Lesser known challenges of Securing Ladakh

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
For the least nine months experienced hands from the Armed Forces community have spoken and written extensively on the ongoing standoff in Ladakh. By now the public is quite familiar with landmarks such as PangongTso, Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO), Fingers Complex and the Kailash Range. Much has been heard of friction points Galwan and Hot Spring.
The Republic Day honours have kindled memories of the valour of Colonel SantoshBabu, MVC and the men from different units who supported him and his unit 16 Bihar. Yet, whatever one may read about the operational environment of Ladakh it is almost impossible to imagine the conditions and the life led there by our brave hearts.
Ladakh is a high altitude desert connected to the rest of India through two existing routes. The first is from Pathankot via Manali and the recently inaugurated Atal Tunnel (under the Rohtang Pass); the second is along the axis Jammu-Srinagar-Zojila Pass-Kargil-Leh. These roads traditionally close in Oct-Nov each year although this year efforts to keep them open till as late as possible were made by Border Roads Organisation(BRO) but heavy snow finally brought those brave efforts to an end. Some new connectivity will be available next year improving our ability to execute rapid movement when required. The only connectivity now in winter is from the two airfields at Leh and Thoise. The former serves Leh, Kargil and Eastern Ladakh while the latter serves the Siachen sector. The heavy lift transport aircraft of the IAF which land at these airfields almost every day are like angels from the sky for the tired and weather beaten soldiers. Leh itself at a height of 11000 feet has a much deployment but the battle zone is well ahead of a mountainous system called the Ladakh Range. Remember most soldiers will not be home for family occasions, festivals and even important responsibilities such as medical treatment of an elder. There is no predictability about travel plans because it all depends on whether the high passes are open and the convoys can come through. In winter since all move is by air soldiers live in transit camps awaiting their turn to get a transport aircraft based flight to Chandigarh; many take commercial flights too. Transit camps dot the entire sector because there are enough personnel moving out of the LAC zone to Leh or moving from Leh to their locations. Acclimatization schedules also force personnel into transit camps and such stays get longer when convoys are delayed or do not run due to the weather conditions. The only certainty about movement is that there will never be any certainty about how many days an individual will take to get home or return from home. Remember leave starts from the Chandigarh transit camp and from Jammu in case you go by road in summer. Yet the Army’s outstanding administration ensures no one ever goes hungry or does not have a roof over his head. At one time a senior logistician at the Headquarters Northern Command admitted that one of his biggest challenges was the safety, security and welfare of almost 10,000 troops of Ladakh and J&K who were on the road for one purpose or the other; movement in the Army is a usual feature because of a plethora of requirements. Transit camps are great institutions and the lifeline of the movement system in mountains. They are places where one gets educated about sectors other than your own, the perils and challenges that exist elsewhere; this mutual learning is almost as good as a course of instruction. Officers and troops who otherwise live isolated lives at posts and picquets at the LAC find great solace in the limited periods of camaraderie they enjoy with batch mates and other friends who they run into at transit camps and in such flights. One of my most painful memories of Chandigarh Transit Camp is that one has to rise at the unearthly hour of 2.30 AM to be at the airfield at 4 AM. Flights start taking off at 6 AM in the darkness of even icy winter mornings. The logic is simple; the earlier you land in Leh and the earlier you take off from there ensures that maximum possible load, contingent upon temperature can be carried back to Chandigarh. Rising temperatures by day reduce the takeoff carrying capacity of an aircraft. That is also the logic of why the IAF combat aircraft have a decided advantage over PLAAF in Ladakh. It is because the IAF has its airfields at much lower heights and can therefore take off with full laden weight of fuel and munitions to reach the combat zone. The PLAAF has its airfield in the Tibetan desert at heights of 14000 to 16000 feet restricting the carriage of both.
What is life like at the posts in Eastern Ladakh? I can only guess because I served there over 25 years ago. Once acclimatized the respiration issues of personal health take a back seat but the intense cold, especially the wind chill effect is a major threat to health. Extremities of the body tend to freeze up; nose, ear lobes, finger tips and toes. The Army provides much fuel for warming and drying purposes and a plethora of devices are bought by units from the plains making use of welfare funds. Everything must have a range of spare parts at all times because the sheer remoteness of the areas demands that you keep even sufficient stove burner pins.
Considering that majority of troops have been inducted to new locations even at friction points where strength was earlier much lessthere will be a dearth of built up habitat. This will improve progressively in the next construction season; winter is not considered a construction season by any stretch of imagination. Some troops will stay in Arctic tents which can be comfortable except when blizzards are blowing. Fire hazards are common because of the large amounts of inflammables present everywhere – fuel, tents andfiberglass huts. No post is ever without sentries and every activity is done in buddy pairs so that the buddies can support and rely on each other. The PLA obviously does not believe in this considering that single soldiers from its ranks tend to step out to perform duties and get disoriented enough to walk across the LAC; two such young soldiers were returned by the Indian Army after ensuring their full welfare. Sentries usually do two hour duties. The challenge of being a sentry can be perceived from the idea that at 2 AM a soldier snug in his sleeping bag in a fiberglass hut will have to get up, put on his boots, grab his weapon and ammunition and relieve the on duty sentry; that itself is a shuddering thought because the temperature difference from inside the hut to the outside could be 30-40 degrees Centigrade.
The Army spares no efforts to ensure there is sufficiency of ration with a fairly diverse range. In the cold and at heights appetite tends to dry up and the most popular meals are usually made up of soups, dals and the very popular Maggi noodles. If Special Rations have been notified for the concerned area then expect to feast on Cadbury’s Milk Bars and enough dry fruits to keep the calories high.
The most important thing which keeps units and warriors going is the spirit of their bonding. India must never ever think of doing away with the regimental system of the Indian Army. It’s the lifeline in every dicey and dangerous situation. The common badge, war cry and officer-man relationship always keeps the flag flying high.

(The author, a former GOC of Srinagar-based 15 Corps, is associated with the Vivekanand International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He is the Chancellor of Central University of Kashmir.)