Dominating the Mountain Warfare Narrative in the Indian Context

Dominating the Mountain Warfare Narrative in the Indian Context

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Given the size and capabilities of our Special Operation Forces (SOF), there is an urgent need to reorient them, especially the Parachute Brigade, for operations in mountains, writes

By Brig Deepak Sinha (Retd)

One of the most celebrated achievements by a military force of any consequence was probably Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps in 218 BC in the Second Punic War. Bypassing Roman and allied land garrisons and naval dominance, Hannibal led his Car- thaginian army over the Alps and into Italy to take the war directly to the Roman Republic. It was his surprise night assault through the pass adjacent to Mt. Du Chat that allowed him to take the fortified positions held by the Allobroges and descend into Italy. Its importance lies in the fact that he was able to move his entire army, including his supply columns, through mountains long considered impenetrable for large scale movement, and outflank the enemy defences, thereby making them redundant and untenable.

History tells us that the Indian Sub Continent, despite being protected by massive mountain ranges, the Hindu Kush, the Himalayas and the Karakoram, has always been vulnerable to invasions through these very ranges.  While we are familiar with Alexander the Great’s attempt to invade in 326 BC, the Persian Kings had attempted to establish their hegemony in North West India, approximately two hundred years earlier, led by King Cyrus, and following his death at the hands of an Indian soldier, by his successor Darius in 530 BC. These invaders were followed by the nomadic savages or tribes who lived in the neighbourhood of China, the Huna or Hephthalites, invasions between 458 and 470 AD. The Muslim invasions followed, first by Central Asian Turks who established the Delhi Sultanate in 1206 AD and then the Mongols who finally established the Mughal Empire in the 16th Century. All of this movement through the mountains was not one way and was interspersed with invasions by the Mauryan (325 -185 BC) and Gupta (320-550 AD) Empires who’s territories stretched from parts of present day Iran to Uzbekistan and the Central Asian Republics.

Even today, we are yet to fully overcome the trauma of the manner in which the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) outflanked and enveloped our defences in Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh, overwhelming 4 Infantry Division from the former. This was indeed ironic given the fact that the Red Eagle Division, as it was famously known, made its formidable reputation in the mountains of Eritrea in March 1941 where it defeated a hugely superior Italian Force at Keren and subsequently went on to achieve even greater success at the Second and Third Battles for Monte Cassinoin Italy against strongly entrenched German forces. Field Marshal Lord Wavell said of the Division that “The fame of this Division will surely go down as one of the greatest fighting formations in military history, to be spoken of with such as The Tenth Legion, The Light Division of the Peninsular War and Napoleon’s Old Guard.

“This debacle resulted in wide ranging reorganisations and expansions within the Indian Army. This included the upgrading of the Ski School into the High Altitude Warfare School and the raising of ten mountain divisions that were organised equipped and trained for operations in High Altitude Areas (HAA). Defensive tactics were evolved and our positions along the LAC were greatly strengthened. The military’s self-confidence in its ability to fight and win conflicts in mountains received a boost firstly because of the success achieved in the Nathu La and Cho La skirmish with the PLA in 1967 and the manner in which the Sumdorong Chu incident of 1987 was robustly handled. The focus came back on the mountains with the occupation of Siachin Glacier in 1984 by India just a day ahead of Pakistan’s Operation Ababeel.

Operation Meghdoot successfully allowed Indian forces to occupy most of the dominating heights on Saltoro Ridge to the west of Siachen Glacier. In hindsight attempts by China and Pakistan to cosy up militarily has been thwarted to a large extent as the Saltoro Heights dominate the entire region up to the Karakoram Pass including the Shaksgam Valley that has been illegally ceded to China by Pakistan. It also provides depth to Leh and Kargil and has assumed greater importance in view of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that is being constructed. Most importantly, operating at 5000 m over the past four decades has given Indian forces valuable insights into specialised warfare and greatly enhanced Indian capabilities to fight in Extreme Cold and High Altitude conditions and terrain. To a large extent, it was the inability of the Pakistan Army to wrest Siachin from India that led them to their launching the ill-fated operations that led to the Kargil Conflict of 1999. While Pakistan used deception and surprise in the initial phase to occupy a large number of unoccupied heights overlooking the Srinagar-Leh Axis, it was unable to sustain its troops logistically. Based on a political directive disallowing any ingress into Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, the Indian Army was forced to resort to a series of conventional frontal attacks along spur lines to evict Pakistani forces.  This was successfully achieved with the use of massed artillery and sheer determination, grit and dogged courage on the part of the assaulting infantry. The use of cliff assault techniques too played a major role in achieving success. But victory was won at great cost, with over 400 dead and another 1000 wounded.  While the LAC with China has remained quiet in recent times, with the occasional ingress into Indian Territory, more to ensure that its claims continue to remain in the limelight rather than with any real offensive intent. It is the LOC with Pakistan that has continued to be unsettled and active due to Pakistan’s unfulfilled ambitions and its involvement in the proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir. Nonetheless, China does pose a serious concern in the long term given its ongoing attempts to challenge United States domination, especially in Asia. Moreover, while our borders with China are in the mountains and any conflict with them will obviously involve combat in mountainous and high altitude terrain, it seems increasingly possible that conflict with Pakistan may also be primarily restricted to the mountains as well. This is because given the fact that both states are declared nuclear powers conventional operations in the plains of Punjab and Rajasthan will be restricted in time and space to avoid escalation leading to a nuclear exchange. Thus there is little choice for us except to focus on enhancing our mountain and high altitude warfare capabilities.  Thin air at high altitudes combined with extremely low temperatures and uncertain and rapidly changing weather conditions poses unique challenges that test human endurance and the military’s capabilities to wage war at those altitudes to extreme limits. The rarefied atmosphere and cold reduce human ability to sustain at such altitudes for long periods despite acclimatisation. The heights, terrain and gradients make movement on foot extremely slow and torturous apart from greatly hampering the ability to construct required infrastructure for sustaining operations. Weather conditions and cold greatly reduce accuracy and effectiveness of weapons and equipment, including helicopters, aircraft, artillery and electronic equipment.

