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Manning the Siachen Glacier

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The Siachen Glacier is a mighty river of ice that brings forth many descriptions. Some authors characterize this place as the 'roof the world', and yet others call it the 'third pole'. Both descriptions are quite apt, the glacier is at least 15,000 feet above sea level, and peaks lining the glacier rise comfortably to over 23,000 feet. Biting winds routinely sweep through the region. Temperatures here frequently drop to –40°C. The glacier highlights nature's dual personality - majestic beauty and sheer brutality. This region is home to some of the least explored parts of the Himalayan mountain range. Most people would be hard put to explain a mountaineer's desire to venture into this frigid and unforgiving land, so it is perhaps even more difficult to explain why a battle rages there.

For the past 19 years, the Indian Army has been engaged in a frigid battle to protect the region from Pakistan's territorial aggression and keep it free of interference. The Indian Army's presence on the Siachen is frequently viewed from under the rubric of national security, all manner of explanations are extended and all sorts of significance are attached to this task. Although experts have written several books on the topic of the Siachen Glacier conflict, reading them is difficult even for the most seasoned observers. The result is a vague public understanding of the issues underlying the Siachen Glacier conflict. The Bharat Rakshak Forum offered a unique opportunity to discuss the issue of 'Manning the Siachen Glacier' on a recent thread. Several forum members weighed in with their views on the topic.  With great enthusiasm, the utility and futility of the Siachen Glacier conflict were hotly debated. The result was a thread regarded by several forum members as one of the best discussions on the BR Forum.

In this article, we will try to sketch out the salient features of that discussion. Every attempt is made to source a view to a particular participant in the discussion. We have taken the liberty of assuming that the members are who they claim to be and no effort is being made to ascertain their true profession and/or identity. We have attempted to minimize redundancy by posting select views. Readers can get in touch with the members by contacting them on the forum.  However, we cannot guarantee a response. We dedicate this article to those brave men and women of the Indian Army who have scaled the 'roof of the world' to guard India's soaring borders.

Quartered in snow,

Silent to remain,

When the bugle calls,

They shall rise and march again.

A brief history of the conflict

Pavan Nair initiated his discussion with the comment that:

"Gen Hoon then commanding 15 Corps says in his book published in 2000 that Khardung La and Leh would have been threatened had we not done so (i.e. taken the glacier). Gen Chibber-the then Army Commander says that Pakistan would have occupied Saltoro (a ridge west of the glacier) in the summer of '84 - for which we now know they had the plans."

The forum member Bishwa clarified that the Indian Army's move into the region was not without provocation,

"India did not initially occupy the ridgeline. It dropped troops on the 2 passes initially to block entry to the glacier from POK side which was legitimate. It tried to send troops to a third – Gyong La- by foot but failed. The race to move up vertically on the ridgelines started when the PA was not able to dislodge the Indian Army and tried to jockey for position IMHO. They lost out is their problem."

Citing excerpts from books by Gen. Chibber of the Indian Army and Gen. Jahan Dad Khan of the Pakistan Army, Bishwa categorically dismissed any suggestion that the Indian troops had illegally occupied the area.

"1. The first party to occupy Bilafond La (pass) with military force was Pakistan in 1983: This is from the book by Gen Jahan Dad Khan then commander 10 Corps - "Pakistan Leadership Challenges"

When the SSG company got across Bilafond Pass (in 1983), the helicopter pilot reported an Indian location one thousand yards ahead in the Siachen Area. After seeing our helicopter, the Indian troops, comprising Ladakh Scouts, left their location in a great hurry abandoning all their rations and tentage. The SSG Company stayed in this area for ten days but was ordered to withdraw in the first week of September 1983 as it had started snowing and the company did not have equipment for survival in the winter season under thirty to forty feet of snow, which is the normal snow range. I believe the scout who warned the Indian location of the approaching SSGs was awarded an Ashok Chakra.

