• logo
  • logo
  • logo

Fighting tactics

High mountain terrain is often inaccessible, uninhabitable or of no apparent value, yet peoples and states still fight to possess it.  Long, bloody wars have been fought, and are being fought. Over the past six decaded, high-altitude combat has raged in Africa, Asia, and South America.

High altitude and cold weather warfare are specialized military operations that require special training, special gear, and very special troops.

Mountains present unique challenges to soldiers and commanders alike and provide initial tactical advantage to native forces, the obvious advantage being enemy familiarization with physical terrain. Soldiers who are physically fit, mentally agile, and able to adapt to technological advantages, as compared to most potential adversaries, mitigate this enemy advantage.

In the mountains, small mistakes can lead to catastrophic events, while technological supremacy can be negated by even the most crude and non-technical enemy actions.

There’s a reason that most governments train soldiers for mountain warfare. Most nations have mountains or are near mountains and throughout history many battles have often taken place in mountainous areas. America has faced that in Afghanistan, with the locals using the mountains to their advantage as much as possible to fight American forces.

The Nazis faced mountain warfare in Europe in World War II-the Third Reich had seized power in Austria leading up to the war, but Switzerland was ready, even placing troop battalions in the mountains (the Alps) and wiring bridges into Switzerland with explosives should the Nazis attempt to enter the country.

US and allied mountain troops are operating in Afghanistan, Indian and Pakistani troops are patrolling their mountainous border in the Himalayas, Russian troops are operating in the Caucasus Mountains in Chechnya, Israeli mountain troops patrol on Mt Hermon, and South-American counterinsurgency units trained for mountain operations are hunting guerrillas in the Andes. Virtually every country in the world that contains or has interests in mountainous areas has specialized troops trained for the extreme climate and terrain. Some countries such as Finland, Norway and Sweden train virtually all troops for this type of warfare. Even countries that do not have mountainous areas will probably have at least a few special operators who have received mountain training.

Many countries specifically select mountain troops from citizens living in mountainous terrain. These recruits are already acclimated to higher altitudes and usually are skiers and used to working in cold weather.

Therefore, mountain combat calls for extreme physical fitness, mental toughness, endurance, and the utmost in tactical and technical proficiency on the part of all individuals. With proper leadership and preparation, the physical characteristics of mountains can support and enhance offensive operations.

India’s concern

Over the past decade the Chinese Army has built a road-rail network of over 58,000 km and nine new military airfields on the Tibetan plateau. It took the PLA two years to deploy 22 divisions against India in the 1970s. It can now deploy 34 divisions or over 4,00,000 soldiers in a month. In contrast, nearly one-fourth of India’s strategic border roads totalling 600 km remain unfinished. These roads were identified by the China Study Group as vital for the army to rush troops to the border in case of war. Delays in environment clearances and slow work mean they will be complete only by 2017.

China is acquiring high-technology and developing indigenous weapon systems. It is also moving to trans-regional mobility or the ability to swiftly move troops across its seven military districts. The PLA is rapidly transforming into a light, lethal, agile and networked force that will soon be capable of taking the fight into the adversary’s territory.

The Indian Army’s solution to counter growing Chinese threat has been a Government sanction for adding four more mountain divisions of 12,000 soldiers each. Two of these divisions will form part of a new mountain strike corps to mount an offensive into Tibet. Among the key equipment this new strike corps requires are heavy-lift helicopters, gunships, howitzers and modern communication systems.

Currently India has three Strike Corps all of them are ranged against Pakistan and are equipped for desert and plains warfare.

The Mountain Strike Corps would be India’s fourth strike corps. Its mail role will be offensive operations into enemy land, as well as India’s first dedicated corps for offensive mountain warfare.

Mountain Strike Corps will comprise 40,000 additional soldiers to counter China’s military strength. The Strike Corps will be headquartered at Panagarh in West Bengal.

