this is an old article but it depicts the very harsh and terrible conditions faced by soldiers from both sides... is it worth it?
SIACHEN GLACIER , FIGHTING ON THE ROOF OF THE WORLD
JANE'S DEFENCE WEEKLY
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
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, and hard-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 ****************** 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
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
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 not
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
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
"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."
- Robert Karniol is JDW's Asia Editor based in Bangkok