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.
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.
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.
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.