Monday, January 23, 2017

Demilitarization of the Siachen Glacier

There appears to be a divergence of opinion in India on the issue of demilitarization of the Siachen glacier. This article hopes to bring out some of the technical issues underlying the viability of such a process.

In the glaciated region north of point NJ9842 on the Line of Control, Pakistan enjoys a geographical benefit on the logistical side. To cope with this adversity, the Indian Army uses a strategy called a "Reverse Slope Defence". Such a defensive strategy is typically used when your enemy is locally much stronger than you. It sounds very simple on paper, but actually implementing it is another matter. The Indian Army is the only force in the world to successfully implement this strategy in a high altitude glaciated region. This unique success currently provides security to the entire Leh region, and allows the 3rd Infantry Division to face the Chinese threat without fear of interference in its flanks or rear. 
The core of India's posture is an approximately 20,000 foot high mountain wall - the Saltoro Ridge - that sits on western edge of the Siachen glacier. A classical reverse slope defence calls for the defending power to position a small force manning OP/LPs (Observation Post/Listening Posts) on the "forward crest" of the mountain wall and a much larger defence force on the "reverse crest". The OP/LPs have direct line of sight with the enemy and provide guidance to indirect fire from artillery bases on the reverse side of the mountain. As the enemy cannot observe what is happening behind the mountain, they cannot suppress the defender's activities but the defender can put to a stop any enemy movements. 

Today the Indian Army has a number of OP/LPs on the westward facing slopes of the Saltoro ridge. These positions allow the Indian Army to launch long range artillery attacks on Pakistani positions from the relative safety of the eastern edge of the Siachen glacier. In order to keep these OP/LPs safe from Pakistani attack, a number of flanking positions are also occupied. These security positions have intersecting fields of fire and often house higher caliber munitions and reserve troops that can move quickly to check an enemy assault on the OP/LP. This mesh of OP/LPs and security positions starts out at the so-called Bahadur complex near point NJ9842 and travels north along the Saltoro ridge all the way up to Indira Col. The only way the enemy can get past a reverse slope defence, is by a successful flanking maneuver. In order to deny any possibility of a flanking maneuver the Indian Army dominates the heights overlooking key passes - the Sia La, the Bilafond La and Gyong La. The Pakistan Army has little hope of ever mounting a successful flanking maneuver in the Siachen region.

In order to understand the true cost of the Indian Army's success in the region - we have recognise that there are three distinct parts to the reverse-slope defense, the first deals with the positioning and securing of the OP/LPs, the second pertains to the maintenance of a supply line to these positions and the third relates to the ability to direct plunging fire on the enemy.

Implementing the first part, physically occupying the OP/LPs and their security posts is most painful part of defending the Siachen region. The high altitudes and low temperatures take a heavy toll on the health of soldiers. The simplest tasks at such high altitudes are very difficult. For every soldier in the forward post there are two others that either in reserve or performing support tasks. To make all this possible the 102 Infantry Brigade at Partapur is actually closer in size to a regular army division. Most Indian soldiers who go up to these positions mercifully come back alive these days, but many suffer significant injuries from exposure. Considering that the average Siachen warrior is one of the best soldiers in the Indian Army, this loss is beyond unpleasant. Under different circumstances these boys would have gone on to make a significant contribution to the Indian Army in other areas, and it is just terrible to watch these smart young men march up the mountain and come back crippled. Only a madman would refuse to ask if one really needs to keep doing this. 

