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In –35°C, the Indian soldier at LAC is 50% less efficient but 100% ready to fight China

As a Brigadier, I oversaw the conduct of an operation to capture a 17,000-feet high feature across the LAC in Chorbat La Sector in the first week of April 2001.

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With diplomacy making no headway, the Indian Army and the PLA remain deployed to safeguard territory and conduct further operations in pursuit of New Delhi and Beijing’s respective political and military aims. The campaigning season — the period most conducive for conduct of military operations — in Eastern Ladakh begins in May and lasts up to the end of November. With China forcefully reiterating that its 1959 Claim Line is the Line of Actual Control and India vehemently rejecting Beijing’s claim, the probability of a limited war in the next two months remains high. Onset of winter will not lower the probability but may lower the scale of operations.

Much has been said about the severe winter of Ladakh and the logistics required to sustain the troops. Many myths with respect to the effect of winter on soldiers and on conduct of operations are in circulation in the media. I bust some of these myths and analyse the effect climate and terrain will have on conduct of operations in winter.

Also read: India-Australia’s growing partnership built on military ties and concerns about China’s rise

Conduct of military operations in winters

After 14 days of acclimatisation, physically fit troops can operate above altitudes of 4,600 meters/15,000 feet with 35-40 per cent loss of physical efficiency due to lack of oxygen. Low winter temperatures that hover around minus five to minus 15 degree Celsius by day and minus 20 to minus 35 at night, in most areas, further degrade physical efficiency by 15 to 20 per cent. Thus, soldiers can operate under the worst high-altitude conditions with maximum 50-60 per cent loss of efficiency. These observations are based on my personal experience. These conditions apply equally to both own and enemy forces.

The performance of troops is a factor dependent on physical fitness, acclimatisation and sustained capacity maintenance. The altitude and terrain in Eastern Ladakh is similar to what exists in South Western Xinjiang and North Western Tibet where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops train. Thus, terrain and weather are a constant for both sides.

Another myth is about the levels of snow. The snow line in Eastern Ladakh is at 5,000 meters/16,500 feet, which implies that there is no permanent snow up to this altitude. Even up to 5,500 meters, the snow rarely lasts a few days at a stretch except in Daulat Beg Oldi – DBO – Sector – and on the northern slopes of the heights where it lasts longer. This is due to lack of precipitation east and north of the Great Himalayan Range. Thus, while the Zoji La Pass (3,500 meters/ 11,483 feet) and Rohtang Pass (3,980 meters/13,060 feet) are closed from November to April, the other passes at 5,500 meters/18,000 feet, like those in Ladakh, are only closed for approximately a week, two to three times in winters.

The roads leading to Eastern Ladakh from Xinjiang, Aksai Chin and Tibet only face temporary closure for a few days during winter. With the tunnel at Rohtang being ready, we can also keep the Manali-Leh Road open with sustained effort by the Border Roads Organisation to ensure that Baralacha La (5,030 meters/16,500 feet), Nakee La (4,739 meters/15,547 feet), Lachung La (5,065 meters/16,616 feet) and Tanglang La (5,328 meters/17,480 feet) remain free of snow.

In a nutshell, operations in winters get restricted in scale and are generally confined to altitudes up to 5,500 meters. The transitory months of December and April are likely to be exploited more than the peak winter months of January, February and March. With a relatively higher degree of difficulty in the DBO Sector, the focus of operations is likely to shift towards Hot Springs- Kugrang River-Gogra, north of Pangong Tso, Chushul, Indus Valley, Demchok and Chumar Sectors.

Our Army has wealth of experience in fighting high-altitude battles in all seasons — Kargil and Leh (1947-48), Kargil (1965, 1971 and 1999), Nathu La (1967), Turtok (1971), Siachen Glacier (1999). As a Colonel, in 1988-90, I had the experience of keeping a combat group in a state of operational readiness throughout the year in Eastern Ladakh. And as a Brigadier, I oversaw the conduct of an operation to capture a 5,310 meters/17,422-feet high feature across the LAC in Chorbat La Sector by one of the battalions — 14 Sikh — of my Brigade in the first week of April 2001.

Also read: These are the challenges Indian Army will face in Ladakh this winter, besides the Chinese


The logistics required to sustain forces in Ladakh has been refined over the years. Contingencies of additional troops, likely to be inducted during war, have been planned for. In any case, this time, we have had adequate notice of the emerging situation since end of May. I do not see any problem with respect to supplies and ammunition.

The winter habitat for troops deployed in new defensive positions is a challenge. This can be met with construction of fibre glass huts and use of arctic tents on the reverse slopes of the forward defences. At the bases, bigger prefabricated shelters can be erected. Operation tracks in Eastern Ladakh can easily be constructed up to altitudes of 5,500 meters. A classic example is an operational track built in 1962 that goes up to Rechin La on the Kailash Range. It can be used even today. Since it does not rain and the snowfall is limited, even dirt tracks last forever. I have no doubt that our Army has constructed operational tracks to all our new defensive positions.

