Winter warfare

The Indian Army is considered as among the best trained army in the world when it comes to mountain or high altitude warfare.

India, due to the instability in the region, hostile neighbors with the need for permanent deployments in the mountainous regions, has come a long way since 1962. India’s mountain warfare units were vastly expanded after the 1962 war, with the creation of 6 Mountain Divisions.

But it was the shortcomings and observations during the Kargil war which attracted Indian government’s attention towards training troops for a dedicated specialized mountain warfare, which is very essential in the 21st Century battlefield. The creation of a new mountain strike corps of nearly 40,000 troops to be deployed along the disputed China border region by the end of 2016 is a welcome step in this direction.

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.

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

Terrain challenges

Mountain operations are generally carried out at three different operational levels of terrain.

Firstly is the terrain which is located at the bottom of valleys and along the main lines of communications. At this level, heavy forces can operate, but maneuver space is often restricted. Light and heavy forces are normally combined, since vital lines of communication usually follow the valley highways, roads, and trails.

The second one lies between valleys and shoulders of mountains. Generally it is the narrow roads and trails, which serve as secondary lines of communication. Ground mobility is difficult and light forces will expend great effort on these ridges

Mobility Requirements

The third level includes the dominant terrain of summit regions. Although summit regions may contain relatively gentle terrain, mobility at this level is usually the most difficult to achieve and maintain. But such terrain can however, provide opportunities for well-trained units to attack the enemy from the flanks and rear. At this terrain level, acclimatized soldiers with advanced mountaineering training can infiltrate to attack lines of communication, logistics bases, air defense sites, and command infrastructures.

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.

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.

Typical terrain and weather conditions found in mountain environments demand modifications to tactical operations conducted on flatter, less rugged and less demanding terrain. In addition to widespread operations across great distances and multiple corridors, mountain operations include a vertical, as much or more, than a horizontal dimension. Friendly elements often engage the enemy on a different elevation than their own. Mountain ridges and terrain features that overlook the terrain below can be used to influence operations at those lower levels from both a friendly and enemy perspective. Higher ground often becomes key terrain and must be controlled by friendly forces to enhance offensive, defensive, and security operations.

In winter, and at higher elevations throughout the year, snow may blanket slopes, creating an environment with its own distinct affects. Some snow conditions can aid travel by covering rough terrain with a consistent surface. Deep snow, however, greatly impedes movement and requires soldiers well trained in using snowshoes, skis, and over-snow vehicles. Steep snow covered terrain presents the risk of snow avalanches as well. Snow can pose a serious threat to soldiers not properly trained and equipped for movement under such conditions.

Even soldiers deployed in such extreme conditions face many health challenges. Soldiers conducting operations anywhere, even under the best conditions, become cold, thirsty, tired, and energy-depleted. In the mountains however, they may become paralyzed by cold and thirst and incapacitated due to utter exhaustion. Conditions such as high elevations, rough terrain, and extremely unpredictable weather require commanders and soldiers who have a keen understanding of environmental threats.

Caloric requirements increase in the mountains due to both the altitude and the cold. Poor nutrition contributes to illness or injury, decreased performance, poor morale, and susceptibility to cold injuries, and can severely affect military operations

Being able to operate in a winter environment requires training in several skills sets. One is being able to survive the cold weather.  Another is being able to conduct movement whether by snowshoe, skiis, or snowmobile.

As specialized operators, mountain troops must be trained in an array of special skills. Among the best-known mountain units are the Austrian Gibergsjaegers, French Chasseurs Alpine, German Gibergsjaegers, Italian Alpini, Polish Podhale Rifles, Romanian Vanatori de Munte, Spanish Cazadores de Montana Aragon, Swiss Third Mountain Corps, US 10th Mountain Division and US Marines, British 3rd Commando Brigade, and the Dutch Marine Corps.

