With more than 100,000 soldiers deployed across a border stretching nearly 550 miles (872 km) at heights well over 15,000 feet above sea level where temperatures could soon drop to minus 30 degrees Celsius, it has been described as a frontline without parallel in modern military history. After months of a build-up of forces at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the Indian Army and China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) fortunately aren't fighting one another – but now as winter has set in both sides are battling an extreme cold as well as boredom and increased fatigue.
In addition to the extreme cold, where even touching bare metal can be hazardous, soldiers must deal with equally extreme wind chills brought on by the high-speed winds that whip down from the mountains across the Ladakh Valley. According to a report from The Indian Express, all of this is exacerbated by the rarefied atmosphere, which comes from a combination of lack of oxygen and a function of the altitude. Past deployments of Indian forces along the LAC saw an attrition rate as high as 20 percent, mostly due to medical-based non-fatal causalities.
The falling temperatures can bring on frostbite, snow-blindness, chilblain, and even peeling of skin due to the extremely dry conditions – while most soldiers will still face nausea, headaches, and disorientation. Maintaining readiness is a challenge both the Indian Army and the PLA face.
On the Indian side of the LAC, soldiers wear bulky layers of clothing to stay warm but that can impact efficacy and notably affect mobility. Keeping the soldiers fed is a problem, as it is impossible to bring in fresh fruit or vegetables, but even canned food is a problem as it is difficult to consume too much in the altitudes. Instead, soldiers rely on a very high caloric diet of fruits, dried fruits, and even chocolates.
The Chinese PLA forces may have it slightly better, as Beijing has rushed in pre-fabricated dormitories to address the extremely low morale that comes with the extremely low temperatures. To bolster the spirits of the men serving along the LAC, the PLA has provided recreation centers that include fitness facilities, heated swimming pools, hot tubs, and even libraries with computers and video game systems to help address the boredom and general malaise that have set in.
Both sides are reportedly facing a shortage of specialized cold climate clothing.
Despite the harsh conditions, neither side has shown a break in their resolve even as talks to deescalate have continued. Instead, India and China have continued to deploy more units and heavy equipment to the poorly demarcated border region. By some accounts, Indian and Chinese tanks are just 400 meters apart at some spots.
India has reportedly deployed numerous T-72 and T-80 tanks, along with BMP-2 armored personnel carriers (APCs) that can run on a special fuel mix designed specifically for the high altitudes and low temperatures. China meanwhile has deployed its specially-designed T-15 light tank and T-99 main battle tank to the region.
While neither side seems ready to escalate the standoff into a full-blown war, as neither side will back down, the biggest threat now is the extreme cold. There will likely be only losers this winter, even if neither side actually fires its guns in anger.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.