Chandigarh: The Indian Army’s upcoming winter deployment along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh against China’s hegemonic military is projected to adversely impact the physical and psychological wellbeing of its personnel as well as their weaponry, according to defence analysts and senior serving and retired officers.
Over the decades, most people have taken for granted the Army’s annual high altitude winter deployments at places like the 17,000 feet high Siachen Glacier – definitively christened the world’s highest battlefield – which India occupied in 1984. But few actually realise that the travails, hardships and privations which Indian soldiers have recurrently faced here for 36 years, will now be imminently duplicated along the LAC’s unforgiving terrain for over 40,000 troops in the impending winter.
“There is no comparable military deployment anywhere else, except by the Pakistan Army in Siachen and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) currently along the LAC,” said retired Major General Sheru Thapliyal, who has served in Ladakh. But both these enemy deployments are in relatively ‘benign’ terrain compared with those of the Indian Army that now has to operationally man both environmentally unforgiving fronts simultaneously, he added.
Basing their projections on experiences in Siachen’s punitive temperatures, and those of nearby Kargil and Drass – amongst the world’s coldest and most desolate regions – other officers said the daily ground reality for soldiers to be deployed along the LAC at heights between 14,000 and 18,000 feet will simply be ‘stark, forbidding and harsh’. The only difference, however, between these critical locations along the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan and the LAC, is that the former are snowed up and avalanche-prone in winter, whereas the latter, spread across the world’s highest desert has limited snow, but is as freezing, and far more blustery.
Winter temperatures along the LAC, October onwards till April, average around minus 20 degrees Celsius, falling often to minus 40 degrees Celsius. Alongside is the daunting windchill factor that precipitously depresses the cold further, enhancing the dangers of frostbite, and the consequent loss of limbs. High altitude pulmonary and cerebral oedema and hypothermia-related attrition for soldiers are an additional hazard. Ironically, soldiers also face the peculiar prospect of concurrently suffering serious sunburn, alongside frostbite from scorching ultraviolet rays in Ladakh’s rarefied atmosphere.
Stockpiling additional materials
At present, the army is furiously fast-tracking its annual Enhanced Winter Stocking (EWS), the world’s largest logistic exercise, which this year will stockpile additional materials to sustain some 40,000 battle-ready troops. It is also racing against time to erect winter habitats for these soldiers in inhospitable terrain, where none exist, across a 250-300km LAC frontage to prevent the irredentist PLA from seizing more Indian territory than it already has since early May.
The EWS also involves transporting and storing millions of litres of fuel, oil and lubricants to keep men and machines warm and operational, in an exacting environment where fierce winds with speeds of up to 60 kmph kick up frequently. Other than worsening the unbearable cold, these squalls distribute sand pellets at terrific velocity that can rip the flesh off soldiers if they are not adequately equipped with face masks and other essential high altitude apparel.
And though critical, this Artic clothing that weighs 7-8 kg for each trooper combatant has an inbuilt impediment which can be as deadly as it is protective. Labouring under the supplementary weight of another 15-18 kg, that includes a rifle and sundry kit, soldiers sweat freely whilst on patrol at high altitudes which, in turn, turns to ice especially in their gloves and shoes, leading to frostbite on their extremities, which can prove disastrous.
High altitude medical experts said that under the circumstances, the human body does not generate enough heat to melt this ice – which can also form on other parts of the body like a sheet in surrounding sub-zero temperatures. This further endangers the soldiers. This icing-up occurs despite specially imported European winter clothing – procured recently in bulk and at great cost – that is designed to prevent excessive sweating through proper ventilation control.
Furthermore, the extreme cold will also encumber soldiers, deployed rotationally for 90-day periods to man remote forward posts at over 18,000 feet from performing even simple daily chores like face washing, shaving or even washing-up after relieving themselves. And, since urination and defecation too pose a hazard in the biting cold, many soldiers at high altitude deliberately deprive themselves of water and food that consequently triggers additional medical problems for many, either immediately or later. Additionally, nose bleeds, high blood pressure, hypertension and respiratory problems, amongst other disorders are common ailments linked to high altitude deployments.
Such a harsh environment also imposes a major psychological toll on soldiers, who face the grim reality daily – especially during their three-month tenures at forward posts – that back-up assistance, like helicopter evacuation in the event of a medical emergency, is a near impossibility. Rotorcraft simply cannot land at most points along the LAC, even in good weather and this grim realisation weighs heavily on most soldiers’ minds.