It would, for the first time, give India the capability to also launch offensive action into the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

The Indian Army is considered as among the best trained army in the world when it comes to mountain or high altitude warfare. The High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS) of Indian Army is a training and research establishment. From a humble beginning as the 19 Infantry Division Ski School in 1948, the High-Altitude Warfare School has over the years become the Army’s nodal agency for specialised training and dissemination of doctrines in high-altitude, mountain and snow warfare.

The High-Altitude Warfare School played an important role during the 1999 Kargil conflict by conducting crash courses for troops prior to their induction in the actual operations to dislodge Pakistani intruders from the icy heights. It also trains troops for operations in the Siachen Glacier, the highest and coldest battlefield in the world.

Given the extensive experience of the Indian Army in mountain warfare, troops from other nations regularly train and conduct joint exercises at various training schools that Indian Army operates.

Numerous army units across the world are now implementing training modules modeled after Indian Mountain Warfare training systems. These include forces from UK, US, Russia, etc. In 2004, US Special Forces teams were sent to India to learn from Indian Army experiences of the Kargil War prior to their deployment for operations in Afghanistan.

It is no new fact that throughout the course of history, armies have been significantly affected by the requirement to fight in the mountains. With approximately 38 percent of the world’s landmass classified as mountains, the forces should be prepared to deter conflicts, resist coercion, and defeat aggression in mountains as in other areas.

Major mountain ranges, which are found in desert regions, jungles, and cold climate zones, present many challenge to military operations. Mountain operations may require special equipment, special training, and acclimatization. Historically, the focus of mountain operations has been to control the heights or passes.

In cold and high altitude weather warfare it is the terrain and elements, more than enemy bullets or activity, that are the greatest danger to the individual fighting man.

The requirement to conduct military operations in mountainous regions presents commanders with challenges distinct from those encountered in less rugged environments and demands increased perseverance, strength, will, and courage.

The weather, variable with the season and time of day, combined with the terrain, can greatly affect mobility and tactical operations. Even under nonviolent conditions, operations in a mountainous environment may pose significant risks and dangers.


A unit fighting in the mountains must overcome difficulties, measure risks, and exploit opportunities to close with the enemy and defeat him and well-prepared commanders anticipate, understand, and adapt to the physical demands of mountain environments. They face and overcome the challenges of fighting in areas where technological supremacy can be negated by even the most crude and non-technical enemy actions. Commanders who know what to expect during mountain operations create situations that allow their companies to adapt to the challenges and achieve victory on all battlefields. Physical fitness is the first prerequisite of mountain-warfare training.

The effects of cold weather and unforgiving terrain require a high level of physical fitness for long-distance climbing and walking, and the physical fitness required for mountainous terrain must be developed at high altitude. But being physically fit does not necessarily mean soldiers will be able to perform adequately at high elevations.

Mountainous terrain can be an ally or a dangerous adversary. As specialized operators, mountain troops must be trained in an array of special skills. Their training usually takes place at high altitudes, as only at altitude can they become accustomed to high-altitude exertion. Most mountain-training centers are located somewhere approaching 10,000 feet. For example, the Indian Army’s High-Altitude Warfare School at Gulmarg is around 8,000 feet and the USMC Mountain Warfare School in California is at 9,000 feet. Before they can successfully operate in extreme conditions, troops must learn to survive in those conditions, to deal with the many health problems unique to the cold, high-altitude environment where they will operate. These include: heat loss, dehydration, altitude sickness, high-altitude cerebral and pulmonary edema, hypothermia, frost bite, trench foot, snow blindness, carbon monoxide poisoning (from heat sources in enclosed areas), and sanitation and waste disposal.

Basic mountaineering and high-altitude skills are vital for soldiers to develop confidence and survive in mountainous environments and essential in combat. As mountain height increases, so does the required skill level. At altitudes below 13,000 feet, it might be enough for soldiers to understand climbing techniques, navigation, route selection, the use of ropes, and procedures to avoid landslides and snow avalanches, but at high altitudes, soldiers must learn more complex techniques, such as those required for mountain expeditions.

