Maj Gen AP Singh (Retd)
The standoff between Indian and China at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), in northern Ladakh, now entering its sixth month, has precipitated an extended deployment of forces on both sides as the long haul of winter sets in. As troops and associated equipment and installations firm in their maintenance and sustenance become extremely important in the frigid and hostile conditions of the terrain that obtains in Ladakh.
The mountain ranges in eastern Ladakh are not as snowbound in comparison to the heights all along the western borders of Ladakh and Kashmir which faces Pakistan, however, the heights range from 16000-19000 ft and the rugged peaks make movement of stores and supplies to the forward locations an ardous task.
In actual terms within Ladakh the Indian Army (IA) and Indian Air Force (IAF) are now facing two very different adversaries on two widely separated fronts. Postulations of a two front conflict have been made intermittently and operational art has suggested manifold ‘pattern of operations’ that the adversaries will adopt and suitable’designs of battle’ by the IA and IAF.
In a two front scenario the expected expenditure and net availability puts additional demands on the huge inventories of myriad items including spares and replacements for equipment.
The wargaming of such scenarios factor the combat force levels and combat support elements in clearly distinct Eastern and Western front aligned Orders of Battle (ORBAT) with their operational and tactical application and is fairly specific in role and tasks of fighting forces.
The major sustenance to both fronts is a function of Operational Logistics (OL) plans and these are sector and theatre oriented and aligned to the ever changing dynamics each year.
The resources available to forces on both fronts are a finite figure and are pivotal to the nations war stocking and procurement planning parameters. Herein lies the challenge of two front logistics.
Factors that comprise OL are provisioning, procurement, transportation, storage, bulk breaking and distribution of supplies and essential warfighting expendables. Ammunition both small arms – of which large numbers are needed - and artillery – which is lesser in numbers but high on tonnage – add to the OL loads that a planner has to consider.
The storage and transportation of fuel for vehicular movement and fuel for warming (kerosene) is an altogether different challenge because of the obvious and necessary separation of food, supplies and ammunition from the highly inflammable kerosene, diesel and petrol. The procurement and provisioning of such a vast array of OL inventory is another facet of the winter stocking exercise that the IA and IAF execute jointly every year- year after year in Ladakh.
Fronts as defined by geography and adversaries
‘Two fronts’ is a term that loosely defines how the dictates of geography and borders have forced the IA to defend two vastly different lines. The Line of Control (LC) that is an actual line where both India and Pakistan face each other eyeball to eyeball since the Pakistani intrusions of 1947.
The LAC is a disputed line all along from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh accepted by both India and China as the line which forces of either side will patrol upto. While the LC has been held for seven decades and forward posts are fixed in their locations and responsibilities and are stabilized with well-established routes of resupply, on the LAC the forces were not facing off each other in Ladakh till the occupation of disputed areas by the Chinese in April 2020.
This has necessitated creation of new posts along the LAC and routes are being created as the defences along this front also become fixated. The forces deployed in Ladakh have therefore a unique distinction of facing two fronts on the East and West and different adversaries on each front.
Axes of Maintenence
The two existing axes or Axes of Maintenance (AOM) to get into Ladakh are Zojila (Zulu) axis that traverses through Srinagar onto Zojila pass(11575 feet) then to Kargil and Leh; and 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(16043 feet) and Taglangla(17480 feet) and Leh. Availability of axes of supply to Ladakh and time available to use the axes are limiting parameters as winter forces the passes to close due to accumulation of snow
In the Ladakh region and in the snow bound areas of Kashmir, there are two distinct movements one ‘external’ circuit which supplies the field forces from external regions. The external circuits are used by the convoys that ply from the bulk depots and rail /road heads in the plains of Punjab and Jammu to the central depots.
The ‘internal’circuit is used to resupply all garrisons and posts within a particular sector either in Ladakh or even at the LC areas of the Kashmir front. Transport moves here for ferrying stores and supplies from the centrally located depots to the various supply nodes that dot the LAC and LC at regular intervals.
The internal circuit sees the maximum transshipment of loads as loads are bulk broken and fitted progressively into smaller and lesser capacity vehicles which can negotiate the mountain tracks to the forward post. In some cases, the load is ferried by ponies and mules and even at times by porters in areas where ponies fear to tread. Internal circuit turnaround takes 4-6 days and external circuit turnaround 10 to 12 days approximately.
