Keeping the supply chain to Siachen uninterrupted: How India does it

‘Here the hepter, doctor and porter are our real Gods’

As the financial year draws to an end in March, every other government department and organisation in India is busy finalising and reconciling the accounts. In Leh, the headquarter of 14 Corps, two brigadiers in charge of ordnance and supplies however have much more important issues than balancing the credit and debit columns. As winter shows first signs of receding and the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) engineers get down to the task of opening the two passes—Zoji La and Baralalcha La—that connect  Ladakh to the rest of the country, the two brigadiers in Leh start monitoring the movement of supplies that are contracted for the coming year. Although the Zoji La and Baralalcha La do not become viable for heavy traffic until middle of April—they are under 8 to 10 feet of snow for over six months in the winter—a meticulous timetable is already in place to ensure a convoy of trucks starts flowing into Ladakh carrying all kinds of provisions ranging from tents and snow clothing to ammunition and from fruit juice to high calorie chocolates.

Given that the window for stocking up for the rest of the year is only between April and early November after which the passes close and the fact that a full-fledged Army Corps is now deployed in Ladakh, the challenges of maintaining the logistics chain have increased manifold. The planning actually begins 18 months in advance, the two brigadiers tell me explaining the complex operation. The Army has established ‘ordnance echelons’ at key locations along the long supply chain. The trucks bearing various items begin to move after receiving an indication that the passes are open and repaired to take the load. The sequence of travel and loading unloading is all decided a year in advance.

As the convoys begin their journey from the plains of Punjab, enter Himachal Pradesh or Jammu, depending upon their ultimate destination and then traverse the high passes, officers in the Army’s ordnance and supply branches get busier. They have to keep a tab on the progress of these convoys on coming into Ladakh either on the Manali-Baralalcha La-Leh road or the Jammu-Banihal-Srinagar-Zoji La-Kargil-Leh route. The long distances and difficult, narrow roads add to the challenge that the truck drivers face. In the summer months, tourists travelling by these roads often encounter these convoys and many of us would instinctively curse the truck drivers for slowing down or sometimes even blocking traffic. But next time any one of the readers come across these trucks, give a little thought to the vital tasks they are performing. Without these uncomplaining truckers who take tremendous risks driving in the high altitudes, soldiers deployed in the harsh terrain across Ladakh would not feel comfortable!

For Siachen, the trucks have to cross another hurdle, the formidable Khardung La (at 18,380 feet it is considered the world’s highest motorable pass) and then travel another 200-odd km to get to Siachen base camp or the farthest base in the Turtuk sector. Not every truck has to go up to Siachen base camp though. Over decades, the Army has established various nodes where depending upon the importance of the equipment or provision, stocking is done. Every three months, the stocks are pushed forward either for their final destination or are kept in transit.  An estimated 1,80,000 tonnes of provisions are needed in a year in Ladakh.

After years of bureaucratic jostling, special rations are provided to troops in high altitude. In Ladakh, two categories of High Altitude Ratios exist. The first category is for those living in altitudes between 9,000 and 12,000 feet.  The second for those stationed above 12,000 feet. In Siachen, it must be emphasised, the base camp itself is at 12,000 feet! After a detailed study, it has been decided that every soldier who gets deployed on Siachen must get a 6,000 calories per day diet. So specially selected food items that include, chocolates, beverages, eggs and dry fruits, are specially flown into the glacier. In fact, soldiers have an option to choose from over a dozen special items to eat in addition to those available at the base camp and lower altitudes.

For every battalion that gets deployed in Siachen, fresh supplies have to be provided.  At the very least 12 units get rotated in a year on Siachen. Then there are personnel from other arms. So on an average about 15,000 to 20,000 troops get deployed by turns on the glacier in a year! The highest priority however is to supply Category I and Category II items. They include snow clothing, gloves, three pairs of socks, Jacket Down, triple-layer snow suits and survival essentials like the ice axe and crampons. None of these are supposed to be reusable.

For the logistician, there is no room for error. When the trucks are unloaded at various points the stocks have to be divided into ‘air portable’ or parachute compatible weights. They have to be stored in accordance with the priority of dispatch. Come blizzard or avalanche, the loads have to be carried every day.

Once the provisions are sorted out, stacked and ready for dispatch at various locations, helicopters take over. The larger, sturdier Russian built Mi-17s carry the heavier loads. They are not able to land at every small helipad on the glacier. They also have limitations of ‘hover’ at those altitudes but they are indispensable in dropping, guns, ammunition, tents, snow scooters and spare parts since equipment failure is frequent on the glacier. After all, despite their best intentions no defence manufactures would have anticipated the extreme conditions that prevail on the Siachen glacier. The Mi-17s with their ability to carry heavy loads are as indispensable as the lighter Cheetahs. The Mi-17s operate from three places—Leh, Thoise and Base Camp—and have a busy scheduled throughout the year.

