On the Siachen Glacier, two nuclear powers dispute an uninhabited wilderness. Robert Karniol reports from Pakistan on the harsh conditions of battle at 5,000m.
Fourteen years of conflict over control of the remote Siachen Glacier region has taught India and Pakistan much about the unique requirements of high-altitude warfare. However, the harsh environment still accounts for more casualties than does combat.
This long-standing dispute set in the Karakoram mountains was among six topics raised during bilateral talks held last month in New Delhi, the first such formal discussion of the issue since 1992. India came to the meeting with a proposed ceasefire arrangement, a gambit that would have reinforced its territorial gains. Pakistan rejected the initiative unless it was linked to a troop redeployment that would largely affect Indian forces. The standoff, which was predicted by analysts, remains unresolved. No progress was achieved beyond a broad commitment to further pursue the Siachen issue "at a later date".
The Siachen Glacier region is an uninhabited wedge of mountains and ice situated at the point where India, Pakistan and China collide. It covers a territory of about 3,000km2 that proved too hostile for early survey teams.
Border demarcation has been equally contentious in adjacent areas. Jammu and Kashmir remain divided and disputed, with Siachen representing a separate although broadly related problem. Pakistan's border with China was formally delineated only in 1963 while India still claims the Aksai Chin plateau to the northeast, which is
occupied by China. The Siachen conflict's origin is rooted in its remoteness. This saw the ceasefire line between India and Pakistan - originally set in 1949, adjusted in 1972, and still the Line of Control (LoC) in disputed Jammu and Kashmir - end some 80km short of Chinese territory at the map reference point NJ9842. The line's extension to cover the glacier and its approaches, couched in vague language, was left for later discussion.
Islamabad has since held that the demarcation line should continue northeast from this point to the Karakoram Pass, maintaining the angle set by the LoC. New Delhi's view is that it should veer north along the watershed line of the Saltoro Range to Indira Col, an interpretation based on terrain features. This discrepancy defines the disputed territory. Neither side ever maintained a permanent presence in the region, and Siachen was untouched by the wars of 1965 and 1971. India's interest began to grow in the late 1970s. An initial series of military mountaineering expeditions led to summer camps being set up in 1983.
Pakistani protests were ignored, and Indian forces advanced unexpectedly in April 1984 to gain control of the glacier and its approach routes. The conflict was joined when Pakistan responded militarily. The Indian strike brought advantages and disadvantages that are still evident. The former include control of much of the disputed terrain together with most of its high points, which provide a strategic edge. The latter largely centre on the substantially greater costs associated with supporting these isolated positions. The conflict initially saw both sides undertake limited offensive operations, mainly geared to seizing high points or improving defensive positions. Such attacks proved costly and only partially successful, and, by the early 1990s, the protagonists had largely settled into an attrition-oriented strategy marked by steady exchanges of artillery and small-arms fire. Illustrating this point, Pakistan says the Indian Army is expending 30,000-40,000 artillery rounds annually in Siachen. One can assume its own rate of fire is comparable.
The Siachen conflict is better known for its harsh conditions than its strategic significance. Temperatures in the area range between -20øC and -60øC, chilled by 80 km/h-plus winds. There are blizzards producing an average 10m of snowfall annually, avalanches, steep
gradients and deep crevasses that comb the glacial ice. These difficulties are severely compounded by altitude.
Indian positions are generally situated at heights of 3,700-5,300m, the latter elevation representing the post at Indira Col. Pakistani posts are normally lower and better sheltered, varying from 2,800m at Dansum to 5,300m at Conway Saddle. Oxygen deprivation, seldom a
concern on other battlefields, poses a serious hazard.
"The soldier first has to fight nature to survive, and then fight the enemy," Brig Sallah-ud-din told Jane's Defence Weekly at Dansum, where his 323 Siachen Brigade is headquartered. The frontline force along an 82km line of contact, 323 Brigade is a formation under the Forces Command Northern Areas, a division-size element of the Pakistan Army based at Gilgit.
The Indian Army's lead formation is 102 Infantry Brigade, headquartered at Partapur. However, other units of unknown strength supplement both brigades - Pakistani troops generally serving here for a one-year period, Indians on a six-month rotation. Indian sources recently told The Hindu newspaper that the Siachen dispute has so far cost New Delhi nearly 2,000 killed and 10,000 injured. Separately, a paper published by the US-based Cooperative
Monitoring Centre states that hostile fire historically accounts for just 3% of Indian casualties.
Without citing figures, Islamabad says its casualties are sharply down in recent years for reasons equally applicable to the Indian side: the 1992 shift to attrition-oriented warfare, andhard-gained experience of the environment. Pakistan claims the ratio of battle-related casualties to other losses is 1:2 now, down from a "much higher level" of earlier years. Support of its operations in the region cost New Delhi Rs50 million ($1.17 million) daily, The Hindu newspaper contends, largely because of the complexities of logistic support that include a heavy dependence on helicopter transport. Pakistan says its costs are about $32,000 daily, the substantially lower figure reflecting a decade of road-building completed about four years ago. Brig Sallah-ud-din cites several military adjustments unique to the Siachen region. These range from training to the deployment of troops and weapons, from specialised rations to medical support. Few of the troops serving in Siachen are fully qualified mountaineers but all must have at least basic climbing and survival skills. Proficient mountaineers, mainly assigned to serve as instructors, are trained on three- to four-month courses near Astor in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Other personnel undertake a four-week course at Dansum, which combines basic skills with physical
conditioning, acclimatisation to high altitude and weapons training. Forces deployed at forward posts are normally of section strength, and seldom number more than a platoon. The unique terrain means the conventional concept of these small units providing mutual defensive
support is impossible to implement, and each must be able to survive independently for extended periods. Operational requirements also dictate adjustments to weaponry that
go beyond efforts to lighten their weight. Each battalion has three or four times the normal number of mortars, and each regiment more than double the usual allocation of artillery pieces. Weapons such as .50-calibre, 14.5mm, 37mm and 57mm anti-aircraft guns are here
brought to bear on ground targets. The thin air at high altitude drastically affects accuracy of fire, and experience has helped both sides adjust their targeting tables accordingly. However, conditions can change daily and over-shooting is common. The difficulties of resupply, meanwhile, result in ammunition stocks being maintained at high levels. Rations are supplemented to take into account higher caloric requirements, especially in winter. This largely involves high-sugar foods like dried fruit, glucose and honey. Some fresh foods are provided to forward posts in summer but most of the rations are tinned to allow stocking a full year's supply.
