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Himalayan disasters force rethink of India's China border strategy

October 14, 2011 16:42 IST
The high-level China Study Group has been asked by the Prime Minister's Office to review and re-prioritise projects along the high Himalayas, reports RS Chauhan

Two major natural calamities in the high Himalayas, some 2000 km apart, in the past 15 months has forced a high-level review of India's military preparedness along the border with China.

If the cloudburst in Ladakh in August 2010 gave the authorities an idea how vulnerable its supply lines were to the vagaries of weather, last month's earthquake in Sikkim brought home the stark truth of the tenuous road link between the plains of north Bengal and the Indian Army's remote posts in the high altitude areas of north Sikkim.

In both the cases, the Army and the Air Force were the first responders to the tragedy, saving hundreds of lives and providing relief to thousands of ordinary citizens before attending to their own problem.

During the commanders' conference this week, top military leaders from Army and Air Force discussed the shortcomings in India's military infrastructure at length and decided to speed up existing projects and initiate some critical new ones.

The Air Force, for instance, has decided to extend the runway at Kargil airstrip as a backup plan in an emergency. It will be turned into a full-fledged airport capable of handling heavy and medium transport aircraft like the C-130J Hercules and the C-17s that the IAF will be inducting into its transport fleet in the next couple of years.

The IAF feels Kargil will add to its airlift capability in Ladakh even if the Thoise air base close to the Siachen base camp becomes inaccessible in case the world's highest motorable road at Khardung La (18,500 feet) shuts down due to heavy snow or landslides.

Kargil, mid-way between Srinagar and Leh, is ideally suited to become a major transport hub since areas beyond Kargil are highly prone to natural calamities and consequent physical isolation, given the fragile mountain roads that connect it to the rest of the country.

Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne announced the decision to strengthen the Kargil airbase exactly a year after the Ladakh region was hit by the cloudburst that affected the winter stocking schedule of Indian Army troops along the China border following the total collapse of the tenuous road network in the area.

As it is, the two roads that connect Ladakh to the rest of the country -- Srinagar-Leh and Manali-Leh-- are open for only about six months a year. As winter approaches, high altitude passes become snow-bound, closing the roads.

Days after the IAF's decision, the Army has decided to operationalise night landing facilities at the Leh airport so that stocking operations by IAF's heavy and medium lift transport aircraft takes places day and night.

The inadequacy of infrastructure in the remote border areas of Ladakh and Sikkim has once again prompted the Indian Army to press for alternate roads between the plains of North Bengal and the China border in Sikkim. So far the Indian Army has depended on the single-lane North Sikkim highway its deployment.

The Army has revived the proposal to immediately have an alternate highway running west of the Teesta river to sustain logistics for its two mountain brigades stationed on the border with China in North Sikkim.

Meanwhile, the high-level China Study Group has been asked by the Prime Minister's Office to review and re-prioritise projects along the high Himalayas. A comprehensive border roads development programme that envisages the construction of 75 important roads in the border areas stretching from Arunachal Pradesh to Ladakh is being accelerated.

In Arunachal Pradesh, the IAF is upgrading and modernising seven crucial advance landing grounds to allow operations of bigger transport aircraft that can quickly insert and ferry additional troops at the far-flung border posts along the sensitive China border.

Military leaders are hoping that for once these plans will be implemented with alacrity in order to strengthen India's defences all along the disputed Sino-Indian boundary.
RS Chauhan in New Delhi