Operation Meghdoot: the Siachen Glacier has been fought over for 40 years - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Saturday 13 April 2024

Operation Meghdoot: the Siachen Glacier has been fought over for 40 years

The enormous cost paid by India to gain the advantage in Siachen and Saltoro Ridge must translate into benefits elsewhere


By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 13th April 24


Forty years ago, on April 13, 1984, a fleet of Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopters flew an Indian Army platoon, one soldier at a time, to the Bilafondla Pass on the Saltoro Ridge, towering over the Siachen Glacier at an altitude of 5,450 metres (17,880 feet).


Led by Captain Sanjay Kulkarni (who retired in 2016 as a lieutenant general), the platoon of hardy Kumaoni soldiers quickly occupied the area around Bilafondla, securing the strategic heights overlooking the Siachen Glacier and sealing off the approaches from Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) to Ladakh.


Simultaneously, a platoon of Ladakh Scouts was airlifted to Sia La, in the northern glacier, at an altitude of 5,589 metres (18,336 feet). These natural mountain troops were even better acclimatized for high altitude operations, so they were given the higher objective.


Soon, about 300-odd Indian troops were positioned on the strategically important features of the Saltoro Ridge. By the time the Pakistan Army reacted by sending its troops to dislodge them, Indian soldiers had already occupied crucial peaks and passes, snatching an invaluable tactical advantage.


Thus began Operation Meghdoot – India’s bold military response to what New Delhi calls Pakistan's “cartographic aggression” in the uncharted territory of Ladakh, north of map reference NJ9842, where New Delhi and Islamabad had agreed the Line of Control (LoC) ran up to.


One of the key figures in the bold Indian decision-making of that time was a colourful mountaineer, Colonel Narendra “Bull” Kumar. Ever ready to set off on an expedition, Bull Kumar discovered in the late 1970s that Pakistan was hosting European mountaineering expeditions on the Saltoro Ridge, thereby establishing its claim to those ranges.


Persuading the Indian military and mountaineering hierarchy to establish Indian counter-claims, Bull Kumar led a team from the army’s High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS) to climb the 23,400 feet-high Teram Kangri II in 1978. “During the expedition, I found signs of German, Japanese, Pakistani and American expeditions. Pakistan had already sent about 50 expeditions,” Kumar told Business Standard before his death in December 2020.


“We began establishing a territorial claim to this area, through mountaineering, to counter Pakistan’s cartographic aggression,” said Kumar. “My report on the expedition said: “The Line of Control should run along the Saltoro Ridge, so that we can overlook and dominate the Pakistanis.” 


“In 1983, northern command intelligence concluded that Pakistan was preparing to occupy Siachen. When we were shopping for extreme cold mountaineering equipment in Europe, we discovered that the Pakistan Army was doing the same thing. That galvanized us into action,” said Kumar.


Dominating the waste-land


Over the decades, the Indian Army painstakingly learnt the game of high-altitude survival and combat. Captain Anil Sengar, who commanded a frontline post in the Northern Glacier in the 1980s described conditions to Business Standard.


“In the 1980s, before the current infrastructure was built, soldiers sometimes didn’t have tents to sleep in. They would fabricate makeshift shelters from parachutes and the crates used for airdropping supplies. Kerosene fuel was in short supply, being used in bukharis (iron stoves, with chimneys) to heat up shelters in which everyone, except for sentries, would crowd in to sleep. When the bukhari was put off, the temperature within the shelter would fall below zero in five minutes. And the wind would blow so fiercely that it would find even the smallest tear in the fabric of a shelter and rip it to shreds,” said Sengar, who went on to become a major general.


Playing an irreplaceable role in this effort, the IAF's tactical and strategic airlifters – An-12s, An-32s and IL-76s – transported stores and troops and air-dropped supplies to high altitude airfields, from where Mi-17, Mi-8, Chetak and Cheetah helicopters ferried men and material to dizzying heights on the glacier, far above the limits set by the helicopter manufacturers. 


“The IAF's incredible performance at the extremes of temperature and altitude remains a continuing saga of fortitude and skill… The IAF's Hunter aircraft kick-started fighter operations from the high altitude airfield at Leh, when a detachment of Hunters from No 27 Squadron commenced operations in September 1984. In the next couple of years, the Hunters flew an impressive total of more than 700 sorties from Leh,” stated the MoD on Saturday.


In the highest battlefield in the world, known for its extreme climatic conditions, IAF helicopters form the lifeline and the sole link of Indian troops with the outside world, playing a critical role in continuing the four decade-old military operation; responding to emergencies, supplying essential logistics and evacuating the sick and wounded from the 78 km long glacier. Flying in such ruthless terrain, records of human endurance, flying and technical proficiency are being set by the IAF nearly every day.


Supplies would be dropped by AN-32 aircraft at one or two dropping zones on the glacier. They would scatter all over and it would take a month to gather the crates and carry those heavy loads to the posts, which were as much as 14-16 kilometres away. There were some primitive snow scooters, but those were mostly non-functional, since soldiers had not learnt how to maintain them to keep them working in those temperatures. So those heavy loads had to be carried up on the backs of soldiers.


Multiplying the difficulty were numerous crevasses everywhere, some so deep that there was no way of recovering someone who had fallen in. Since the opening would be hidden by a thin crust of snow, all movement was in groups of ten, roped together, so that if one man fell into a crevasse, the others could dig their ice-axes and crampons into the snow and hold onto their comrade through the rope.


Narrow crevasses served as latrines, with men squatted over them, holding onto a rope. Every function was performed under the threat of enemy artillery fire. Shelling was a constant fact of life. An estimated 1,000 Indian soldiers have lost their lives and some 6,000 have been wounded. Large numbers of soldiers have been psychologically scarred.


Casualty evacuation was by helicopter, but the small helicopters that could land on forward posts could only fly out with one casualty; it could not lift even a nursing assistant, or the bedding of the soldier being evacuated.


Home was a remote memory. In the days before posts were equipped with satellite phones, letters were the only way to communicate and those often took 45 days to reach a forward post.


No solution in sight


For many Indians, Siachen is a quixotic contest that occasionally garners world records like the highest battlefield ever or the world’s highest helicopter landing. But for Pakistan, especially the Pakistani army, the humiliation of Siachen resonates. Many see Siachen as a violation of the Shimla Accord that says that "neither side shall unilaterally alter the situation," with regard to "any of the problems between the two countries". For Pakistan, Kargil was a justifiable response to Siachen.


Within the Pakistani army Siachen is a military setback with the Indians dominating the glacier from the Saltoro. Pakistan insists on terming it “the Siachen dispute”, although the glacier itself cannot be seen, even from forward Pakistani positions.


But Siachen can no longer be evaluated purely in military-strategic terms. For India it is a symbol of will and a successful feat of arms; for Pakistan it is a debacle, something to be wiped off the slate. For India, Siachen is a drain in terms of money and sheer military effort; In Pakistan, it is an oozing sore, draining honour and national pride.


India tends to undervalue its Siachen advantage; this must be evaluated through Pakistani eyes. The enormous cost paid by India to gain the advantage in Siachen must translate into benefits elsewhere. Since the 1999 Kargil conflict, an entire Indian division now mans the LOC in Kargil, occupying areas almost as inhospitable as Siachen. A pullback from Siachen must be matched by a corresponding pullback from Kargil.

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