The Nanda Devi Episode - Maddy's Ramblings

Jan 1, 2017

The Nanda Devi Episode

CIA’s Operation HAT in the Himalayas

I love cloak and dagger stories, and since the days of Ian Fleming’s 007’s books, I have devoured many a tale on espionage with the same eagerness I started with. I first came across this story while reading the Mallory camera incident some years ago. Naturally this was a great story to peruse and one that I simply had to retell. These days we have less of human involvement in espionage but the stories are no less mysterious and keep the nerves tingling.

This story involves the Americans, Chinese and Indians. Pakistan too figures on the periphery. The backdrop is the cold war era of the late 50’s-early 60’s tinted with the fear of a communist surge from behind the iron curtain. The need of the hour was actionable intelligence from behind the curtains, especially those related to USSR and China’d development of nuclear bombs and missiles. With that intention, the first high altitude (>70,000’) U2 spy plane forays to photograph activity and sites, was started. The Lockheed U-2, nicknamed "Dragon Lady", was an American single-jet engine, ultra-high altitude reconnaissance aircraft, usually operated by the CIA.

While these ‘peeping’ flights were flying out of Incrilik in Turkey and Peshawar, a listening station was in place at Badaber in Peshawar, also known locally as ‘little USA’. For purposes of deniability, Eisenhower decided to use the services of British pilots initially, the Brits being forced to agree after the Egyptian invasion fiasco (Suez Canal crisis). After initial flights, CIA pilots, most famously Gary Powers, were flying them to cover soviet defense installations. On 1st May, however, during his next flight code named ‘Grand sham’ in order to photograph ICBM and plutonium production sites (information which was needed before the important Paris summit planned a few days later), luck simply ran out for Gary Powers, for the Soviets were waiting.

It was not ordinarily possible to intercept these super high altitude flights (pilots themselves flew with special preparations such as inhaling 100% oxygen for an hour to remove nitrogen from their systems, before the takeoff) with fighters but it was brought down by an S-75 Dvina SAM. Powers did not kill himself or destroy onboard cameras as he was supposed to, but ejected, was captured alive and the secret was out of the bag.

Not knowing about the capture, the Americans bluffed stating that the U2 was a NASA weather mission, but Khrushchev using the golden opportunity, produced details of the capture and trapped Eisenhower on the lie, forcing the latter to even contemplate a resignation. The Paris summit did not go well and the CIA’s Dulles was left incensed as his covert actions had been uncovered. The Pakistani’s fearing exposure, backtracked and stated that they had no idea of such clandestine operations being done in their backyard, when threatened by Khrushchev of retaliation.

Nevertheless the Badaber facility which had some ears over the bordering Lop Nor nuclear facility of China, coupled with the U2 flights, continued to provide limited information about Chinese nuclear activity which was ramping up, to the CIA. The 1963 limited nuclear test ban treaty was not signed by China and after an ideological fall out with the Soviets in 1959 the Chinese were forging ahead on their own. During the summer of 1964, the discovery of a test site on the Xinjian desert through intelligence from a blurry satellite photograph led to speculation that China would soon stage a nuclear test. In 1964, Khrushchev was ousted and the Chinese completed their Nuke test (596 or Chic-1). What troubled the West was how the Chinese got the U235, not realizing then that the Chinese had obtained it from the Lanzhou Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which the CIA knew about from U2 surveillance but whose efficiency they had underestimated.

The years 1960-65 were the years when the high mountains and areas bordering China, Pakistan and India saw much action. Pakistan’s Ayub Khan continued to argue with the Americans who he felt were cozying to the Indians and it was also not a happy time for India which had a miserable setback during the border skirmishes with China in 1962. Krishna Menon had lost his post and Nehru was in deep depression, but the Kennedy administration had tilted in offering support to India as well as subsequent information on Chinese troop movements using U2 flights from Taiwan and Thai bases.

Another problem was that the Chinese had managed to bring down a couple of U2’s with SAM’s and other U2’s had been lost in training (4 Taiwanese flown U2’s had been downed by the Chinese and Chinese Radio had offered $280,000 in gold to any defecting U-2 pilot with a U-2). One pilot was captured and U2 flights over China were suspended in 1962. It was time to find a new base closer to China, and of course it was ideally in India. Galbraith the American Ambassador discussed plans with Nehru and eventually Nehru consented, allowing U2’s taking off from Thailand to be refueled over Indian airspace. U2 pictures showing Chinese positions had been provided by the Americans to Nehru after the 1962 ceasefire and Nehru had understood their value, but his sense of non-alignment was still difficult to break.

