A Cold Start to Nuclear War in South Asia

An Indian general provides the latest reminder that South Asia remains 'the most dangerous place' on Earth

Indian army chief Bipin Rawat / Getty

The number of foreign-policy challenges facing President Trump is daunting—from a nuclear-armed North Korea to a revanchist Russia, from an imperialist Iran to an increasingly belligerent China. These global threats garner numerous headlines each day, and deservedly so. Amid this chaos, however, one conflict receives too little attention in Western media.

South Asia is home to the ongoing rivalry between India and Pakistan, the international dispute most likely to produce, in the near term, a war between two large, powerful countries in which the belligerents use nuclear weapons. Indeed, the neighboring countries, each with well over 100 nuclear warheads, have gone to war four times since 1947, in addition to several other standoffs, skirmishes, and crises that nearly escalated into war. A primary reason this bilateral tension is so concerning today is that both India and Pakistan have adopted military doctrines that make another war—a large-scale one with nuclear weapons involved—all too foreseeable. A new development from India just last week provides the latest reminder of this reality.

Gen. Bipin Rawat, chief of the Indian army, announced last Thursday that the military is launching war games next month to test "structures geared towards sudden and swift offensives into enemy territory by ‘integrated battle groups,' or IBGs, reported Ajai Shukla, an Indian journalist and former army colonel. These new structures will be "validated" in military exercises on the ground in May.

Rawat's comments are sure to raise eyebrows in Pakistan, because the proposed IBGs are central to India's offensive military doctrine known as "Cold Start," an attack plan that involves a quick, limited penetration into Pakistan, rather than a more ambitious invasion and occupation. The operation would be implemented in a crisis, likely in response to a large-scale terrorist attack that India believes is tied to Pakistan. According to a research paper by the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank based in India, the Cold Start doctrine envisions

a shallow thrust offensive into Pakistan to capture territory "that can be used in post-conflict negotiations to extract concessions from Islamabad." This offensive ingress is to be executed using a small number of division sized ‘integrated battle groups‘ [emphasis added] within three to four days of political clearance and mobilization orders. Furthermore, proponents argue, the limited aim of capturing a small sliver of Pakistani territory—in contrast to bisecting that country—will guarantee that Pakistan's nuclear redlines are not crossed.

"Hopefully, after [exercises in May], we will go to the government and take their sanction [to restructure traditional divisions into permanent IBGs]," Rawat said last week.

For years, analysts have debated whether Cold Start is a functional, officially endorsed strategy within India; the Indian political and military establishments have not officially sanctioned the doctrine. In January 2017, however, Rawat appeared to acknowledge the existence of Cold Start.

"The Cold Start doctrine exists for conventional military operations," Rawat said. "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."

It was the first time that an actively serving Indian official acknowledged the doctrine's existence. Rawat's more recent comments seem to solidify further that Cold Start is very real, even if it has not yet been fully implemented.

Even more troubling than Cold Start is Pakistan's strategy to counter it. As I wrote in 2016:

Pakistan's response has been to build low-yield tactical nuclear weapons. They are meant to be an asymmetric advantage to overcome India's conventional military superiority if Cold Start is put into action. Pakistan sees them as credible deterrents against Indian incursions because of their lower yield compared to strategic weapons. Moreover, tactical nuclear weapons offer, in the minds of Pakistani leaders, a way to ensure India cannot control escalation dominance if a crisis spirals into a conflict. To bolster its deterrence posture, Pakistan has refused to adopt a no-first use nuclear policy, unlike India–although New Delhi has said it would respond to a Pakistani nuclear attack with an overwhelming second strike.

Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhary confirmed this strategy in October 2015, when he told reporters that Pakistan built tactical nuclear weapons in response to India's Cold Start doctrine and would use them if necessary.

It is easy to see how a large-scale terrorist attack on Indian soil tied to Pakistan, whose military and intelligence services have links to countless jihadist groups, could trigger Cold Start, which in turn could trigger Pakistan using a nuclear weapon. From there, who knows what would happen? Would it even be possible to control escalation?

Perhaps this is all an overreaction to one Indian general's comments. But there is growing evidence that Cold Start is real and may be operational soon enough.

In 2000, Bill Clinton called the Indian subcontinent the "most dangerous place in the world." That statement remains true today. Even though India and Pakistan may not get all the headlines in the New York Times, they better be on the Trump administration's radar.