Today, our troops are equipped with the best high-altitude clothing and equipment the world can offer. But survival and fighting in high altitude, particularly in winters, is more than mere clothing and equipment. It is about sustained physical fitness, acclimatisation, adherence to rules of survival in high altitude, and above all, the will to overcome the challenges.

Also read: Ordnance factories hit back at Army claims, cite export orders, accidents of other equipment

Ambiguous political aim

After a dithering start, the armed forces are ready in all respects to execute the political directive as issued by the government for the remaining two months of the campaigning season or the winter, subject to climatic limitations. But there seems to be ambiguity with respect to our political aims. The government must clarify the same.

The government has categorically stated that it does not recognise the 1959 Claim Line. This implies that status quo ante would mean restoration of our control/patrolling rights up to the 1993 LAC. Are we then going to evict the PLA from our territory by direct or indirect action elsewhere? Or have we accepted the Chinese intrusions as fait accompli and our troops are merely preventing their further ingress? The troops on the ground and the people must know with what aim have we deployed for battle.

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.

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  1. ThePrint hadb never been a honest media. It also has it’s damn biased ideology. Targeting particular topic and hiddng theithe truth. They successfully doing them using the selected biased people behind the so called free journalism veil!

  2. The tortious weather of Ladakh is not new to Indian Soldiers. But, even the print is not telling how Chinese soldiers died, when India attacked structures of China. People think India reacted to attack, which the print has not mentioned, to make people clear about the clear. Either way, the Chinese media itself tells that, not just India. The weather and oxygen levels of the heights killed many soldiers of China.
    More than once China is mentioning that PLA is not able to bear the heights of Ladakh. Soldiers are crying out to go back to safety. Want to tell, tell it properly

  3. There is no doubt that our brave armed forces are enough empowered to fight effectively at high to extreme altitudes at LAC. Further, great need is required to provide them state of the art logistic support and nutritious diet along with dry fruits, besides state of the art winter clothings undee adverse environmental vagaries extremes of crue cold comditions, hypoxic environment, icy sheets, solar radiation, high wind velocity, wind chill factor, avalanche, isolation and monotony etc. In addition, high class medical facilities and quick evacuation through choppers in case of casualities be in place. Best wishes to all army jawans and officers as well as other supporting staff of armed forces. JAI HIND.

  4. Well govt is not going to make public what there plans are but few of MODI bashers had to eat a humble pie after chinese crying about Indian army capturing commanding heights this was also not revealed by the govt as india was the first to rose against British imperialism so is the case now it is the first whi had given a befitting reply to Chinese expansionism the response from the other super powers was a timid one and that to they sided with india only after 4 or 5 days after galwan indian press should come out of their colonial hangover

  5. The author is AAP party member and has biased views…

    His agenda includes,
    1. Downplaying IA’s advantages
    2. Picture the whole situation like China is simply occupying new areas each day and IA / govt. is playing ping pong
    3. Labling China as victim whenever possible
    4. Pushing a belief that somehow Rahul Gandhi or his Boss KEJRIWAL is a TOUGH GUY & would have declared war on China right in march/april

  6. The writer is substantially right. I have stayed in these altitudes for about a fortnight and found that even after acclaimatisation, if one takes ten brisk steps, one has to rest for few minutes. Lifting weights etc can be very ardous at these heights. But, same limitations applies to Chinese also. We don’t have to be disheartened by these factors. World over, Indian soldiers have been recognized as battle hardned warriors unmatched by any in high altitude combats. Let’s take heard and have confidence in what the government and armed forces are doing. One thing is certain. Our armed forces will fight with whatever they have. We are not going to fold up. Like all governments, this government is also making the mistake of being economical with facts. Why do I sense some negativity in the writing of this good General. Is it only my perception? Am I wrong.

  7. It is nice to read the commentator sharing his own experience, conceding the wealth of experience, advantage of Rohatang Pass Tunnel, viability of world class winter gear, better wheponoery and many other positives. In stead of only asking questions about the aims, it would have been better if some suggestions/ solutions were to have been put up to make it more constructive.
    The gaps between the economic and developmental aspects cannot be overlooked. We do have a disadvantage there which we have brought upon ourselves by years of corruption and neglect, that is now being trumped by the same lot that has brought it upon us.