The Thai U-2 flights did not quite pan out, and the Taiwan U-2’s were getting hit, so Galbraith requested a base in India, formally in the spring of 1963. President John F Kennedy reiterated it in his meeting with President Radhakrishnan.

Finally India yielded, handing over an abandoned World War II base in Charbatia at Orissa, which was in a bad shape, to the Americans. The first U2 flight from Charbatia took off in May 1964, but it was not meant to be, for while landing, the flight had difficulties (perhaps there were no Ford mustang car to guide it in! – see notes) and got stuck in mud. Getting it unstuck quickly without the press and the leftists knowing, was a harrowing experience for the Americans and after a few sorties decided to go back to Thailand. Anyway Nehru died three days later, and further operations were postponed.

The CIA record states “The pilots and aircraft left Charbatia, but others remained in place to save staging costs. In December 1964, when Sino-Indian tensions increased along the border, Detachment G returned to Charbatia and conducted three highly successful missions, satisfying all requirements for the Sino-Indian border region. By this time, however, Takhli had become the main base for Detachment G's Asian operations, and Charbatia served merely as a forward staging base. Charbatia was closed out in July 1967.

Then came 1965 and the 17 day Indian border war with Pakistan, following the botched ‘Operation Gibraltar’ by Pak forces. China hinted at nuclear retaliation to support Pakistan, but harsh warnings from the Americans and Russians resulted in their earning a rebuke even from Pakistan. As years passed by and Pakistan warmed up to the Chinese, India cemented military ties with Russia and intelligence ties with the CIA.

Seeing that a lot of equipment and aid provided to Pakistan was used for the war effort against India, the Americans placed sanctions on (both countries, but the effect was more on) Pakistan. The furious Pakistanis retaliated by refusing the extension of the expiring 10 year lease and this resulted in the shutting down of the Badaber base and the immensely successful Earthling radar system. The CIA then established the Checkrote system in Taiwan.

The closure of Badaber was a problem for the CIA which now lost its ears towards East
Asia. Meanwhile the Chinese were getting busy, they were developing intermediate and long range missiles and were getting ready to test those at Xinjiang. At the same time, U2’s were being lost. This was when the CIA decided to launch an eavesdropping operation with Indian support to monitor its missile launches (and tap their telemetry transmissions while in flight) from a land based station, high up in the mountains overlooking China. And so, Operation Hat was charted out. The mission plan was for mountaineers to scale the tall Kanchenjunga Mountain and install a signal receiver and re-transmitter, powered by a nuclear electrical generator, at the summit. While there were some ferret satellites up in space already, their passes over China were too few to pick up a launch. What happened next is detailed in the books referenced as well as the numerous news and magazine reports, but I will cover it rapidly, for completeness.

The CIA and the USAF decided to place a telemetry sensor atop the Himalayan Mountains to pry into the Xinjiang region. In India, the CIA had finally established a receptive audience with the Nehru administration and its Intelligence organization headed by BN Mullick, as Menon was gone. Various plans in supporting covert activities in Tibet were being put into place and the ARC with ex RAF pilot Biju Patnaik’s support was doing well. RN Kao was the new director for ARC Aviation research center. Ramji - RN Kao who had been head of Nehru’s personal security team was now responsible for collecting technical intelligence through the ARC.

Kao was contacted by the CIA and he passed on the probe to Mullick. Even though he was not the IB director, (Nehru had passed away by then) he still had control over China affairs. The CIA had in the meantime chosen Indian controlled Kanchenjunga (28,146’) as a likely candidate to place the transmitter. The team to do it would be a joint Indo US one and a search for India’s best climbers culminated with MS Kohli (he worked for the Indian Navy, and had been deputed to the ITBP due to his mountaineering skills) who had just scaled Mt Everest. Before he could even celebrate and recuperate, he was contacted by Kao and asked to get ready to go to USA for training so as to be part of the team intended for the operation. Just 26 days after Kohli’s climb, he and his team were on the way to Washington. Soon they were practicing on America’s tallest mountain, the Mt Mc Kinley (now known as Denali) in Alaska with a mockup of the 125 pound transmitter. Kohli concluded right away that this was not a feasible idea, it was simply not possible to climb Kanchenjunga with that amount of gear. Kohli kept quiet and the Indians returned home after the training.

