The line between disorder and order lies in logistics, wrote Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu. The observation is quite relevant for India today. With no immediate de-escalation between India and China in the Ladakh sector, the Indian military now faces the challenge of getting crucial supplies to the nearly two lakh soldiers and support staff deployed there.
On August 11,Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat told a parliamentary committee that the military was ready for a long haul on the LAC and for deployment in harsh winter.
No other army deploys as many soldiers at such heights, and the Leh-based XIV Corps carries out the world’s largest winter stocking exercise annually. The Army spends an estimated 015 lakh a year to keep a soldier on heights ranging from 15,000ft to 18,000ft. The cost excludes weapon and ammunition, information on which is classified.
Retired Major General Amrit Pal Singh, former chief of operational logistics of the XIV Corps, said that, usually, about two lakh tonnes of supplies are transported and stored before the winter sets in October, cutting Ladakh off from the rest of the world. This is called Advanced Winter Stocking (ASW), which serves the forces for about six months. “But with additional deployment, you require at least double the logistics,” he told The WEEK.
Ladakh is connected by road through the Manali-Leh road and the Jammu-Srinagar-Kargil-Leh route. During winter (October to March), passes on these routes are closed. So, in the window between April and September, the Army dispatches about 100 trucks a day with rations, engineering and medical stores, weapons, ammunition and equipment, clothing and vehicles. There are about 80 items stocked for soldiers, including vast amounts of kerosene, diesel and petrol, which provide heat and fuel vehicles.
Singh said that a Srinagar and Leh round-trip for a truck that can carry 10 tonnes of supplies costs around 01 lakh. With a C-17 Globemaster military aircraft, which can carry up to 50 tonnes, an hour-long flight would cost roughly 024 lakh. A helicopter sortie of 45 minutes costs around 04 lakh. Multiple transport aircraft usually carry 200 to 250 tonnes of supplies every day from Chandigarh to Leh.
He also said that, by this time every year, about one lakh tonne of supplies would have been dispatched. “But we still need to send nearly three lakh tonnes in the next two months,” he added. “In the best-case scenario, if we use 400 trucks a day, we can send 4,000 tonnes by road. [But] maintaining the road for peak transportation capacity is the need of the hour. We find slush on roads due to [heavy traffic] of trucks.”
He also pointed out that Leh was just the first stop. There, the Army needs transit shelters for truck crew and support staff. Not everything can go by air; heavy material has to go by road. Though Zoji-la and Rohtang are the main passes, the road gets tougher from there. There are two more passes on the route—Baralacha La and Thanglang La—which are at a higher altitude than Rohtang.
Retired Lieutenant General D.S. Hooda, former northern Army commander, said that the advanced winter stocking is usually a well-planned exercise, but with additional deployment, the issue was not only transportation, but also procurement and supply. For instance, the Army would need pre-fabricated shelters, which cost at least 015 lakh apiece, to accommodate 20 troops each. “Shelters have be to procured, transported and constructed before winter,” he said. “It is almost next to impossible to carry out any construction in winter. Planning for construction of shelters usually takes place over two seasons. Now we have taken the decision to remain on those heights, [so] we need to speed up the process. The window is small now, and I see it as a big challenge.”
Reportedly, the Army, through its defence attaches in embassies in the US, Russia and Europe, is hunting for makers of warm clothes and snow tents. Additionally, the Ordnance Factory Board has been asked to speed up deliveries of extreme cold climate (ECC) clothing.
Military observers said that, with the temperature dipping to minus 40 degrees Celsius, it is going to be a battle of who lasts there. The soldier has to negotiate three elements—the weather, his health and, of course, the enemy across the border. With better infrastructure and an easier terrain in Tibet, the Chinese can continue to mobilise from deep areas. However, it costs the People’s Liberation Army four times as much to sustain a soldier on the Tibetan plateau than in the plains.
“Besides the temperature, the chilly winds in Galwan, Gogra and Hot Springs do the maximum damage,” said a serving Army officer, adding that it was the extreme cold and low level of oxygen that had claimed most of the 20 lives lost in the Galwan clash of June 15. “When you are in an eyeball-to-eyeball situation, you prepare yourself for any eventuality. Unlike in Siachen, troops on these friction points have to be on the highest level of alertness throughout winter.” He also said that the low temperature affects equipment, ammunition and artillery guns, which need special storage.
Military planners said that “mirror deployment” throughout winter would come at a huge cost. “All your perspective plans go for a toss if you do mirror deployment. Money and material meant for capability-building in some other areas is going to be diverted to Ladakh,” said Singh.
Instead of mirror deployment, he added, India should have done deterrent deployment, which means holding your forces back and putting them in places opposite to the enemy’s vulnerable areas. If this had happened, the Chinese would not have even moved to places like Galwan or Depsang, he said.
“Now, we are only committed and reactive,” he said. “Being reactive, you only pay in cost. We have lost an opportunity to be pro-active. With the absence of a mountain strike corps, the Indian Army is missing its offensive capabilities.”
Said Hooda: “Massive deployment, up to three division-level strength on those heights through the winter, will incur a huge cost. And if the situation does not improve, it will continue into the next year.”
The military thinkers seem to believe in Napoleon’s quote: “Amateurs discuss tactics; professionals discuss logistics.”