A helicopter at Siachen

Then there are the old but reliable An-32 transport planes which are based in Chandigarh in the planes. From the very beginning of Operation Meghdoot, these planes have contributed immensely to the supply chain.  An-32s carry the heavier loads and drop them by parachute over the glacier. While the dropping both by the transport aircraft and the Mi-17 helicopters is a pretty sight, for the soldiers on ground, it is a major task to keep track of the loads and retrieve them. As Lt Gen (retd) Ata Hasnain, who commanded his unit (4 Garhwal) on the Northern Glacier in 1995-96, reminisces: “On the northern glacier, there are no porters. All the haulage is done by soldiers. The drops used to begin early in the morning. That time (in the mid-Nineties), the kerosene jerry cans apart from the other heavy stuff needed for heating used to be dropped by Mi-17s or An-32s through orange or red colour parachutes as near the posts as possible. At the posts there was an entire arrangement to keep a close eye on the drops. Once the Mi-17s and the transport aircraft had departed, the work for the ground soldiers would begin. They would fan out to the spots already noted, some on snow scooters, most on foot, roped to each other, locate the parachutes, haul the loads on the sledges, tie them up to the snow scooters or start pulling them to their pre-determined storage points. That’s the time the soldiers were most vulnerable to the dangers of crevasses, especially in summer month when they open up in large numbers.” 

Snow scooters are indispensible on the glacier for the mobility they provide. They were inducted into the glacier operations as early as 1984-85, according to the initial notes of the Northern Command.  But the infamous Indian bureaucracy, instead of facilitating their easy acquisition, delayed purchases on absolutely flimsy grounds. As Lt Gen VR Raghavan noted: “The army found that snow scooters can greatly help…and reduce both time and effort…snow scooters are based on a simple technology, are cheap, and easily available in the world market. They do not require the complex processes involved in the acquisition of tanks or aircraft or submarines. Snow scooters are meant to operate on snowfields and not glaciers. Consequently, their parts get worn out faster on glaciers. Nonetheless they are not required in large numbers and an annual purchase of couple of dozen would have more than met the needs on the Saltoro. This simple matter was turned into a tortuously complex operation by officials in the Ministry of Defence.

“It first questioned the veracity of the breakdown rates, then the quality of training imparted to users, then the cost-effectiveness of the machines against porters and finally, the need to have them altogether. On one occasion, when a few snow scooters were sanctioned after some years of denial, the troops on the glacier asked that special prayers of thanks be offered to the regimental deity. The story may be apocryphal, but it shows how gallant soldiers are reduced to seeking divine intervention against an insensitive official process.”

Me at Khardungla top

In fact, it took personal intervention of George Fernandes, defence minister in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government (1998-2004) to speed up the process of acquiring the snow mobiles. Fernandes, who earned the sobriquet of ‘Siachen Minister’ because of his frequent—and as soldiers say, morale-boosting –visits to the glacier, administered a shock treatment to the civilian bureaucrats by ordering them to visit and stay in the Siachen area in 1998! An international news agency report in June 1998 said:For more than a year, three Indian bureaucrats ignored a request for snowmobiles from soldiers stationed in an icy border wasteland. Now, the angry defense minister is reportedly sending the officials to the country’s equivalent of Siberia.

“The Pioneer newspaper, quoting anonymous defence sources, reported Wednesday that Defense Minister George Fernandes, returning from a visit to the Siachen glacier in April, was displeased to find that the bureaucrats had been sitting on the request for 10 snowmobiles. Fernandes ordered that at least 10 snowmobiles be sent to Siachen every year and directed the Defence Ministry officials to spend at least a week on the glacier to familiarize themselves with the needs of troops there.

“The Times of India added that such familiarization postings could become standard under the energetic Fernandes, who became defence minister when a new government took over two months ago.”

Fernandes in fact made almost three dozen trips to Siachen during his tenure as Defence Minister. Describing one of his visit to the glacier, Manoj Joshi, writing for India Today in October 1998, says: “The schedule would be punishing for a 40-year-old but George Fernandes, Union defence minister who celebrated his 69th birthday this June, wouldn’t know it.

Take his last trip to Siachen, a place avoided by the healthiest at the best of times. Up at Udhampur at 4.30 a.m., Fernandes was at the airport an hour later for the flight to Leh, which he reached by 7 a.m.

A visit to local officials, the Doordarshan Kendra, a quick lunch, and he was off by road to Khardung La. There, atop the highest motorable pass, he held an impromptu press conference with accompanying journalists, even while army officers pleaded with the party to move on because of the danger of hypoxia.

By evening, he reached Partapur, the headquarters of the Siachen brigade. Throughout the journey, he made it a point to stop the convoy to talk to locals and jawans. At Partapur, his first assignment was to inspect the base hospital, which he did, taking notes in a small book.
After dinner, he chatted with friends till 12 midnight, worked on his files till 2 a.m. and was up again at 6.30 a.m. for a helicopter ride to the higher reaches of the glacier.

Special privileges were at a minimum. On the road he was, as always, upfront, next to the driver, minus any special security. Arrangements were not ostentatious the jawans he dispensed with the special table and tucked in with the jawans.”

