In 1995, I was commanding my Garhwali unit at Tangse near Darbuk in Eastern Ladakh after my tenure at Siachen Glacier. I had troops deployed at Lukung, the starting point of the Pangong Tso, and at Chushul. In April 1996, after an extended winter, I had to proceed to Leh and beyond on urgent work.
Chang La, the gateway pass to Eastern Ladakh, was closed due to an avalanche warning and heavy snow. I therefore risked driving through Chushul and Dungti, and took the Indus highway from there to Leh, a foolhardy and risk-laden adventure in times of white-out conditions.
The average height at most times of the drive was 14,000 feet in flat open terrain except at Tsaka La near the Rezang La battlefield which was 15,200 feet.
In a single Nissan Jonga, I took six hours to reach Chushul, and thereafter, there was no track – the entire bowl was filled with snow.
It’s a Ladakh Scout jawan who came to our rescue; he had the uncanny knack of smelling out the track alignment and was never disoriented at any point in time. The lesson learnt for life was that there is nothing heroic about doing something unusual in winter in Ladakh where the famous saying holds good – ‘In the land of Lama, don’t be Gama’ (Gama being the famous Indian wrestler reputed for his strength).
However, doing something heroic is always possible, provided you are willing to risk life and material. So the lesson from the story cuts both ways: don’t risk, but don’t be averse to risk either.
‘Readiness For All Contingencies Is Necessary At All Times’
Let us place this in context of the current situation in Ladakh. The winter will be in, in about six weeks, if it is not delayed. Most strategists who may not have experienced high altitude terrain of Eastern Ladakh are conjecturing that no operations will be possible once heavy snow arrives, forcing both the Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to bunker down.
That is what I thought too before I undertook that suicidal drive across Chushul to Dungti.
Notwithstanding the ongoing military-diplomatic talks, readiness for all contingencies is necessary at all times.
The PLA does not have the strength to conduct conventional long drawn-out operations to capture objectives in depth all along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), but selective build-up of necessary superiority against a few friction points under white-out conditions in winter is a distinct possibility – with the acceptance of some winter-related casualties along with battle-related ones.
Movement is laboriously slow and superiority ratio for attacking troops will need to be extremely high due to lack of cover, lower effect of artillery, and near absence of utilisation of air power in such operations. The defender rules the battlefield, but the surprise factor plays a major role here.
What Is Indian Army’s Winter Orientation & Capability To Fight In Snow Conditions?
In the Siachen Glacier, along the Saltoro Range, the heights are pinnacles with some ledges used for deployment of small bodies of troops. It is easy to cover by fire the limited routes for movement, and the only real chance of success is a bold attempt at the use of ropes to climb escarpments, just as was done by Subedar Major and Honorary Captain Bana Singh, PVC and his men to capture the Qaid Post of Pakistan in 1987.
But in Chushul and many other areas, the dominating heights are not pinnacles – and operations are therefore always possible; rope-work will not be necessary, and avalanches are less frequent – especially closer to the deployment areas of the PLA.'
Unlike the heights in Kashmir and Kargil, Eastern Ladakh has a far lower incidence of avalanches.
Warnings from the Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment (SASE) are few and far between. Movement in these areas is therefore possible at all times, unlike avalanche-prone areas where movement after 10 AM is considered suicidal.
What is the Indian Army’s winter orientation and capability to fight in conditions of snow?
A very large number of infantry units have either served in the Siachen Glacier or at the Sub Sector North (SSN) and Sub Sector Hanif (SSH). In addition, units have also served in Kargil, Kashmir and other areas along the northern borders with China. It is my observation that many of the troops from the plains – such as Jats and Marathas – adapt very well to extreme cold conditions, and their fighting prowess is in no way reduced.
Chinese Army May Risk ‘Adventurism’ In Winter – So, Indian Army Can’t Afford Dilution Of Deployment In Ladakh
The PLA is known to have conscripts, many of whom are on short-term engagements. They are not known to undertake extensive orientation training the way Indian Army units do for induction into operational areas. Speaking to some veterans of 4 Garhwal Rifles who fought the PLA at Jaswantgarh (NEFA) in 1962, and were also taken as prisoners during the chaotic withdrawal from Sela, I learnt that the survivability of the PLA troops of that time was very high.
The patent survival ration was ‘sattu’ which each soldier was self-contained with for seven days. The impact of modernisation has probably made the PLA softer, although it is never good to underestimate your adversary.
It is because the PLA can risk adventurism in winter that the Indian Army cannot afford any dilution in its quantum of deployment across the Ladakh Range and on the Karakoram.
It has pulled out all the stops with regard to logistics, which must not become the factor to limit our sustainability. Shortfalls may exist from the most desirable levels of stocks, and the logistics staff is acutely aware of the number of bad weather (no fly) days in winter.
However, the Chinook utility helicopter could not have been inducted in better times; dependence on it this winter is going to go up manifold, just as the availability of the C-17 Globemaster for fixed-wing lift to Leh.
White-Shod Ops Is Among The Indian Army’s Strengths
It is kerosene oil which is the key item as fuel for warming and drying purposes. In ordnance stores it is snow boots, parkas and sleeping bags besides snow tents which are essential.
The procurement staff at Delhi must have opened up everything to add to these stocks. A range of technical stores for signal equipment, generators and vehicles will need to be kept in stock to ensure no break in transportation, power supply and communication, three basic essentials.
For semi-permanent habitat there are manufacturing units all over India – who, at lean times of the pandemic, will find a boost from new orders. Fibre glass huts and medium arctic tents for temporary shelter add great value.
Along with a higher quantum of deployment of troops comes the risk of winter accidents of all kinds.
The Army has well-established drills for issuance of warnings and cautionary messages from time to time. Yet, it will need a special effort to prevent and minimise vehicle accidents on snow-laden roads driving up to 18,000 feet, and fire-related incidents with combustibles deployed in tons.
‘White-shod operations’ is one of the strengths of the Indian Army, and if the PLA is taking advice from its counterpart in Pakistan on how the Indian Army fares in Siachen, the only advice that should be proffered is – ‘Don’t mess with those Indians in snow conditions’.
(Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain (retd), PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM is one of India's most respected commentators on national security and a notable member at 'Mission Victory India' The general commanded the Indian Army's 15 Army Corps in Kashmir and was known as the 'People's General' in the Kashmir Valley.)
(This article was first published in 'The Quint' and has been reproduced with due permission from the author in the larger interest of the Indian military fraternity. Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')