Walnuts, also known as ‘doon’ in Kashmiri and ‘akhrot’ in Hindi are found in large numbers in the Valley. Vonth, Kaghazi and Barzul are three local varieties of Kashmiri walnuts or ‘Koshur Doon’ as they are popularly called. Of these, Vonth is hard with a thick big shell which is difficult to crack but its kernel is soft and juicy. Perhaps this is exactly what the top brass of the Northern Command of the Indian Army had in mind when it conducted a war gaming exercise on 26th March 1984 to fine tune its plans to occupy the Saltoro Heights above the Siachen Glacier.
This exercise was code named Walnut Cracker.
After the sighting of the Pakistani SSG Camp on the Siachen Glacier in September 1983 by the Polar Bear II reconnaissance team of the Indian Army there was a sense of urgency in Udhampur, the Headquarters of the Northern Command. Once intelligence reports confirmed that Pakistan was in advanced stages of procuring equipment (for Operation Ababeel) to occupy Siachen and possibly the entire region to the West of the line joining NJ 9842 with the Karakoram Pass which it had already claimed in its protests notes of August 1983, it became imminent that a military operation would be required to pre-empt it.
Preparations commenced in right earnest from January/ February 1984 when the top brass of the Northern Command consisting of Lt. Gen. M L Chibber, Northern Army Commander, Lt. Gen.N S Cheema, Chief of Staff and Maj.Gen. Amarjit Singh, MGGS (Maj. Gen General Staff) started conceptualizing and planning the entire Operation along with Lt. Gen P N Hoon, GOC-in-C, 15 Corps, Maj. Gen Shiv Sharma, GOC 3 Infantry Division and Brigadier Vijay Channa, Commander 26 Sector.
The Logistical Planning
Meticulous detailing was required as infrastructure and logistic planning for positioning and sustaining troops at such high altitudes had no precedent. The peculiar nature of the terrain, sub-zero temperatures, lack of means of communication, poor connectivity and non-availability of any local resources meant that the troops would have to be supported and maintained through a combination of different means including air, road and porters. In those days troops in the Nubra Valley were maintained by road from Leh across the Khardung La and also by air through sorties at THOISE from Pathankot and Chandigarh.
Most of the equipment was not designed to operate at sub-zero temperatures therefore the Engineers and the Gunners had to improvise and test everything beforehand.
Towards the glaciers, Sasoma was the last road head beyond which was a mule track leading all the way to the base camp. It was immediately decided to improve the quality of this road into a Class 9 road till the base camp so that all maintenance requirements for the troops deployed on the glacier could be directly transported to that point. Communication lines were to be laid beyond Sasoma and then extended further as the operation progressed.
Provisioning for adequate stocks of Kerosene Oil and rations was to be made at the base camp and medical facilities were to be put in place at Partapur with doctors, nurses and surgical staff detailed for it along with adequate stocks of oxygen cylinders. Since the Cheetah and MI-8 Helicopters were expected to be the lifeline of the troops a Forward Joint Operations Centre was to be established by the Air Force at Partapur to coordinate all Air operations. Since all heavy equipment including the 105 mm guns were to be disassembled and the individual pieces were to be dropped at their positions on the glacier by the choppers where they would be re-assembled by the troops, proper training needed to be imparted for this task.
Most of the equipment was not designed to operate at sub-zero temperatures therefore the Engineers and the Gunners had to improvise and test everything beforehand. While the problem of the HMG’s (Heavy Machine Guns) jamming in the low temperature due to metal failure was solved by innovatively interchanging some parts, special methods were devised to clean the weapons and prevent the fluids and lubricants from freezing. The technical aspects of fire control were reworked and range tables and firing data was extrapolated to fit the heights and extreme angles of fire. At high altitudes weapons tend to fire higher than the aim and therefore they need to be recalibrated upon ascent. Therefore training on zeroing and calibrating the weapons was also directed to be imparted.
Since the number of personnel on the high altitude positions would be limited it was felt that maximum personnel should be trained to give target coordinates to direct accurate fire.Fiber shelters and huts were ordered and additional Helipads along with adequate storage space for Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF) were directed to be put in place at Sasoma and the base camp. These were just some of the decisions that were being taken to ensure that an Operation of this scale could be successfully mounted in the short span of time that was available.
While straight line boundaries are easy to draw in maps or describe in agreements, when demarcating them on the ground, geographical features, access, maintainability and several other considerations need to be taken into account.
The Strategic Planning:
The tactical and strategic objective of this mission was to prevent Pakistan from occupying the Siachen Glacier. It was well known that there was no line of control (LoC) existing in this region and the only agreement which dealt with the possible alignment of a line beyond NJ 9842 was the Karachi Ceasefire Agreement of 1949 which envisaged the ceasefire line to proceed ‘thence north to the glaciers’. However at that time the demarcation remained incomplete therefore both sides stopped the process at a mutually agreed point i.e NJ 9842. Since no action took place beyond this point in 1971 therefore it became the terminal point of the LoC as well. While straight line boundaries are easy to draw in maps or describe in agreements, when demarcating them on the ground, geographical features, access, maintainability and several other considerations need to be taken into account. That is why even though the Karachi Ceasefire Agreement clearly described the line between various points yet on the ground it translated into a meandering line between those very points.