During World War II, the German Army raised an entire corps of elite mountain troops called “gebirgs jaeger” (mountain troops). Although not all of these troops were used in the mountains, they demonstrated superior abilities in almost all theaters in which they were used. The German Fifth Gebirgs Division marched more than 248 miles, crossed mountain passes above 6,500 feet, and secured well-entrenched defences on the Mestksas Line. Other gebirgs jaeger captured most of the Caucasus mountain region in the summer of 1942.

These are not Special Forces, they are Specialized Forces that train and train hard to survive in some of the roughest terrain on the planet.

The twentieth century saw an unprecedented emphasis on fighting in all terrains, seasons and weather conditions. Such conditions made even basic survival difficult as subzero temperatures caused weapons to jam, engines to seize up and soldiers to suffer frostbite, snow blindness and hypothermia. The conditions often favored small groups of mobile, lightly armed soldiers, rather than the armored forces or air power that dominated other combat environments.

Some European armies developed small numbers of specialist alpine troops before and during World War I, but these proved to be insufficient as nearly all the major combatants of World War II found themselves fighting for extended periods in extremely hostile cold-weather and/or alpine environments.

Cold weather was hard on the equipment: gun oil froze, engines wouldn’t start, and the freezing conditions also took their toll on the human body. Hypothermia, exposure and frostbite were all daily threats to the soldiers at the front, with frostbite easily taking hold only after a single night of exposure. Night-time temperatures could fall as low as -45°C.

In Soviet era snow limited movement for man, horse, truck and tracked vehicles alike. Movement on foot and horse was slow. Even German recommendations restricted motorized vehicles to operating only in temperatures above -15°C, and in low temperatures fuel consumption was estimated to go up by 500%.

Motor vehicles proved particularly troublesome, with a variety of measures taken to over-come the difficulties of winter. Soviet drivers would set fires under the engines of their trucks in the morning, to warm the engine before start-up. Germans would park vehicles radiator to radiator to retain warmth and stop the water freezing. Hungarian tankers found they had to keep the motors of the T-38 running if they were to be ready for counter-attack. Unfortunately, fuel was not always available for such measures.

India’s expertise

Mountain warfare is one of the most dangerous types of combat as it involves surviving not only the combat with the enemy but also the extreme weather and dangerous terrain. This changed in the Kargil War when Indian forces were faced with the huge task of flushing out intruders and disguised Pakistani soldiers who had captured high mountain posts. This proxy warfare became the only modern war that was fought exclusively on mountains. As a result of its experiences in mountain warfare in Kargil, the Indian Army now conducts courses on specialized artillery use in the mountains, where ballistic projectiles have different characteristics.

Indian Army maintains one of the largest active contingents of mountain warfare forces in the world, giving it some of the most extensive and well-developed mountain warfare capabilities.

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.

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 troop can successfully operate in extreme conditions, they 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.

The Indian Army has set up Parvat Ghatak School or the High-Altitude Commando School at Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh which is the highest of its kind in the world at 15,000 feet. With the mercury dipping to minus 20 degrees, the school combines the best elements of the Commando Training School in Belgaum, Karnataka, and the High-Altitude Warfare School at Sonamarg, near Srinagar. Those who come here are trained in both commando tactics and ways to survive high altitudes. While training here the troops get the opportunity to feel the real combat situation in such theaters.

The High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS) is a training and research establishment of the Indian Army. It trains Indian Army personnel in high altitude mountain warfare and develops ideas and techniques for fighting in such difficult terrain. It is the one of the best mountain warfare training schools in the world.

HAWS offers two training programs, the Mountain Warfare course and the Winter Warfare course. The Mountain Warfare course is conducted in Sonamarg while the Winter Warfare course is conducted in Gulmarg. The two courses train personnel in High Altitude warfare, counter intelligence and survival skills. Army personnel deployed to the Siachen Glacier and to other high altitude forward posts on the Himalayan borders go through the courses. Even the Russian troops got trained at HAWS in Gulmarg for operations in Chechnya.

While preparing for the high altitude warfare the troops must also be trained to eat and drink enough to survive and operate under extreme conditions.

