Interview: E in C
Sub Title : The Corps of Engineers has wide ranging responsibilities
Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 6 Jan – Feb 2022
Author : Editoral Team
Page No. : 43
Category : Military Affairs
: January 21, 2022
LT GEN HARPAL SINGH, PVSM, AVSM, VSM, ADC, E in C
The Corps of Engineers has wide-ranging responsibilities both during peace and war. In this interview, the E in C gives lucid replies on a series of issues covering the entire canvas of onerous tasks that the Corps is engaged in from infrastructure development to developing capability for future military operations
Defstrat. ‘Corps of Engineers’ is a Corps which has a huge role both during war and peace. It is continuously at work to improve upon communications, living conditions and operational efficiency of troops. It has a huge role to play in disaster management, owing to its integral resources and training. Yet the Corps must remain combat ready at all times. How does the Corps manage the various requirements and remain ready to carry out and support all operational tasks?
E in C. The Corps of Engineers comprises four pillars which are Combat Engineers, Military Engineering Service(MES), Border Roads Organisation (BRO) and the Military Survey. Each of these pillars contributes towards increasing the operational efficiency of our troops and I would like to briefly touch upon how each helps towards achieving this in its own way.
♦Combat Engineers. As regards war fighting capability, we are almost 10% of the Indian Army, fully trained and geared to provide intimate engineer support in all terrains, from high altitude areas to mountains to deserts and in all types of operations and all phases of operations. Our expertise lies not only on land, but also on water as we operate inland water transport operating companies to augment the Navy wherever required.
♦MES is the single largest construction agency in the country. It has the technical expertise and knowledge to undertake sophisticated construction projects. It undertakes comprehensive planning and construction of military cantonments including provision of utility services. They can boast of having constructed the best civil engineering infrastructure even in remote areas under harsh climatic conditions. The MES today has the capability to take on hospital planning, urban development, docks and harbours as well as airport engineering.
♦BRO continues to make major contributions in bringing remote border areas into the mainstream of the Nation. It can right-fully be proud of the fact that it has not only constructed the highest road in the world, but also holds the world record for constructing the longest tunnel in the world above 10,000 feet. It has also undertaken construction of roads in friendly neighbouring countries of Myanmar, Bhutan and Afghanistan.
♦ Military Survey is the fourth pillar of the Corps and undertakes most extensive survey work anywhere in the world, covering the entire border region on both sides of the International Border/ Line of Control and Line of Actual Control, in extremely difficult terrain. They have grown in stature and have adopted latest technology in the science of map making.
Thus, each pillar of the Corps is well trained and equipped for its specific role and remains ready to carry out and support all operations in its own field. As far as disaster management is concerned, its nature may transcend across all the four pillars depending upon the type of disaster and one or all four may be employed for rapid response. For instance, the world has seen an unprecedented crisis in terms of COVID-19 pandemic. Starting from the first wave, both Combat Engineers and MES played a key role in creating and modifying existing assets into COVID care facilities across the country in a stipulated timeframe.
We established Molecular Labs, Oxygen Generation Plants, Vaccination Centers, Decontamination Teams, and ensured essential back-up power supply to all COVID wards for continuous operation of life saving equipment. Similarly, very recently a strike was called by the J&K Electricity Department employees to protest against removal of Article 370 and other issues on 19 Dec 2021. Multiple teams ex Combat Engineers alongwith MES establishments were deployed at main power station stations in various districts of the State and critical tasks to include restoration of electric supply, complaints rectification, line inspection and coordination with Power District Corporation, JK Police and Civil Administration were undertaken. The Centre and State Administrations develop faith in our abilities seeing these examples and more often than not, we are the first responders whenever such a crisis threatens the country.
Defstrat. There has been a sudden yet massive call for improving upon infrastructure in India’s border areas in the recent years. The terrain is rather difficult in the North and the North East. There are of course news reports of a number of roads and alternate axis of maintenance coming up to serve remote operational areas. There are a number of questions in the minds of common people and the media. Some of them are enumerated below. You may respond to them without prejudice to Operational confidentiality, if any :-
♦What are the obstacles and difficulties faced in these remote areas?
♦What is the overall plan in India’s North and NE Operational areas?
♦Will there be a lateral connecting India’s Northern and Eastern commands?
♦Is the construction keeping pace with the Rail and Air connectivity?
♦ How do you see the overall communications network a decade from now?
♦ Contribution of improved communications to the national cause.