2. From The Indian point of view this triggered action: This is what Lt. Gen M.L. Chibber who was Army Commander North has to say on this incident,

The problem precipitated on 21st August 1983 when a protest note from Northern Sector Commander of Pakistan was handed over to his counterpart in Kargil stating that Line of Control joins with the Karakoram Pass, also that all the area West of this extended line belongs to Pakistan. When Army Headquarters saw this and also got information that Pakistan troops had occupied Bilafond Pass, they ordered Northern Command to prevent the occupation of the Glacier area by Pakistan during the mountaineering season in 1984.

3. The fact of the matter is in 1984 the Pakistanis lost out due to poor intelligence: This is what Lt. Gen Jahan Dad Khan, Corp Commander 10th Corps, has to say on the matter

The withdrawal of the SSG company was followed by many meetings in the GHQ to decide our plan of action for the summer of 1984 when the Indians were bound to come in greater numbers. Also taken into consideration was the fact that whoever succeeded in occupying the passes first would be able to hold them, as it was impossible to dislodge them from these positions due to the terrain and the conditions. As Corps Commander, I gave the following assessment to the GHQ:

Next year (1984), India is most likely to pre-empt the occupation of the main passes of Baltoro Ridge with two-battalion strength for occupation and a third battalion as reserve. It would need another brigade to provide them with logistic support. Maximum helicopter force will have to be utilized for logistic support. Their air force will be available for air cover and airdrop of supplies/equipment. We will need a brigade group with a battalion plus to occupy these passes and the rest of the force to provide relief and logistic support. We would also need maximum porter force to carry supplies and ammunition from Goma to the glacier position. All our helicopters force, both Alouette and Puma, will have to be mobilized for recce and logistic cover. The PAF has to stand-by to provide air cover. I had also cautioned GHQ that this operation will be very costly in logistic support. Our Military Intelligence must be alerted to keep us informed of all enemy movements beyond Leh to forestall their occupation of the glacier area.

A meeting was held in December 1983, in the GHQ Operation Room under the chairmanship of President General Zia ul Haq. After listening to the 10 Corps Plan, the COAS thought that the operation on both sides would be on a limited scale, involving not more than a brigade on the Indian side and a battalion on Pakistan's side. The COAS had obviously underestimated the quantum of force required by both sides. He had also under-estimated the logistic problem of this operation as presented to him by the logistic staff of the GHQ. In this meeting, it was decided to incorporate the PAF in this operation and Ma. Gen. Pir Dad Khan (Commander of the Northern Areas) was given the task of pre-empting occupation of the passes, reaching there not before May 1984, as weather conditions before that period would not allow the use of helicopters and the PAF. This decision was to be approved by Defence Coordination Committee (DCC) attended by Chairman Joint Staffs Committee and all service chiefs. So preparatory work was started on the procurement of high altitude equipment and clothing, improvement of roads and tracks, recruitment of porters etc. All these preparations were to be completed by April 1984.

I handed over command of the 10 Corps to Lieutenant-General Zahid Ali Akbar Khan on 31st March 1984 after completing my tenure of four years. I gave him a detailed briefing about this operational plan and particularly stressed the importance of Intelligence keeping a watch on Indian moves beyond Leh. However, I learned later that when our troops approached the Baltoro Ridge passes during the third week of May 1984, the Indians were already in occupation of Gyong Pass in the south, strategically important because it could interfere with the enemy's line of logistic support. As it was impossible to dislodge the Indians, we had no option but to occupy the next highest feature opposite them. This was a great setback for Pakistan, although all plans, including the timing of troop movement, had been laid down at the highest level. We had obviously failed to appreciate the timing of the Indian move and our intelligence agencies had failed to detect the movement of a brigade-size force in this area. It was learnt that the Indians had moved up their troops from Leh in the second half of April 1984.

After the occupation of these positions by both sides, opposite each other, the border became active. Both sides started inducting heavy weapons, including artillery guns, rocket launchers, and anti-aircraft missiles. Fire duels, patrol clashes, and engagement of helicopters through anti-aircraft guns became a daily affair. Both sides also brought up more troops to counter each other. Since then, there has been no substantial change in the relative position of both sides. It was in the winter of 1984 that the Pakistani troops first experienced operating at that altitude. But the troops were provided high altitude equipment and there was no abnormal loss of life due to weather conditions. Pakistan was also able to induce French Lama Helicopters to make up for our disadvantage vis-à-vis the Indians.