“The reality of an outside world is a distant memory here, as unending days turn to unrelenting nights with nothing around but starkness and desolation” said Major General Thapliyal. Retaining ones sanity is one of the principal tasks of troop leaders at these posts, he stated, but remains confident that hardy Indian jawans through a combination of brio, chutzpah and jugaad or innovation, will manage to ably weather hardships.
The macho Indian Army, however, does not easily acknowledge the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) amongst its personnel, but senior officers said high altitude deployments do tend to take their toll on many soldiers’ mental well-being. On September 16, junior defence minister Shripad Naik, for instance, told parliament that 901 army personnel died by suicide between 2010 and 2019. He said the Defence Institute of Psychological Research in Delhi had listed domestic and marital discord, (operational) stress and financial problems as the principal reasons behind the suicides by jawans, but declined to elaborate further.
“Every small thing is a problem and a challenge at such dizzying heights, be it eating, sleeping, going to the toilet, leave alone patrolling,” said Major General A.P. Singh (retired) who was head of logistical operations of the Leh-based XIV Corps that is operationally responsible for manning the China-facing LAC and Siachen. Handling the LAC now will be a living nightmare, he cautioned but added that mercifully, unlike Siachen it had limited snow and ice.
Other officers said the slightest carelessness at these heights can be deathly, resulting in a soldier being maimed for life and eventually demobilised from the Army. Touching a weapon, for instance, even for a few seconds without gloves, can result in the hand getting stuck to it, leaving no alternative but to separate it surgically. “Other seemingly harmless activities can prove fatal,” warned Gen Singh, adding that more than the enemy, the remorseless environment was the soldiers’ principal adversary.
Conversely, the hegemonic PLA too is occupying equally precarious heights along the LAC, but is believed to have relatively better infrastructure installed for itself, a large proportion of which was recently constructed. However, Indian media reports, quoting unnamed officials, recently claimed that some five PLA soldiers had been evacuated on stretchers from the northern bank of the Pangong Tso Lake to a nearby field hospital, following complications emanating from operating in high altitudes. These reports could not be independently confirmed.
Impact on efficiency of weaponry
Meanwhile, other defence experts said the dizzying Himalayan heights, low oxygen levels and freezing cold could also adversely impact the efficiency of assorted military platforms like main battle tanks, howitzers and infantry combat vehicles.
According to a recent seminal study by Aidan Milliff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, such low temperatures tend to render some military equipment useless as lubricants freeze and barrels on tubed artillery crack. Senior army officers said this would also be a major operational test for the forces newly acquired BAE Systems M777 155mm/39 cal ultra-lightweight howitzers that were inducted into service in late 2018, and airlifted to the LAC in Ladakh in July.
In his cogently researched paper ‘Tension high, altitude higher: logistical and physiological constraints on the Indo-Chinese border’, Milliff states that ‘even shooting (at heights) is harder’. The Indian Army, he said, had learned during the Kargil war in 1999 that rifle rounds and artillery shells fly differently at high altitudes’.
He goes on to add that ‘artillery batteries need altitude-specific firing tables to put shells on their intended targets, and infantry soldiers need to re-sight weapons and practice in the thin air’. Besides, at extreme heights soldiers’ eyesight too changes, as low air pressure can induce corneal distortion – causing near-sightedness, diminish low-light vision and degrade depth perception, declares Milliff.
However, the MIT scholar who focuses his research on behaviour and decision making during violence, is of the view that while the Himalayan terrain incentivises boldness and adventurism at the tactical level, it simultaneously dampens the possibility for small disputes to escalate into a large-scale shooting war. He goes on to state that the ‘logistical difficulties of fighting along the Sino-Indian border create multiple windows of opportunity at the tactical level, but relative stability at the strategic level’.
Moreover, New Delhi, he states, is faced with ‘no good options’, and that without an appetite to escalate the conflict or expand it to other pockets of territory, India can only negotiate or make its peace with China’s small gains. “Neither side has reasonable incentives to escalate the dispute further,” states Milliff. “Barring mistakes or miscalculation, the PLA incursions at Pangong lake, Galwan and the Hot Springs will be the latest entries in a long list of disputes that did relatively little to resolve the large disputes over the India-China border,” he concludes.
It is well known that Russia’s ‘General Winter’, during which temperatures dipped to minus 30 degrees Celsius, was decisive in defeating Napoleon Bonaparte’s superior French army in the early 19th century and in crushing Hitler’s German military machine 129 years later during World War II. Will the severer Himalayan ‘General Winter’ prompt the restoration of the status quo ante along the LAC that prevailed in April as demanded by India? Or will it engender a ‘new normal’ for both sides?