India’s military has activated its entire logistics network to transport supplies to thousands of troops ahead of a harsh winter along a bitterly disputed Himalayan border with China, as New Delhi blamed Beijing for the worst border standoff in decades.
In recent months, one of India’s biggest military logistics exercises in years has brought vast quantities of ammunition, equipment, fuel, winter supplies and food into Ladakh, a region bordering Tibet that India administers, officials said.
The move was triggered by a border dispute with China that began in May and escalated in June into hand-to-hand combat. Twenty Indian soldiers were killed while China suffered an undisclosed number of casualties.
On Tuesday, India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh accused China of violating past border agreements and expanding its troop deployments along the disputed mountainous frontier in the Ladakh region, which was carved out of Indian-administered Kashmir last August.
Singh told parliament that India has informed China through diplomatic channels that its “attempts to unilaterally alter the status quo were in violation of the bilateral agreements”.
He also said India has made counter-deployments along the rugged frontier and its troops have foiled “transgression attempts by China”.
Both countries are negotiating to resolve the confrontation, but neither side has backed down. The Indian military is now set to keep troops deployed along the treacherous, high-altitude border through the winter.
Eastern Ladakh, where the flare-up occurred, is typically manned by 20,000-30,000 soldiers. But the deployment has more than doubled with the tensions, a military official said, declining to provide exact numbers.
“We have mirrored the increase in Chinese troops,” the official said, adding the Indian military was well-prepared but did not want further escalation or a prolonged conflict.
Temperatures in Ladakh can fall well below freezing, and troops are often deployed at altitudes of more than 15,000 feet where oxygen is scarce, officials said.
Since snow blocks mountain passes into Ladakh at least four months every winter, Indian military planners have already moved more than 150,000 tonnes of materials into the region.
“All the supplies that we need have already been pushed to wherever they are required,” said Major General Arvind Kapoor, chief of staff of the Indian army’s 14 Corps.
On Tuesday morning, a succession of the Indian air force’s large transport aircraft landed at a forward base in Ladakh, carrying men and materials, as fighter jets roared overhead.
Soldiers with backpacks streamed out and were checked for COVID-19 symptoms at a transit facility, where they awaited further transport.
The materials are stored across a network of logistics hubs.
At a fuel, oil and lubricant depot near Leh, Ladakh’s main city, a hillside was covered with clusters of green drums.
At storage facilities at a nearby supply depot, boxes and sacks of rations – including pistachios, instant noodles and Indian curries – stood in tall piles. At another base near Leh, tents, heaters, winter clothing and high-altitude equipment lay stacked.
From these depots, the materials are pushed to logistics nodes by trucks, helicopters and, in some particularly difficult parts, mules, officials said.
“In a place like Ladakh, operations logistics is of huge importance,” said Kapoor. “In the last 20 years, we have mastered it.”
Stepped-up border infrastructure projects
Speaking in parliament, Singh also said that New Delhi has doubled the budget for vital roads and bridges along the undemarcated border with China in recent years in response to Beijing’s rapid infrastructure development on its side.
The defence minister told parliament that China had been building up its infrastructure in the remote mountains for decades and the government was trying to close the gap.
“Our government, too, has stepped up the budget for border infrastructure development to about double the previous levels. As a result, more roads and bridges have been completed in the border areas,” he said. He provided no figure.
India’s recent construction of roads and airfields near the border in the Ladakh region have provoked the tensions, the Chinese side has said.
Military officials say the infrastructure development on both sides of the border has also helped troops mobilise quickly in large numbers and in close proximity at some points in the Ladakh area.
Singh said Indian and Chinese troops have had face-offs on the unsettled border in the past, but the scale of deployment of troops and the number of disputed areas was much larger than in the past.
“As of now, the Chinese side has mobilised a large number of troops and armaments along the LAC as well as in the depth areas,” he said, listing Gogra, Kongka La and the north and south banks of the Pangong lake as “friction points”.