4. Now what were the Ladakh Scouts doing there? Well, this is what Lt Gen ML Chibber has to say,

In 1978, when I was DMO we got information about a foreign expedition from the Pakistan side visiting the Siachen Glacier. The Line of Control terminates at NJ 9842. The Glaciers are not demarcated. We sent a patrol next year and it was confirmed that Japanese expeditions had visited the Siachen Glacier. So routine patrolling started."

This should give the readers a real background of what happened in 1983-1984. It will show that India did not act unilaterally."

This closed the discussion on the matter of 'who started this war' on the Siachen Glacier. After this, the discussion focused on other aspects of Pavan Nair's first post.

Image 1 : Map of the Siachen Glacier Conflict Zone

Pavan Nair had asserted that the Pakistani threat might have been misread; he posed the following questions,

"The issue is that was there ever a real threat to Leh or Khardung La? Could this threat have been avoided by keeping a strong reserve in the Nubra Valley rather than occupying punishing heights (of the Saltoro Range)? Have we not made our point that the line runs along Saltoro and not to Karakoram Pass from NJ9842? Should not the military take up this issue with the political leadership and arrange a honourable pull out from Saltoro?"

Here Pavan Nair highlighted a common motif presented in discussions on the Siachen Glacier conflict; i.e. what is the exact strategic significance of the glacier? Moreover, could it be handled differently?

In a reply to this, participants Praneet N, Y I Patel, and Ray responded with the following points;

1) Keeping the Pakistanis off Siachen is critical to maintaining the security of the Nubra Valley. If the Pakistanis were to somehow secure the village of Dzingrulma at the snout of the glacier, they would be able to put the entire Nubra Valley within artillery range.

2) Holding the Saltoro Ridge on the west of the Siachen Glacier opens up the possibility of interdicting any Pakistani moves towards the Indian town of Chalunkha. The town of Chalunkha has very little depth due to its geography on the Indian side; the loss of Chalunkha would impose immense costs on the main lines of communication in the region.

3) By deflecting the threat to Chalunkha and Dzingrulma, we protect key passes (the Khardung Pass and the Saser Pass) in the region and close the gap that existed between the Shyok and Nubra rivers. This is essential to preserving the security of Leh and other key military positions along the Northern end of the Line of Actual Control with China.

In another post, Y I Patel added another aspect to the strategic significance of Siachen:

"The Saltoro Ridge, simply put, acts as the wedge that keeps India's door to Central Asia open. It may be pertinent to note here that during Mughal times Surat and Bharuch were among India's richest cities, thanks to the trade between India and Arabia. The prosperity was further boosted by commerce resulting from the Silk Route paths that passed over the Himalayas and connected China and Central Asia to the Middle East via India. The glory of Bharuch port is but a memory, but geographical verities remain constant with time. It is still shorter, for example, to get to Urmuqi (the capital of Chinese Xinjiang province) from Kandla rather than Hong Kong."

"There are Buddha statues in Mongolia, even in Siberia. They bear witness to the Indian cultural values that were transmitted to the remote reaches of Central Asia by Indian traders and monks. The geography remains the same, and those ancient routes can now be transformed to interstate highways and broad gauge railways."

"It is in my appreciation of the importance of Saser and Karakoram passes. I do not see them as letting China in; I see them as letting India out to China and through it to the other countries of Central Asia. That thought may have been too "visionary" just a few months ago, but if Nathu La will see traders plying their wares to Tibet again, can Karakoram La be far behind? This, ultimately, is what India's young sons are shedding blood in Siachen for. ....But portraying the Battle for Karakoram as a senseless or petty struggle does grave injustice to the brave young Indians who have paid in their blood to keep this door open."

The poster Ray appreciated the originality of Y I Patel's thesis, and its relevance:

"Pakistan could link up POK to China - that was their original intention. That is why they extended the line from NJ9842.

