Resolution of Siachen dispute depends upon the future of Line of Control in Jammu & Kashmir
Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab
Once again Siachen is in the news Pakistani newspaper Nation reported that India and Pakistan had clinched a deal to end the Siachen war and withdraw troops from the glacier. After India announced a unilateral reduction of troops from Jammu and Kashmir, there was wide speculation that it might happen in Siachen as well. Defence minister, Pranab Mukherjee, however, denied any such move. There have also been talks amongst analysts from the region and the US that India and Pakistan may be receptive to converting the glacier into some sort of a science centre or an International Peace Park to study affects of high altitude. And many discerning people opine that a resolution of Siachen will be biggest confidence building measure and a break though in India Pakistan relations. All this leads to a single conclusion that little is understood about the Siachen war which started overtly on 13 April 1984. Into its twenty first year. The Siachen war remains an extraordinary operation. The war was started by the Indian Army without cohesive and comprehensive military planning. But over the last two decades, the army has thought of many strategic reasons for a war which started with none. Today India takes pride in the fact that the entire 110km Saltoro ridge, called the Actual Grand Position Line (the western edge of the glacier facing Pakistan) ranging from 12,000 feet to over 21,000 feet is held by it, thereby denying the strategic advantage of the glacier to both Pakistan and China. For this reason, India will continue to hold the glacier until Pakistan accepts a mutual withdrawal of troops on India’s terms, which means that it should formally agree to the present Indian positions on the AGPL,, In short, the planning and execution of Operation Meghadoot (Pakistan calls it Operation Ababeel) has been a complete success. Even as this perception has become widespread over the years, it is not the truth. Despite manufactured strategic importance, the truth is that Siachen has little strategic significance (see box). And, while the operation was politically necessary, the army leadership failed totally in its appreciation of the war. As a result, India suffers more casualties due to weather than enemy on the highest battlefield in the world. Even today, the main effort on the glacier is towards maintaining and preserving the personnel than war-fighting.
The glacier in Kashmir is about 76km long and varies in width from two kilometres to eight kilometres. One of the largest glaciers in the world, Siachen is popularly called the “Third Pole’. The glacier originates from the pass called Indira Col in the west and runs in a south-easterly direction until its snout turns into the Nubra river near Dzingrulma. The Nubra river flows south to meet the Shyok River. Flanked by the Karakoram range to the east and the Saltoro Range (which originates from Sia Kangri) to the west, the glacier has three major passes along the Saltoro Range. These are Sia La, Bilafond La and Gyong La. A number of settlements close to the Saltoro Range are located in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (referred to in Pakistan as Azad Kashmir or the Northern Areas). On the east of the range, passage to the nearest Indian town requires traversing parts of the glacier, a hazardous enterprise that can take up to 10 days. While Sia La is 31 km from Goma, also in POK.
The seeds of the war lay in the 1949 and 1972 agreements on delimitation of the Cease Fire Line (CFL) and the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan. In both cases, the northern-most end of the military line was left vague as it was felt that neither country would venture into the mountainous area at an average height of 18,000 feet. The CFL ran through Chorbatla, Chalunka, Khor, thence north to the glaciers. The LoC ran upto Chorbatla. From there it runs north-eastwards to Thang (inclusive to India) thence eastwards joining the glaciers. Map point NJ 9842 which is the last point delimited on the maps signed by military delegation of both sides finds mention only in case of the CFL and not the LoC.
Pakistan’s position regarding Siachen is that if the CFL is extended beyond point NJ 9842, following the immediately previous course of its direction. Then the Siachen and its surrounding area fall well within Pakistan’s territory. Such a line joints NJ 9842 to Karakoram pass in the Karakoram range cutting the glacier into half. India’s stand is that NJ 9842 should be extended northwards, and watershed principal of an available mountain crestline be applied. The imaginary line then runs along the Saltoro ridge, currently held by Indian troops. It is called the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) to distinguish it form the LoC which is delineated.
There are conflicting opinions about the importance of Siachen. According to Lt. Gen.P.N. Hoon, who was the 15 corps commander in Srinagar at the time of Operation Meghdoot: ‘I took over as corps commander of 15 Corps on 3 August 1983. In September-October I briefed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi about the strategic importance of Siachen and about Pakistan’s designs to capture Kardung La, the highest motorable road in the world, and thus dominate Leh by bringing artillery, rockets etc, into the Nubra Valley, capture Leh and then link up with the Chinese at Aksai Chin.’
