Academic journal article Military Review

Ground Combat at High Altitude

Academic journal article Military Review

Ground Combat at High Altitude

Article excerpt

A general who allows himself to be decisively defeated in an extended mountain position deserves to be court-martialed.

-Carl von Clausewitz1

HIGH MOUNTAIN terrain is often inaccessible, uninhabitable or of no apparent value, yet peoples and states still fight to possess it. Long, bloody wars have been fought, and are being fought, for mountain real estate located between 10,000 and 23,000 feet [3050 and 7015 meters]. Over the past fifty years, high-altitude combat has raged in Africa, Asia, and South America. The Chinese invaded Tibet in 1953 and fought a subsequent guerrilla war there until 1974. From 1953 to 1958, British troops fought Mau-Mau separatists in the Aberdares Mountains of Kenya. In 1962, China and India battled in the Himalayan Mountains bordering Bhutan and Tibet. Soviets fought Afghan Mujahideen in the towerine Hindu Kush Mountains from 1979 to 1989. The Peruvian government hunted the Sendero Luminoso guerrillas in the Andes Mountains throughout the 1980s. India and Pakistan have continually battled for possession of the Siachen Glacier since April 1984 and fight sporadically over disputed Kashmir as they have since 1948. Today, Colombia's government troops are fighting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas high in the Andes. and Russian soldiers are fighting Chechen separatists high in the Caucasus Mountains.

The U.S. Army has no experience fighting in truly high mountains and its mountain warfare manuals deal primarily with low and medium mountains and stress the use of helicopter aviation to conduct that combat. However, helicopters cannot haul normal loads over 13,000 feet [3965 meters] since their rotors lack thick enough air to "bite" into, and high altitude weather conditions will frequently shut down flying for days. High-altitude combat differs from medium- and low-mountain altitude combat and requires a different orientation and force structure. Other armies have experience in truly high mountains and can provide valuable guidance and expertise. The U.S. Army needs to know how to conduct high-attitude mountain warfare, develop the tactics, techniques, and procedures to do so, and share the experience of other armies to understand and prepare for possible high-altitude conflicts.

The Environment

Mountains are generally classified as low (600 to 1500 meters), medium (from 1500 to 3500 meters) and high-altitude mountains (above 3600 meters). The world's highest mountains are not in the United States, Europe, or Korea-where the U.S. Army is accustomed to working. The Himalayan Mountain chains of Asia stretches 1,500 miles and contains 9 of the world's 10 highest peaks. The Hindu Kush/ Karakoram mountain chain of Asia stretches well over 500 miles with its highest peak at 28,250 feet [8,616 meters]. The South American Andes stretches over 5,000 miles and rise above 22,000 feet [6,710 meters] at many points. The Caucasus Mountains, which divide Europe and Asia, run some 700 miles with many peaks over 15,000 feet [4572 meters]. The Himalayan Mount Everest towers at 29,028 feet [8,853.5 meters] whereas the highest point in the United States, Mount McKinley in Alaska, is 20,320 feet [6,197.6 meters]. The highest point in the Colorado Rockies is Mount Elbert at 14,433 feet [4,402.1 meters]. The highest point in the European Alps is Mont Blanc at 15,771 feet [4,810.2 meters].2

Although high mountains occupy a good portion of the earth's surface, man is not naturally designed to live and work at these high attitudes. When a person travels to an attitude of 8,000 to 10,000 feet [2440 to 3050 meters] or higher, the atmospheric changes in pressure and available oxygen cause physiological changes, which attempt to ensure that the body gets enough oxygen.3 These physiological changes are pronounced among mountain people who have lived in cold, high altitudes for generations. Compared to lowlanders, their bodies are short, squat, stocky, and barrel-chested, and their hands and feet are stubby. …

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