On 27 November, the US Army posted a picture of its soldiers, taken on the sidelines of the ongoing military exercise, Yudh Abhyas, with India.
The exercise, currently underway in Uttrakhand, is an annual affair. But this iteration of the exercise has made headlines as it is taking place less than 100 kilometers from the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the backdrop of India's lingering military standoff with China in eastern Ladakh.
The picture, posted on Twitter by US Army's Pacific component, shows a few officers being granted promotions, with two soldiers holding the flag of the United States behind them. In the background is the snow-capped Nanda Devi, the second-tallest mountain peak in India.
"In full view of Nanda Devi, the second-tallest mountain in the tallest mountain range in the world...," the tweet reads.
Nanda Devi has an important place in the history of US-India ties, which makes the picture posted by the US Army significant.
US-India Relations and Nanda Devi
In October 1964, China conducted its first known nuclear test at Lop Nor in Xinjiang province, less than two years after the war with India. It was the peak of the Cold War, and the conflict in Vietnam was begining to ramp up, but the intelligence available to the US was limited.
Initially, the US planned to plant a sensor with a plutonium-powered generator, known as a SNAP unit, on Mount Everest. However, the plan could not materialise due to multiple issues, including the fact that the peak borders China and the device, which represented the best of CIA's surveillance technology at the time, could be discovered by the Chinese.
Nanda Devi, which lies fully in India, was chosen instead, but only after Kanchenjunga, which at the time was not part of India — it lies in Sikkim, which was then a protectorate of India — was found unfeasible.
In 1965, a year after the first Chinese nuclear test at Lop Nor, the US' Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and India's Intelligence Bureau (IB) launched a covert mission to install the device.
A team of Indians and Americans practiced the exercise at Mt McKinley (6,190 metres) in Alaska. It was there that they first saw a replica of the device and learned how to assemble it. The spying device was powered by a generator equipped with radioactive plutonium fuel rods.
"There were four major components to the sensor, all connected by streams of wires and cables. Two of the pieces were little more than metal boxes placed atop posts to keep them off the snow and ice. These were the transceivers—labelled B1 and B2—that would relay the collated missile information to the base station elsewhere in India," Captain MS Kohli, who led the mission, writes in his book Spies in the Himalayas.
"The third component was the collection antenna that would snatch the telemetry data from the Chinese missiles. The six-foot-tall antenna looked like the standard television aerial found atop many American homes."
"The final component, by contrast, looked far more exotic. Officially called a SNAP 19C (short for System for Nuclear Auxiliary Power), it was a thermoelectric generator capable of 40 watts of continuous output for two years. Deriving its power for the heat generated by radioactive decay, the SNAP was meant for use in devices placed at remote, unattended locations for extended periods," Kohli writes in the book, adding, "This was the first time it was being incorporated into a mountaintop sensor."
The American team arrived in India in August 1965. A World War II-era airfield in Gauchar in the Chamoli district was prepared for the mission.
The operation was launched in October 1965 with Sherpas carrying the CIA-owned spying device and the related equipment.
However, when the team reached Camp 4 on Nanda Devi, with the summit in sight, the weather turned bad. The climbers got stuck in a blizzard.
Given the risks involved, Kohli and the team decided to call off the mission. It was decided that the device would be stashed at a secure location on the mountain and retrieved for installation during the next season.
"They stashed the equipment in a crevice and anchored it with the expectation they would return the following spring, carry it to the summit and piece it together to make it operational," Broughton Coburn, author of the book The Vast Unknown: America's First Ascent of Everest, says.
However, when they returned the next year with an American nuclear expert, the device was nowhere to be found. The mission was abandoned.
While there are many theories about the fate of the device, it is widely believed that it was either buried or carried away due to a landslide.
Coburn discusses another — improbable — theory.
"No readings, no leads where the device might have fallen," Coburn says, adding, "They believe they would have easily picked up a signal. And at least in the opinion of some of the climbers, they felt that Indian intelligence had secretly hiked up there before that spring mission and retrieved the device, and spirited it away, presumably in order to study it and possibly gather the plutonium, even though that would have been technically impossible, as I understand it."
In 1967, India and US managed to install a SNAP unit and signal device near the summit of the 22,510 feet high Nanda Kot mountain in the Pithoragarh district, not far from Nanda Devi.
However, all known efforts by India to find the lost device over the next decade ended in failure. The debate as to the whereabouts of the device remains unresolved till this day, leading many to attribute tragedies like the 2021 floods in Uttarakhand's Chamoli district to it.
In 1978, the mission came to light for the first time when then-Prime Minister Morarji Desai disclosed it in Parliament.
Just days later, Richard Ottinger, a member of the US House of Representatives, wrote to President Jimmy Carter and India's Ambassador to the US Nani Palkhivala seeking more information about the mission.
While the two countries have declassified several documents related to the mission since then, much remains unexplained to this day.
The short period post the 1962 war, when this mission was planned and attempted, saw significant collaboration between India and the US vis-a-vis China. The mention of Nanda Devi by the US Army at a time when the position of the two countries on China seems increasingly aligned may not be intended as a signal to Beijing. But a picture of US Army officers and soldiers with the mighty Nanda Devi in the background, in the middle of a military exercise with India, conveys a message nonetheless.
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