Therefore, while technology, especially ICT, Artificial Intelligence and robotics may have transformed warfare, including traditional organisational structures, its impact on forces deployed and required to fight in mountains has been minimal. The old adage that “mountains eat up troops” continues to hold good despite state-of-the-art technology, especially force multipliers such as surveillance systems, communications equipment, light weight weapons and survival gear along with precision munitions, having impacted the theatre of operations. These technologies have however allowed for changes in tactical doctrine as it has made it feasible for troops to remain in combat for longer durations, improved survivability and enhanced fighting potential and destructive capabilities.

In his thesis ‘High Altitude Warfare: The Kargil Conflict and the Future’ Marcus P Acosta correctly concludes that “Revolutions in technology drive tactical change. Yet certain regions of the world remain largely unaffected by the full reach of advances in military technology. Thin air, cold weather and mountainous terrain combine to create a uniquely inhospitable battlefield at high altitude. The elements of military victory at high altitude have not dramatically changed. Overwhelming fire, in concert with bold manoeuvre, continues to determine victory on the high altitude battlefield. The emergence of precision warfare has yet to dominate combat in the timeless environs of the world’s highest mountains.”

In our context, there have been attempts to enhance our war waging capabilities in the mountains, especially against any potential adventurism by China. While there has been increasing focus on improvement of infrastructure in the North-East and some roads and other infrastructure have either been constructed or improved, there is a long way to go in this regard. This is especially urgent if our Mountain Strike Corps (MSC) that is being raised is to be able to meet its mission objectives. It is another matter that in its present avatar the MSC is incapable of acting as a strategic countervailing force for sustained offensive actions against the PLA mounting bases in Tibet. Most analysts see this force as being prepositioned as uncommitted reserves to be utilised to stabilise the situation if required.

While there are those who question the very viability of any corps level offensive against the PLA into Tibet, the fact of the matter is that offense is the best form of defence and we must change our military’s mindset from avoiding defeat to grasping for victory, much in keeping with Sun Tzu… “Security against defeat implies defensive tactics; ability to defeat the enemy means taking the offensive.” In this context there is an urgent need to reconsider the organisation of the MSC as it presently stands and reorient its capabilities to be able to undertake offensive tasks in depth in conjunction with our Special Operations Forces (SOF). It needs to be considerably lighter and provided with air-mobile specialised mountain warfare trained and equipped units with adequate and compatible combat support and logistics elements. The procurement of the light weight M777 155mm Howitzers from the United States is a welcome step in this direction as it will greatly enhance available firepower.

Given the size and capabilities of our Special Operation Forces (SOF), there is an urgent need to reorient them, especially the Parachute Brigade, for operations in mountains. In any future conflict, our SOF must have the ability to conduct irregular warfare and tie down PLA formations prior to hostilities. Subsequently they should prepare the theatre of operations by isolating the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) by cutting off road and rail communications. At the commencement of hostilities at an appropriate time provide a suitable air head(s) from where strike elements can debouch to capture vital areas that would either delay/dissuade the PLA from launching an offensive or force them to recoil, if they have already done so. Such a capability has an added advantage in that it also gives our political leadership additional strategic options in any conflict that may occur against Pakistan.

In conclusion it is necessary for our politico-military leadership to reorient our forces for dealing with any contingency that may arise along the LOC/LAC in our mountainous regions. In any event we must take full advantage of the long experience and high levels of expertise and skill-sets available within our army for combat in extreme high altitudes and mountainous terrain. These are battle winning factors and need to be supplemented with the required infrastructural development and procurement of suitable weapons and equipment that will ensure victory.