In Siachen, a faster response system
At the Siachen Glacier, Aug. 13: Hot and high above the river of snow and scree, Squadron Leader Mayank Paliwal’s helicopter shudders mid-air in winds that play wild in the folds of these mountains. A grey mass is rolling down from the peaks ahead.
Look there, gestures Paliwal. It is too noisy in the cockpit of the Indian Air Force Mi-17 V5 to be able to talk and listen over the thrum of the engine and the chop-chop of the rotors. He is also wearing an oxygen mask under his helmet.
Below, soldiers of the Indian Army watch and wait to collect rations and medicines.
As India marches towards the 70th year of Independence beginning next week, soldiers here pray at the OP Baba shrine in the base camp for freedom from avalanches and blizzards, snowstorms and whiteouts, and for regular medicine. The weather is such that they rarely feel hunger.
“Yahan ka mausam aur Bambai ka fashion ka koi bharosa nahi (you cannot trust the weather here just as you cannot trust Bollywood’s fashion),” Paliwal — Pali to his friends — will say later, like so many before him.
We were hoping to fly to the Kumar Post at 16,000ft near the centre of the glacier. Ahead of us the grey mass is opaque, containing within it unknown madnesses of Karakoram weather in this part of Ladakh that faces both Pakistan and China.
A half-hour back we had taken-off from the base camp, aiming for the centre of the glacier. But the grey mass was on the offensive, bearing down. Sky was merging with earth. So the pallets of food and medicine are dropped for the nearest camp over which the helicopter could fly.
For now, Pali tells his co-pilot to turn and make a “dry run”, fly over a drop-zone (DZ), without ejecting the load. We fly past the Teram Shehr and Terang Tokpo, two of the tributary glaciers of the Siachen, and serried ranks of a brown-and-black Karakoram range. Inside the cabin of the V5 the three-man crew prepares to push loads lashed with nylon chords. On the second run, the pilot pushes a buzzer and orders “go, go, gooooo!”.
The men push the loads on pallets. The pallets slide over the helicopter’s floor rollers and are out of the open rear into thin air. Almost immediately they bloom into parachutes.
Loads are parachuted because the supplies cannot be reached by road in these mountains that India must man, post by post, soldier by soldier. Pakistan does the same, to a different degree. Yet, somehow, wars between countries are still possible. Warring the weather looks impossible
In the six months since the life, resurrection and death of a lance naik, there is an urgency that has put greater value on the life of a soldier. But it fails to encapsulate the contrast between dying fighting for a nationhood and dying fighting ice walls. India and Pakistan are not shooting at each other here for 13 years. But one cannot come down and the other cannot go up — an “oropolitic”, that dictates that those who have the heights have the right to possession.
A cliche repeated here is that soldiers have three gods: porters, doctors and helicopters. In the thirty-two years since Siachen has come to mean an interminable India-Pakistan war, that belief has survived the changes in generations.
What has changed is the speed of response to emergencies. Since the death of lance naik Hanamanthappa Koppad of the 19 Madras, that speed has gathered an urgency. The Indian Air Force and the Indian Army are executing plans that are costly. But they are less costly than losing soldiers in a war that is not being fought between countries.
The war with the weather continues.At the base camp below, the snout of the glacier from which the Nubra river flows in braided nullahs is confined to a corner on its left flank. On a visit another summer 10 years back in the month of May, this correspondent found a “neat” snout, a clear line where the snow ended and from which the waters of the Nubra drained.
Today, most of the snout is made of black moraine, formed by scree and stones that are embedded in the ice
, though soldiers say that in winters it will be all white again. In the summer today, the soldiers on the ground, who always had to be careful, are now delicate in picking their way over crevasses made in the shifting mass. Helicopter pilots have to fly “hot and high” — hot weather making it difficult to draw more oxygen into the engines that power their machines higher and faster — with lighter loads.The Siachen Glacier as seen from the rear of the V5 after the supplies are paradropped.