Even the clothing for cold weather warfare is designed to be layered with a vapor layer closest to the body, then an insulation layer, and finally a protection layer. The outer layer will normally be white or white and gray to provide snow camouflage. Changes of clothing must be available as well, in case the soldier gets wet. The boots are also specialized mountain boots with an inner vapor layer.

Cost-effective mountain combat requires skilled and well-trained troops. Soldiers cannot be sent into a fight at high altitude at the last moment. Doing so could invite disaster. One example of such an action is the employment of the 7th Indian Brigade against the Chinese in the 1962 Himalayan conflict. The brigade had not been stationed in the mountains previously, and when things began going badly, the brigade was moved from the plains straight into mountain combat. The soldiers, who had not been acclimatized or equipped to fight in the mountains, suffered heavy casualties because of frostbite, edema, and other high-altitude-induced illnesses.

Equipments and training

Operators in mountain units receive basic mountaineering training to include rope management and knots, use of natural anchors, use of artificial anchors, use of fixed ropes, basic rock climbing, rope bridges and lowering systems, free climbing, and lowering of casualties. Units will normally have lead climbers who have been through more advanced training and can set-up roped movement on snow and ice and lead in multi-pitch climbing on mixed terrain that includes rock, snow, and ice. Advanced climbers are also trained in glacier crossing and crevice rescue and a myriad of other more advanced skills.

For years, the US Army’s inventory of climbing equipment has focused on utility, meaning soldiers were equipped with items such as carabineers that were plenty strong, but also plenty heavy.

Since 2007, however, engineers have been testing equipment used by sport climbers with a view to upgrading the combat gear. As a result, soldiers will now be traversing cliffs and crags with the same ropes, harnesses, carabineers, crampons, ice axes, avalanche transceivers and rock anchors used by mountain climbers throughout the world.     

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 form the rest of their unit on a mission.

However, the physical characteristics of mountains can affect mobility and lengthen movement times while also affecting the operation and accuracy of some weapons.

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.

In cold weather, firing weapons often creates ice fog trails. These ice fog trails obscure vision and, at the same time, allows the enemy to more easily discern the location of primary positions and the overall structure of a unit’s defence. Even range estimation in mountainous terrain is difficult. Depending upon the type of terrain in the mountains, soldiers may either over- or underestimate range.

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.

Logistics have a whole new dimension in mountain operations. Logistics support in the mountains is difficult and time-consuming. 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.

In Kashmir, a variety of transport is used for logistical support, road transport being the most reliable and cost-effective. At higher altitudes where tracks cannot be maintained because of snow and difficult terrain, mules are a preferred means of transport. At altitudes where even mules cannot go, porters can. Porters are local people capable of carrying heavy loads across difficult terrain.

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.

Further, evacuation of casualties can be a daunting task when operating at altitude. In Afghanistan, more than one helicopter has gone down attempting to rescue the crew of another downed helicopter. Mountain troops train in taking casualties down cliff faces with ropes, evacuating them on sleds, and other methods to get them to a LZ for a Medevac chopper.

Howitzers and mortars also have the advantage of offering indirect fire, which is normally more effective in mountainous areas where direct fire is precluded by terrain features. Air-burst shells and those with variable time fuses normally work better than point-detonating artillery rounds, which can bury themselves in soft snow and fail to detonate, or detonate well below the surface, losing much of their effect. Helicopter gunships and aircraft have proven especially valuable in Afghanistan. Laser designators are used for guided munitions, but colored smoke grenades also show up well in the snow.

Snipers are especially effective in mountain warfare and mountain units will often have a larger number assigned, especially those armed with longer range weapons.  

Fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft are vital combat assets in mountain operations. Planning for the use of supporting fires from air assets in conjunction with artillery and mortar indirect fires is critical for mountain offensive and defensive operations. Air assets can attack targets in areas difficult or impossible to reach by ground indirect fire. Air assets are also used extensively for tactical reconnaissance and movement of troops and supplies. Rotary-wing aircraft are commonly used in air assault operations to quickly insert and pick up personnel in difficult mountain terrain. Coordination and quality communication with the aircrews prior to mission execution can lessen these restrictions.

