannot maintain a limited war from escalation.

The doctrine itself invites escalation since it maintains an ambiguous stance to confuse rivals. On one hand, it talks of conducting a limited war while also maintaining to paralyze the enemy with multiple robust attacks and cutting off of the communication lines. The final yet grave concern for Pakistan is its geographical compulsion that is beyond its control.

Pakistan faces a serious dilemma of the lack of strategic depth and thus generates a security dilemma and a compulsion for Pakistan to react with force to secure its territory; a limited-scale war in a compact geographical space would be undesirable and unfavorable for Pakistan.14

Pakistan’s Response to the Cold Start Doctrine

Political Response

On the political front, Pakistan’s first line of defense is to develop cordial ties and seek the support of the international community. This is mainly to let the world know about India’s offensive regime and to ensure that in times of war Pakistan is not left politically isolated. It is the same reason that Pakistan has moved on to develop political as well as military ties with China.

Pakistan has also resorted to international organizations such as the UN and OIC against India’s offensive regime, especially in the region of Indian Administered Kashmir.15 Pakistan’s political stance on the Cold Start doctrine is clear and leaves no room for ambiguity. It has always propagated peace via bilateral negotiation but admits to not back off from adopting an offensive defense strategy if and when India rejects cooperation.

Military Response

Somewhere between 2009 and 2013, the Pakistan Army led military activities codenamed Azm-e-Nau to formalize and operationalize a regular reaction to the Cold Start doctrine. Pakistan additionally adopted a “new concept of warfighting” otherwise called NCWF, which intends to fortify the activation power and the time required by the soldiers so as to render inter-military communication smoother, particularly between the Pakistani Army and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF).

The PAF in this respect made the vital adjustment and led aeronautical activities. In these activities, the recorded contribution of 20,000 soldiers from each military administration in territories of southern Punjab, Sialkot, and Sindh along Pakistan’s eastern border with India was seen on the ground.

On the off chance that Pakistan is to be sure ready to mount a counter-hostile attack even before India shoots the primary shot, truly and allegorically, it blunts the viability of the Indian military doctrine. However, the way that Pakistan has structured short-range atomic weapons to counter the Cold Start itself infers that it has been constrained by India to disregard dependence on the alternative of a full-scale war. India has forced its decision of a restricted war on Pakistan regardless of whether Pakistan intends to battle it with little use of atomic weapons.16


Pakistan and India have historically been engaged in several armed struggles against each other but the post-1998 scenario heightened the tensions between these nuclear states. India’s military strategy of the Cold Start envisions conducting a limited-scale war much below the nuclear threshold in order to minimize the chances of escalation.

However, the silent feature of the Cold Start doctrine propagates some other story. It calls for a robust attack on multiple target points at the same time so as to paralyze the enemy. Furthermore, it intends to jointly mobilize land and air power in the form of IBGs to strengthen its attack and defense. These features totally call for violent attacks, opposite to what the Indian administration propagates.

Pakistan, on the other hand, has maintained a stern position and highlighted its nuclear first use policy in order to make an offensive defense. Under such a scenario, the peace and stability of the South Asian region have been disturbed with the balance of power equation unsettled. 


1 “Cold Start: India’s answer to Pakistan’s nuclear bullying,” The Economic Times, Mar. 04, 2019, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/cold-start-indias-answer-to-pakistans-nuclear-bullying/articleshow/68254953.cms?from=mdr.

2 Robert Endicott Osgood, Limited War Revisited (Avalon Publishing, 1979).

3 Basil Henry Liddell Hart, The Revolution in Warfare (Yale University Press, 1947).

4 Robert Endicott Osgood, Limited War: The Challenge to American Strategy (University of Chicago Press, 1957).

5 Osgood, The Challenge to American Strategy.

6 Khurshid Khan, “Limited War Under the Nuclear Umbrella and its Implications for South Asia,” The Stimson Center, accessed February 26, 2021, https://www.stimson.org/2012/limited-war-under-nuclear-umbrella-and-its-implications-south-asia/.

7 Meena Menon, “Pak. reiterates its Credible Minimum Deterrence,” The Hindu, last modified August 16, 2016, https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/south-asia/pak-reiterates-its-credible-minimum-deterrence/article5108455.ece.

8 Paolo Cotta-Ramusino and Maurizio Martellini, “Report on Nuclear safety, nuclear stability and nuclear strategy in Pakistan,” (report presented at Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, January 14, 2002), https://pugwash.org/2002/01/14/report-on-nuclear-safety-nuclear-stability-and-nuclear-strategy-in-pakistan/.

9 Khan, “Limited War Under the Nuclear Umbrella,”.

10 Firdaus Ahmed, “Limited nuclear war, limitless anxiety,” India Together, last modified March 1, 2003, https://www.indiatogether.org/limited-op-ed.

11 Khan, “Limited War Under the Nuclear Umbrella,”.

12 Masood ur-Rehman Khattak, “Indian Military’s Cold Start Doctrine: Capabilities, Limitations and Possible Response from Pakistan,” ResearchGate, last modified September 2011, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/312174708_Indian_Military’s_Cold_Start_Doctrine_Capabilities_Limitations_and_Possible_Response_from_Pakistan.

13 Walter C. Ladwig, “A Cold Start for Hot Wars? The Indian Army’s New Limited War Doctrine,” International Security 32, no. 3 (2007): 158-190, accessed February 26, 2021, https://www.jstor.org/stable/30130521.

14 Ladwig, “A Cold Start for Hot Wars?”.

15 Hafeez Ullah Khan and Ijaz Khalid, “Indian Cold Start Doctrine: Pakistan’s Policy Response,” Journal of the Research Society of Pakistan 55, no. 1 (2018): 338, accessed February 26, 2021, https://www.prdb.pk/article/indian-cold-start-doctrine-pakistan-s-policy-response-2572

16 “Cold Start: India’s answer to Pakistan’s nuclear bullying,” The Economic Times.


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