Why Siachen glacier is vital to India’s defence

Columnist  | Syed Ata Hasnain

Opinion, Columnists

Only few in India have had the opportunity to examine the Siachen glacier both on the ground and in detail on maps.

With tourist trails having been introduced, from Siachen Base Camp right up to the glacier’s central location, a flavour of peace and tranquility appears to be added to Siachen.

In the recent humdrum of the complexities involving Jammu and Kashmir, one area with territorial dimension attached to it and not drawing sufficient focus is the Siachen glacier. It’s rarely discussed these days as its specifics are much less known. Yet, increased tension with Pakistan and the collusive threats arising from China after recent tensions demand a revisit to this crucial area; if for nothing else, at least for better public awareness. With tourist trails having been introduced, from Siachen Base Camp right up to the glacier’s central location, a flavour of peace and tranquility appears to be added to Siachen. It’s a good decision to have introduced high-altitude hiking in the area; awareness in the public eye about Siachen’s existence will increase, as also the challenges of defending it from adversaries, while survival in the glaciated terrain will find some focus. Yet, this may lead to  a degree of trivialisation without a full appreciation of why India must continue to occupy the Siachen glacier; the strategic aspects rarely get explained but that knowledge is necessary too, especially if it is better known that India expends Rs 4 crores every day to maintain the Army in the glacier deployment.

The problem of the Siachen glacier arose because the ceasefire line (later termed the Line of Control) was not delineated beyond map point NJ 9842. That is the map coordinate from which the further northward delineation was considered impractical and left vague with the statement “the LoC will thence run north to the glaciers”. The last four words came back to haunt India when in 1978 Pakistan commenced patrolling the area and sending foreign expeditions along with Pakistani troops, thus laying virtual claim to the area west of line NJ 9842 to Karakoram (KK) pass. India responded with an effective counter claim; laying down “north to the borders” as the line along the Saltoro ridge watershed, thus defining the entire Siachen glacier lying to the east, from Indira Col in the north to the glacier snout in the south.

When nothing could be resolved for six years, in April 1984 India proactively flew a helicopter-borne force and occupied crucial locations on the sub-glaciers which flow from the passes on the Saltoro ridge. This allowed its troops to move up to the passes at heights up to 22,000 feet and they have since remained with the Indian tricolour embedded there. Pakistan made desperate bids to evict the Indian troops but failed. This included one attack personally led by Gen. Pervez Musharaf, who was then a brigadier commanding Pakistan’s SSG (special forces).

Siachen’s first strategic importance is that its frozen icy waste melts into the River Nubra, which drains the Nubra Valley and provides huge resources of water to Pakistan; the River Nubra flows into the River Shyok which in turn flows to River Indus in PoK. Pakistan’s water sources lying under Indian control is a strategic psychological blow to it. That is one of the prime reasons for Pakistan often terming  the Siachen glacier issue a “low-hanging fruit” in the spectrum of the India-Pakistan border disputes, and advising India that this be resolved amicably by “mutual withdrawal” since there is no strategic significance attached to it. Only few in India have had the opportunity to examine the Siachen glacier both on the ground and in detail on maps. Even a cursory glance will reveal the extent of Pakistan’s ruse. Mutual withdrawal in the context of Pakistan’s proposal will only mean one army withdrawing from the crucial tactically dominating heights of the Saltoro ridge; the Indian Army. The reality is that Pakistan cannot even view the Siachen glacier, let alone be in a position to do mutual withdrawal. This fact it has astutely hidden from its public and the media, deceiving them with films and documentaries of an imagined occupation of parts of the Siachen glacier. A major source of water for Pakistan lying in Indian hands is definitely a strategic advantage, especially when Pakistan continues to rave and rant about J&K and refuses to budge from its established strategy of using terror as a weapon against India.

There is an even greater strategic dimension which only those with operational and tactical experience generally tend to understand. It needs a brief explanation. What has to be noted is that the strategic significance has only enhanced over time. Hypothetically, the possibility of full Pakistani occupation of the triangle, NJ 9842-Saltoro Ridge-KK Pass, would bring the Pakistan Army to the edge of the Saltoro Ridge, affording it domination over the crucial Nubra and Shyok Valleys. The latter provide additional depth and broad operating space to the Indian Army for the defence of the Ladakh Range, which in turn provides depth to Leh, the capital of the new Union territory of Ladakh. Pakistan’s occupation of Siachen area would do three things for it. First, it would broaden the China-Pakistan link into a larger contact zone to afford operations against Indian deployment in the Nubra and Shyok Valleys. Second, it would make Indian deployment at the KK Range relatively untenable if the valleys were to fall to the China-Pakistan combine. The extreme high-altitude area of the KK Range around Daulat Beg Oldi and stretching into Eastern Ladakh would feel threatened. Third, the potential threat to the valleys would entail the defence of Leh being met through deployment on a single mountain range, the Ladakh Range, not the most prudent operational way of defending the core centre of the new Ladakh UT.

With the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), India’s northernmost deployment, which retains the psychological and physical means to target the corridor, remains the Siachen area. What has rarely been spoken about is the fact that for China the ultimate salvation lies in making the CPEC a maze of old-world Silk Route alignments through the Ladakh region into PoK, making Ladakh that much more strategic for India. The degree of difficulty for communications arteries keeps enhancing as you progress north. It’s the south of the current deployment of both China and Pakistan which will provide better options for the construction of communications arteries, adding to the worth of CPEC; that terrain all lies in Ladakh. The defence of Ladakh without holding Siachen would make the task of the Indian Army of defending Leh, and hence Ladakh, far more challenging than it already is. That is how the strategic significance of the new UT needs to be viewed.