George Fernandes’ tours and his special interest in Siachen ensured that acquiring snow mobiles at least has remained a smooth affair thereafter.
In fact, in 2010, the Ministry of defence claimed: “The Defence Ministry has signed a contract for procurement of 20 Snow Mobiles with M/s BRP, Finland in December 2010. The complete set was received, inspected and deployed in Siachen by March 2011 in a “record time frame of three months.”

Before Fernandes made it a habit to visit the glacier every six months, ministers and Army Chiefs visited Siachen infrequently. Lt Gen PC Katoch who commanded the Siachen brigade between December 1997 and December 1999 tells me: “When I took over the Siachen Brigade (1997), I was told that periodicity of visit by the Defence Minister and Chief was about once in 2-3 years. While I was still on attachment, Mulayam Singh Yadav came on his last visit. He presented four INMARASATs to the formation and next day national dailies flashed this news with heading “Communication Problems in Siachen Resolved”. Siachen was actually a neglected sector till then.” He too credits Fernandes with bringing Siachen into focus.

“On his second visit, in 1998, he (Fernandes) witnessed three bodies that had been recovered from a crevasse in Central Glacier after many months, when the crevasse opened a little more. Skin from the bodies was peeling off and Fernandes was visibly shaken. He was a Defence Minister who visited ‘every’ post on the glacier where helicopter landed, understood the difficulties and ensured due priority to this sector including its equipping,” Gen Katoch told me in 2013.

In the first two decades of Siachen deployment, bureaucratic procedures seem the main hurdle. Remembers Gen Katoch,: “Every winter, the special clothing came much after the winter started setting in (I saw this during onset of winter in 1997, 1998 and 1999). Of particular concern were lack of socks and gloves. Delhi had a stupid system of an Annual Provisioning Review (APR) that commenced only in the new financial year, that is April. By the time the troops got the stuff, it was late September, at times even October. There was no system of reserves at Army/Command/Corps/Division level despite knowing the quantum of troops on the glacier and extreme weather conditions. At times it was painful to know that imports had arrived in Delhi but clearance from DGQA (Director General Quality Assurance) was being delayed on one pretext or the other while troops suffered cold injuries on the glacier. On protested like hell including to all the visiting VIPs but nothing much happened. Now, I am told the situation is much improved.”

The supply chain is now indeed much more efficient and the priority accorded to Siachen, perhaps one of the highest across the Indian Army.

The trucks, the Mi-17s, the An-32s all brought the goods right at the doorstep of the glacier but in final analysis, the life saver for troops perched on the Saltoro are the Cheetahs and their magnificent pilots. Light, versatile and flown by pilots of the Indian Air Force and Army Aviation, the Cheetahs have been synonymous with Siachen from the first deployment. When flight operations begin at day break, a Cheetah, with a full tank, is barely able to carry a 20 litre jerry can in the first trip. So suppose the Cheetah is going to the highest posts at Amar or Sonam,  it would take one jerry can and may be a mail bag containing letters for soldiers from their families.

On the return leg, having shed a 20-litre jerry can and burnt some fuel, a rucksack of a soldier about to go on leave and therefore needing a lift back to the base camp would be brought back. In the second trip, two jerry cans would make their way up and the soldier, whose rucksack had been brought down in the first trip back, would get a lift down to the base camp. And so it would go on till noon, the official cut off time for helicopter flights in the Siachen. So nearly 20 sorties would take place to evacuate or transport half a dozen soldiers! Such is the difficulty in flying in the rarefied atmosphere on the glacier. In the summer months when temperatures rise, it is doubly difficult to strike a balance between the need to carry as much load as possible and the safety of the helicopter since the heat makes the already rarefied air at high altitude thinner, greatly reducing helicopters’ power.  And yet the pilots take risks, going beyond their normal duties, always game to save a patient, evacuate an injured soldier or transport an essential spare part in an emergency.

As a young officer posted on the glacier told me in October 2013: “Sir, in Siachen, the Hepter (helicopter), doctor and porter, are our real Gods!”

Truer words have never been spoken!

Initially of course, helicopters were a scare resource. Sitting in South Block, the Army HQ, it was difficult for the Staff Officers to understand the criticality of helicopters to sustain the deployment in Siachen. As Gen Raghavan, who also commanded the Siachen sector in the mid-1980s, has written: “A stage was reached when every helicopter hour was measured. Army and air headquarters were locked in interminable sessions to decide on allocation of sorties to Siachen…a couple of dozen hours of helicopter allocation was a cause for celebration or despair on the Saltoro. On occasions local commanders were reduced to petitioning senior officers for additional helicopter hours not as an operational necessity but as a personal favour. It took some years and not a few close calls with military disasters before a full understanding evolved on the indispensability of helicopter support…” 

Much has changed since those difficult years. Today, apart from the IAF’s 114 Helicopter Unit, the Army has two aviation teams based in Leh, one of them a squadron of indigenously developed and manufactured Advanced Light Helicopters, Dhruv, boosting India’s ability to keep the supplies to Siachen uninterrupted.

(Extracted from my book Beyond NJ 9842: The Siachen Saga, Bloomsbury Publications, 2014)