Hoon’s understanding of the strategic importance of Siachen as told to Indira Gandhi over-rides common sense. When Shyok and Indus river approaches are available to Pakistan, it would have been simply foolish for them to across the Saltoro Range at average heights of 20,000 feet to reach Leh, the capital of Ladhak. Even if the Pakistan were stupid enough to do so how many of its mountaineers (not soldiers) would have reached Leh though the treacherous Siachen Glacier. And would it not have been easy for Indian troops and firepower to decimate fatigued troops?
Hoon’s assertion that, if allowed, Pakistan would have brought artillery to Nubra Valley to dominate Leh is strange. With good artillery deployment sites at lower altitudes available to Pakistan, why would it have done what India was forced to do? Indian artillery guns were dropped on the glacier by Mi-17 helicopters of the Indian air force as small loads of dismantled pieces, where technicians assembled them at surveyed locations. If ever there is a demilitarisation of the glacier, India would have to abandon the guns deployed there as they cannot be retrieved.
In a recent unclassified presentation on Siachen, India’s 102 infantry brigade responsible for the Siachen war has improved upon Hoon’s importance of the region:
- The Siachen region acts as a wedge between Shaksgam valley and Pakistan occupied Baltistan. If controlled by Pakistan, it would give legality to ceding of Shaksgam valley as per the Sino-Pak agreement of 1963
- The power who controls the Siachen region would have a military advantage over Shyok and Nubra valleys and would become the dominant power in the area
- Its control by Pakistan would also pro vide depth to the Karakoram highway and the western highway
- Occupation of Siachen by our adversary would also threaten Sub Sector North (the eastern side of the glacier in Ladakh facing China) and would facilitate outflanking of our defences
- This area would provide an opportunity to Pakistan and China to operate in collusion and threaten northern Ladakh. This would compel us to recoil our defences on Ladakh range.
Retired Lt.Gen V.R Raghvan, a former director general of military operations and general officer commanding of 3 infantry division, 102 brigade’s immediate higher headquarters, does not agree. He writes: ‘The decision to hold the Saltoro in its entirety was justified by pointing to risks which did not really exist. The Chinese-Pakistan military pincer on Ladakh was one such implausible threat. No military advance of any meaningful strength is possible over the Saltoro range. It is not possible to outflank Indian positions on the Shyok river by a military operation over it. The infrastructure in Pakistan’s Northern Areas does not permit such an adventure. The need for such a military adventure by Pakistan when its own strategic and operational capabilities are inadequate was glossed over. It was also the time when a thaw in Sino-India relations was beginning. It would have been counter-productive for the Chinese to get embroiled in a major military aggression on Indian territory to enforce the NJ 9842-Karakoram line.’
The moot question then is why did a discerning Indira Gandhi accept Hoon’s exposition on the strategic importance of Siachen? Because, the war was politically necessary. The significance of the Siachen war was that for the first time since Independence India conveyed a clear political message to Pakistan and China: India retains the right and might to pre-empt rather than react. Pakistan was stopped form having a free-run in Kashmir especially in the so called Northern Areas. It is a geo-political truism that unoccupied territory, however marginal, gets occupied over time by the side which has the military means and muscle to do it. Once India and Pakistan acquired sophisticated weapons and developed expertise in mountain and high altitude warfare in the late Seventies, it was a matter of time who would occupy Siachen first.
Unfortunately, the military leadership did not understand the significance of Siachen and started the war with incorrect military perceptions. This resulted in faulty military aims and planning. The Indian political leadership in 1984 understood the need for the Siachen war, but did not give out political objectives of war to the military leadership. It could be argued that it was the military leadership who suggested the Siachen conflict, which graduated into a middle-intensity localised war, to Indira Gandhi, and not the other way round. The Prime Minister merely went along with the military decision.
Chibber and Hoon betrayed a lack of geo-political understanding by basing the military planning on a wrong assumption that there was no requirement for a permanent occupation of the Siachen Glacier. It was thought enough to deter Pakistani troops form reaching the Saltoro Range. The military leadership failed to appreciate the nature and quantum of Pakistani reaction to an Indian occupation of Saltoro passes. On one hand, the nature and quantum of the protracted conflict was aggressed wrongly. On the other, two basic military rules were simply overlooked. That logistics planning is always more important than strategy in war especially in high altitude mountains terrain: and operations in high altitude areas are different from those in the mountains.