While I (Ray) was inward looking, he (Y I Patel) is outward looking and aggressively fresh. I looked at Karakorum as China connecting to it. Y I Patel looked at it better – (as) our gateway into China!"

However, Pavan Nair was not convinced by these arguments; in a short note, he subsequently opined that:

"The very basis of the operation was flawed in a strategic as well as a legal sense. Whatever threat to national security was perceived-rightly or wrongly- could have been countered by means other than the physical occupation of ground."

He continued, saying:

"The Eastern most stretch of the border was not demarcated after the Karachi Agreement of 1949 after a point called NJ9842 since it was inhospitable and uninhabited. The language used and now famous is that from NJ9842- the line would run 'thence North to the glaciers'. The Glaciers in question are the Siachen which feeds the Nubra River, the Rimo which feeds the Shyok River and the Baltoro which lies further to the North of Siachen."

"The Pakistani stand since the 1962 Chinese aggression was that the line extended North East from NJ9842 to the Karokorum Pass. They produced maps to prove it and encouraged mountaineering expeditions in the area, which prompted us to do the same-a perfectly correct reaction. It was a case of cartographic aggression and should have been dealt with as such. The approaches to Khardungla and Leh via the Nubra and Shyok Valleys were held by India as was the approach to the Karakoram Pass. Even if Pakistan had occupied Saltoro-there would have been no tactical or strategic advantage and they would have literally been left high and dry."

In this way, Pavan Nair lays out the basic geography of the Siachen region. He points out the most important part of the Siachen Glacier conflict that escapes many who write about it i.e. the physical battleground is not the glacier itself, but a high ridgeline that dominates the western approaches to the glacier, the Saltoro Ridge. These approaches lie through four passes, the Sia La, the Bilafond La, the Gyong La, and the Chulung La (see map). Control of the towering peaks of the Saltoro Ridge is vital to preserving control over the Siachen Glacier, and as always holding this high ground proves enormously costly.  Pavan Nair's basic point appeared to be that a Pakistani military campaign through the Shyok – Nubra gap would have to entail crossing this very adverse terrain. This negates the possibility of an incursion.

Y I Patel did not agree with Pavan Nair's comments, suggesting:

"Technology never remains static, and Gen Bhagat (who was responsible for delineating the LoC in 1948-49) erred primarily in assuming that since the glaciers were humanly uninhabitable, they would pose a similar obstacle to military occupation. He would not have dreamt that a handicapped person would attempt to climb Everest either, but an attempt was made this year, and technology may yet permit such a person to conquer Everest! By leaving the glaciers un-demarcated, Gen Bhagat's team not only failed to foresee the impact of modern medical research and mountaineering equipment on high altitude warfare, he also grossly disregarded the possibilities of plainly foreseeable advances in weaponry such as induction of artillery guns with extended ranges and with greater traverse capabilities!"

Ray, also rebutted Pavan Nair with an example from the Kargil War of 1999,

"The area Pt. 5299 to Bhimbat LC as also the Mashkoh area was supposed to be 'glaciated' and none could traverse the same and hence (it was left) unoccupied (by the Indian Army). The Pakistanis 'did a Kargil' and now it is choc-a-bloc full of troops!"

Other participants also offered similar views and highlighted the general lack of trust in Pakistan. Surya eloquently stated these as follows:

"I simply do not trust Musharraf. An Indian Special Forces officer once said to me – If you want to find out how Musharraf thinks, ask us. He will do anything to gain the advantage."

For his part, Pavan Nair was not deterred by the lukewarm reception of his premise. He acknowledged the objections of the other participants, but insisted that cost of India staying up on the Saltoro Ridge was unacceptable,

"Members should think of the thousands who have been wounded and have been 'boarded out' from the army with a measly disability pension. No sir! It is not worth holding an inch or even thousands of square kilometers of strategically useless terrain when the purpose can be served by moving into a position of strength below."

To bring down the cost, he offered a de-escalation proposal.

