Extracts from Lt. Gen. P.N. Hoon’s Memoirs Unmasking Secrets
of Turbulence (Published in 2000)
Saturday, May 5, 2012
How the Siachen war was ill-conceived and ill-planned
I took over as corps commander of 15 Corps on 3
August 1983. In September-October I briefed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi about
the strategic importance of Siachen and about Pakistan’s designs to capture
Kardung La, (sic) the highest
motorable road in the world, and thus dominate Leh by bringing artillery,
rockets etc, into the Nubra Valley — capture Leh and then link up with the
Chinese at Aksai Chin.
The preparation for Operation Meghdoot started long before the operation was actually launched. In November-December 1983, I went on a shopping mission to Europe. The shopping did not include arms, but skis, tents, boots and other equipment for soldiers to survive in high altitude. The operation was finally launched on 13 April 1984. It was still winter in Siachen. The plan was a vertical envelopment by surprise during winter, when the passes were closed and this is what happened. By 18 April, we had secured control over Siachen, including Indira Col…
As commander of the operation, I wish to state that the operation was launched after a careful logistics planning. The initial plan of putting 20 to 30 men over Sia La, Bilafond La and Gyong La was only an interim action. This was to be followed by the raising of a brigade (three battalions with 1,200 troops each) trained in ‘white shod operations’ ie, who would be ski-trained and hence would operate throughout the year. The brigade was raised when I was the corps commander of 15 corps. This was to be further made into a division (three brigades or nine battalions) and then within one or two years it was to be organised into a STRIKE FORCE CORPS FOR WHITE SHOD OPERATIONS (author’s emphasis). This was never carried out.
The logistics costs which are being incurred today would have been avoided, had the plan been fully implemented. The plan was to station the strike force not at Siachen but between Kargil, Dras, Sonamarg, Magam and Gandarbal. The advantage of this would be that the logistics support for this large force would have been minimal, since it was positioned on a highway and the valley. On the other hand it would have been a deterrent to Pakistan. It would have the capability to strike at the underbelly of the Saltoro Range, if Pakistan dared to attack and capture one of the passes on the glacier. The number of soldiers actually stationed at Siachen was to have been minimal. If Pakistan did manage to capture any post or pass, then the Strike Force would react by going right up to Gilgit, Skardu, and threaten the Karakoram Highway.
Hoon’s understanding of Siachen as told to Indira Gandhi, over-rides common-sense. When Shyok and Indus river approaches are available to Pakistan, it would have been simply foolish for them to cross the Saltoro Range at average heights of 20,000 ft to reach Leh, the capital of Ladakh. Even if the Pakistanis were stupid enough to do so how many of its mountaineers (not soldiers) would have reached Leh through the treacherous Siachen Glacier. And would it not have been easy for Indian troops and firepower to decimate fatigued troops?
Hoon’s assertion that, if allowed, Pakistan would have brought artillery to Nubra Valley to dominate Leh is strange. With good artillery deployment sites at lower altitudes available to Pakistan, why would it have done what India was forced to do? Indian artillery guns were dropped on the glacier by Mi-17 helicopters of the Indian Air Force as small loads of dismantled pieces, where technicians assembled them at surveyed locations. If ever there is a demilitarisation of the glacier, India would have to abandon the guns deployed there as they cannot be retrieved.
Hoon’s detailed operational plan for Siachen is fictitious and has been written by him (his book came out in 2000) with the benefit of the 1999 Kargil war. Chibber denied the existence of any such plan to FORCE, and 15 corps headquarters has no records of Hoon’s strike force corps plan. Moreover, no brigade — expert in white shod operations — as claimed by Hoon, was ever raised or exists in 15 corps.
Assuming that Hoon’s plan did exist, it is interesting to understand its salient features. Twenty to 30 men were to occupy the main passes on the Saltoro Range (obviously air maintained) as an interim measure, while a brigade expert in skiing was to be raised. It is unclear if these brigade experts were to ski through the innumerable crevices and serve as porters to ferry logistics from the logistics maintenance areas on the glacier to the posts on the Saltoro. Or, they were to wait until the Strike Corps expert in skiing would become a reality.
Hoon’s stupid plan suggests that if Pakistan captured any posts on the Saltoro, the Indian Strike Corps would have the capability to go and threaten the Karakoram Highway. Once India launched Operation Meghdoot, Pakistan launched its own Operation Ababeel (eagle) for Siachen. In less than a year, the PA established brigade strength garrisons each at Dansum, Khapalu, Siari, Skardu, with an ad hoc corps headquarters (Force Command Northern Area) at Gilgit under the overall command of 10 corps at Rawalpindi. India has indeed been fortunate to have not raised the ski-trained strike corps.
The truth about Operation Meghdoot is a tribute to Indian troops who despite the stupidity of their generals are willing to tread the extra mile. The actual Hoon plan had assessed that the overall commitment of troops-to-task would not exceed a reinforced battalion (about 1,300 soldiers).
This included the task force and soldier-porters to ferry logistics. The task force under Lt Col Pushkar Chand comprised one company (about 120 men) of Ladakh scouts for Sia La, one company of 4 Kumaon to Bilafond La, and one company of 19 Kumaon to Gyong La. Elements of Special Forces and instructors from the army’s High Altitude Warfare School were also included in the three parties. As far as logistics were concerned, a platoon (about 35 soldiers) each for three groups was provided as porters to ferry logistics on foot from the staging camp on the glacier to the two forward posts on the Saltoro Range.
Troops for Sia La and Bilafond La were to be lifted by helicopters, while troops for Gyong La (adjacent to NJ 9842) were told to walk on the glacier to their locations. Unfortunately, an avalanche wiped out the entire walking column of 19 Kumaon to Gyong La, and extreme bad weather disrupted helicopter lift of troops to the other two passes. Meanwhile, radio communications were disrupted as no one had thought of present radio sets working in the extreme climate. Only on the fourth day (April 18), half of troops (about 60 soldiers) were managed to be dropped at Sia La and Bilafond La. In less than two weeks, 26 out of the 52 troops at Bilafond La were evacuated on medical grounds. The foot columns carrying logistics took enormous casualties mainly because of the unpredictable crevices. And with the death of the entire 19 Kumaon column in an avalanche, Pakistani troops (Burzil force) managed to occupy Gyong La, which subsequently led to the broadening of the war. Such was the beginning of Operation Meghdoot, which would eventually have a division (six battalions) worth of troops on the glacier and the Saltoro Ridge, and two times more numbers for troops’ rotation.