Pakistan Army Maj Muhomad Satti Akmal is the officer responsible for logistics. "We plan for the complete year, including sufficient reserve supplies," he said. "There is extensive forward dumping, and the system has got to be really fine-tuned as everything must be transported [and stored] during the three or four months after the weather clears sometime in May." Most supplies on the Pakistani side are transported by vehicle over rough roads kept open year-round. Locally-bred ponies or mules cover the distance from road-heads to forward posts, each carrying loads of 80-100kg. Civilian porters, each carrying about 20kg, serve a few high posts. Movement in the forward areas is conducted at night or during low visibility to avoid attracting enemy fire. The Pakistan Army has similarly adjusted its medical organisation,
with a nursing non-commissioned officer assigned to each post and a doctor to each company. Such a concentration is unfeasible elsewhere in the country. The posts have extensive medical supplies, including oxygen cylinders, and feed patients to a fully equipped hospital situated in the forward area and staffed with a range of specialists. Consultations can be held by radio, with each field doctor overseeing 20-30 paramedics. Although evacuations normally take up to three hours, the procedure can be carried out in 30 minutes if required, with helicopter transport available to accommodate severe cases. Like the road network, the army's medical staff and
facilities also benefit the local civilian population. Three severe environmental factors govern conditions at Siachen: weather, terrain and altitude. Each can have a significant impact on
combat operations. Low temperature and blizzards are the main weather-related hazards.
The former can produce hypothermia, frostbite and chilblains - each potentially debilitating and sometimes lethal. Blizzards can cause death or injury because of disorientation. Temporary snow-blindness is also evident. Casualties resulting from weather have been substantially reduced since the conflict's early years - mainly because of improved clothing and equipment, and improved procedures gained through costly experience. Pakistan receives its cold-weather gear from the UK, and India from Switzerland or Austria. Problems related to terrain include avalanches, treacherous crevasses and ravines, and climbing accidents related to the steep
gradients. Training and experience have, once again, provided some solution. For instance, better preventative measures have been introduced as areas prone to avalanche were identified together with the conditions under which they normally occur. The oxygen deprivation that can occur at extreme altitude causes changes in body chemistry that are still not fully understood.
Neither is it clear why some people are affected and others not, and the question of which individual will suffer problems is notpredictable.
The main illnesses commonly evident in the region are acute mountain sickness (AMS), cerebral oedema and pulmonary oedema. Hypertension and cardiac problems are also seen, along with such maladies as chronic weight loss and psychological disorders. These can be fatal if left untreated, and descent to lower altitude can commonly relieve all such illnesses. Symptoms of AMS include headache, giddiness, palpitations, muscular weakness, fatigue, appetite loss, sleeplessness, irritability, nausea and vomiting. The disorder appears at altitudes above 2,500m
and usually disappears within four to seven days. Chronic AMS is a variation that can take up to six months to clear. Its indicators include memory loss, difficulties with decision-making and attitude, nightmares and hallucinations. Oedemas involve the swelling of tissue because of excess fluids, and they can be induced if AMS is left untreated or if individuals climb above 4,500m. Symptoms of the pulmonary version include cough, chest discomfort, lethargy, palpitations and frothy or bloody sputum. Symptoms of the cerebral version include severe headache,
difficulties with balance, visual and hearing loss, confusion, speech defects and emotional problems. Professional mountaineers are equally susceptible to these illnesses. However, mountaineers climbing for sport limit their
ascents to the summer season while the soldiers serve in Siachen year-round. Also, the mountaineers normally spend eight or 10 days at high altitude while these troops can be deployed at observation posts for two to three months. Finally, of course, the soldiers are
subject to hostile fire."Most of the people serving here, 80-90% of them, are from the
lowlands. They are not physically made for this area," said the 322 Siachen Brigade's medical officer, Maj Hassan Iqbal. Proper acclimatisation is essential, he added, although some personnel may have altitude ceilings beyond which they cannot safely venture. "We keep a person at 10,000-11,000ft for about one week, then he goes to 13,000-14,000ft for a week or 10 days. A thorough medical check-up follows," said Maj Hassan, describing the procedure. "From
that point, one night of rest is required for each 1,000ft climbed in a day. Normally, the move from base camp to a post takes two to three weeks." Those who succumb to mild AMS descend to the base altitude and try the process a second time, while anyone suffering from an oedema or similarly serious problem is quickly re-assigned elsewhere. Support personnel found to have altitude ceilings are retained but combat soldiers must be fully capable of ascending to
extreme altitudes. Perhaps more than civilians, soldiers are often psychologically geared to dismiss the relatively mild discomfort of a headache or a cough. However, together with similar irritants, these may here indicate serious problems that require concerted education and a
broader awareness. "Troops are encouraged, irrespective of rank, to keep an eye on how
others are behaving. That person may not realise the symptoms of illness, may not understand why he is depressed or irritated," said Brig Sallah-ud-din.
"We place great stress on comradeship."