Siachen Glacier: Mountain Warfare

Siachen Glacier - a prime example of Mountain Warfare

Siachen Area Kashmir Map
  • In spite of the severe climate, the word `Siachen` ironically means `the place of wild roses`.
  • The glacier is the highest battleground on Earth, where India and Pakistan have fought intermittently since 1984.
  • Siachen is the world's largest non-polar glacier, and thus is sometimes referred to as the third pole.

A ceasefire has been in force on the Actual Ground Position Line in the Siachen area since the midnight of November 25, 2005. Nine round of talks have been held on Siachen and the 10th round is going to be held on May 23 and 24, 2006

T h e S i a c h e n G l a c i e r is located in the East Karakoram/Himalaya, at approximately 35.5 N 76.9 E. It is one of the five largest glaciers in the Karakoram, situated at an average altitude of 5,400 meters (~17,700 feet) above sea level. Most of the Siachen Glacier as is the LoC, a hotly contested territory between Pakistan and India.

The roots of the conflict over Siachen (the place of roses) lie in the non-demarcations on the western side on the map beyond NJ9842. The 1949 Karachi agreement and the 1972 Simla agreement presumed that it was not feasible for human habitation to survive north of NJ9842. Piror to 1984 neither India nor Pakistan had any permanent presence in the area.

Mountain warfare refers to warfare in the mountains. This type of warfare is also called Alpine warfare (from the Alps mountains) where this warfare was first noticed. Mountain warfare is one of the most dangerous, as it involves fighting not only the enemy but also the extreme cold and inaccessible heights. The problems multiply due to avalanches of snow or rocks, either natural or induced by the enemy.

The long nights and great distances on huge, snow-covered peaks at sub-zero degree temperatures demands much endurance and patience. Winning the warfare essentially boils down to holding the high ground in the battle. Mountains, at any time of year, are dangerous -- lightning, high wind, rock fall, extreme cold, or falls into crevasses and cliffs all being able to cause death. In war, the dangers multiply exponentially. Movement, medical evacuation and reinforcements up steep slopes, often where even mules cannot go, involves an enormous exertion of energy.

The term mountain warfare is said to have came about in the medieval age, after the monarchies of Europe found it difficult to fight the Swiss armies in the Alps. This was because the Swiss were able to fight in smaller units and took vantage points against a huge unmaneuverable army. Similar styles of attack and defence were later employed by guerrillas, partisans and freedom fighters who hid in the mountains after an attack, making it challenging for the army to fight back.

World War I

Mountain warfare came to the fore once again, during World War I, when some of the nations involved in the war had mountain divisions that had hitherto not been tested. The Austro-Hungarian defence repelled the Italians as they took advantage of the mostly mountainous terrain, where more people succumbed to frostbite and avalanches than to bullets. In December of 1914, another offensive was launched by the Turkish supreme commander Enver Pasha with 95,000-190,000 troops against the Russians in the Caucasus. Insisting on a frontal attack against Russian positions in the mountains in the heart of winter, the end result was devastating and Enver lost 86% of his force.

Kashmir conflict

However, the most dangerous and volatile of all mountain conflicts involves the ongoing one between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir region. Since the partition in 1947, both countries have been constantly locked in skirmishes and wars mainly revolving around this mountainous region. The first hostilities between the two nations in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947 showed that both were ill-equipped to fight in biting cold, let alone on the highest mountain region in the world, the Himalayas. Later wars were mainly fought on the valleys than in the mountains. This changed in the Kargil War when Indian forces were faced with the huge task of flushing out the infiltrators. This proxy warfare became the only modern war that was fought exclusively on the mountains. Since Pakistan-backed forces held the high ground and battles took place in peaks as high as 5,025 metres, it proved an immensely difficult task for the Indian Army, supported by massed artillery, to regain the heights and win the war. On a related note, the Siachen Glacier was named the highest battleground in the world with both the countries holding their respective positions at nearly 7 km above sea level. More than 4000 people have died in this inhospitable terrain, mostly due to weather extremities and the natural hazards of mountain warfare.

Other countries

At present, many major armies have a specialised alpine division. India, Russia, Italy and the USA are among the many countries with such divisions. In the Summer of 2004, various US special forces teams went to India to study the lessons learned by Indian Army units during the Kargil War.

Other armies and military organisations also have units trained in mountain and cold weather warfare.

In the United Kingdom the Royal Marines are the principal regular unit trained in mountain and cold weather warfare and have a specialised instructor cadre: the Mountain Leader Training Cadre. The capability is fielded by 3 Commando Brigade. The British Army also have the Mountain Troops of Special Air Service squadrons.

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