So what did planners of Operations Meghdoot do? Based on faulty military appreciation a cardinal principle of war in the mountains was transgressed. A need for secure and organic logistic and administration of troops perched on the passes was given least attention. The Indian Air Force was asked to provide logistics, because Chibber concluded that the best and the most economical way to sustain this operation would be by the use of helicopters. An important medical lesson established by the 1962 war with China was that no acclimatisation for human beings is possible at heights more that 18,000 feet. While it is good tactics to occupy heights in the mountains for observation and operations, doing so is a hazardous proposition in high altitude areas. If only these simple facts had struck Indian commanders, the Saltoro passes would not have been occupied and a national tragedy would have been averted. Indian soldiers take more casualties fighting weather than Pakistani troops which occupy much lover heights.
What should have India done? Instead of occupying the Saltoro passes, Indian troops should have occupied territory west of the Saltoro ridge, which then was lightly held by Pakistan. Dansum, which after the launch of Operation Meghadoot became Pakistan’s 323 brigade headquarters, at an average height of 10,000 feet, was an ideal location. This would have helped an Indian occupation in six ways. One, Dansum is a relatively flat area at lower heights and is ideal for heliborne operations and troops build-up. Two, the three major passes on the Saltoro Range, Sia La, Bilafond La and Gyong La, meet at Dansum. This makes Dansum an excellent base to defend the Saltoro ridge and the glacier itself. Three, an Indian occupation of Dansum would have threatened Khapalu, which is Pakistan’s heavy brigade size garrison. Four, Indian casualties due to weather on the Saltoro ridge and the glacier would have been minimal. Five, the benefit of occupying Dansum was to be in negotiations with Pakistan as India would have been in a strong bargaining position to trade ‘land for peace.’ And importantly, Dansum provides an easy link-up with Sub-Sector West, area west of map point NJ 9842 which is the most sensitive and fighting prone area in Siachen.
Both Chibber and Hoon do not agree. According to them, an occupation of Dansum would have violated the Shimla agreement as Dansum is north-west and not north of NJ 9842. Secondly, Dansum is situated in a valley and we would have meant territorial aggression by India.’ The argument is flawed. If a straight line due north is drawn from NJ 9842, it joins Terram Shehr II glacier, implying that in its present occupation of Sia La, Indian troops are already eight degrees west of where they should be; and hence aggressors Chibber agrees. As point NJ 9842was not identified on the ground in 1984 when Operation Meghdoot started, how was it known that ‘due north’ was along the Saltoro ridge? It was only in 1985 that an Indian survey team identified map point NJ 9842 with an approach from Urdelop glacier. NJ 9842 is surrounded by three distinct glaciers, Gyong , Urdelop and Korisa. Even if an occupation of Dansum meant a localised war with Pakistan, how would it be more than what it is now where artillery is used freely, fiercely and regularly?
The simple truth remains that Operation Meghdoot was not a well through out military plan, but was a panic raction, reminiscent of the pre-1962 for ward policy against China, when posts were occupied without ensuring their logistics lifeline, Panic was created by Pakistan’s action, as its former army chief Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg later conceded: In 1983 Pakistani Special Service Group chased Indian scouts form the glacier. The race for militarisation of Siachen was started by Pakistan, and India thoughtlessly occupied the Saltoro ridge with an incorrect strategy of ‘hold the passes.”
India’s non-military approach seems strange for two other reasons. One, the Indian Army has always given importance to this area by making military gains in this sector in the 1971 war with Pakistan. India’s major gains in the Western Sector against Pakistan were about 22km in the Turtok Sector, which it rraded with Pakistan’s gains made in the Chhamb sector. These two tactical changes resulted in the CFL becoming the LoC after the 1971 war. And two, since early Eighties, both sides had been sending military patrols to the region. For example, two major expeditions by the Indian Army in 1982 and 1983, called Polar Bear I and II, were military reconnaissance efforts and left tell-tale signs on passes climbed by them. These patrols brought back information about Pakistani mountaineers, Special Forces and Northern Light Infantry, closing up from the Khapalu side towards Siachen.
The benefit of holding the AGPL by Indian is that positions can be held by small detachments and are nearly unassailable. On the other hand, there are large number of casualties and logistics are extremely difficult. Pakistani positions, correspondingly, are at lower heights and take less casualties on account of weather. Probably, the biggest tactical advantage enjoyed by Pakistan regarding the AGPL are independent routes to the Saltoro ridge from its 323 brigade headquarters at Dansum, along the spurs of the three passes, Sia La, Bilafond La and Gyong La, Pakistan also has an independent fourth northern approach of Baltoro Glacier to Saltoro ridge coming from its Skardu garrison. In what is a military disadvantage, India has a single arduous approach to the Saltoro ridge along the Siachen glacier. Innumerable tactical level attempts have been made by both sides to gain posts (found), which is what war is all about in the high-altitude areas.