Maintaining a supply-line from the reverse side to the forward crest can be extremely challenging. Again the biggest enemy is terrain and weather. It is here that the detailed knowledge of the geography becomes vital. In the Saltoro, the Indian Army maintains a very difficult supply line that travels up the eastern slopes of the ridge and through a maze of mountain peaks snakes down to the OP/LPs and their security positions. Some of this resupply work is done on foot, and some of it is done by helicopter. The exact resupply route depends sensitively on the local weather conditions - avalanches, blizzards etc... can lead to changes in the route. In the summer the helicopter base at Dzingrulma buzzes with activity and the forward posts are stocked up for the winter months. In order to make the resupply chain more robust a number of smaller bases are situated along the length of the glacier. A kerosene pipeline has been laid across the length of the glacier. This pipeline is the only one of its kind and it has changed the economics of the Siachen War for India. There is a downstream problem, that of getting supplies up to the base camp at Dzingrulma itself, but this has been mitigated by several decades long infrastructure buildup in the Leh region. In particular Leh Airfield has been built up to the point where the IAF's immense transportation muscle can be flexed to great effect. Critical to these operations is high quality local weather monitoring. The Indian Army and the DRDO have been working on this for many years now and there have been significant improvements in the meteorological forecasts available to the soldiers. That being said all these resupply operations are extremely expensive - though the Indian Army has significantly reduced costs over the last three decades.

The third part - indirect fire on the enemy - is totally nontrivial in the Siachen region. The main problem is that the density of air and temperature conspire to change the ballistic trajectory of a shell in ways that are difficult to anticipate. This also applies to bombing the enemy from the air. The pilot in an airplane traveling at several hundred miles an hour, has a few seconds to sight the enemy position and drop the bomb. Slower moving craft are vulnerable to SAMs and local weather conditions. Any bombardment has to take place from a higher altitude. Even if the pilot gets the timing right, the bomb's ballistic trajectory is hostage to the same physics that the artillery shell faces. This makes precision bombardment very difficult. Merely sighting the target from the air can be hard if the enemy has camouflaged the position. During late 80s, the Indian army was able to develop a way to direct fire onto Pakistani positions without the usual level of OP/LP based guidance. Similarly during the Kargil War, the IAF came up with the idea to drop bombs in a way that leads to avalanches. This proved sufficiently effective in disrupting the Pakistani intrusion. To most proponents of stand-off warfare these developments are a sign that perhaps the Indian Army's can reduce its dependence on the OP/LPs and rid itself of the cost of securing them. Not everyone agrees with this. In a general sense solving the problems of high altitude observation of enemy positions and of high altitude ballistics is central to the credibility of any stand-off options in the glacier region.

To see what happens when the reverse slope defence idea is not implemented properly - we can consider the Pakistani experience in Kargil. The Pakistanis under Gen. Musharraf set up a number of OP/LPs overlooking the Drass, Kargil, and Batalik sectors and directed artillery fire on National Highway 1-Alpha - the lifeline of Leh. However they failed to provide proper security positions and sufficient resupply lines. Eventually the Indian Army figured out where the OP/LPs were and launched intense mountain assaults and endless artillery barrages on them. The Indian Air Force found out where the resupply nodes were and bombed them. Without resupply and under assault - the remaining Pakistani positions fell quickly. If India thins down the defensive line on the Saltoro Ridge, then a situation similar to what the Pakistani Army found itself in on Kargil will naturally develop. During this phase of the demilitarization, the defensive line on the Saltoro ridge will be weakened - if at this point the Pakistani Army goes on the offensive, theoretically speaking - it will be able to inflict damage on the Indian Army.

In order to dislodge the Pakistanis from their poorly implemented defensive line in the Kargil War, the Indian Army required a 10:1 ratio of men and resources. At one point substantial parts of Kilo Force, 8th Mountain Division and reserves from 102 Inf. Brigade and 3rd Division was committed to operations in the Drass-Kargil-Battalik sector. This was almost three divisions' worth of forces against a Pakistani Northern Light Infantry formation that was a few battalions strong. Pakistan will need similar strengths if it decides to exploit any Indian weakness in the Saltoro defence line. Any such Pakistani assault on the ridge line would require a strong logistical link and significant air cover. As things stand the runway at the Skardu airfield is just barely able to permit a fully loaded warplane to take off and the PAF lacks sufficient transport aircraft. Also the Ghyari base on approach to the Bilafond Pass has been destroyed in a massive avalanche. And Pakistan has no long-range artillery assets capable of supporting the volume of fire needed to support such an operation on the Saltoro Ridge. This makes it difficult for Pakistan to muster the required strength for such a campaign at the present time. This leads many to conclude that a demilitarization of the glaciated zone is possible. The vast expense associated with such a venture and the abysmal state of the Pakistani economy leads others to believe that such a Pakistani offensive can never materialize.

