REVIEW: Operation Meghdoot- India’s War in Saichen 1984-2020
Summary- Operation Meghdoot examines the political, geographic and geopolitical imperatives that drove both sides towards conflict in this inhospitable area. The evolution of India’s mountain divisions with their attendant expertise is discussed as well as the air support capabilities available to both sides. Operation Meghdoot itself is discussed in detail including its planning and execution, and the conflict since 1984 is chronicled with an emphasis upon the military engagements, the use of air power and the struggle of both armies to adapt and cope with the environment. Finally, the implications of India’s hold on the Siachen Glacier is analysed with respect to its position against a hostile Pakistan and an increasingly hostile China.
In 1983, Pakistani generals decided to stake their claim through troop deployments to the Siachen glacier. After analysing the Indian Army’s mountaineering expeditions, they feared that India might capture key ridges and passes near the glacier, and decided to send their own troops first. Islamabad ordered Arctic-weather gear from a supplier from London, unaware that the same supplier provided outfits to the Indians. The Indians were informed about this development and initiated their own plan, providing them with a head start.[
Having received intelligence inputs about planned Pakistani action in the area, India decided to prevent Pakistan from legitimizing its claim on the glacier and eventually stop future expeditions to the glacier from the Pakistani side. Accordingly, the Indian military decided to deploy troops from Northern Ladakh region as well as some paramilitary forces to the glacier area. Most of the troops had been acclimatized to the extremities of the glacier through a training expedition to Antarctica in 1982.
The Indian Army planned an operation to occupy the glacier by 13 April 1984, to preempt the Pakistani Army by about 4 days, as intelligence had reported that the Pakistani operation planned to occupy the glacier by 17 April. Named for the divine cloud messenger, Meghaduta, from the 4th century AD Sanskrit play by Kalidasa, “Operation Meghdoot” was led by Lieutenant General Prem Nath Hoon, the then General Officer Commanding the 15 Corp in Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir. Preparations for Operation Meghdoot started with the airlift of Indian Army soldiers by the Indian Air Force (IAF). The IAF used Il-76, An-12 and An-32 to transport stores and troops as well to airdrop supplies to high altitude airfields. From there Mi-17, Mi-8 and HAL Chetak helicopters carried provisions and personnel to the east of the hitherto unscaled peaks.
The first phase of the operation began in March 1984 with the march on foot to the eastern base of the glacier. A full battalion of the Kumaon Regiment and units from the Ladakh Scouts, marched with full battle packs through an ice-bound Zoji La pass for days. The units under the command of Lieutenant Colonel (later Brigadier) D. K. Khanna were moved on foot to avoid detection of large troop movements by Pakistani radars.
The first unit to establish position on the heights of the glacier was led by Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) R. S. Sandhu. The next unit led by Captain Sanjay Kulkarni secured Bilafond La. The remaining forward deployment units then marched and climbed for four days under the command of Captain P. V. Yadav to secure the remaining heights of the Saltoro Ridge. By April 13, approximately 300 Indian troops were dug into the critical peaks and passes of the glacier. By the time Pakistan troops managed to get into the immediate area, they found that the Indian troops had occupied all 3 major mountain passes of Sia La, Gyong La and Bilafond La and all the commanding heights of the Saltoro Ridge west of Siachen Glacier. Handicapped by the altitude and the limited time, Pakistan could only manage to control the Saltoro Ridge’s western slopes and foothills despite the fact that Pakistan possessed more ground accessible routes to the area, unlike Indian access which was largely reliant on air drops for supplies due to the steeper eastern side of the glacier.
In his memoirs, former Pakistani president, General Pervez Musharraf states that Pakistan lost almost 900 sq mi (2,300 km2) of territory. Time magazine states that the Indian advance captured nearly 1,000 sq mi (2,600 km2) of territory claimed by Pakistan. Camps were soon converted to permanent posts by both countries. The number of casualties on both sides during this particular operation is not known.
The operation and the continued cost of maintaining logistics to the area is a major drain on both militaries. Pakistan launched an all out assault in 1987 and again in 1989 to capture the ridge and passes held by India. The first assault was headed by then-Brigadier-General Pervez Musharraf (later President of Pakistan) and initially managed to capture a few high points before being pushed back. Later the same year, Pakistan lost at least one major Pakistani post, the “Quaid“, which came under Indian control as Bana Post, in recognition of Bana Singh who launched a daring daylight attack, codenamed “Operation Rajiv”, after climbing 1,500 ft (460 m) of ice cliff. Bana Singh was awarded the Param Vir Chakra (PVC) — the highest gallantry award of India for the assault that captured the post. Bana Post is the highest battlefield post in the world today at a height of 22,143 feet (6,749 m) above sea level. The second assault in 1989 was also unsuccessful as the ground positions did not change. The loss of most of the Siachen area and the subsequent unsuccessful military forays prompted Benazir Bhutto to taunt Zia ul Haq that he should wear a burqa as he had lost his manliness.
Operation Meghdoot was seen by some as the blueprint behind the Kargil War in 1999 when Pakistani paramilitary forces covertly occupied the Kargil region. Some obvious similarities exist between Siachen and Kargil, including their preemptive nature and the tactical advantage held by the entity who holds the heights. But while Operation Meghdoot was launched in an area of ambiguous border demarcation, the Line of Control in the Kargil region is clearly demarcated and therefore India received complete international support during the Kargil episode.
Review by Christopher (Moon) Mullins
Excerpts taken from, https://www.scientificmystery.com/operation-meghdoot/