A Herculean task of storing supplies to feed, clothe, equip and arm the existing and additional troops in Ladakh for the summer and winter awaits the Indian army

by Major General Amrit Pal Singh (Retd)

Following the prime minister and defence minister’s visits to Ladakh, and amidst announcements of a calibrated pullback of troops from the present flashpoints on the LAC, all indications point to the fact that the three Indian divisions that have moved into the area are likely to be there for a considerable period of time, if not permanently.

The very decision to hold the icy desert brings to mind Napoleon’s quote: ‘Amateurs discuss tactics: professionals discuss logistics’.

To an average citizen, the very consequences of the concept of maintaining an army at Ladakh are incomprehensible. The logistics comprise of building a habitat for troops, the storage of ammunition and warlike stores; bringing in food and supplies; ferrying and storing fuel for vehicles, generators and also for heating the habitat to a temperature suitable for troops; storage of special munitions like missiles and rockets.

The largest winter stocking exercise in the world conducted by the Army, the Air force and a host of agencies unfolds every year from April to November to complete this task. Usually, approximately two lakh tonnes of stocks are transported and stored before the winter sets in, cutting off the region from the rest of the world. This year the logistical loads will increase at least two-fold, and yet, the time to accomplish the same remains the same.

The logistical load to be carried daily to feed, clothe, equip and arm the existing troops at Ladakh (approximately one lakh) has to cater for two days’ sustenance each day – one for a summer day and one for a winter day – as there can be no movement of convoys in the winter (November to March) when heavy snowfall precludes the use of the Zojila and Rohtang axes and most of the roads are impassable and closed. This period is termed as the ‘Road Closed ‘period.

Almost everything for the sustenance of troops, and the animals that support them, has to be brought into Ladakh from the outside. A cursory glance at the supply chain is in itself staggering. It starts from the source of the produce or equipment which is carried either by freight trains or roads and is collected at bulk storage or rail-road transfer areas where the freight trains are unloaded and items are loaded category wise into the Army’s frontline transport vehicles or private hired trucks.

These vehicles and petroleum bowsers then start the arduous journey of hauling the loads from these locations through the two existing axes to get into the Ladakh-Zojila (Zulu) axis that traverses Srinagar onto the Zojila pass (11575 feet) and then to Kargil-Leh and the Rohtang (Romeo) axis that winds its way from Manali to Rohtang pass (13058 feet) and on to even more formidable passes such as Bara Lachla (16043 feet) and Taglangla (17480 feet) and Leh. The convoys carrying stores and supplies ply daily and move to and fro in a very meticulously planned and monitored manner carrying an approximate 300 tons a day.

Yet the journey of the stores and supplies doesn’t end at the depots in the forward areas. The supplies have to be delivered to the troops at the forward posts in locations that are sometimes just perched on a razor’s edge on a mountain range which can be reached only by a jeep track hewn into the hillsides or a mule track just wide enough to allow one man or animal pass through. The skill and dedication of the drivers of vehicles and the animal handlers with their mules is a humbling lesson and an inspiration.

Indian army soldiers walk past their parked trucks at a makeshift transit camp before heading to Ladakh, near Baltal, southeast of Srinagar, June 16, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

The construction of habitat in this area is another unique aspect of this icy desert. Anything that has to be constructed must be planned over two to three construction seasons. A season being the five or six summer months of a year which is the only time when brick and mortar work can progress. Once temperatures drop starting from September, the water freezes and crystalizes into ice and a simple requirement like mixing cement and sand for construction is rendered impossible.

A miscalculation of building materials and accessories can lead to a delay of a year with attendant adverse consequences. There is no source of electricity and all lighting and heating requirements are met by the use of generators. Fuel for warming and lighting brings with it a staggering supply of fuel and lubricants that is to be brought in and stored. The herculean task which is executed by the engineers’ regiments and the local labourers who build and replace bridges over rivulets with precision and construct a habitat for troops in harsh conditions at great risk is commendable.

During the road closed period, Ladakh is connected only by an air bridge operated by the Indian Air Force from its bases in the plains. Heavy and medium-lift aircraft fly loaded with immediate requirements, medical casualties and personnel in a phenomenal yearly exercise only paralleled by the Berlin Airlift – only this airlift flies over terrain averaging 20,000 feet in height and imposes all up weight restrictions on aircraft taking off from Leh or Thoise (in Nubra valley) due to the rarefied atmosphere and resultant lack of aerodynamic lift to the aircraft. Flight operations and ground load management is a fine balance between weather for the air force and priority of requirements for the ground forces.

The induction of additional troops has imposed a requirement for additional supplies to be stored and ferried, leading to an increased movement of road convoys. This year, given the absence of tourism traffic, some of the road space has been freed up for the movement of convoys. Critical to the stocking exercise is increased storage facilities including the underground storage of fuel at logistic nodes in Ladakh and making available adequate private trucks. The air bridge has to be kept open solely for the movement of troops and fresh supplies. Supplies to this place too will increase exponentially, especially in the winter.

The slump in the regular trade-based movement of transport will free up a readily available fleet for hiring by the defence forces. The commissioning of the Rohtang tunnel as a means of keeping the intervening passes on the Romeo axis needs to be expedited. This can ease the strain on stocking up supplies and will also allow for prioritisation of what moves in the first phase till the roads are closed and what can keep moving along Romeo axis in the winters too. A humungous logistical challenge is before the planners in Ladakh and smart logic bolstered by pragmatic solution finding will yield successful results.