The Proposal

Pavan Nair proposed that India engage in what he termed, a 'Unilateral Strategic Withdrawal'.  He suggested that a token force be maintained as observers on the glacier itself and that the de-inducted force be converted into a reactive reserve to be located in the Shyok and Nubra Valleys. This proposal set the stage for the real debate. On its face, the withdrawal was highlighted as a sign of defeat; however, Pavan Nair argued that this unconventional thinking could work to India's advantage.

The Counter-Punch

Having examined the pros and cons of Indian unilateral withdrawal, Rudra Singha, asserted that:

"Perhaps a mutual pullout can be organized when Kashmir peace moves fructify",

Though the idea to link Siachen with a resolution of conflict imposed by Pakistan in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir was never fully accepted or debated, the idea of a mutual pullout as opposed to an Indian unilateral pullout found much support. Almost uniformly, participants felt that a 'Unilateral Strategic Withdrawal' will be interpreted in Pakistan, as an 'Indian Defeat' and that would surely bring adverse consequences for India.

Forum member Shiv was somewhat more open to the idea but with caveats:

"Knowing Pakistan I am sure that there will be two definite responses to a unilateral strategic withdrawal from Siachen.

1) Militarily I guess that Pakistan will do what t can and occupy some areas at least in a token fashion to show victory and progress in their war against the infidels.

2) Politically - the leader of Pakistan if we do a withdrawal - whether it is Musharraf, or Gen. Aziz or anyone will automatically claim that the "Unilateral Strategic Withdrawal" is a lame excuse and that Pakistan's policies are paying off, and that India is getting "tired" and that a few more years of jihad will get them Kashmir. This is the premise on which the military in Pakistan keeps links with Islamists and keeps a grip on Pakistan.

So my opinion of a unilateral withdrawal by India is that the idea is good if it is backed by a "big danda" (an element of coercion aimed at the Pakistanis)"

The sub-issues of the 'mutual pullout' were;

· Whether a mutual pullout is indeed feasible, and if so, what shape is it likely to take?

· Whether the pullout is sustainable – can a few limited posts on the glacier actually defend it?

· What are the costs and benefits of not being physically present on the Saltoro Ridge?

Is a Mutual Pullout Possible?

On the issue of the feasibility of a mutual pullout, most participants expressed cautious enthusiasm keeping in mind treacherous Pakistani intentions. Pavan Nair himself felt it would very easy to do this.

Sunil S opined that irrespective of whether it is a unilateral or a mutual withdrawal, there were inherent risks in the proposal:

"Should Pakistan move onto a peak after an India has withdrawn from there, they could subsequently claim that they had "conquered the Siachen Glacier". The Indian army would then incur high costs in bringing them down. Given that the Pakistani Army is desperately looking for a victory against India to bolster its image back home, it will be tempting for them to pursue this path."

Other participants (Jagan and Bishwa) pointed out that in technical discussions between the Indian and Pakistani Government, a possible withdrawal zone was discussed. This zone would put all Indian forces back to Dzingrulma and all Pakistani forces to Goma (See map). Most participants concluded, after looking at the map, that such a proposal was (prima facie) acceptable.

The forum member Bishwa pulled out paragraphs from Gen. M. L. Chibber's book that highlights that the positions held in the Saltoro Ridge by Indian Army were acquired sequentially, and in a manner that provided maximum overlapping coverage to each other. Undoing such a defensive line appeared to be a formidable proposition. In the later part of the thread much discussion centered on the positions of some of the posts on the Indian and Pakistani sides. Given that Indian and Pakistani armies refer to each other's posts on the ridge by different names, correlating the posts with names proved quite challenging.

Several participants such as Ashutosh, Bishwa, and Jagan spent a lot of time seeking out maps of the region. A very impressive write up of a journey to the Siachen Glacier was found in an account of the ROSE expedition of the Indian Mountaineering Federation. The veteran Indian mountaineer Harish Kapadia led this expedition. Another account of a journey to the Saltoro Ridge was found in the Outside Magazine. These maps and accounts helped increase the general understanding of the difficult topography of the region.

Is the Pullout Sustainable?

Pavan Nair opined that holding the glacier after withdrawing from the Saltoro Ridge could be feasible in the days of modern technology.