Since practically, it would not have been possible to carve out and sustain a straight line boundary in this region as such a line would have either moved up and down the mountains or cut through them and the glaciers, it was rightly concluded that the natural movement of the line due north in such a terrain would only be possible along the crest of the Saltoro Ridge, which is also the nearest watershed and the most prominent geographical feature of the region. Strategically too it checked all the boxes being home to the main passes which led to the glacier from the other side. This position was also consistent with UNCIP’s (United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan) guidelines for demarcating the line on the ground which stated that the line shall, to the greatest extent possible follow easily recognizable features on the ground.
Accordingly all the heights which were proposed to be occupied militarily to tactically dominate the area and pre-empt the Pakistani occupation were on the watershed of the Saltoro Ridge following its natural alignment as it moved north.
It was therefore decided to hold Bilafond La, Sia La and the confluence of the glaciers in strength. For tactical reasons and logistical constraints it was decided to only patrol Indira Col instead of occupying it.
The Exercise: Walnut Cracker
To cater for all contingencies and strategically evaluate all tactical scenarios, the possible plans and reactions of both the sides were war gamed in a two sided exercise by the Indian Army. This exercise codenamed Walnut Cracker was held on 26th March 1984 at the Headquarters of 15 Corps in Srinagar in the presence of inter alia Lt. Gen Chibber, Lt. Gen. Hoon and Maj. Gen. Amarjit Singh.
The Bilafond La is the widest pass on the Saltoro Ridge and has a relatively gradual approach from either side. Due to its easier accessibility it has been the traditional ingress route…
The opposing syndicates were divided in two groups. The Blue Land (Own) Force consisted of Maj.Gen Shiv Sharma, GOC 3 Inf. Div., Brig. V N Channa, Cdr. 26 Sector, Lt. Col. D K Khanna, CO, 19 Kumaon and Lt. Col. Pushkar Chand, CO 1 VIKAS. The force level assigned to this force was the actual force levels planned for the Operation and its main task was to secure Bilafond La and Sia La and to patrol up to Indira Col. On the other hand the Red Land (Pakistan) Force consisted of Brig. Moti Dhar, Cdr. 114 Inf. Brigade, Col P K Jain, Col (Int.) HQ 15 Corps, Lt. Col. MU Ali, GSO 1 (Int), HQ, 3 Inf. Div. and Lt. Col. AK Budhiraja, CO 14 DOGRA. The force level assigned to it was two SSG companies and one reserve company, two mortar platoons along with two helicopters and its main task was to secure Bilafond La and Sia La and patrol towards Siachen Glacier. It was no surprise that to dominate the region the first step proposed by both the sides was a swift capture of the Bilafond La.
‘The Bilafond La is the widest pass on the Saltoro Ridge and has a relatively gradual approach from either side. Due to its easier accessibility it has been the traditional ingress route for all expeditions coming onto the Siachen Glacier from the Pakistani side including their SSG. Therefore plugging this route was priority one and it was decided that our position here would be on top of the pass. Sia La being higher, narrower and not the preferred route of choice was given priority two’, recalls, Lt. Gen. Sanjay Kulkarni who attended Walnut Cracker as a young Captain and was amongst the few present who had already been to the glacier and physically patrolled it during the Polar Bear I mission.
‘During this exercise several aspects of the Operation were discussed and deliberated which included action to be taken in case we were pre-empted by Pakistan in occupation of the passes, enemy surveillance, radio security, casualty evacuation, use of mines and steps which needed to be taken for consolidation of our positions on the glacier. It was also anticipated that Pakistan may react to our pre-emptive strike by crossing the Saltoro Ridge, South of Bilafond La, and cut off or interfere with our line of maintenance to the forward platoons. However this threat was not considered grave and imminent as no movement of troops had ever been seen near Gyong La which in any case was much higher and more difficult to access as compared to the other two passes.
The Siachen Walnut was finally cracked open on 13th April 1984 when the Indian Army decided to send Pakistan a message from the clouds and the first sortie of the Cheetah Helicopter took off from the base camp…
It was further opined that Pakistan did not have Helicopters which could fly and maintain troops at these heights as their Pumas had a ceiling of 15,750 feet which was hardly enough to cross the Saltoro with any useful load near Gyong La. Thus at best the Pakistan Army would have been able to reach the ridge line but would not have been able to come across and maintain itself’, recalls Col. D K Khanna.
Since at these altitudes it would have been nearly impossible to dislodge anyone who had occupied the high ground, everyone agreed that speed andtime were of essence for the success of this mission. Hence it was strategically decided to heli-drop the troops at Bilafond La and Sia La at the earliest and ensure that their link up with the ground troops was done quickly with all the supporting camps being established within a day’s trek from each other.
Late Brigadier Channa while reminiscing about this conference during his interaction with this author fondly recalled, “In the evening after a hectic day of deliberations while the senior officers were engrossed in a discussion and the atmosphere appeared to be tense, I walked up to the Army Commander and said, ‘Sir, Lt. Gen Hoon, Brigadier Motidhar and I are all Kashmiris. You leave this local problem to us locals and relax’, and everyone burst out laughing.”
The Siachen Walnut was finally cracked open on 13th April 1984 when the Indian Army decided to send Pakistan a message from the clouds and the first sortie of the Cheetah Helicopter took off from the base camp around 5AM with Captain Sanjay Kulkarni on board and the foot column led by Captain Paramvir Yadav simultaneously started it’s march to the Glacier. This marked the commencement of the longest ongoing operation of the Indian Army: Operation Meghdoot.
Clearly Exercise Walnut Cracker and the strategy formulated therein had paid rich dividends as not only did the troops achieve complete surprise on 13th April 1984 but also successfully proceeded to capture their objectives as per plan.