In Ladakh, where hostilities kicked off last year after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) moved thousands of troops conducting regular exercises in Tibet to the border with India and occupied large areas of disputed land, India has put up shelters to house over 1.5 lakh soldiers in case there is a need to augment numbers.
Critical passes connecting the region to the rest of the nation are being kept open to allow movement of troops and supplies, with the plan being to maintain Zoji La that links the Kashmir Valley open for traffic through the winters, if needed. A strong vigil is being maintained in vulnerable areas, including the Siachen Glacier, and the Chicken Neck corridor to the northeast to deter any winter operations. The Siachen Glacier, in particular, has been reinforced with adequate supplies and troops for the winter months when conditions are the toughest for soldiers deployed at altitudes of over 18,000 feet.
Close to 60,000 troops remain deployed along the eastern Ladakh, facing a PLA deployment that has been reinforced this year with new container-based winter shelters, long-range observation systems and ramping up of air support in Tibet. Troops have been maintained at high alertness levels across the entire LAC for the possibility of winter operations, with even an alert being sounded in early November on aggressive Chinese troop movements.
While major gains were made this year on the disengagement process with the withdrawal of troops at Pangong Tso and Gogra, a trust deficit has remained, stalling similar efforts at Hot Springs and the Depsang plains. Talks have been stuck on the modality of the disengagement — the Chinese side has been insisting on an equidistant withdrawal of troops, which means that troops are to be separated and relocated at a specified distance from the flashpoint.
The Indian side’s contention is that the separation of troops should factor in the time required to move back to the flashpoint from rear locations. In the case of a revival of tension, Chinese troops will be able to travel back much faster to a flashpoint given the terrain across the LAC as well as better road infrastructure.
The summer months have been utilised aggressively by India to ramp up road and communication infrastructure along the border. The upgraded roads can now allow Indian troops to reach contentious areas like Chushul (that saw action last year at the Kailash ranges) in under five hours, a big step-up from the past where military convoys could take double the time.
The Army has also helped in setting up mobile phone connectivity along eastern Ladakh for the local population who are key to gathering intelligence and warnings about intrusion attempts. Specialised equipment has also been deployed to create underground storage areas for ammunition and supplies along the border, a move that mirrors developments in Tibet by the PLA.
Troops on the border are also now equipped with a wide range of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – from fixed wing drones carrying out long-range surveillance to unit level hand launched machines – to keep an eye on movements across the border. Integrated surveillance centres that have sprung up at all areas of contention are being used to fuse together data available from satellites, UAVs, ground sensors as well as troops posted at forward locations.
The summer months also saw the addition of more firepower by India to Ladakh, with the mobile K-9 Vajra artillery guns being deployed at the heights. The Indian-made guns have proven to be particularly accurate at altitudes of over 14,000 feet. With the indigenous light-combat helicopter and light-utility helicopter proving their mettle at high altitudes, both are likely to soon be inducted to support forward deployed troops along the LAC.
The additional deployment does come at a cost. Besides the capital expenses on new specialised equipment needed to counter an aggressive China, maintaining troops at extreme altitudes throughout the year is an added burden to the defence budget. While there is no available estimate, analysts believe that once the troops have been permanently deployed, the additional costs can easily be absorbed as expenses like salaries and ration are already catered for.
“It is difficult to get an estimate of the expenses. Last year, the ministry got an additional ₹20,000 crore at the revised estimates stage. The expenses would be slightly lesser this year as expenses like creation of shelters and other structures would not be required. In terms of sheer revenue expenses for day-to-day maintenance of troops, maybe ₹15,000-20,000 (per soldier annually) may be required. It is not something that India cannot afford,” said Amit Cowsish, former Financial Advisor at the Ministry of Defence.
Despite the improvements in infrastructure, clothing and equipping of troops, remaining deployed at extreme altitudes throughout the winter, comes with its challenges. “Although there would have been some improvement in logistics support and habitat as compared to last year, the winter months are still extremely challenging. LAC management, patrolling, equipment maintenance, health issues, and human endurance acquire a completely new dimension when temperatures drop to minus 30 degrees,” said former Northern Army Commander Lt Gen DS Hooda (retd).
“The Indian Army is very experienced in high altitude operations, but difficulties remain and have to be faced,” he adds.
ESCALATING TENSION A CONCERN
The concern this year has been the spread of tensions along the border with China, even in the relatively peaceful central sector which saw incursion attempts at Barahoti in Uttarakhand in late August. A big change has been observed in the northeast, with land and air incursions going up multi-fold, perhaps the sharpest increase since the 1962 war.
As reported by ET, there has been a sharp increase in Chinese military activity in the eastern sector as well – from the Chumbi Valley near the Chicken Neck to Kibithu which is the eastern most part of the nation. This has kept the armed forces on a razor’s edge, with regular intelligence reports being received on increased Chinese activities across the border.
The PLA is maintaining a strong presence across Arunachal, refusing to pull back its reserve troops that were brought forward early in the year. The increase in Chinese activity has been supplemented by fresh recruitment of locals by the PLA, including in the strategic Chumbi Valley from where the Siliguri Corridor connecting the northeastern states can be threatened.
The superior Chinese road infrastructure across Arunachal gives the PLA high manoeuvrability to threaten access points and expand flashpoints in the case of a conflict. The Indian response has been forward deployment of troops and a mega push to develop infrastructure for mobility to areas of contention.
While projects like the strategic tunnel at Sela, which will provide all weather access to Tawang axis, are being undertaken in record time, there is a long way to go yet for catching up with the decades of development across the LAC, with the latest being the creation of large ‘model villages’ to settle population in disputed areas to strengthen territorial claims.