India is known for having one of the world’s best high-altitude defense and offense, considering the country is essentially surrounded by mountains. Even China has begrudgingly accepted this fact recognizing New Delhi’s remarkable plateau and mountain troops, which the United States has noted as well.

Recently, India and the US concluded their joint military exercise dubbed Yudh Abhyas ’22, which raised eyes brows from China. Why? Because of the particular location chosen by the US forces to conduct the training, Auli, a hilly state of Uttarakhand known to be the disputed border that separates Beijing and New Delhi-controlled territories. The area is more than 9,500 feet and about 100 kilometers from the Line of Actual Control.

Prior to the commencement of the Yudh Abhyas, China strongly protested against it, which India and the US both dismissed, saying that “it is none of their (China’s) business.”

The 18th edition of the joint exercise took place from November 15 to December 2, where American forces trained to gain more skills and better experience of “mountain warfare.” As the US may have undoubtedly reigned the air and sea, India is arguably known to possess the world’s largest and most experienced mountain troops.

A senior editor of Modern Weaponry magazine wrote in 2020 that “mountaineering is an essential skill for almost every member of the Indian mountain army” and has been recruiting many professional and amateur mountaineers from the private sector since the 1970s.

Challenges of Mountain Warfare

Mountain warfare remains a challenge for the US and an area the armed forces are keen to improve, with wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan as lessons from the past to be noted. Recent troubles that the superpower country faces in neutralization also occur in the mountainous regions, including Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram, and the “bad hombre” of Mexico, to name a few. Not to mention most of the major drug cartels happen deep into the mountains, hiding up the hilly tops, which most American soldier has yet to climb. Armed vehicles, tanks, and helicopters often underperform at rugged and extreme heights, while manned aircraft is considered almost useless since it cannot land on rough surfaces.

Familiarity with the mountain region is another key skill to consider. Knowing the ins and outs of the mountainous topography is a significant skill that can outsmart even the most equipped forces. Moreover, understanding the frequency and intensity of the weather condition in the area can also make or break military operations.

Having “extreme physical fitness, mental toughness, endurance, and the utmost tactical and technical proficiency” is especially a must-have for mountain combat troops. Furthermore, adaptability also gives a soldier an edge to dominate offensive, defensive, and stability operations in the mountain terrain.

Based on the US Army’s guide for mountain operations, it recognized the unique set of characteristic high-altitude mission demands, including:

  • Close fights with dismounted Infantry. Since motorized vehicles may have difficulty traversing the rugged terrain, troops usually must go on foot. Moreover, long-range battles may also be a challenge, thus, have limitations, often forcing soldiers to engage with enemies up close;
  • Decentralized small-unit operations. Transportation of supplies is frequently difficult, especially as altitude increases, and with ground-based vehicles not recurrently maneuvering over rugged and restrictive terrain. More often than not, supplies would ideally be dropped by choppers or carried by dismounted squads or platoons or sometimes with the aid of animals (e.g., horses, mules). Hence, compartmentalization would be a practical approach, particularly for long-period missions;
  • Restricted mobility. As mentioned, traversing the mountain environment would be difficult because it would restrict mobility as altitude increased, switching from narrow roads to on-foot trails to steep, rocky terrain to uneven terrain—demanding a lot of energy and time, as well as familiarity. Another factor to consider is the risk of being ambushed and cornered by lurking enemies, which necessitates careful planning and low-key execution;
  • Unique sustainment solutions. Resupplying mountain command posts can be challenging and time-consuming, thus needing unique sustainment solutions such as transporting goods less on ground vehicles and more on air, and some with mountainous terrain animals. Identifying the different complicated weather of the area is also important to note to ensure the health and hygiene of soldiers better; lastly,
  • Scattered, thinly populated areas. Yes. Civilian villages populate even up in the tallest, most isolated mountains and are usually dispersed around.

These are just some factors that need to be considered for mountain combat operations, emphasizing learning the harsh terrain and adapting to extreme weather conditions, as well as learning basic survival skills at high altitudes, which Indian troops have been performing well over the recent years.

Yudh Abhyas 22 Opening Ceremony
US and Indian Soldiers during the opening ceremony of Exercise Yudh Abhyas 22 in Auli, India. (US Army Photo | LT Cerruti/DVIDS)
Yudh Abhyas 22 Opens in the Himalayas
Yudh Abhyas 22 opening ceremony (US Army Photo | Benjamin Wilson/DVIDS)
Slithering Lane at Yudh Abhyas 22
(US Army Photo | Benjamin Wilson/DVIDS)

Through Yudh Abhyas, this also strengthens India-US defense ties in the midst of escalating tensions in Asia—something China is keeping a close eye on.