Well behind and in between are an equal number of heroes who toil hard to ensure that the front lines are always kept well supplied

by Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)

War has a romance attached to it. Those who don’t have to fight it love the richness of its lore and the glory of heroism it brings in its wake. It’s always been like that and will always remain. What it takes to display raw courage like that exhibited by Col. Santosh Babu and Sepoy Gurtej Singh at Galwan can hardly ever be explained: our salute to them.

That is about the front lines, but well behind and in between are an equal number of heroes who toil hard to ensure that the front lines are always kept well supplied without having to look back over their shoulders. 

Rarely are they given the recognition they deserve for the sleepless nights in planning and execution of operational logistics, which ensures field commanders and troops are always ready to go into action.

I recall a moment at HQ Northern Command when a senior operational logistics officer was asked what he did for his living while the operations staff and formations were busy fighting adversaries and terrorists. Pat came his reply to the boss: “I don’t do much. It’s just that there are over 3,000 Army vehicles on the roads in J&K every day. I ensure their fuelling, repair, accident cover, recovery and traffic control. There are about 10,000 troops also on the roads, railway stations or airports at any one time.

Moving, accommodating and feeding them are my responsibility. Should I tell you how many tons of food my staff and logistics units lift for advance winter stocking every day by multiple modes of transport? Transit arrangements for all these become imperative.”

That is when he was asked to stop, or he may have carried on for another hour describing his responsibilities related to habitat, snow clearance, ammunition, labour and what have you.

That should give you an indicator of what is happening up in Ladakh and all the way down to Udhampur and Pathankot. There will be officers pouring over their staff tables and logistics units working 24x7 to ensure that every single item required for engagement in operations is catered for and supplied in sufficient quantity at the right place and the right time. Military contractors will have their hands full with a multitude of items, including transport resources.

While disengagement is in progress in Ladakh after the recent deliberations by military commanders, intervention by the national security adviser and political ownership by the Prime Minister through his visit to Leh, it is clear that China simply can’t be trusted.

It doesn’t live by rules, agreements and commitments. We may not have seen the last of the current or future standoffs. The reserves the PLA has brought to the depth areas have to move back to get a clear indicator of stabilisation for this season. Future reruns of this is considered a given.

They could come back next year and the year after, contingent on how the geopolitical situation pans out after Covid-19 which is threatening to persist longer than estimated. Our troops may return to peace locations if the disengagement process does progress well, but there remains uncertainty when exactly this can be fully determined.

Pending that, it is the worst-case contingency that operational logistics must look at. That means the indeterminate quantum of troops and equipment inducted to Ladakh to ward off the Chinese threat, continuing to remain there through the coming winter and beyond.

What does logistics involve in a military operational environment? First is the movement of mobilised troops. They come in convoys of vehicles with their integral loads which can sustain them for a given time.

These convoys have to be controlled through the allotment of road space, else there will be a melee and traffic jams stretching to Delhi. Movement control remains an imperative part of this as vehicles never stop moving in wartime or the run-up to it.

The Corps of Military Police does this under the supervision of the movement control staff. Transit camps have to be ready to accommodate thousands of troops who have to make the journey, many returning from leave or courses of instruction and other duties. Second is the plethora of supplies, primarily involving dry and tinned rations, medical equipment, varieties of fuel, oils and lubes; especially given the quantum of equipment that must be moved in.

These are already pre-dumped in peacetime but may have to be replenished or restocked to higher levels of reserves, depending on the levels that operational planning demands. The challenge multiplies because of the variety of vehicles and equipment, including aviation fuel for helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft of the IAF.

Just remember, all this is not taking place along Delhi’s Eastern and Western Peripherals or any kind of six-lane highways, but on shaky high-altitude roads which cross such obstacles and defiles such as the multiple tunnels and passes which dot J&K, Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh.

The advance winter stocking season is restricted to only May-June to October, after which the passes close and air supply is the only means of transportation.

In this time, stocking for the 2.75 lakh population of Ladakh also has to be simultaneously catered for. Remember, a load carrier moving from Jammu to Leh and sometimes beyond has a turnaround time of 9-10 days, and road space is restricted with almost zero movement by night. All these stocks may well be moved in time, but will need to be stored, for which enhanced warehousing is required. Constructing this is another challenge as habitat for troops and some coverage for ammunition too is needed.

Ladakh is a resource-depleted area with very little labour, thus needing the services of workers from Jharkhand, who normally stay till November each year.

The worst fears of much higher deployment on the Line of Actual Control may not come true if the concept of buffer zones and disengagement does succeed. However, if the PLA does not give clear indications of a pullback of its depth elements, there isn’t much dilution that can be done from the troops that have moved into Leh. Heavy equipment having been moved by fixed-wing aircraft is unlikely to move back due to the huge expense involved.

Ladakh is therefore going to be a potential war zone for a long time. Any and everything that the establishment can do to enhance logistics capability for Ladakh must be considered a major contribution towards the national effort to defend India’s honour and its territory.