After he was back, Kohli explained to Kao why the climb was virtually impossible. In addition to the physical part, the people of Sikkim would not allow their holy mountain to be defiled. The IB - CIA brass met and a final compromise choice was the Nandadevi (25,645’). Note now that the climb was being discussed and finalized as the Indo Pak war was raging. Was it going to work? Would the mountain gods cooperate? The device the CIA wanted high up on the mountain was a permanent electronic intelligence (ELINT) device powered by a nuclear SNAP 19C power pack fuel cell (a plutonium powered battery).

To cut a long and thrilling story short, the first attempt to place this device on the Nanda Devi in Oct 65, by the Indo US team failed, as the team had to retreat in the face of very bad blizzard conditions and an avalanche. Nevertheless they left the device in a small unmarked mountain cave titled camp four, after having hauled the device painstakingly just short of the peak.

Nanda Devi
In the meantime scientists met in America and after another round of calculations, decided that they could actually place the transmitter on a lower altitude, and so, the mountaineers were free to find another appropriate location to eavesdrop. But they had to retrieve the device already up in Nanda Devi and so another Kohli expedition returned the following year in May 1966 to recover the device, only to find most of it missing, save bits and pieces of the original equipment. Even though people did not realize it then, the loss was critical, especially the plutonium fuel cell which presented grave problems. Would the hot radioactive device melt its way through the glacier and end up in the rivers flowing down? Mallick and Kao were in a panic, and their necks were on the line.

Lal Bahadur Shastri had passed away earlier that year, and another emergency climb was carried out for a more detailed search, which yielded no results. A furious Mullick could not accept defeat and he browbeat Kohli’s team members to check again, this time telling them about the radioactive risks. 

This climb, a farce resulted in the death of a replacement doctor. With no conclusive results, this team abjectly climbed down. Kohli who was incensed, fired off a detailed report to Mullick. Meanwhile the Americans were also flustered with the going on and dispatched a couple of modified Husky helicopters to aid the search and to pick up soil samples for radio activity testing. But the fuel cell canister remained elusive.

In Oct 66, the Chinese tested their second nuclear device in Xinjiang. This was even more alarming for it was the warhead of a missile, the DongFeng 2. And then they tested their third device, on a platform. The urgency to gather detailed information on all these was never greater.

Another mission was launched in May 1967 with Kohli in the lead to place a similar device on the
Nanda Kot
Nanda Kot, while at the same time a few in the CIA opined that the plutonium cell was perhaps spirited away by Kohli’s ‘all Indian team’ of May 1966, for India’s nuclear programs. The Nanda Kot mission went well, for a change, and the transmitter was commissioned and ‘Guru Rimpoche’ went live.

In August yet another team headed by Kohli was sent up to check for the missing equipment at Nanda Devi, but bad weather put a premature stop to the effort, while at the same time, they received the bad news that the Nanda Kot transmitter had stopped working. So Kohli and his team made yet another bone chilling and back breaking climb only to see that snow had accumulated on the antenna. Their orders were to clear it, and as soon as it was done, the antenna was back transmitting data.

Part of the team continued looking for signs of radioactivity from the battery in the base camps of the Nanda Devi, with no conclusive success. The CIA and the IB were now in wait for important information on the next Chinese plans, which were testing an ICBM with a 6,000 mile range. Xinjiang was buzzing with activity and a test was imminent.

In the meantime, snow accumulated on the Nanda Kot transmitter and it went silent again. The irritated CIA bosses wanted a more permanent solution, and perhaps many more transmitters peering down from other vantage points in the Himalayas. Kohli and team climbed again, and got the device and its battery cell, back for the Americans. The CIA decided that they would do away with nuclear powered cells and came up with a new solution, a gas powered generator. It was also decided once and for all that the Nanda Devi device was ‘lost’.

M S Kohli
In December the team headed by Bhangu, who had accompanied Kohli on earlier trips, was directed to place the gas powered transmitter on the frigid slopes of Leh to test the system. It worked. In March 67, a new team went up Leh to place a solar powered transmitter in place of the gas powered one. That too worked without a glitch. To pick up signals on a missile launch along an Easterly corridor a second transmitter needed to be in place, and for this they chose a place called Pakila, East of Bomdila in Arunachal.

The Chinese fired the Dong Feng rocket in 1970 and extended DF 5 in 1971. The Leh transmitters picked up some data, but they were not particularly useful. In 1973, the Chinese fired an improved DF5 and this time around, the sensors picked all the data the intelligence agencies required. All the effort from the past three years had finally come of some use.