Troops must also be trained to eat and drink enough to survive and operate under extreme conditions. Psychological problems can also occur during high altitude operations including depression, withdrawal, and lethargy, which keep soldiers from leaving the shelter and carrying out operations. Troops should conserve energy, but they may have to transport heavy loads at times because of the need to bring in most survival needs including fuel and food.

Because it is not always possible to transport material by helicopter, troops are often required to carry awkward loads, including kerosene oilcans, rations, and building materials for bunkers. The Soviets learned this lesson while fighting in difficult terrain in Afghanistan.

At high altitudes, where it is difficult to keep weapons functioning, covering and protecting weapons and equipment against snow and ice is a necessity. Batteries often will not perform optimally in the cold, and complicated mechanisms, such as those in surface-to-air missiles, can easily malfunction.

Also, artillery shells sometimes behave erratically because of thin air and gusting winds. Troops must be equipped and trained to dress properly. Clothing for cold weather warfare is designed to be layered with a vapour layer closest to the body, then an insulation layer, and finally a protection layer. The outer layer will normally be white or white and grey to provide snow camouflage. Changes of clothing must be available as well, in case the soldier gets wet. Boots will be specialized mountain boots with an inner vapour layer.

Specific consideration

Terrain and unpredictable weather conditions affect communications at high altitudes. Satellite communications and the use of command and control (C2) aircraft can offset some terrain limitations and reduce reliance on bulky radio equipment.

Logistics have a whole new dimension in mountain operations. Although specialized all-terrain snow vehicles may be used on mountain roads and some paths, in many regions terrain will dictate that supplies will have to be transported on the backs of soldiers or on sleds. Even today, many mountain units still have integral mules and horses for use in transporting supplies. Members of mountain units who work with animal transport need to be skilled in breaking down loads into sizes that can be readily placed on a pack mule, and how to load and care for their work animals.

Sustainment in a mountain environment is a challenging and time-consuming process. Terrain and weather complicate virtually all sustainment operations including logistics resupply, medical and casualty evacuation, and Soldier health and hygiene. The network of restrictive mountain roads often does not support resupply vehicles with a large turning radius, or permit two-way traffic. Movement of supplies often involves a combination of movement types including air, vehicle, foot, and animal, with each technique having its own challenges in mountain environments.

Land navigation over snow and ice requires special training as well, even with GPS available. As part of their mountain survival training, troops must be trained to find their way and in what to do should they become separated from the rest of their unit on a mission.

Many considerations will affect individual operations in mountainous environs and extreme conditions. Prior to deploying to their operational areas, troops need to acclimatize for 10 to 15 days at a similar altitude. Normally, when operating in glaciered areas approaching 20,000 feet, troops should only remain for a maximum of three to four weeks before returning to lower altitudes. Commanders must always bear in mind, too, that in extreme weather conditions, troops must remain ready to fight the enemy, even while fighting the elements. Even elite, highly trained mountain troops have found in Afghanistan that it can be psychologically draining to pursue an enemy that has spent his life at those altitudes and, hence, seems immune to the affects.

Nearly every weapon or piece of equipment familiar to the soldier is affected to some degree by the mountain environment. In addition to honing skills, the mountain warfare training must focus on the specific operational area and ways to overcome anticipated environmental impacts when using weapons and equipment.

Throughout history the advantage in battle has often gone to the army that can take the high-ground. The forest and mountains offer many types of camouflage. One can look like part of the hillside, part of the brush, part of a tree - in an urban environment one can even look like a heap of garbage or in an extreme situation like bodies among dead bodies.

Fighting in the mountains is not a special operation or exclusively an infantry domain.47 Mountain warfare involves logistics, aviation, artillery, communications, and air assets. With the level of sophistication in these branches and services, there is an even greater need for collective training in order to use their unique characteristics fully.

At a minimum, basic mountain warfare combatants should possess the mountain-specific knowledge and skills and train on those skills in anticipation of assigned missions:

•    Characteristics of the mountain environment (summer and winter).
•    Mountaineering safety.
•    Use, care, and packing of individual cold weather clothing and equipment.
•    Care and use of basic mountaineering equipment.
•    Mountain bivouac techniques.
•    Mountain communications.
•    Mountain travel and walking techniques.
•    Hazard recognition and route selection.
•    Mountain navigation.
•    Basic medical evacuation.

