Beyond the call of Duty: Restoring network in the High Himalayas

Beyond the call of Duty: Restoring network in the High Himalayas

STL’s NFS team braved terrain, weather, and other challenges at the cost of their lives to reinstate the Indian Army’s key line of communication in Ladakh that was disrupted recently.

A rafting boat was drifting dangerously on the river while trying to make its way to the opposite bank. On the embankment nearby, men waved enthusiastically, cheering at their colleagues rowing the boat. Several attempts had been made to cross the river Indus known for its strong undercurrents. The raft had to return several times to the bank. Five days have passed since the team began its attempt. Success seemed to be far away. It was the month of June, otherwise hot and humid in most parts of the country, but Ladakh was chilly and windy.

An army communication line was being constantly disturbed due to constant dynamite-induced blasts carried out by the border road organisation to build roads.

To prevent further disruptions, the communication channel needed to be moved to the other side of the River Indus. A team from STL, which was operating and maintaining the key communication channel, was deployed to address the problem. The OFC (Optical Fibre Cable) network in the region has been facing disruptions since earlier this year. Restoring the line of communication was a priority. In the Leh region of the union territory of Ladakh, the weather, as well as the terrain, is unfriendly. Along with blizzards and snowfall, which can occur on short notice, unprovoked ceasefire violations and intense shelling with mortars along the Line of Control (LoC) are regular activities. Ladakh lies at the intersection of three nuclear powers (India, China, and Pakistan) and often witnesses hostilities between the neighbours. To keep the ambitions of its powerful neighbours in check, over 50,000 soldiers are deployed by the Indian Army across large portions of the 800-kilometer-long inhospitable LoC in Ladakh, considered one of the most sensitive and highly secured places. These soldiers, often from different parts of the country, face harsh weather, constant shelling, and inhospitable terrain daily. However, access to their loved ones through the Internet and mobile phone services keeps them going.

Communication Disruption

Recently, this line of communication, the key to keeping the Army’s morale high in the region, was disrupted due to constant bombing by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), which is under immense pressure to build more infrastructure in the face of Chinese aggression near the LoC. As a result, the OFC network, which makes such a line of communication possible in the region, was in disarray. An optical fibre cable is a modern-day technology marvel that packs anywhere from a few to hundreds of optical fibres tightly in a plastic casing to be further used for digital communications. These cables transfer data signals over several hundreds of kilometres to connect devices. Optical fibre networks are complex installations of wired networks with appliances to transmit large amounts of data over hundreds and thousands of kilometres. Meanwhile, families of army personnel, who couldn’t speak to their loved ones anymore, were as worried as these soldiers, whose morale too took a hit. The need of the hour was to restore the network, which was also the link between the Army housed near the LoC, and their control room located elsewhere.

Communication Disruption

The team crossing the River Indus amidst strong currents

The OFC network near the LoC is maintained and operated by STL, which oversees the largest OFC network for the Indian Army, spread across 9,000 kilometers.”It is not a simple communication network but a lifeline for the country, which enables safeguarding of the nation by providing uninterrupted communication to the army,” said Mudasir Dar, a member of the Team NFS (Network for Spectrum) of STL at Jammu and Kashmir that operates and maintains the OFC network in the region.

“We make sure that the soldiers working on the last course of the LoC communicate their wellbeing to their families,” Dar added.

Line of Control

The militarisation of the LoC in Ladakh began in earnest after a clash between the two rival armies (The Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army of China) at the Galwan Valley in 2020. Twenty Indian soldiers, including a colonel-rank officer, and four PLA personnel died in the skirmish that involved hand-to-hand combat. Incidentally, this was the first skirmish between the rivals that led to murder since 1975, when four Assam Rifles jawans were ambushed and killed by the PLA at Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh.While India and China have been engaged in diplomatic-military dialogue to resolve the boundary aggravation, the LoC has seen increased presence and activities from both armies since the incident, making it challenging to complete infrastructure/network work in the region. As things stand, tensions continue between India and China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Line of Control

Reinstating the Army network

Road to Resolution

While the temporary restoration of communication lines doesn’t take more than five to six hours, the terrain and the river currents proved to be a major challenge for STL’s NFS team. At the same time, the BRO pushed ahead with the bombings, thus making the network restoration process more challenging. It also had to be completed quickly as the Army personnel there needed to stay in touch with their command centers and families. “NFS is not a simple communication network but a lifeline for the country, which enables safeguarding of the nation by providing uninterrupted communication to the army,” Dar said. A teammate suggested Dar use a raft boat to help cross the materials across the river. However, this was not an easy task to execute.

The network needed to be shifted to the other side of the Indus river (near Mahe bridge) to prevent further disruptions due to constant bombings by the BRO.

For this to be successful, material and men needed transportation across the river amidst heavy currents and shelling from the enemy across the LoC. Progress was slow. The STL team also faced adverse conditions to complete their task. Crossing the river Indus, known for its underwater current, was also difficult. Then, there was the fear of cross-border firing and shellings. “We failed several times, but we didn’t give up,” Dar added. After several failed attempts, STL’s NFS team finally succeeded in their endeavour after a week, risking their lives to prevent disruptions to the network, key for the Indian Army’s communication push in the region. It took Dar and his team another week to make the network permanent and realign the route to the other side of the river Indus. Thus routes were diverted and further disruptions to the communication network were prevented. “We ensure that we are continuously transforming billions of lives through digital transformation, especially for the Indian Army,” Dar added. The STL team was motivated as their network kept soldiers connected with their families and the command center. It was not only an act of serving the nation but a humanitarian gesture to help India’s savoiurs be in constant touch with their families, loved ones, and superiors. Today, the Indian Army contingent located in Ladakh is able to communicate seamlessly with their families and supervisors at any time of the day, thanks to the STL NFS team that went beyond its call of duty to fix the network that at one point seemed beyond their control. “Whenever there is an outrage in the network, we think of these soldiers,” Dar said. “We try to cross the hurdles on our way, even though these are sometimes beyond our control,” he added.