With three extra Army divisions having moved to the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh to mirror the Chinese build-up (The Indian Express, July 22), the Army has started preparing for extra provisions for the additional troops who will remain deployed through the winter.
The Army does not share specifics about what will be required and is being transported. A look at what it takes to maintain a soldier in such harsh conditions:
Why is it so challenging?
The eastern Ladakh region is a high-altitude desert, where temperatures can drop to -20°C. The thinner air at high altitudes also makes breathing tougher.
Major General A P Singh, who served during 2011-13 as the head of logistical operations of XIV Corps that is responsible for the China-facing LAC, explained that on such terrain the soldier is “fighting three elements: the enemy, the weather and his own health”.
What is the cost?
“Cost of keeping one soldier there, starting from buying of matches to his condiments, to his food, to his fuel for warming to his shelter to everything, for one turnaround year is easily at least to the tune of Rs 10 lakh,” Singh said. “I am just talking about keeping a soldier there, equipping him, feeding him, keeping him fighting fit, providing him with all the wherewithal.” Then there are a lot of “untold costs that nobody will tell you” because of the sensitive nature of the information.
“Mirror deployment through the winter will be a huge trade-off,” Singh said.
Other officers who have served in the region agreed with the assessment; one former senior commander said the cost may be even higher.
How are the supplies transported?
By road transport or through aerial trips. Land supply routes are open only during the summer, with high-altitude passes covered in snow from around November to March-April.
There are two road accesses to Ladakh from Srinagar: Rohtang Pass and Zoji La. But neither is open round the year. With Rohtang tunnel likely to open later in the year, it can potentially solve the problem, but there are two more passes on that route, Baralacha La and Thanglang La, both of which are at a higher altitude than Rohtang, and may be snowed in during the winter.
Singh said one round trip between Srinagar and Leh for a truck that can carry 10 tonnes of supplies costs around Rs 1 lakh. A C-17 Globemaster military aircraft, Singh said, can carry up to 50 tonnes and an hour-long flight costs roughly Rs 24 lakh.
Aircraft usually carry about 200-250 tonnes a day; heavy material has to go by road.
What happens after a truck reaches Leh?
Even to reach Leh, the Army has to build transit shelters for the crew of the trucks. But bringing the supplies to Leh is just the first stop. Nearly 70% of all these supplies has to be taken to forward bases such as Siachen or Kargil.
As the terrain gets tougher, the Army uses the help of locals and mules to carry some of the materials. They walk around 10 km and back every day through the summer months so that the troops are stocked for the winters.
What will be the additional cost this time?
With the usual deployment, the Army starts the process of Advance Winter Stocking in April-May. Aircraft are usually used for emergency requirements.
“In normal course you have about 2 lakh tonnes of supplies, food, equipment etc for XIV Corps for being stocked for the 6-7 months,” Singh said. With the new troops retained for winters, “it may not double everything, but close to 3 lakh tonnes of essentials will be needed now”.
With Rs 1 lakh for transporting ten tonnes through road, and the high price of air transport, the total additional transportation cost can be calculated, he said. The government will have to buy everything “at a higher rate now in the open market, compared to what we would have provisioned earlier”.
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What specialised equipment do the soldiers require?
For high altitudes, the Army procures specialised equipment to keep troops warm and ready for possible health issues. “Most troops will be there for their first winter. It will be very difficult for them as they will also have to be combat-trained in these excruciating conditions,” Singh said.
Anything above 14,000 feet is considered super-high altitude. Of the four friction points in the standoff, Galwan Valley, Hot Springs and Gogra Post are higher than 14,000 feet. Depsang Plains — where troops were not involved in a faceoff but where India’s access to traditional patrol points has been blocke by China — is higher than 17,000 feet.
For such altitudes, the Army provisions for Special Clothing and Mountaineering Equipment (SCME). It includes ropes, special helmets, snow boots, jackets etc. Singh said each soldier posted to Siachen is issued two sets, each costing over Rs 2 lakh.
“We requisition for about 30,000 soldiers, including 5,000 in reserve,” he said, and added that at least a third of the additional deployment will need SCME as they will be posted in Galwan Valley, Gogra Post and Depsang Plains.
In a report for 2015-18 tabled in Parliament in February this year, the Comptroller & Auditor General noted “delays in procurement of high-altitude clothing and equipment items up to four years leading to acute shortage…”. The Army later dismissed the report, saying it pertained to an earlier period and the issue has been addressed since.
What other challenges are involved?
The forces have to fight against time. The turnaround time from Srinagar to Leh and back is 15-20 days. It takes even longer from Rohtang Pass. With nearly twice the supplies to be taken before the passes close in the winter, “now you are trying to pump in more”, Singh said.
Additionally, the forces have to stock up for the infrastructure work going on near the forward areas, including on the Durbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie road.
Another important aspect is building new shelters. “With the strength doubling, you can imagine the amount of stuff that has to be built, including heat-proof shelters or at least liveable for the -20°C temperatures,” Singh said. The cement does not set after September, he said, so the Army “only has the month of August left”.
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