Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Hold the High Ground: Helicopter war at the top of the world

Watching this week's fighting across the Line of Control that separates the forces of Pakistan and India in Kashmir reminded me to post another excerpt from my book on the social history of helicopters, The God Machine. The section is about how helicopters participated in one of the more obscure exchanges of fire between the two countries, and it also concerned Kashmir. 

Note on this week's headlines: while there have been many high-stress moments between the two nations (such as after the attack on India's Parliament, or the massacre at Mumbai), the latest fighting has real potential to grow beyond anything we've seen in SE Asia so far, because there seems to be a feeling that the presence of nuclear weapons on the opponent's side shouldn't be a deterrent to escalation. It's a flashpoint that popped up when I was researching my article on the history of DEFCON alerts. 


Starting in 1984, a unique helicopter war took shape across the Karakoram Range. Called the Siachen Conflict, it lasted almost two decades, and was highest-altitude war in history.

The dispute dated to 1949 and a disagreement over the exact course of the India-Pakistan border where it passed through the old kingdom of Kashmir. The disagreement was academic until an Indian Army officer noticed in 1977 that the Pakistanis were issuing permits for mountaineering parties to climb certain high mountains that India claimed. A race was on to control the Siachen Glacier and three high passes. At 50 miles long and two miles wide, the Siachen was one of the world’s largest glaciers outside of the polar regions.

In a secret mission called Operation Cloud Messenger, the Indian Army used helicopters to reach the high ground first, in April 1984. Indian troops planted fiberglass igloos at altitudes as high as 22,000 feet in the Saltoro Range forming the west rim of the glacier.

Most of the fighting was conducted with cannons and mortars, which fired any time that the weather was clear enough to pick out a target. Indian Mi-8 helicopters brought light cannons to 17,000 feet and troops dragged the hardware the rest of the way, a few agonizing feet at a time. While the lower-altitude Pakistanis could depend on trucks and pack animals, Indian forces were totally dependent on helicopters for the last stage of their supply chain, and for lifting out hundreds of men debilitated by the conditions.

The machine of choice was the Aerospatiale Lama, along with an Indian-manufactured version called the Cheetah. For almost 20 years, each side attempted to leapfrog the other, looking for gun emplacements that could shell but not be shelled in return. One solution: the high-altitude helicopter raid. 

In April 1989 a Lama helicopter carried a squad of Pakistani troops one at a time and dropped them onto a saddle-shaped ridge at Chumik Pass, altitude 22,100 feet, allowing them to sneak up on an Indian post. 

The high-altitude war ended with a cease-fire in 2003.

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