Monday, 26 Oct 2020

Indian, Chinese troops face winter challenges in border area

As India and China continue with military and diplomatic talks on their disputed border, their troops in the Ladakh region now have to grapple with deteriorating weather conditions as winter sets in.

At Pangong Tso, a Himalayan lake, where Chinese and Indian troops are in a stand-off, temperatures often drop to sub-zero.

Temperature during the winter, starting next month till February, will plummet to minus 40 deg C and the lake, which cuts through Chinese and Indian territories, will freeze over.

The area is known as the “cold desert”, according to retired army colonel S. Dinny, who served as commanding officer at Pangong Tso between 2015 and 2017.

“The temperature goes down to sub-zero. The oxygen level is at 60 per cent. Fatigue increases manifold. You get chilblains if a body part is exposed for even a short duration,” said Col Dinny.

“There is definitely a decrease in activities in winter, whether infrastructure development like building roads or patrols. It is quite challenging. It will test the limit of logistic backup, sustenance and survivability of people and equipment. It won’t be easy. But there is a job to be done, we will do it.”

Videos released on Sunday show Indian Army tanks and armoured personnel carriers in forward locations in eastern Ladakh. The tanks can reportedly operate at temperatures as low as minus 40 deg C.

“Even in the best of conditions, it is difficult to function (at Pangong Tso). When you add temperature and wind conditions created by the onset of winter, it becomes really difficult to survive, and for troops to spend the whole winter there is a challenge by any standards,” said journalist and former Indian Army officer Ajai Shukla.

While India has experience in high-altitude warfare, it is known to come at a high cost. At Siachen Glacier, the highest battlefield between India and Pakistan where the winter temperatures can drop to minus 70 deg C, the adverse conditions have killed hundreds of soldiers, mostly from hypothermia, avalanches and frostbite than actual fighting.

“I think physically, from the point of view of experience, Indian soldiers are better geared for the prospect of spending winter out there. The key is to put in place the infrastructure required to do so, like snow shelters, that is more difficult from the Indian side.

“The Chinese have better roads and better access. So it evens out,” said Mr Shukla.

He noted that India had upgraded infrastructure exponentially since the standoff with China started nearly five months ago.

Tensions along the India-China border, which has largely remained peaceful, spiked in June after soldiers on both sides were killed in a clash in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley.

Last month, Indian troops stopped their Chinese counterparts from occupying vantage positions on the southern bank of the lake, after they were prevented by Chinese troops from patrolling areas on the northern bank that had been accessible earlier.

A potential trigger for the border tensions is said to stem from India’s moves to boost infrastructure along the border and last year’s decision to carve out the union territory of Ladakh from Jammu and Kashmir.

Analysts said that there was no question of either side giving up vantage points in spite of the adverse weather conditions.

“Soldiers will remain unless there is a breakthrough in the talks…” said retired lieutenant-general D. S. Hooda.

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