In both the cases of internal and external circuits the critical factor is road space management so that up moving and down returning convoys do not block the narrow sections of roads in the mountains. One traffic snarl on these roads can render the supply lines ineffective for days as there is practically no space to turn around or reverse direction on the narrow forward roads.
Troop movement and mobilisation
Mobilisation is the exercise carried out to move troops and equipment out of peacetime locations to anticipated deployment areas nearer the expected battle front. This is a prime parameter that all operational logisticians have to factor in to their logistic plans. While mobilising the turnaround from depots of ammunition and stores is the biggest time management imperative as all transport and manpower for collecting warlike stores arrive in depots.
Correct sequencing and staggered collection timings is the need of the hour to ensure no stagnation and blocking of entry and exit points takes place. In a two front threat which develops simultaneously the mobilisation exercise become critical to speedy and effective deployment.
A major logistic aspect is the movement of troops to and from active battle fronts. Large movement and mobilisation of troops from the hinterland to forward areas imposes a heavy demand on all kinds of transportation such as air, rail and road. In an ongoing two front situation the careful balance between moving troops by fastest means of transportation will clash with demands for movement of critical items such as ammunition and fuel to active sectors on both fronts. This translates to a dynamic prioritisation to be constantly worked out by OL planners so as to match criticalities.
The fleet of service transport available to the defence forces is used for its intrinsic needs such as troop movement, resupply of war like stores and supplies. As a principle all bulk movements of supplies, ration and stores are handled by hiring transport (trucks) from the civilian goods carrying fleets that are run by the state run or private transport unions. The stocking requirements of Ladakh less ammunition are estimated to be around 2000 tonnes in normal circumstances and in the present enhanced troop deployment will increase to a minimum 3000 tonnes if not more. A staggering 30,000 trucks will be needed to move these loads into Ladakh. In normal times, the transport fleets available in the regions of Punjab, Himachal and Jammu are put to full use during the stocking period of April till October. Once the movement is halted due to closure of the AOM this fleet is available for use in other theatres for OL requirements.
The transport requirements of a two front conflict will not be very different from the standard pre-determined requirements of operations in the Western theatre during the period November to March. However, if the two front conflict period commences or extends in the April to October period the transport requirements will have to be catered for by bringing in trucks and goods carries from other regions not already fully committed in operations on the Western front. Of particular short supply will be fuel bowsers as they are specialist vehicles and are a finite quantity.
The location and quantum of reserves including snow protection clothing has always been a decision that is taken based on a forecast of anticipated expenditure of supplies and stores. In a two front scenario, the expected expenditure and net availability on both the huge inventories of myriad items.
Prominent audit reports have regularly commented on the dangerously low stock levels of ammunition and winter clothing and snow gear. This will force military planners to prune the anticipated expenditure which is normally based on empirical and historical figures to leaner numbers of each and every item be it spares for vehicles and equipment and even ammunition. Fuel stocks will also have to be limited to ensure that there is no glut at one location while another front goes dry for want of fuel due to heavy expenditure.
All calculations of best and worst case expenditure rates are meticulously required to be worked out by logisticians and provisioning done based on the indicators that will lead to two fronts opening up. All the stocking parameters are applied when the annual winter stocking exercise goes on for Ladakh from April to October every year and any indication of a second front opening up during this period will definitely impose a heavy pressure on the provisioning agencies which will have to ramp up procurements.
Understocking the cut off Ladakh sector is not an option and great care will have to be made as is being done this year to cater for additional troops and equipment inducted during the road open phase but which will remain locked inside Ladakh till April next year.
Similarly, for stocking of logistic nodes in the plains and the desert sectors the stock levels can be reduced as resupply here is feasible even when operations are ongoing whereas the same is not viable in the Ladakh sectors unless criticalities force stocks to be airlifted in a time when the IAF will be fully employed in doing battle on both fronts with its own logistic imperatives that will limit cargo aircraft availability.
In the final reckoning in a two front conflict situation the management of conflicting requirements and tweaking of standard planning parameters will be the test for all OL planners. Stress will be caused by factors such as transport management, maintaining stocks of ammunition, providing for fuel of all kinds and effectively utilising the road space and time windows that are dictated by the peculiarities of battle fronts and terrain combined with weather constraints not only in the North but also the vast Eastern front.
*Author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed here are personal.