Chandigarh: The Indian Army’s impending winter deployment along the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh promises to be a precipitous Himalayan replay of the ten-month-long Operation Parakaram against Pakistan that ended in October 2002.
The only difference, however, between the two deployments is that the Indian Army will not, for the foreseeable future, be able to pull back from the LAC like it did in Operation Parakaram, launched in December 2001 in response to the attack on India’s parliament by five Pakistan-backed gunmen.
Perforce, the army will need to remain deployed for long in large numbers at heights above 14,000 feet, even during the unforgiving winter, to deter China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that is refusing to pull back from Indian territory it invaded in May.
“It’s almost certain at this point that the LAC in Ladakh will mirror the 747km-long long line of control (LoC) with Pakistan with regard to army deployment,” said former army deputy chief of staff Lieutenant General J.P. Singh.
But the LAC deployment, he warned, will financially bleed India as it entails creating vast infrastructure, where none presently exist, for 25,000-30,000 additional troops. This will impose a recurring expense that will result in an exponential rise in the army’s revenue expenditure, severely impacting its long-delayed modernisation, he added.
In fiscal year 2020-21, even before the LAC impasse occurred, the division of the army’s capital expenditure for force modernisation and revenue outlay, that includes salaries and operating expenses, was 17% and 83%, respectively. The desired ideal between revenue and capital costs, according to successive parliament defence committees, is 60% and 40%, respectively.
This former amount is now poised to soar, as the army has to create habitats along the LAC spread across 250-300 km and stock them with tens of thousands of tonnes of food and fuel for warmth for over 25,000 personnel for six months, October onwards. The cost this will entail will sizeably depreciate the army’s already minuscule capital outlay, and could even end up poaching the budgets of the other two services.
In response, the resource-strapped federal government, facing galloping recession and an economic downturn due to the coronavirus pandemic, would have little choice but to exponentially hike the defence budget at the expense of other commitments, to deal with the Chinese threat in Ladakh. “This is a zero sum game which has never been played well by any government,” said Amit Cowshish, former defence ministry financial advisor on acquisitions. Better planning could have obviated the impending financial crisis, he added.
Additionally, the army will have to hastily import arctic tents and other high-altitude equipment like clothing for the six-month winter deployment, acquiring it off the shelf from European suppliers at high costs. Furthermore, the army’s defensive posture will necessitate the erection of specialised temperature-controlled fuel, ammunition and missile storage depots and centrally heated garages, workshops and maintenance centres for assorted trucks and vehicles, main battle tanks and howitzers.
The staple materials to construct and stock all these facilities are sourced from the plains, and transported to Leh and beyond by an endless convoy of trucks between April and October, as part of the army’s Advanced Winter Stocking (AWS) logistic exercise. Except this year, the AWS will be hugely magnified as the October deadline looms.
Heavier engineering and other related equipment will need to be ferried by the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) C-17 and C-130J-30 transport aircraft that are hugely expensive to operate. Besides, as one senior army officer pointed out, frequent sorties by both these aircraft – as have also been executed in recent weeks and with more in the offing – would render both platforms ready for servicing.
This servicing, in keeping with the End User Monitoring Agreement (EUMA) that India signed with the US in 2009, would mandatorily be effected in the US, further draining the military’s limited budget. The EUMA restricts India from getting US-origin defence equipment serviced by any another country; all spares too are required to be sourced exclusively from the US.
Meanwhile, the LAC deployment is certain to stymie chief of defence staff General Bipin Rawat’s recently announced plans to reduce the 1.25-million-strong army’s manpower by some 100,000 troops and revamp the forces’ basic structure by creating leaner and more flexible integrated battle groups or IBGs.
As army chief, General Rawat had declared that the army spends 83% of its budget on salaries and pensions, leaving a paltry 17% for modernisation and equipment upgrades. “We have to cut down on manpower to make way more for equipment,” he had declared in late 2018.
But the PLA, it seems, will stymie General Rawat’s schemes.
Over two decades earlier, then army chief General V.P. Malik too had similarly announced that he would reduce his forces strength by 50,000 personnel. The ensuing conflict Kargil War in May 1999 abruptly ended his plans, as the LoC needed physical manning that could only be achieved by augmented force levels, but at a price that continues be extracted.
Regrettably, an even higher cost is being imposed, but this time by China, necessitating the hasty re-deployment of formations from other parts of India to the LAC. This, in turn, has imposed a major reorganisation in the army in other regions that could potentially pose a security risk, officers said.
In the meantime, it is worth recalling that since 1984 till late 2019, some 869 soldiers had died on the Siachen Glacier spread across 76 km at heights above 17,700 feet due to climatic conditions, analogous to portions of the LAC stretch along which the imminent deployment is planned.
It is also instructive to recall that Operation Prakaram, executed largely in the Punjab plains and the desert regions, claimed more lives during deployment than the number killed in the Kargil War.
In July 2003, then defence minister George Fernandes had told parliament that 798 army personnel suffered fatal casualties during Operation Prakaram. In comparison, 527 soldiers had died in in the 11-week-long Kargil conflict, fiercely fighting their way uphill on snowy slopes against the tactically better ensconced Pakistan Army.
The LAC face-off has so far claimed 20 Indian Army lives. Hopefully, it will stop there.