Ironically, the broadening of the Siachen war happened when India and Pakistan sought to rectify the mistake of 1949 and 1972: to identify NJ 9842 on ground, the last delimited map point of the LoC, local survey and updated 1:50,000 metric scale maps established in 1985 that the Pakistani troops in their occupation of Gyong La complex had encroached on the LoC around NJ 9842, also called the Urdelop Sector or Southern Sector or Turtok Sector or Sub-Sector West. This was an immediate provocation in an area which has military importance for three reasons. Once, Sub-Sector West is a continuous mass of glacier defined as NJ 9842, Urdelop glacier, Korisa glacier, moving westwards towards Thang, This complex is a large area and has chinks in its defences, unlike the AGPL which is at a much higher altitude ridge line and can be defended better.
Two, Sub-Sector West which is at lower heights than the main glacier and is along the Shyok river-line was a perfect launching pad for Indian troops into the Northern Areas of POK during the initial stages of the Siachen conflict when Pakistan’s positions were not so strong. Northern Areas have a special significance after the emergence of Central Asian Republics. And three, should India loose the Turtok Sector, the only track route available eastwards to supply the Ladakh scouts confronting Chinese troops along the Indira Col-Sia La complex facing the disputed Pakistan ceded Shaksgam valley will be cut off. The entire logistics for these scout battalions will then be through the air effort from Those base.
Contrary to what the planner had appreciated, a military presence instead of a military doctrine became the priority.
India today has over 80 posts on the Saltoro ridge after the AGPL starting stabilising by late Eighties. This means that troops are well dug-in and it is virtually impossible for either side to make territorial gains on the Saltoro ridge, Infantry assaults to dislodge the opponent and moves to occupy adjoining un-held crests and heights with the aim to dominate opponent’s location are no longer possible. Military strategy adopted by both nations has been two-fold: use of artillery to hit known dug-in-locations and moves to make tactical gains in the sensitive and vulnerable Sub-Sector West or Southern Sector, which requires a correct mix of artillery, small arms, and an employment of troops. The artillery has emerged as the main mass killer. As terrain and weather peculiarities were overcome with time and experience, a mix of artillery guns and mortars wrought most casualties second only to those by weather.
The Pakistan artillery includes 105mm (Italian) howitzers in troop strengths, 5.5 in gun/howitzer deployed as single pieces, and 82mm and 120mm mortars employed in section or troop strength. As Pakistan has four independent routes to the Saltoro ridge from Dansum garrison, each is given separate firepower. Guns at Baltoro take care of the stretch from Sia La to Khondus, and guns have been placed to bring down accurate fire on Indian positions on the AGPL,, Areas most prone to artillery shelling are Indian locations at Bilafond La and between Bilafond La and Gyong complex.
The early deployment by Indian artillery were of 81mm and 120mm mortars. It was realised that the Pakistani gun deployments on the Baltoro glacier firing across Convey Saddle-Concordlia at Sia La, and positioning of Pakistan’s artillery to fire at Gyong complex had to be taken-on-by beefing own artillery assets. Moreover, with a stabilisation of the AGPL, there arose a need for more artillery for counter-fire purposes. The initial artillery deployments on the Siachen glacier were of 105mm Indian Field Gun and 130mm M-46 guns. The 105mm guns were deployed at the Base camp. During the tenure of Gen. K. Sundarji as the army chief in 1987, when there were assaults on Bilafond La, a substantial beefing of artillery guns and ammunition by para-drops was done on the Siachen glacier. The ZU-23 twin anti-aircraft guns are being used in a direct fire mode. The Russian shoulder fired IgIa (SAM-16) missiles are available to troops in sufficient numbers. With the completion of a class-40 road on the east bank of the Nubra river, between Partapur and Siachen Base, one battery (six numbers) of Borors FH-77B guns was introduced in Siachen in 1987. Once the gun stabilished, it has been firing with accuracy and consistency achieving a range of 42km from altitude of 12000 ft using High Explosive Extended Range (HEER) base bleed ammunition. The battery is deployed in Siachen base. It is interesting to note that India’s indigenous battlefield support Prithvi missile with a range of 150km can be deployed at locations where bofors guns can reach. An ideal deployment location for Prithvi missiles is the Siachen base.