  8. To what extent is India able to avail itself of soldiers native to high altitudes who are therefore able to operate more efficiently than others in these conditions? In the case of China, most of the likely candidates are presumably Tibetans, most of whom are not interested in serving in the Chinese forces and whom the Chinese very likely distrust. India, however, presumably has a reasonably large population of willing and trustworthy soldiers from the Himalayan area that I would think that there might be contingents of the armed forces made up of soldiers who function especially well in high altitude.

  9. Why do we’ve to be bothered about other soldiers efficiency? Our Indian soldiers should have sustained physical fitness, acclimatisation, adherence to rules of survival in high altitude, the will to overcome the challenges, and above all, not underestimate the enemy. Unfortunately, after 70 years of independence, we’ve got a leader, who is a coward, liar, yarn spinner, egotistical, parochial, divider in chief, under him all the important institutions have been compromised. Justice has been eroded from the judiciary; rapists, murderers and their kind from the upper classes get government protection. What the author has said in the article are facts not the jumlas of Modi. Andhbhakts wake up to a bitter truth. This is China we are facing.

  10. Yes General Sahib, You are right that any person, not only soldiers operate at about 50% of their capabilities at heights and temperatures experienced at LAC. The months from November to May are worst period of the year. I wish to bring to your attention that these very conditions exist for the Chinese soldiers who are mostly conscripts with limited interest in soldering. They accept these assignments to earn free college education after the limited period of soldering. They have no interest in exceptional feet of bravery opposite Indian troops, whom they face. Hence morale for a fight is already low. This was reported after 200 of these Chinese soldiers mobbed 20 of Indian soldiers and pushed them down the hill top at Galwan clash on June 15. Reinforced Indian soldiers on the same night then beat the hell out of them in three separate clashes in a hand to hand fight in the Chinese territory. They went looking for offending or any Chinese on their side of the territory and as reported by media, inflicted ghastly injuries with bare hands. These incidents have a direct bearing on quality of Chinese soldiers and their performance. Weather conditions add to their nightmare as much as they do to the Indian soldiers.

    Equipment failure of much of Chinese army when temperature dips to -40 degrees is another Chinese concern, since much of the hardware is either copied or reverse engineered and is of inferior quality. Much of this hardware came with the exercise they conducted before they were inducted into the LAC. It is unlikely that it was battle tested or winter tested. Their military and political leadership assumed that Indians would retreat or run away at sight of Chinese soldiers in large numbers. It did not happen. Chinese overconfidence built around 1962 debacle when they over-ran much of the Indian troops has just vanished. Whatever remained vanished when on August 29/30 and a few days later Indian Army occupied strategic heights on the Kailash range in and around Chusul area. All that Chinese confidence on their invincibility vanished. …….. Here is a good question for senior most military Officer of that area. Is Indian Army capable from these heights to mount an operation to threaten the Chinese road network or much of their supply line to LAC? If that is true then Chinese are in a precarious situation and would sooner than later retreat and ask for a settlement. Weather conditions will hasten that decision.

    In summary, I raise three points here……. …… quality of Chinese soldiers, hardware they have whether it is winter capable and threat india could pose to their supply network from the heights occupied by India in the Kailash range.

    You can deal with these issue in your next post in the Print. I shall eagerly wait for that.

  11. One can only wonder at what stage in their life journey were this author and many others like him compromised by the Chinese.
    Note the play on words in the headline….”…. the Indian Soldier at LAC is 50% less efficient…”.
    The Print & the author prefer phrases like “Indian soldier” is less efficient; when “soldiers are less efficient” would be a more balanced assessment.

    • I absolutely agree with you, its some of us who have let our country down.. I have myself met many Indian soldiers as I am from Kashmir and they never gave me a feeling they were not up to the task.. ready for battle as they used to say to me, its shame when someone within army though retired is using these statements. Rather than encouraging soldiers and people of this country we are doing the opposite.

    • Maybe you haven’t read the second half of the headline which necessitates using the phrase “Indian soldier”.

      Also, let’s not cast aspersions of the worst kind on military men.

    • The text of the article is explicit that Indian and Chinese soldiers are equally affected by the altitude and cold. If there is any fault to be found for the headline, it lies with an editor, not the author. In any case, it is not surprising that an article by an Indian officer for an Indian audience would focus on Indian soldiers. Mentioning them in the headline does not imply that other soldiers are not similarly affected.

    • If both contesting parties are equally less efficient upto 50%, why should the Indian soldiers be singled out in the title of the article? It does sound pessimistic.It doesn’t matter if the author did it willfully or not.

  12. For the simple reason that seventy years after India’s independence, India has found a resolute leader, incorruptible and willing to stand upto the bullying by other countries, big or small. Xi understands it well that a decade more of Modi-rule in India will certainly see India posing an unassailable challenge to it (China). Therefore, this is the time. If China cannot gain too much territory, it can, at least, punish PM Modi, who has dared to call China’s bluff.

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