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Army digs in for a long winter at LAC

Border Roads Organisation (BRO) has decided to close the Srinagar-Zojila-Kargil-Leh axis for only 45 days this year because of snow, from an average of 95 days in the past and also strengthen all bridges on the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) road to bear the load of tanks and truck-trailers by next month — both aimed at keeping a key supply route open as the Indian Army prepares for a long winter in eastern Ladakh, potentially face-to-face with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China.

Hindustan Times has learnt from top government authorities that BRO, which functions under the defence ministry, will keep the new Darcha-Padam-Nimu-Leh road clear of snow throughout December and January so that the military supply route is operational round-the-clock.

The Narendra Modi government is now considering a shorter tunnel at Shinku La on Darcha-Padam axis so that the road can be snow-free round the year.

Given that China is showing no signs of abiding by the July 5 agreement between the Special Representatives on boundary issues and the September 10 agreement between foreign ministers on total disengagement to restore status quo ante on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the Indian Army is rushing in supplies to eastern Ladakh, the site of a months-long military standoff.

The Indian Army began planning and preparing for retaining troops at forward locations in Ladakh sector of the LAC some time ago after it became clear that the Chinese side had no intention of moving forward with the disengagement process at key friction points, people familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity.

“We already have considerable experience from forward deployments on the Line of Control (LoC), even though the weather conditions may not be as harsh as the LAC, and on the Siachen glacier,” said one of the people cited above.

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“We also have built up experience over the decades on how to maintain a logistics chain for such forward locations during extreme weather conditions. We are prepared to hunker down for the winter but then we have been left with no other option,” the person added.

The people further said the Chinese side has relatively less experience of operating at forward locations during winter months. Chinese troops usually move back from such locations during winter, when their patrolling too is less frequent than that of the Indian side, the people added.

While the eastern Ladakh sector is usually guarded by some 20,000 to 30,000 troops, the latest reports suggest the deployment has more than doubled amid the standoff.

BRO is ensuring that the 17,580-foot Chang La pass and 17,582-foot Khardung La, en route to the contested Pangong Lake, is kept snow-free throughout the year.

With the aim of keeping India’s weapons deployment in eastern Ladakh at par with the PLA’s in occupied Aksai Chin, BRO is expected to strengthen all bridges and culverts leading to the “Class 70” bridge on DSDBO road by October 15.

Class 70 means it can bear a load of 70 tonnes, which is more than the weight of a fully loaded tank trailer. In strategic terms, this means that in the worst-case scenario, the DSDBO road can be used to deploy T-90 tanks, infantry combat vehicles and surface-to-air missiles all along the LAC with Tibet in eastern Ladakh.

While BRO is expected to validate the Darcha-Padam-Nimu-Leh axis for heavy vehicular traffic this month, intense discussions are underway within the defence ministry on the length and alignment of the tunnel under the 16,000-foot Shinku La. The National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL) has been tasked with studying the shortest possible alignment for the tunnel so that it can be readied in the next four years.

A majority of stakeholders, including the ministry of surface transport, are in favour of a shorter 4.5-km tunnel alignment on the current axis, rather than a 13-km alignment suggested by the Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment (SASE) of the defence ministry. The longer alignment will delay the project with a host of studies and detailed project reports needing to be completed. It has now been left to defence minister Rajnath Singh to take a final call.

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