Winters are at peak and the Indian Army is standing strong in Eastern Ladakh. While politicians are busy mudslinging from the comfortable weather of Delhi or Milan, the real brunt is faced by the soldiers operating in the icy cold. The weather is harsh, the lake is completely frozen and the current temperature ranges from -10 to -25 degree Celsius near the lake area. On the nearby heights it goes below -30 degree Celsius with a highly negative wind chill factor. Such is the weather that frost bites happen in less than five minutes of exposure.
Luckily, India is not a novice in Alpine warfare and our forces have great exposure to fight and survive under such circumstances. Ever since June 2020, our field commanders anticipated a longer stay and hence prepared well. Today, Indian forces are well prepared for any Chinese misadventure. Some of the factors which strengthen the belief are:
First and foremost element of any war is the soldier himself. Our soldiers have been operating in Jammu & Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and other parts of North East India for more than seven decades. Large number of our troops hail from mountains where they have been exposed to such harsh weather conditions since childhood. These boys are not only expert in such warfare but are seasoned enough to survive under harsh climatic conditions.
Experience in Mountain warfare
We have been fighting a full-scale war in Siachen Glacier for last 35 years. We have been victorious on the icy heights of Dras, Mashkoh, Battalik and Kargil in Operation Vijay and have been fighting a dirty conflict in Jammu and Kashmir for last 30 years. No force of the world can match us in mountain warfare where we have tested a redundant war doctrine over the last few decades.
Dedicated training institutions
India has dedicated training centres for mountain warfare. People from across the world come to our mountaineering institutes to learn the basics and soldiers from several key countries come to get trained in our training institutions. On one hand we have military institutions like High Altitude Warfare School, Parvat Ghatak School and Siachen Battle School, on the other we also have Nehru Mountaineering Institute and Himalayan Mountaineering Institute to train people. Our mountaineers are considered the best in the world. In fact, India is considered a hub of Mountain warfare where almost every Army soldier is trained to fight under such circumstances.
Indian Forces worked on war footing right from the June 2020 Galwan Clash and utilised the summer months well. It not only created multiple logistics channels through roads, tunnels and air transport but also stored its supplies, arms, ammunition and other stores at critical points across eastern Ladakh. Currently, every soldier has access to these points even in the worst climatic conditions. India already had a significant stock of Extreme Cold Climate Clothing due to its continuing operations but still it ordered more than 15,000 more from its established vendors across the world. As a result, the point soldier is not worried for his food, weather or other logistics in such terrain.
Construction of Roads and Helipads
The Durbuk-Shyok-DBO road commissioned last year was already functioning as the main artery of Indian Forces but there are several hundred kilometres of other roads also built in the area to facilitate movement. Not only this, our engineers constructed helipads at every unit level for supplies and casualty evacuation. Some of these helipads are provided with heating systems too. Furthermore, soldiers of Indian Border Roads organisation are working day and night to keep the roads open as weather here is capable of blocking air movements at anytime.
Shelters with centralised heating
We were only thinking of such shelters a few years back but now at most of the locations, Indian Forces have built specialised insulated fibreglass shelters with centralised heating. It increased the operational strength as well as morale of the troops several times.
Repair and Maintenance
Repair and maintenance of war machines is an important aspect especially when it comes to tanks, Armoured Personal Carriers, Artillery Guns and other communication equipments. Indian Forces has stationed its field workshops at terminal points where they constructed large shelters for repair. We can even carry out overhauls of Tank Engines in these workshops. Not only this, the stocking of spares was done keeping in view of all contingencies.
India knew well the cost of fighting in such heights. Our experiences in Siachen, the Kargil War and the three-decade long insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir taught us well, so a well-articulated medical network was established. A field hospital/ Forward Surgical centre with every unit, 1-2 bigger Field Ambulances with every brigade and a dedicated 300 bed hospital at the corps headquarters with all weather connectivity to higher centres like Chandigarh, Pune and Delhi were established. The best handpicked doctors from all the three services were called and posted to Eastern Ladakh. On 28th October 2020, Indian Army Doctors successfully performed a surgery at 16,000 feet in eastern Ladakh which boasts of Indian Medical capabilities.
Over the last few years, Indian Forces have laid down robust network of fibre optics duplicated by other communication nodes and satellite based VSAT earth stations. It helped achieving connectivity to the last mile soldier in a better way. On the other hand, China is relying primarily on satellite phones to connect its troops.
Rotation of Troops
As we spoke of a well-developed network, Indian Forces have been rotating its troops on a regular basis as a result of which the fatalities on Indian side are almost nil.
The Chinese Dilemma
Chinese forces are not so lucky. As per some international reports and reliable inputs, Chinese forces are paying a heavy price for this misadventure. On an average 2-3 PLA soldiers are succumbing to death with more than 10-15 being evacuated on medical grounds daily. They had moved additional eight field hospitals to eastern Ladakh in recent months and the frequent movement of their casualty evacuation helicopters is not hidden from our forces. It had a reason: almost 98% of their force comprises of Han Chinese people who are primarily from South-Eastern China and have never been exposed to harsh mountainous weather and as a result, it is not only the temperature or wind chill factor but the overall morale of the PLA troops which is also going well below zero.
They did establish a makeshift mountain warfare training facility at Zenda in Tibet where some European, Caucasian & Pakistani SSG trainers were brought it to conduct a 10 day orientation program of troops to be inducted in Eastern Ladakh but it is learnt that the same is temporarily shelved due to inclement weather.
While the Chinese propaganda machine is showing their troops in comfort and with high morale, reality is far different. Earlier they were occupying the ridge-lines, heights and were permanently stationed there, now most of the camps have moved slightly down to save them from the windchill and they are now dominating these ridge-lines by patrolling.
The movement of the Chinese troops out of their bases is reduced drastically. Their surveillance drones and helicopters are not seen with same frequency and their troops are facing multiple problems. Furthermore, the alpine clothing currently in use with the PLA is able to defend its troops up to 9000 feet whereas all the heights here are above 14000 feet. Less oxygen concentration further makes the task difficult. This has forced China to order alpine gear from some of the European countries under emergency procurement while supplies are yet to start.
We have another four more months of winter to go. At present there is no problem visible in the Indian system and all the things are set up well. While India is prepared for a long haul, it has become a painful issue for China where the weather-related fatality rate is extreme high. This is the reason why Chins rattles out the request of a respected withdrawal in every border meeting. Future of this conflict is not known; China’s territorial hunger is never going to slow down so India is prepared. Only time will tell the outcome of this standoff.
The writer is a retired Major of the Indian Army