But it was too little, perhaps, too late, for Rhyolite satellites had taken over from the skies and would from then on, rule the roost.

Starting with Corona spy satellite (Discoverer program) mounted with cameras (Alistair MacLean’s thriller ‘Ice station Zebra’, is about recovering one of these satellites!), the race to collect intelligence from the skies galloped along at a furious pace. The missile trackers were the Rhyolites and these TRW satellites of the 70’s were an effective means providing a wealth of information, replacing fixed sensor mountain installations.

Today the space is littered with thousands of even more advanced spy satellites belonging to many nations interested in such matters. They work in tandem with all kinds of other electronic systems, so much so that people wonder if 007’s and honey traps exist anymore.  Old timers in the community I guess, maintain that there is still nothing better than actionable human intelligence.

The much decorated and accomplished Manmohan Singh Kohli left the forces to work with AirIndia, first in Bombay, then in Sydney. In 1978, the news of the missions leaked out as an Outside magazine article and by 1974, India had already detonated its nuclear device. In Jan 1977, Indira Gandhi lost the elections and with Morarji in power, the press were back in full swing, accusing of CIA meddling in Indian affairs. A top level committee was set up including MGK Menon and Raja Ramanna. Kohli was summoned to Delhi by the Prime Minister to provide a debriefing and a written report. The committee concluded that that the risk of contamination was very low and the story died a quiet death, ending with the Nandadevi biosphere being closed to all visitors.

A report from 2001 mentioned the successful trip of a 40 member Gharwal rifles team to Nandadevi and their recovery of eighty gunny bags of environmentally hazardous garbage. A congratulatory message from the Indian president followed, with his appreciation of the team’s attempts at preservation of the environment. Hmm? Food for thought, I suppose..

Spies in the Himalayas – MS Kohli and Kenneth Conboy
An eye at the top of the world - Pete Takeda
The Wizards of Langley: Inside the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology - Jeffrey T Richelson
Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland - S. Frederick Starr
India: Foreign Policy & Government Guide, Volume 1 - International Business Publications
China’s Greatest Statesman: Zhou Enlai’s Revolution and the One He Left Behind in his Birthplace of Huai’an - Roy K. McCall
India's world: essays on foreign policy and security issues – Mohan Guruswamy

Photos - Google maps, Wikipedia


  •        The U2 was notoriously difficult to fly at lower altitudes and difficult to land. Because of the U-2's tendency to drift while landing, the US Air Force used high-speed chase cars like Ford Mustangs and Pontiac GTOs speeding down the tarmac and looking at the planes tilt and under-carriage, to guide the U-2 pilot down.
  •         Data collection is the primary purpose of the U.S. Rhyolite series of satellites (also termed Aquacade) orbiting at 22,000 miles above. The telemetry stream from a launch is intended to show the missile's designers exactly how the new machine is performing and, if it fails, what components caused the failure. This information once decoded, also reveals the detailed mechanics of the missile such as fuel consumption, acceleration, guidance, and the like.
  •        There is more to what meets the eye and one part which is not covered in books or other published accounts came up in comments (In his book Kohli mentions hearing about Pakistani paratroopers in Roorkee before they set out, but not this! There is also a mention of sighting of an armed spy with Mongolian features at the ND sanctuary, but that was not taken seriously) by Kohli in a recent interview to the Hindu – He said “Pakistanis parachuted down on Nanda Devi to check on us and some of them were caught too…. India and Pakistan were war-drawn then…India was planning to occupy Lahore on September 7 that year. The whole thing was foiled after the Pakistani Army got a whiff of it.” Well, well!

The 86 year old Captain Kohli, perhaps India’s greatest mountaineer, stated: “I am an ordinary person. My life story simply proves that every human being can scale the highest peaks of achievement in his or her chosen field. No one is born great. Only challenges make one so. I am a product of supreme challenges”. He is known fondly as the grand old man of the mountains. These days, he writes books and runs his unique hotel named The Legend Inn at Delhi. Ironically, it was Pakistani president Ayub Khan’s family which saved Kohli’s family during the harrowing days of the partition.



AK said...

Happy New Year

Maddy said...

thanks AK, wish you the same

AA said...

Nice piece of History. Like the new look of the site.

harimohan said...

dont know how i missed this amazing post

Maddy said...

thanks hari,
i was also a bit surprised that this did not find much readership...