Army doctors & soldiers after performing an appendix surgery on the front line in eastern Ladakh

Indian Army has more experience of operating at high altitudes than Chinese, and as Ladakh gets colder, plans are in place to ensure soldiers are fighting fit

New Delhi: Faster rotation of troops, along with round-the-clock medical support and standard operating procedures backed by years of experience of high altitude deployment — this is what’s ensuring that Indian soldiers remain fighting fit amid the cold winter in eastern Ladakh.

Sources in the defence and security establishment said that mild-to-moderate snowfall has taken place in the Depsang Plains and the heights above Pangong Tso. The temperatures have been far below zero degrees Celsius for a while, and are expected to go down further this month, with the Pangong lake expected to freeze over by January.

“The problem in eastern Ladakh is not the snowfall or the drop in temperature. It is the wind chill or blizzard. The wind blows at a very high speed,” a source said.

With temperatures falling, non-fatal casualties have also risen for both India and China, sources said, but added that the numbers for the Indian soldiers are well within expected limits and not alarming at all.

Experience In Harsh Conditions

The Army has already set up heated housing facilities for the troops, while also ensuring that specialised clothing procured from the US is available to all soldiers.

Besides this, the Army has also set up Arctic tents for soldiers deployed in forward locations.

However, owing to the tense stand-off with China, the soldiers will spend time outside the warm confines of the housing built for them.

“The climate is a common challenge for India and China. Our soldiers have seen much harsher postings, especially in Siachen, and even at some locations along the Line of Control. Hence, they are better prepared mentally to deal with such vagaries of nature,” a second source said.

“Moreover, years of postings have brought in individual realisation of the care that one should take when posted in such harsh climate,” this source said.

Sources said that the Army has learnt a lot over the years of deployment in Siachen.

“There is no doubt that there will be winter-related casualties. When we first went up the Siachen Glacier, the attrition rate was high. This has reduced with the years, and the Army is in a much better place to ensure that there is minimum attrition rate. However, at times, physical constraints of an individual do come into play,” a source said.

The source pointed out that the soldiers posted at the front in Ladakh have seen the Chinese troops are more troubled by the forward deployment as they are not accustomed.

Altitudes in Ladakh range from ‘high’ (8,000-12,000 feet above sea level) to ‘extremely high’ (15,000 feet and above). The temperature can drop to minus 30-40 degrees Celsius. In addition, road access also gets affected for a brief period of time.

High altitude means that the oxygen level decreases in the air, thus affecting the mobility of the human body, such as moving fast or carrying weight.

A former commanding officer (CO) of a battalion in eastern Ladakh, who did not wish to be identified, said the first aim of every CO is to ensure that his men are safe.

“One will still find climate-related medical cases, but these are all expected and taken into account. Things would be slightly different in eastern Ladakh currently because troops have been deployed at some locations for the first time. However, one thing that should not be forgotten is that the corps in charge of the LAC (14 Corps) is also in charge of the Siachen Glacier,” the former CO said.

Round-The-Clock Medical Facilities

Among the biggest side-effects of the winter in such locations are chilblains (inflammation of blood vessels in the skin), frostbites, hypothermia, and heart- and lung-related ailments.

Sources said a lot of focus has been put on ensuring the medical teams are able to work at their optimum level.

In October, the Indian Army had achieved a new feat as it successfully removed a soldier’s appendix in a dug-in at a forward surgical centre in eastern Ladakh, at an altitude of 16,000 feet. The soldier could not be evacuated to Leh via chopper due to the weather, and hence, the operation had to be performed at the forward surgical centre.

Sources said that each division has two full-fledged medical teams, while each brigade has one. At the battalion level, one doctor and two or three nursing assistants are attached. These medical teams have moved with their attachments, a source said, explaining that given the large-scale deployment of troops, additional medical teams and infrastructure have been deployed.

Field hospitals are able to carry out all kinds of casualty treatment, including minor surgeries and stabilisation of an injured soldier.

“Moreover, there is the Army hospital in Leh, which has about 300 beds and specialised teams,” a source said, adding that if required, a soldier can be flown there too.

Winter Taking Toll On Equipment

Defence sources said another issue facing the Army is the toll the winter could take on equipment — such as engines seizing up and maintenance becoming an issue. While field depots have been set up in the ‘rear areas’ to carry out repairs, sources admitted that it does become difficult.

Specialised fuel and lubricants are needed to ensure that the equipment works. And repair work does take time in case the equipment is deployed in forward locations.

India has pumped in about 50,000 troops and equipment which includes tanks, artillery, armoured personnel carriers, vehicles and much more, into eastern Ladakh.

Troop Rotation A Focus Area

Sources said faster rotation of troops is being done to ensure the soldiers remain fighting fit.

Normally, battalions get posted to eastern Ladakh for two years each. This is unlike Siachen, where the usual time period for being deployed at a post is about three months, and in total, a soldier gets deployed for six months, including the acclimatisation period and trekking time to the posts.

Sources said the troops posted in forward locations are being rotated faster as they have to remain fighting fit. But the Chinese are rotating the troops faster than the Indians which, the source explained, is because they have no prior experience of getting posted to such high altitudes, unlike the Indians.

“There is no doubt that winter deployments in such high altitudes is tough. But then this challenge applies for both India and China. The advantage we have is that we have years of experience and the soldiers are trained for such deployments,” a source said.