Movement in mountain terrain can be either dismounted, mounted, or by air. Mounted movement may include tactical or other motorized vehicles. While movements may initially involve vehicles or aircraft, ultimately must dismount and move by foot to reach most terrain in mountain environments. In the mountains, enemy contact may be made through any of the eight forms of contact (visual, direct fire, indirect fire, obstacles, enemy or unknown aircraft, CBRN, electronic warfare, or non hostile contact).

Terrain and unpredictable weather conditions affect communications at high altitudes too. The unobstructed line-of-sight (LOS) radio communication conditions are often difficult to achieve due to mountain ridges, intervening crests, and peaks. These terrain obstructions frequently interfere with LOS, very high frequency (VHF) radio communications. In addition to LOS issues, extreme operating distances further complicate frequency modulation (FM) communications in mountain environments.

When using VHF radios in the mountains, units may consider using single-channel plain text to increase range. Automatic frequency hopping and encryption can be used but may decrease range. Battery power can decline quickly in extreme cold temperatures. Lithium batteries typically have more power and last longer than standard alkaline batteries and should be considered for routine issue.

Troops may also consider high frequency communications systems that are not LOS dependent. Harris radios such as the AN/PRC 150 that operate in the high frequency band as well as tactical satellite (TACSAT) radios that operate in the ultrahigh frequency band have frequently been used in mountain operations. These radios have the ability to communicate over vast distances and do not require LOS between using units.

Using Command and control aircraft can assist the commander in overcoming ground mobility restrictions and may improve communications that would otherwise limit his ability to direct the battle. Directional antennas, both bidirectional and unidirectional, may be needed to increase range and maintain radio communications.

Navigation in the mountains is made more difficult because of inaccurate mapping, magnetic attraction that affects compass accuracy, and the irregular pace of the soldiers. Individuals must train to use a variety of equipment, such as a compass, an altimeter, global positioning system devices, and maps, as well as learn techniques pertaining to terrestrial navigation.

Additionally, limited visibility operations in the mountains are extremely hazardous and require extensive training for those aviation units involved. Common problems associated with mountain operations become much more complex at night, even when using night vision devices. Few Army aviation units regularly train for mountain operations, so it is critical to alert them as soon as possible to facilitate the required training to ensure safe and successful mission execution.

With the changing battlefield scenario and growing threat of NBC weapons, terrain and weather dictate a requirement for a high degree of nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) defence preparedness in mountainous areas. Due to limited mobility, viable tactical positions, and limited communication abilities, friendly units must be self-sufficient in protecting themselves against NBC weapon system effects.

A key factor in conducting offensive operations in mountain environments is first determining where the enemy is or suspected to be. It is often difficult to locate the enemy in rugged mountain terrain that offers excellent cover and concealment for light infantry or paramilitary forces with a small vehicle, sustainment, and C2 footprint. The enemy may initiate contact when it is to his advantage or to disrupt friendly operations.

Reduced mobility, compartmented terrain, limited visibility in critical areas, and rapidly changing weather increases the importance of reconnaissance and security in the mountains. Since the enemy can easily be concealed in a mountain environment, all available reconnaissance assets should be employed to gain as much information as possible. Along with conventional reconnaissance units, excellent sources of information include aircraft crews, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), and other units and personnel moving through or operating in a particular area.

Synchronization and coordination between all combat elements is critical for successful mountain operations. Direct fires seldom are enough to achieve the desired effects on enemy targets in the mountains. In order to fully engage the enemy in mountain terrain, combined arms assets need to be employed. Offensive actions should be conducted with support from artillery or air assets and these fires should be initiated as soon as feasible to assist in the engagement. Artillery and air assets have the ability to reach into areas of defilade where direct fires cannot. Equally, effective offensive and defensive actions cannot be conducted without support from other sources such as intelligence, engineer, and sustainment assets.