"The Glacier should continue to be occupied by us by keeping a few observation posts and blocking positions. We have an existing infrastructure and can block the approaches using surveillance devices. In fact, we may also continue to occupy the Southern part of the ridgeline where a road is now under construction-if so required. This would entail a much smaller force at considerably lower expense in terms of casualties and cost."

Pavan Nair also discussed the possibility of using close air support and satellite based surveillance to minimize the need for human presence on the Saltoro Ridge. Among the others, however, there were equally grave doubts about the ability to hold the glacier once the posts on the Saltoro Ridge had been vacated.

Ray noted that:

"If we moved into to block the Pakistanis at the Snout [flat and wide] as suggested, without heights, to my mind, the hasty defenses that would have to be taken would not have the defensive potential desired. Also reacting in the High Altitude Area [to take up defenses at the Snout] has attendant problems like acclimatization etc and it cannot be perceived to be in the same light as in lower hills and plains. Likewise, without road communications, it would be slow…. in fact, very slow since helicopters or even aircraft carry very low payloads [if operating from High Altitude air bases]. Moving in artillery too, which is essential, would be immense problem."

Ray countered that the idea of reactive force was ineffective;

"In the High Altitude, there is no question of 'rushing in' troops to stop any enemy. .... It is worse in the Siachen since apart from the rarefied atmosphere, the terrain obtained in the Siachen [moraine, ice walls, crevices etc] negates any movement. As far as 'Blocking Positions' go, there is no such thing for the Infantry. It is in armor warfare… Similarly the atmosphere played a significant role in making the PGMs (laser guided bombs) ineffective during the Kargil war."

Y I Patel also added;

"Our current deployment is really no different – a few observation posts to keep an eye on Pakistani movements. In fact, our posts on the heights of Bilafond La and northwards do nothing more than that. The real fighting is done by their calling on arty to prevent any Pakistan movements up the slope. Please let us not judge the current fighting by the accounts of Subedar Bana Singh's exploits (refer Operation Meghdoot). Thanks to men like him, we are now in a position to maintain a minimal presence in actual "posts" Indirect records such as Republic day award lists point out that the overwhelming majority of units deployed to Siachen are logistics and engineering units."

Sunil S further elaborated on the constraints of using technology by stating;

"The performance of PGMs in Kargil was patchy. It is difficult to use PGMs in mountains, and accuracy matters a lot. Even if we use a PGM I see little chance of doing away with a ground based spotter team to illuminate the target. You have to have feet on the ground."

"Satellite surveillance is in its infancy in our part of the world, it is notoriously inaccurate in mountain terrain. Given that even an average mountain can have inclines at 80 degrees, the 1-meter resolution actually compresses feature about 4-5 times the size. This renders the image useless. A polar orbit satellite can be over a location for a very short period, it is possible to predict the period that the satellite will be over the spot and to cover movement in that region over that period. I remain skeptical if even the most advanced western satellite technology can really maintain round-the-clock surveillance on the region."

"As far as ground based sensors go, the complexity of the task of putting up surveillance equipment on the Saltoro Ridge (~ 22000 feet) will be comparable to that task under taken by M.S Kohli's team when placing SNAP-19C powered sensors on Nandakot and Nandadevi in 1962."

Y I Patel felt that;

"If the authors (of an article linked by Pavan Nair) could spot the glaciers from the Nubra valley, then someone sitting on the glaciers could, in turn, spot anyone coming up Nubra valley. By occupying the snout of the glacier, Pakistanis can interdict the lines of communication (LC) running up Nubra Valley. Without the logistics, the posts on either side of the Nubra Valley would become unsustainable. Likewise, Saser La would suffer the fate of Dras, with Pakistanis occupying commanding positions and indulging in turkey shoots."

Sunil S also discussed the paradox at hand and the difficulties it imposed;

"'Good tactics' says "higher is better" - 'good logistics' says "higher is harder to re-supply" thus the only way to beat this paradox is to use the higher altitude and suppress the enemies supply routes asymmetrically (otherwise the enemy will return the favor). If you look at the battlefield

 

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