Jungle warfare

Soldiers must understand that the environment affects everyone. The degree to which soldiers are trained to live and fight in harsh environments will determine their unit’s success or failure.

Rather than conventional attacks conducted against conventional defences, jungle battles are more often ambushes, raids, and meeting engagements. Battles are not fought for high ground as frequently as conventional battles. Orientation is on the enemy rather than on the terrain. Hills in the jungle are often too thickly vegetated to permit observation and fire, and therefore do not always qualify as key terrain. In the jungle, roads, rivers and streams, fording sites, and landing zones are more likely to be key terrain features.

Although jungles have excellent concealment, the jungle fighter must still prepare fighting positions to get as much cover as possible. Although not as important as fighting positions, jungle shelters provide shelter from the elements and make life in the jungle more comfortable and healthful.

To conceal the fighting position, troops should take advantage of the jungle’s natural cover. They should use large fallen or standing trees and depressions in the ground, and work to improve upon the natural cover provided.

Positions should be placed under the jungle canopy for its natural concealment from air observation. If this is not possible, positions should be covered with camouflage nets or with expedient covers of loosely woven vines and branches.

It is hard to orientate in the jungle because the jungle can rapidly change due to the weather -the visibility is very limited and the maps are often not accurate, partly because of the weather

GPS connection is also a problem due to the large treetops that block the signal :the satellite link for GPS works only in open spaces.

Even if motorized transportation is difficult in a jungle environment, certain ways are available. One is to use the natural waterways, such as rivers, lakes and streams. Due to the lack of roads, the waterways are frequently used and are therefore called “the highways of the jungle”.

Helicopters are essential for use in jungle combat because they provide great mobility and flexibility but also because of the constrained infrastructures, they are also very vulnerable: a simple measure such as pushing down a long stick into the soil prevents the helicopter from landing near the stick.

The first time that helicopters were used in large scale in military jungle operations was in the Vietnam War.

The helicopters were used for many tasks, such as troop carrying, fire support, reconnaissance, command and medical purposes and they still are used the same way today, but the technique has been refined.

Before deploying for jungle operations, troops are issued special uniforms and equipment. Jungle fatigues are lighter and faster drying than standard fatigues. To provide the best ventilation, the uniform should fit loosely. Jungle boots are lighter and faster drying than all-leather boots. Their cleated soles will maintain footing on steep, slippery slopes.

Training to conceal soldiers and equipment from ground and air observation is equally important to combat, combat support, and combat service support units. Proper use of camouflage will help to make up for an enemy’s superior knowledge of the jungle area.

The ambush is more important, more effective, and more frequently used in jungle fighting than in any other type of combat. Jungle terrain provides many opportunities for a well-concealed force to gain surprise. Surprise is essential for a successful ambush. The location for an ambush should be chosen after a careful analysis of the terrain, using maps, aerial photographs, and personal reconnaissance.

Commanders must stress effective security measures and aggressive intelligence-gathering techniques to prevent being surprised. Surveillance, target acquisition, and night observation (STANO) devices, especially infrared, starlight scopes, and unattended ground sensors, are quite effective in gathering information about troop movements in the jungle

Reconnaissance operations are always important in jungle warfare. Many offensive operations in the jungle take on the aspects of a reconnaissance operation during their early stages. This is because the success of offense in the jungle depends on ability to find the enemy.

The Counter-Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School (CIJWS) in Vairengte, Mizoram, India is a training and research establishment of the Indian Army specialising in unconventional warfare, especially counter-insurgency and guerrilla warfare. CIJWS is one of the premier counter-insurgency training institutions in the world. Many countries send their troops regularly to get trained in this warfare school.

Desert warfare

Desert warfare is unique because of the hostile environment in which it is fought. Military operations in the desert are characterized by fluid, highly mobile, shifting battles among widely dispersed units. Engagements of ground forces are frequent, rapid, and often occur during darkness so opposing forces can avoid detection and the extreme daytime temperatures of the desert.

