New Delhi: Limited road infrastructure, shortage of drinking water, higher chances of injuries and cold-related ailments, paucity of medical facilities, avalanches and the fact that a large number of troops will stay in areas no one has lived in since 1962. These are just some of the massive challenges the Indian Army will face in eastern Ladakh all through this winter due to the ongoing standoff with China’s People’s Liberation Army along the Line of Actual Control.
Temperatures in the higher reaches of Ladakh have already start dipping below minus 5 degrees Celsius, and the Army has begun a massive purchase of tents, fiberglass huts and special winter clothing for its troops. But the huge procurement could take around a month, increasing chances of hypothermia and other cold-related injuries among the troops.
ThePrint finds out what the life of a soldier is like in these conditions, and what the Army is doing to prepare its troops.
Very different challenge
Lt Gen. Rakesh Sharma (retd), former commander of the Ladakh-based 14 Corps of the Army, told ThePrint that the challenge is expected to be much different to what Indian troops have faced in previous years.
“They were stationed at bases and used to go patrolling at the LAC and come back. But this year, a large number of troops are staying put in dug trenches (with some overhead shelters), in places where no one ever stayed earlier, since 1962,” Sharma said.
“There will thus be a cultural change of logistics management in bases and on posts and picquets this year. There will be a newer system for sustaining people where nobody stayed earlier. The Zojila (pass) is prone to avalanches, and will get blocked, as will Manali Upshi Road. So, larger winter stocking right up to the forward areas has to be completed at the earliest,” he said.
The former corps commander also talked about the challenge of a high number of troops — nearly 50,000 according to estimates — deployed this time at the LAC.
“Logistically, it will be a massive challenge. There may be three to four battalions deployed in Daulat Beg Oldie, a much higher number than before. Even in Galwan and Hot Springs, there are a large number of troops deployed. Except the Durbuk-Shyok-DBO road that came up last year, there are limited roads for supplying and reinforcing them,” the retired officer said.
“At the same time, you can’t lose sight of Kargil and the Line of Control and Siachen Glacier. They will also continue to need the supplies to sustain the winter,” he said.
Sharma further talked about a lack of fresh drinking water for these troops, as rivers freeze and the lake water in the region is not potable.
“So getting drinking water for the troops, and fuel for cooking and to keep them warm, aside from the rations, will be the other challenges in the approaching months,” he said.
An Army officer who has served in Siachen also told ThePrint about the challenges of low temperatures and rarefied air at these high altitudes, mentioning that a wind chill factor reduces the temperature by 1 degree Celsius for every 3 km/h wind speed.
“Establishing a post in such conditions requires a tremendous amount of logistic planning to avoid tentages being blown or huts being blocked by heavy snowfall,” the officer said.
A consequence of these challenges will be the workload on medical officers — generally, one officer is deployed per unit, but in these circumstances, that number is likely to go up phenomenally.
An Army officer explained that it becomes impossible for one Regimental Medical Officer (RMO) to look after the entire battalion of approximately 900 troops, spread over multiple posts.
“The load is shared by medical nursing assistants and training regular soldiers as battlefield nursing assistants (BFNA),” the officer explained.
Brigadier Dr Arvind Kumar Tyagi (retd), who served in Siachen in 1989, said troops are frequently affected by high altitude and cold-related injuries such as pulmonary and cerebral oedema, hypothermia, chilblains, and frostbite. Usually, affected troops are evacuated on choppers.
Tyagi said this year, with more troops, there is a greater requirement for adequate winter gear so that there are minimal injuries.
How Army is preparing
Estimates show that around 10,000-12,000 assorted habitats are required for the troops. A defence source said this includes arctic tents, which can house three to four people, and two types of fiberglass huts — one that can house four to six troops and another other with a capacity of eight to 10 people — apart from bathing/toilet cubicles and cookhouses. In addition, prefabricated shelters to house around 20 people as well as stores are also being procured.
“Limited deployment spaces and high velocity winds in the high altitude areas preclude the construction of larger structures. Hence, there is a necessity to procure a larger number of smaller structures, which enhances the cost as well as the transportation effort,” the source added.
The Army is also purchasing special clothing on a large scale. Sources said while normal high altitude clothing for use up to 11,000 feet is available, special clothing is needed for higher altitudes, which is in the process of being procured.
“Since the quantity is large and time is limited, they will be procured from multiple sources,” the source said, adding that new estimates show that the earlier plan to procure 15,000 sets won’t be enough.
A second source said around 2,000 sets of previously worn serviceable (PWS) clothing is being issued.
“These are normally issued for troops in Siachen, following which they are recycled for troops stationed in other high-altitude areas,” the second source said.
ThePrint had reported in July that advanced winter stocking for 30,000 troops, amounting to 35,000 tonnes of rations and kerosene oil, had already begun.
“It has been enhanced to cater for the additional troops inducted subsequently,” the officer quoted above said.
On where the items are being procured from, a third source said: “Over the years, special clothing, tents and other equipment has been purchased from Austria, Italy, the Scandinavian countries, Australia and Sri Lanka, among others.”
This source said emergency procurement is being processed and a large number of items will be purchased “commercially off the shelf or COTS”.
COTS means the purchase of items from the open market at commercial rates, either due to limited availability or paucity of time.