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Thin Air Ravages The Chinese Army

July 13, 2010

Strategy Page
July 10, 2010

China has a serious problem in Tibet with
altitude sickness among its troops. This illness
occurs when people who grew up near sea level
(most of the world's population) move to
altitudes greater than 2,100 meters (7,000 feet).
Below that, the air contains 21 percent oxygen.
Above that, the percentage of oxygen declines,
and that produces shortness of breath,
disorientation, nosebleeds, nausea, dehydration,
difficulty sleeping and eating, headaches and, if
you stay up there long enough, chronic and long
term disability. The average altitude of Tibet is
4,100 meters (14,000 feet).What hurts you the
most is the lower air pressure at higher
altitudes, which means your lungs transport less
oxygen to your blood. Most people can adapt, sort
of. Some can't. But the Tibetans have evolved to
deal with it.The majority of Chinese soldiers
coming to the Tibetan highlands (which is most of
Tibet) require a few days, or weeks, to
acclimate. But they are still susceptible to
altitude sickness if they exert themselves,
especially for extended periods.This makes the troops much less effective.

Researchers recently discovered that most
Tibetans evolved in the last 3-6,000 years to
deal with this problem. It appears that the most
of the people moving to, and staying in, highland
Tibet, where those with the rare genes that made
them resistant to altitude sickness. These people
became the dominant population in Tibet, mainly
because they were healthier at high altitudes.
Nearly all Tibetans have this gene (which
controls how their red blood cells operate, to
maintain sufficient oxygen levels). Very few lowland Chinese have these genes.

The Chinese military is spending a lot of time,
effort and money trying to solve this problem.
Currently, most of the troops in the Chinese
Chengdu Military Region are in the eastern,
lowland half. In the western portion (Tibet),
they station the 52nd and 53d Mountain Brigades,
and struggle to keep these 5,000 troops fit for
duty. If there's an emergency, as there was two
years ago, the nearby 13th and 14th Group Armies
can send troops from their lowland bases. Over 20
percent of these troops will be hampered by
altitude sickness once they reach the highlands,
and commanders are trained to deal with that.

Chinese troops operating at the highest altitudes
(4,500 meters, on the Indian border) now have
access to exercise rooms (one of 1,000 square
meters and another of 3,000 square meters) that
are supplied with an oxygen enriched atmosphere.
Troops exercising in these rooms increase the
oxygen in the blood, and are much less likely to
get hit with a case of altitude sickness. Thus
the troops can stay in shape without getting
sick. For border patrols at high altitudes,
troops usually carry oxygen bottles and breathing masks.

So far, the Chinese have only been able to limit
the attrition from altitude sickness, not eliminate it.
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