Pictures by Sujan Dutta“Yes, the average temperature has gone up by more than 3 degrees Celsius over a period of time,” says Lt Colonel S.B. Sengupta, commandant and chief instructor at the Siachen Battle School (SBS) at the base camp.
“There is residual terminal moraine and it is making life tougher,” he admits.
Behind the OP Baba shrine that contains holy scriptures of different faiths, soldiers pray before trudging up to their posts. At Sengupta’s SBS near the shrine, troops hold ropes to climb up sheer rock that are nearly perpendicular to the ground. They are practising scaling walls of ice. Sengupta doubles as a rescuer during emergencies.
Manning posts from 11,000ft to 21,000ft in heights all along the 110km Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) on eastern Karakoram’s Saltoro Ridge, Indian and Pakistani soldiers have been staring at each other since the 2003 ceasefire.
The measures to save soldiers in distress have largely followed the public anguish over and the public appreciation of military fortitude in the death, resurrection and death of a lance naik.
Hanamanthappa was rescued days after the Prime Minister and most of the country gave up all 10 soldiers at the Sonam Post for dead. In his prising — Sengupta said he was found under blocks of ice that were two to three-storeys high — the soldier held out hope till he died in a Delhi army hospital on February 11. He owed his rescue to his commanding officer, Colonel Um Bahadur Gurung, who was dogged in the search for his men, and to the helicopters that enabled his flight from Sonam Post (19,600ft) to the south Delhi hospital.
Paliwal’s squadron, the 153 Helicopter Unit (“Daring Dragons”) and the 114 Helicopter Unit (“Siachen Pioneers”) flew in teams of rescuers and machinery for the search and rescue.
Last month, at another military station in Ladakh, Gurung, Hanamanthappa’s commanding officer, had described to The Telegraph what happened: “Actually we got a call from Rama Murthy on the radio hours after the avalanche,” Gurung recalled. Rama Murthy was Hanamanthappa’s comrade. They lived in the same tent that was buried.
“His voice was faint but we could discern that someone may be alive, may be inside a kind of ‘bubble’ that was created under the ice,” he said.
Rama Murthy had said over the faint signal that the VHF (very high frequency) radio set’s battery was dying.
“He was also exhausted and we could make out that lack of oxygen was playing tricks with his brain; he was clearly disoriented,” said Gurung.
Rama Murthy died along with the radio battery.
The Sonam Post was made up of a Russian tent, a para tent (made of parachutes) and a mandir (temple) tent.
Gurung called up the 102 (Independent) Brigade base at the snout of the glacier and asked for see-through-ground radars and ice cutters. “We tried to pinpoint the location and it was touch and go really; we did not want to miss the pit by a whisker.” On the third day, Hanamanthappa was raised and a nation’s prayers had gone up for him.In 2012, the maximum was 13 degrees C, and the minimum (minus) 40 degrees C.
2013: maximum 13.3 degrees C; minimum (minus) 39 degrees C.
2014: maximum 13.5 degrees C; minimum (minus) 37 degrees C.
2015: maximum 14.3 degrees C; minimum (minus) 34 degrees C.
2016 (till June): maximum 15.5 degrees C; minimum (minus) 30 degrees C.
Colonel Gurung knows the impact of such change probably better than anyone else because he understands it with the heart and the mind.
Adding to the weather is the change in the deployment of troops all along the Ladakh frontier, from Kargil, to Siachen to eastern Ladakh.
There are probably more troops in the region now than any time before.
Military sources are loath to give figures. But within the five the five zones that have responsibility in the area of the 14 “Fire and Fury” Corps from Kargil (Alpha-Bravo sector), Sub Sector Haneef, Siachen, Sub Sector North (Daulat Beg Oldi) and Eastern Ladakh, the number of troops is estimated to go into six figures. Opposite India, Pakistan has troops from its Skardu and Gilgit formations; China from its Tien Wien Dian (TWD) and Moldo Garrisons that have large numbers of mobile units.
