Does Siachen have Major Strategic Significance?

Defence Minister A K Antony visited Siachen Glacier on 5 May 2007 and reiterated the official position on demilitarizing the zone of conflict by saying; "India is ready for a solution. But from the very beginning, our position has been very clear. Before any forward movement, both sides must agree to authenticate the actual troop positions, both on the map and on the ground." With Pakistan refusing to do so, negotiations have floundered.
The key question that must be asked is whether Siachen has major strategic significance that justifies prolonged occupation, or are the two nations fighting over an icy wasteland merely for jingoistic and chauvinistic reasons? In his book Siachen: Conflict Without End, Lt. Gen. V R Raghavan (Retd.), a former DGMO, has written: "The (Siachen) theatre of conflict, as is now widely accepted, did not offer strategic advantages… It is clear that neither India nor Pakistan wished the Siachen conflict to assume its lasting and expensive dimensions." To justify a prolonged conflict, a piece of land must provide significant military advantage and open up options for seeking major military gains. It should either deny the adversary an avenue to launch strategic-level offensive operations to capture sensitive territory or resources, or offer the home side a launch pad for such a purpose.
Alternatively, for a land mass to be considered strategically significant, it must be politically or economically important. The neighbouring cities of Amritsar and Lahore are politically important for India and Pakistan, respectively. The provinces of Alsace and Lorraine were economically important to France and Germany due to the huge iron ore reserves that these provinces had and several wars were fought to gain control over them. Siachen does not qualify as an area of strategic importance on any of these grounds though it has now become a politically sensitive issue.
Many Indian analysts have made militarily unsustainable projections about the possibility of a China-Pak pincer movement over the Karakoram Range and the Saltoro Ridgeline into northern Ladakh with a view to capturing Leh. Such exaggerated apprehensions are truly amazing as these fail to take into account the lack of a road axis to mount and sustain a major offensive logistically. Thousands of tons of ammunition, fuel, oil and lubricants, and other supplies, including rations, clothing items for the extreme climatic conditions prevailing at Siachen and spares and batteries for radio sets and other telecom equipment, would need to be dumped over two to three summer seasons before a worthwhile military offensive could be launched. Since a major road cannot be built over a moving sheet of ice in what is perhaps the most treacherous mountainous terrain in the world, all logistics preparations by the adversaries would have to be undertaken by employing large transport helicopters. These slow-moving monsters would be sitting ducks for the fighter jets of the Indian Air Force.
Even if one were to grant the possibility of a joint China-Pak offensive into Ladakh, however remote the probability in the new geo-political environment, better options are available to both countries to plan and execute their offensives such that the Indian army is unbalanced at the operational level. China could develop its operations using the Demchok road along the Indus River as well as along the Chushul axis and Pakistan could plan to advance along the relatively less difficult Chalunka-Thoise approach from Skardu while simultaneously attacking the Kargil sector to cut off the road axis to Ladakh from the Kashmir Valley. If operations along this approach to Thoise, astride the Shyok River, could be successfully conducted by Pakistan, the Siachen area would be automatically cut off. Hence, it is more important to defend this axis in the Turtok sector rather than fight at Siachen itself.
Both governments need to make a dispassionate politico-military assessment of the advantages of defending Siachen and the costs of the conflict in terms of human lives and material resources. Prof. Stephen Cohen, a well-known and respected Washington-based South Asia analyst, has described the Siachen conflict as a fight between two bald men over a comb. In his view, "Siachen… is not militarily important… They (Indian and Pakistani armies) are there for purely psychological reasons, testing each other's 'will'."
It is strategically unwise to continue to maintain a brigade group of almost 5,000 men at Siachen in treacherous terrain and harsh climatic conditions. The Siachen area should be accepted as a jointly controlled peace park for the scientific study of glacial belts and the effects of super high altitude on flora and fauna - a "mountain of peace" as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had called it during a visit in June 2005. Demilitarization of the Siachen conflict zone will be a confidence building measure of enormous significance for Indo-Pak relations and may trigger off a process of wider rapprochement between them.