Deserts are generally sparsely populated, relatively empty and undeveloped. Desert terrain lacks vertical development, as well as natural cover, and the hostile desert climate can severely impair the effectiveness of both men and equipment. Deserts of political and military importance exist throughout the world.

Desert operations demand adaption to the environment and to the limitations imposed by terrain and climate. Success depends on an appreciation of the effects of arid conditions on soldiers, on equipments and facilities, and on combat and support operations. Leaders and soldiers must continually evaluate the situation and be ready to react to changing conditions. Equipment and tactics must be modified and adapted to a dusty, rugged landscape where temperatures vary from extreme highs to freezing lows and where visibility can change from 30 miles to 30 feet in a matter of minutes.

The key to success in desert operations is mobility. This was clearly evident in the ground operations of Desert Storm.

In order to fight and survive in desert operations troops must fully understand the desert environment. The objective of individual training is to prepare the individual for operations in a desert environment. This requires both mental and physical preparation.

Camouflage and concealment training for desert warfare may be divided into concealment from the ground and concealment from the air. Particular attention must be paid to movement, color, shadow, and deception. Units should practice erecting and disassembling camouflage netting in order to become more efficient. Well-trained crews can save time and headaches. Camouflage and concealment are equally important for combat service support troops.

In desert combat all movement is driven by the availability of water. A military column may run, out of fuel and face no immediate danger, however, when the same column exhausts its water supply, the entire force becomes vulnerable. Troops in combat must be assured a plentiful supply of water if they ‘are to conduct effective operations. Locating water in the desert is a major problem, since most subsurface desert water is highly mineralized and rapid, large scale purification facilities are normally, not available. The problem of locating water’ in the desert is so serious.

Thermal regulation is the main physiological problem the human body encounters, in the desert when water is in short supply.

Troops must be thoroughly briefed on the type of terrain and the general environment they will encounter, including water sources, if any, landmarks or significant permanent terrain features, friendly and enemy areas of operation and prevailing winds.

This information will assist navigation by reconnaissance units or individuals who become separated from their units. Although maps are the most obvious navigation aids, numerous types of equipment and techniques are available to assist soldiers during desert operations.

Clothing in desert regions serves different functions than it does in cold climates. In the desert, clothing provides protection from radiant and convective heat gain and also acts as a partial vapor barrier around the body. In deserts, loose clothing that permits extensive ventilation and, is vapor permeable is best. Impermeable garments and equipment, such as bullet-proof vest and some chemical warfare outfits, create serious barriers to the body’s normal evaporative cooling process.

The desert produces several unusual phenomena that affect the performance of communications-electronics equipment. The most significant is ducting, a phenomenon that causes radio waves to bend either toward, or away, from the earth’s surface. A second phenomenon is multipath propagation. It reduces electromagnetic signal strength and affects radar performance. A third phenomenon is signal attenuation caused by dust clouds and the fourth is the static discharges that occur around radio antennas.

The effects produced by these phenomena are well understood and occur in specific frequency bands. These phenomena are important to both commanders and equipment operators. They must understand the performance limitations the desert imposes on their equipment and exercise preventative measures whenever possible to minimize the degradation these phenomena cause.

Good communications in desert terrain will often depend on the state of mind of the operators. They must be enthusiastic, persistent, and determined to make and maintain contact. Unit training should concentrate on ECCM techniques. When conducting field training, higher headquarters can provide assistance in the form of small teams to jam unit nets. They should practice actions to be taken when radio contact is lost due to heat.

The use of thermal imaging and night vision devices can add substantially to all types of difficult terrain warfare. India, being a country having all types of terrain, needs to understand the complications and advantages involved in carrying out a war like situation in difficult terrain.

Though it has got expertise in advanced training for fighting in complex environments, India should be well prepared to fight out dual front war with different tactics and strategies as and when need arise.

As terrain conditions will vary after each 10 kms of distance along the border, making a comprehensive topographic study and periodic geophysical condition analysis may help the Indian military to prepare its strategy in a better and conventional way.