Battle of bunker hill
THE WEEK|December 13, 2020
How an army of defence scientists is helping soldiers in Ladakh thwart enemies and the elements
PRADIP R. SAGAR

TEMPERATURES IN EASTERN Ladakh have dipped to -20 degrees Celsius, but the spirit of the Indian Army is soaring. Apart from keeping a check on enemy troops, Indian soldiers are guarding themselves from the fierce Himalayan winter.

Extreme winter clothing, sleeping bags, highly nutritious food, drinking water, kerosene—these are some of the basic items that soldiers in 8x8ft bunkers on the Rezang La heights need to survive. To fight, he needs compact battle kits containing weapons, ammunition and communication equipment.

With more than 50,000 troops deployed on the India-China border—the biggest such deployment since 1962—the Army is looking for ways to ride out the harsh winter. Defence scientists are offering multiple solutions to keep soldiers fighting fit for high-altitude warfare. Laboratories of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) are looking at ways to reduce the acclimatisation period of troops and help soldiers keep themselves mentally and physically fit.

In early October, a team of DRDO scientists visited the Army’s 14 Corps headquarters in Leh. They proposed more than two dozen winter-gear accessories and other inventory that would help soldiers survive extreme weather conditions. The proposals include a high-altitude water purification system, oxygen-enriched shelters, space heating devices, sleeping bags that can be used at -50 degrees Celsius, high-nutrition quercetin bars and solar-powered shelters.

Ladakh has low oxygen levels and extreme weather. According to defence scientists, the atmosphere in eastern Ladakh, which is 15,000ft above sea level on an average, can have adverse physiological, psychological and hormonal affects that can lead to acute mountain sickness, high-altitude pulmonary oedema and high-altitude cerebral oedema. At present, the Army follows an 11-day acclimatisation regimen for its troops, done in three stages at different altitudes (9,000ft, 12,000ft and 15,000ft).

Though the Indian Army has four decades of experience in deployment in Siachen, the number of troops deployed there is much less than the deployment in Ladakh this time. Three new approaches have been proposed to the Army to reduce the acclimatisation period and speed up deployment. Prior deployment of soldiers at a moderate altitude, putting them through intermittent hypoxia (as training to survive in low-oxygen atmosphere) and providing oxygen shelters are the new methods.

Dr A.K. Singh, director-general of life sciences at DRDO, said maintaining optimal combat efficiency in extreme weather has for long been an objective for the Army. A similar rapid deployment, he said, was last attempted in 1999, during the Kargil war. “Our scientists are working with military doctors for enhancing troop acclimatisation by physical, physiological and psychological interventions,” said Dr Singh.

Indian and Chinese troops have been engaged in a standoff in Ladakh since May. The deployment of troops in eastern Ladakh is being done on the lines of the Siachen pattern—a 90-day deployment cycle before a soldier is replaced by another one. Military strategists believe that, with the trust deficit between the two sides, large-scale deployment of troops will be the new normal on the Line of Actual Control.

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