Minus 40 Degrees! A Harsh Ladakh Winter Awaits Indian Army at LAC

For India's soldiers at the LAC, winter at heights between 14,000 - 18,000 feet, will be a tough challenge.

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Minus 40 Degrees! A Harsh Ladakh Winter Awaits Indian Army at LAC

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In the icy high altitude desert of Ladakh, with temperatures hitting 40 degrees below zero, nature, and not the Chinese stationed across them, is the Indian soldiers' biggest enemy.

For a soldier stationed along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), at heights ranging between 14,000 and 18,000 feet, survival is a harsh challenge.

As India prepares for a winter stand-off with China along the LAC, what conditions will the soldiers posted on the front lines face? And what logistical support is needed to keep them well-supplied, healthy and battle-ready?


Winter At LAC Vs Winter At LOC

Indian Army soldiers at the Siachen Glacier.
(Photo Courtesy: Indian Army)

Several operating procedures, that will be used in Ladakh, come from lessons learned over the past three decades, from the experiences of the soldiers posted at the Siachen Glacier, and at the Line of Control or LOC on Kashmir's borders with Pakistan occupied Kashmir or PoK.

However, the winter 'experience' in these two regions are different. While the LOC is heavily snowed up and avalanche-prone in winter, at the LAC, that is spread across the world’s highest 'cold' desert, has limited snow, but is just as freezing.

How Much Will Temperatures Drop At The LAC?

Between October and April, the winter temperatures along the LAC average around minus (-) 20 degrees Celsius. Often, they fall to as low as minus (-) 40 degrees Celsius.

Compounding the hazards is the daunting windchill factor, that depresses the cold further and enhances the danger of frostbite, which could lead to loss of fingers, toes, even limbs if faced with prolonged exposure.


What Are the Health Risks at Such Extreme Temperatures?

Frostbite is one of the biggest concerns, as they can lead to amputations. If a soldier touches a rifle’s trigger or barrel with his bare hands for even a few seconds, it could have severe effects, leaving a part of the soldier's skin stuck to the metal surface.

Apart from this, the soldiers could suffer High Altitude Cerebral Oedema, a condition in which the brain swells with fluid because of the physiological effects of traveling to a high altitude.

They may also suffer High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema, a condition that causes fluid to leak from the blood vessels into lung tissues. They may also experience Hypothermia, where the body loses heat faster than it can produce. Each of these conditions is potentially fatal.

Another peculiar problem that soldiers face at such altitudes is the prospect of suffering serious sunburn and frostbite at the same time, because of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation penetrating Ladakh’s high-altitude, and therefore thinner, atmosphere.

How Is Military Combat Different At Such Heights?

Unlike conventional operations, warfare at high altitude requires battling the weather conditions as well. The troops have to undergo acclimatisation in the high altitude conditions before getting deployed.

Because of this, rapid mobilisation of troops is difficult in this region. Also, since there is limited oxygen supply, the load and weapon-carrying capacity of the soldier reduces drastically.

Apart from that, low temperatures tend to render some military equipment useless, as they freeze and weapon barrels begin to crack. Thus, soldiers will have to constantly lubricate and maintain their weapons.

They will also need to train and adjust the use of weapons, as projectile trajectories are different in a rarified atmosphere. Here, artillery units have to use firing tables specific to varying high altitudes. Soldiers also need to recalibrate their weapons to fire effectively in thin air.

What Are the Logistical Challenges?

The stand-off along the LAC is a logistical nightmare for the Indian Army and Air Force. The deployment requires additional special clothing, diet and shelter for the 35,000 extra troops now stationed in eastern Ladakh.

New sleeping habitat like arctic tents have to be provided to the troops. They also have to be on a special diet, because of the weather conditions.

Soldiers operating at high altitude areas are also known to suffer from anorexia, or loss of appetite. So, the ration meant for them should include high calorie energy bars, chocolates, and plenty of fruits and vegetables.

An IL-76, off-loading cargo at Leh Airport.
(Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia)

It requires a massive transportation operation to put these logistics in place. During the past couple of weeks, Soviet-built IL-76s and US-built C-17s have been flying non-stop sorties from Chandigarh to Leh on a daily basis, ferrying essential supplies.

From here, the cargo is offloaded onto helicopters and flown or trucked to the army’s forward posts.

Also note, the vast amounts of food supplies, as also machine and weapon spares, along with ammunition and fuel - all of this that's been transported to the LAC, also needs to be efficiently stored there. So large, secure, temperature-controlled storage facilities are needed. Also, all these stored logistics will need constant maintenance in the extreme Ladakh winter.

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