While the short-term viability of the demilitarization is plausible, the latter part about the long-term impossibility of escalations needs careful consideration. The future is extremely hard to predict. It is valuable to explore this in some detail, specifically focus on the same three factors that govern the Indian Army's defensive posture in the glaciated zone.

As things stand today, vast strides are being made in developing high reliability exoskeletons. NASA is working on suits designed for use on alien planets. These suits are completely enclosed and allow the user to function normally in an airless environment which is a 100 degrees below the lowest temperature encountered in Siachen. DARPA is working on exoskeletons which improve the endurance and strength of an average infantryman by factors of ten. While operationally tested versions of such suits are still a decade away, there can be little doubt that warfare in high altitude areas and in glaciated zones would emerge as a natural application of this technology. In addition to this advances are also being made in robotics. A robotic mule has been developed in the US, which seems impervious the effects of terrain and temperature. A number of drone platforms are emerging that can operate with high endurance at high altitudes. Such exosuits and robots would reduce the dependence on static military garrisons in the region. A rapid action force of the kind first visualized by Indian Army thinkers in the 80s would actually become technically feasible. A relatively small footprint in the region could achieve what a decade ago required a much larger force. It is also a given that whatever the Americans succeed at spending decades developing - the Chinese or the Russians clone in a few years. Therefore it maybe possible for Pakistan to acquire such technology in the not-to-distant future.

The PAF has already acquired air/air refueling platforms and Skardu Airbase has been expanded significantly. In the near future, a PAF warplane with significant air-to-ground load could take off from Skardu with minimal fuel and then refuel in the air and head towards its target. Such a move while unlikely to diminish the IAF's air superiority in the region, it will certainly expose Indian Army positions to greater risks. Similarly if either the runway at Skardu airbase is expanded or if a new airbase is built on the Deosai Plateau in the south, the PAF could land bigger transport airplanes and change the economics of stockpiling reserves for their garrisons at Khapplu and Dansam. We can say the same thing about any increases to the PAF or PA Aviation's helicopter fleet. That will make the last leg of their logistical chain a lot more manageable than it is right now.

There is also the issue of advances in computational technology to consider. Solving hard problems (like high altitude ballistics) on a computer is getting progressively easier. Also satellite imaging technology is becoming more accessible. Like most modern economies, Pakistan will progressively improve on the satellite imaging and the computational side, so the only thing limiting its ability to deliver accurate artillery bombardment on Indian positions would be the availability of the right long range rockets and long range artillery platforms and their presence within a certain distance of theSiachen glacier.

Against this background of uncertain levels of technological progress the following ideas spring naturally to an apolitical mind in the context of the demilitarisation,

- an AGPL demarcation that is legally binding - to the same extent the LoC agreement is.

- a ban on the entry of any Pakistani A/A refueling asset within 200 nm of Skardu or Gilgit.

- a ban on the expansion or construction of airports in Gilgit Baltistan including any plans for airbases on the Deosai Plateau, i.e. basically limits on the amounts and kind of construction equipment that can be brought into Gilgit Baltistan.

- a flight restriction on the number of airplanes flying in or out of Skardu within a 24 hour period.

- a ban on the entry of any long range artillery or MRLS or Ballistic Missile systems east of the Astore Valley Road.

- a ban on all military construction in the Ghyari nullah area and a cap on the size of the fuel and supplies stored at Goma, Dansum and Khaplu Garrisons.

- a ban on the entry of Chinese military personnel or private contractors (specifically non-resident Pashto speakers) in the Gilgit Baltistan.

It is worthwhile to examine whether such measures would improve the long-term viability of a demilitarization idea from the Indian perspective.


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