While there is hardly any shooting barring practice firing or shooting-the-snow (to trigger artificial avalanches), reinforcement by all three countries is the norm. India’s reinforcement is partly in response to the presence of Chinese troops — said to be non-combatants — in Pakistan’s Northern Areas.
At Leh this week, two Sukhoi 30 MKi fighter aircraft of the Indian Air Force made many dry runs, flying from bases in the plains, over Ladakh and swooping down to almost ground level on the airstrip before zooming skywards. The increasing militarisation in the harsh climes and thin air where oxygen is scarce means more dangers to more men, both on the ground and in the air.
China has three active airbases in its Zinjiang province bordering Sub Sector North: Hotan, Kashgar and Gargunza. The Indian Air Force landed the US-imported C-130J Hercules turbo-prop aircraft at Daulat Beg Oldi in 2013. It is now looking for “airfield mats” that will enable more frequent landings and take-offs from the uneven ground.
“Our helicopters fly there regularly,” says Group Captain B. Manikandan, Air Officer Commanding, Leh.Wing Commander S. Ramesh of the 114 “Siachen Pioneers” says his responsibility is to serve all troops and even civilians in the area. His squadron is tasked from Kargil to eastern Ladakh, covering nearly a hundred posts. It flies the “Cheetah” helicopters. Originally, known as the Alouette, the Cheetah has morphed into a “Cheetal”. Its original engine has been replaced with a more powerful French-origin Turbomeca.
The result is evident. Group Captain Sundeep Mehta, who was also in the Siachen Pioneers, and used to fly to Eastern Ladakh, says, “earlier we could not switch-off the engine at a post like Chungtash because it would be difficult to re-light”. Ramesh, a couple of decades younger than Mehta, says that is not an issue now. The helicopters, and the pilots, are in any case flying at the limits of their endurance: the machines are flown higher than they are certified to and in weather that they are not certified for. Paliwal’s Mi-17 V5 and Ramesh’s Cheetals now cross the Khardung La (18380 feet) from Leh more times in a day than their predecessors could.
The changes in the air-support are projected to match the changes on the ground: the IAF wants its ALG (advanced landing ground) at Nyoma in South Eastern Ladakh facing Aksai Chin (about 25 to 30km from the Line of Actual Control with China — a few seconds in flight) to be upgraded into a full-fledged base. It is doing that in Kargil where the runway is being lengthened. At Thoise, where we were diverted because bad weather made it impossible for the V5 to cross the Khardung La last evening, there is now a heated hangar for helicopters. C-17 Globemaster III aircraft of the IAF land in Thoise regularly as does a civilian plane chartered as a “courier” by the army.
Thoise, near “Yankee” junction where the Nubra flows into the Shyok, is sometimes expanded to “Transit Halt for Indian Soldiers En route”, has detachments of helicopters that fly into both Siachen and Sub Sector Haneef as well as Alpha-Bravo. (Thoise may have also been named after a Ladakhi village called Thos). In Eastern Ladakh, the army is preparing a new Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) for aircraft along a new road axis called Charlie II.
On the ground, the infantryman who marches up to Siachen posts such as Benazir, and, yes, Sonam, is now being given “Avalanche Buoyancy Bags” (ABBs). In an avalanche, he is supposed to pull a ripcord, like a parachutist, that blows up underarms to make him “float” above snow.
From Israel, the army has since Hanamanthappa’s death, imported larger numbers of Xaver barrier-piercing radars that are supposed to see through 20 metres of obstacle.
“If a man says he is never afraid, he is either a fool or a Gurkha,” the late Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw famously said. The man who found Hanamanthappa six months back, Um Bahadur Gurung, is a ‘Madrasi Gurkha’, the likes of whom keep soldiers going.
Up here, in the “Oropolitics” of the Himalayas and the Karakorams, where mountaineering and flying are a must to get on top between conflicted states, the possibility or impossibility of wars is often subsumed by the light-headedness of thin air.
In the plains, where the world does not need oxygen cylinders to survive-in yet, the mind is not without fear, from disputed borders, for the men who man them, and from the elements, this Independence Day.