Logistic battle of Ladakh
By Maj Gen Amrit Pal Singh (Retd)
The ongoing deployment and parleys between military commanders in Eastern Ladakh have held centre stage for five months since the Chinese occupation of disputed areas along the LAC. Despite the recent agreement not to further augment troops in the area by both sides, all indications are of a strength of approximately three divisions that have moved into the area and are likely to be there for a considerable period if not permanently.
The discussions on ways and means to resolve the imbroglio are diverse and range from aggressive military actions to diplomatic overtures and various variants of the two. Notwithstanding the outcome of the talks and any resolution soon, the maintaining of such force levels by India presents a humungous logistic challenge.
The stark difference in conditions of snow and terrain are so accentuated that in Siachen the entire glacier is permanently on ice and mostly snowbound whereas on the eastern front of the LAC the rugged heights are more of sand gravel and hard rock as expected from the world’s highest desert where winds and gusts can hurl small grains of sand and stones at soldiers out in the open with serious skin-damaging consequences.
The variation in terrain and weather conditions leads on to different types of operational tasks and methods to execute them including the equipment and the weapon mix which are required for each of the fronts - Kargil, Siachen and Eastern Ladakh. The operational logistics also varies in the range and depth of warlike and other stores and equipment as a consequence.
Logistics here is all about operational efficiency at the end of the day and comprises of various facets such as building habitat for troops, storage of ammunition and warlike stores; catering for food and supplies; ferrying and storing fuel for vehicles, generators and also for heating the habitat for the living of troops; storage of special munitions like missiles and rockets.
Without going into additional troop numbers it is safe to assume that this year the logistic loads will increase a minimum two-fold. Yet, the time to get the loads into the operational area remains fixed and critical as all movement has to be accomplished before the winter snow blocks the roads and highways. The very apt quote by Napoleon’s ‘Amateurs discusses tactics: professionals discuss logistics’ immediately comes to mind.
The Ladakh region is cut off from land access for six months each year and is landlocked due to the closure of the Rohtang and Zojila passes through which the two important highways pass. This period of approximately six months is called the ‘Road closed’ period. The civilian and military population that lives in Ladakh during winters in the cut off road closed period of six months is an estimated three and a half lakhs, add to that livestock of the locals which are also mouths to feed.
The daily requirement of supplies to sustain such strength is nearly 1000 tons a day at a conservative consumption rate and it includes every item from matchbox to vegetables and staples like wheat, rice and fuel for vehicles and for warming purposes.
An annual winter stocking exercise – the only of its kind in the world-is conducted every year to carry the daily requirement and stock it in locations for surviving the road closed period. The logistic load to be carried daily to feed, clothe, equip and arm the existing strengths at Ladakh (approximately one lakh troops) has to cater for two days’ sustenance each day – one for a summer day and one for a winter day.
This estimated total of a 1000 tons- all for one day’s sustenance-needs to be transported each day and every day an additional one day’s requirements has also to be moved to stock up for a ‘road closed day. In all, this year the additional troops and equipment will take the logistician’s target for winter stocking to a staggering two lakh (200000) tons.
All this tonnage is to be pushed in by road and mostly perishables are transported by air. Added to this is the move in and out of troops and locals on convoys and military flights. The combined might of the Air Force, Army and Border Roads personnel and equipment strains to achieve this critical and unique stocking exercise
Almost everything for the sustenance of troops and animals that support them has to be brought into Ladakh from outside sources. One look at the supply chain is staggering. It starts from the source of the produce or equipment by either freight trains or road and is collected at bulk storage or rail-road transfer areas where the freight trains are unloaded and items are loaded category wise into 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 Ladakh- The Zojila (Zulu) axis that traverses the Srinagar onto Zojilapass(11575 feet) then to Kargil-Lehand 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 (16043feet) 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.
The movement of the stores and supplies do not end once they reach the forward area depots. The supplies further have to be delivered to the troops at the forward posts in locations that are sometimes just perched on a razor edge on a mountain range 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 use of animal transport is again something unique to the Indian Army which uses the sturdy Zanskar ponies and army mules to ferry loads to and from to the far-flung and end-of-the-line pickets on these mountain ranges.
The construction of habitat in this area is unique. Anything that has to be constructed, must be planned over two to three construction seasons. A season is the five or six summer months of a year which are the only time when brick and mortar work can progress.
Once temperatures drop, starting from September the water freezes and crystalises into ice and a simple requirement like mixing cement and sand for construction is rendered impossible. A miscalculation of building materiel and accessories can lead to a delay of a year with attendant adverse consequences.
It may be difficult to imagine but as a matter of fact, that there is no major source of electricity in Ladakh and all lighting and heating requirements are met by the use of generators. Fuel for warming and lighting add a staggering tonnage of fuel and lubricants that needs to be brought in and stored.
The road closed period sees Ladakh 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 20000 feet in height. It imposes weight restrictions on aircraft taking off from Leh or Thoise (in Nubra valley) due to the rarefied atmosphere and resultant lack of aerodynamic lift.
Flight operations and ground load management is a balance between weather for the air force and priority of requirements for the ground forces.
The induction of additional troops this year will impose more tonnages to be stored and ferried. This factor in itself is a vital planning parameter as each axis has a finite vehicle handling capacity (road space) especially when two types of convoys are using the same road – one loaded convoy moving up into Ladakh and a second empty convoy returning to the depots in the plains.
This year, since tourist traffic is absent some of the road space will be freed up for convoy movement. Critical to the stocking are increased storage facilities including underground storage of fuel at logistic nodes in Ladakh and making available adequate private trucks. The air bridge is likely to be kept reserved solely for the movement of troops and fresh supplies.
Tonnages moved by air too will increase exponentially especially in winter due to additional troop rotation and requirement of supplies such as fresh vegetables, meat, eggs and special rations.
Strict control on the movement of transport will free up a readily available civil truck fleet for hiring by the defence users and the major task of moving heavy loads and mostly habitat building material will be road-bound tasks. The commissioning of the Rohtang tunnel as also means of keeping the intervening passes on Romeo axis will need to be engineered throughout this winter.
This can ease the strain on the criticality of stocking up the whole range of stores and can be achieved by prioritisation of what moves in the first phase till roads are close and what can keep moving along Romeo axis in the winters too. The logistic challenge that has presented itself to military planners in Ladakh will need smart logic bolstered by pragmatic solution finding to gain the winning edge.
*The author is an Indian Army veteran and served as Chief of operational logistics in Ladakh (2011 to 2013). Views expressed here are personal.