Problems faced by the Indian artillery
- The gun areas are extremely limited, adequate space is not available, hence guns are deployed in troops and at time even as a single gun.
- The gun pits are covered with tarpaulin to prevent slush from dirtying guns. This does not allow direct sunlight to fall on the gun pit beneath the guns. As a result, unlike surrounding areas, snow under tarpaulin does not melt which results in guns being perched on a pillar.
- Due to sub-zero temperature, fluids freeze, hence to clean the equipment special arrangements for heating are required.
- Survey is difficult as most of glaciated area is not well-mapped.
- Shells get buried in the snow thereby they either do not burst or splinter effect is reduced.
- Visibility remains restricted which makes observation difficult.
- Due to snow blizzard every thing becomes white and visibility reduces to a few metres which make navigation difficult and people tend to loose sense of direction.
- The range tables of guns are not tested for that kind of altitude. It is experienced that the range of gun achieved in that region is higher than that is given in the range tables. Range tables being used are extrapolated, hence predicted fire may not be accurate.
- Guns are a lucrative target for the enemy; hence security of gun areas assumes greater importance Guns are deployed in troops, which mean reduced manpower available for local defence.
- Preference of signal equipment due to climate conditions is poor. Maintenance of telephone lines is difficult which makes communications very difficult. It is not uncommon to find the Indian brigade headquarters without contact with up to 30 of the nearly 80 posts on the Saltoro ridge at any given time in clear wheather.
- Extreme climatic conditions bring down efficiency of both men and equipment. Wear and tear of equipment is more. It needs to be noted that at heights more than 18,000 ft no acclimatisation of human body is possible.
It must be emphasised that maximum casualties have been inflicted by both sides by gun and mortar firings followed by HMG and sniper fire. By trial and error, over time, the first or certainly the second ranging round is a target round with high angle engagement over the entire Saltoro ridge.
The entire logistics is the responsibility of the air force which drops loads at various logistics camps form where they are taken on foot by porters to locations on Saltoro ridge,and are also collected by artillery detachments deployed on the glacier. Evacuation of casualties is the responsibility shared between the air force and the Army Aviation Corps (AAC), more by the latter since beginning 1994, At present, the AAC has its 666 squadron at Leh with five flights (each flight has five Cheetahs). The AAC also does winter air surveillance operations as certain posts in the northern glacier are not occupied in winter months.
The 21 Wing unit of the Indian Air Force based in Leh supports Operation Meghdoot through two units, the air force station at Those and 114 Helicopter Unit called Siachen Pioneers. The Those air force station called SUI GENERIS is air force’s foremost support base in the northern sector and is located on the banks of shyok river serving as a wedge between the borders with Pakistan and China. Those base is the second highest airfield in India, the highest operational airfield in the world being 114 HU in Leh. The 114 Helicopter Unit at Leh gets the name Siachen Pioneers as these were the first ones to evacuate two people of Col Narendra Kumar’s first reconnaissance expedition to Siachen in 1978. The 21 Wing, in turn is supported by regular daily flights from faraway air force stations like Ambala, Pathankot and Sarsawan in the western air command.
The main task of 114 Helicopter Unit in Leh is to provide logistics from the Base camp to three important and difficult posts which can only be maintained by Cheetah helicopters: Amar and Sonam, the highest helipads in the world, and Zulu in the centre of the glacier. Generally, five shuttles are carried out to each of these posts. At times only 25kg of load is carried in the first shuttle to some of these helipads. Once the pilot assesses the environmental conditions, i.e winds, altitude and turbulence in the first shuttle, the load figures are increased generally in blocks of 25 or 50kg. saw the transformation of the air force station Those to an important base operating AN-32 and IL-76 aircraft. The logistics support is provided to the army by air maintenance undertaken by IL-76 AN-32, MI-17 and Cheetah aircraft. Generally, there are four MI-17 and two to three Cheetahs operating form this base, according to the air force, every year approximately 450-500 tons of load is lifted by Cheetah helicopters, MI-17 helicopters lift about 5,000 tons About 6,000 hours are flown annually by helicopters at the base. About 850-950 sorties are undertaken by fixed wing aircraft from this airfield annually. The air force area of operations is divided into four sectors: northern, sub-sector north, central, and southern glacier. MI-17 helicopters carry out para-dropping operations to northern and central glacier from the base camp. These helicopters operate from Those to sub-sector north and southern glacier. Cheetah helicopters land at all the helipads. To their credit, no helicopter in the world operates at these altitudes.