E in C. Infrastructure development along our Northern Borders has indeed been given due impetus in the recent years and my present tenure and the earlier tenure as DGBR have been focussed on this. As you have rightly pointed out, these areas are characterised by the most difficult and harsh terrain coupled with extreme climate and limited availability of time due to harsh weather conditions. The first step towards development of infrastructure is to improve forward connectivity, which is being done on a war footing both by the Border Roads and Combat Engineers. The Border Roads have constructed more than 60,000 km of roads, 693 major permanent bridges – totaling a length of 53,000 m, 19 Airfields and four tunnels running a total distance of approximately 19 km to include the Atal Tunnel which holds the world record for being the longest tunnel in the world above 10,000 feet. Combat Engineers are further strengthening this effort by constructing operational tracks so as to provide road connectivity to battalions and company defended localities as also through construction of advance landing grounds and helipads. We aim toward not only reducing the road head differential with our adversaries but also develop inter sector connectivity in conjunction with rail and air heads. These projects will certainly fructify to a large extent in a decade from now and besides paying strategic dividends, contribute towards raising the overall economy of the remotest locations along our northern borders.
Defstrat. Living conditions in operational areas are equally important, especially as Indian terrain conditions are hostile and in extremes, be it the deserts or the Himalayan Mountain ranges and the geographical features in between. Will you like to tell us about some of the new initiatives to make living more comfortable and importantly environment friendly?
E in C. The Sappers are in the process of constructing some modern state of the art infrastructure in order to improve living conditions of our troops deployed in extreme climates and harsh terrain. As you are aware, the operational situation that unfolded in Ladakh last year necessitated deployment of additional forces at short notice. Combat Engineers rose to the occasion and created necessary infrastructure for the troops and their equipment. In addition to Combat Engineers, MES carries out multifarious construction activities ranging from residential (G+26, G+33, G+42 and G+65) and office buildings to hospitals, roads and operational and strategic structures like runways, marine structure like docks, jetties and harbours across the length and breadth of the country. Both the Combat Engineers and MES have adopted environment friendly technologies such as solar, wind and hybrid power projects in keeping with the national priorities. For instance, MES has been in the forefront in ensuring overall fiscal prudence and reducing electricity tariff. In order to achieve this, 65% of LED-isation of all MES assets has already been completed and we shall achieve 100% shortly. This will accrue an annual saving of 250 crore from defence forces electricity tariff budget. We are now on the path to transform our Military Stations to ‘Smart Armed Forces Stations’, which besides being energy efficient will generate surplus power through 150 Mega Watt SPV (Solar Photo Voltaic) projects and give an annual saving of 70-80 crore. Similarly, the Combat Engineers have partnered with Sonum Wangchuk in Ladakh to construct some naturally insulated Ladakhi shelters that are made of locally available construction material and maintain a room temperature in the range of
15-20o C, with outside temperature well below freezing point, without the use of any heating apparatus. Thus, we are at the forefront in adopting latest technologies that not only make living more comfortable but also environment friendly.
Defstrat. Is the MES managing to keep pace with the changing culture in terms of modern living facilities, maintenance and of course corporate work culture which essentially implies more productivity with less officialise and avoidable processes and procedures?
E in C. The MES is undergoing transformation in big way through the ushering in of technology both in its planning and execution of works as well in its office procedures. This is manifesting into improved construction and maintenance of assets leading to higher satisfaction levels. Revision of policies and web based monitoring systems are resulting in enhanced productivity and greater transparency.
Defstrat. BRO is widely hailed for its tremendous performance and contribution to the Armed Forces and the Nation. Yet is also called an expensive service provider. Your views on the dichotomy please.
E in C. It would be incorrect to draw a parallel between BRO and other construction agencies/services providers. The working conditions and locations where BRO is deployed are entirely different from that of any other construction agency. We cannot compare and draw equitable parameters between a frontline mountainous high altitude location with a location in the hinterland. Specialist high end construction equipment with excessively high wastage rates is required due to the vagaries of terrain and weather in the areas where BRO is deployed. This requires frequent infusion of equipment, which is costly. Additionally with the impetus now being provided to connectivity in the forward and far flung areas, there is a requirement of enhanced capacity building in terms of induction of new technology and equipment. Construction and maintenance of national level projects like the highest motorable road and Atal Tunnel besides other important projects by the BRO itself speaks volumes of its capabilities.
Defstrat. Is the Corps of Engineers managing to modernise equipment and concepts in tune with requirements of modern day warfare? For example, technology is pushing us towards swift and sharp operations calling for rapid grouping and regrouping Mobility may imply mobile support rather than heavy duty bridges in bridgeheads, which may not be tactically viable, Engineer support elements may have to be integral to mechanised columns in some cases. Your views please.
E in C. Corps of Engineers is in the forefront in modernising its equipment and fine-tuning conceptual framework to address future challenges. We have achieved ‘Self Sufficiency’ in bridging systems though indigenous ‘Design & Development’. The Short Span Bridging Systems, which hitherto fore, were being launched manually with huge manpower, have now been replaced with HMV based mechanically launched bridges with desired mobility and can be launched within tactically acceptable timeframes. The induction of such bridging as well as mine warfare equipment to include new family of mines, mechanical mine layers, breaching equipment will enable Engineer Support Elements to be integral to mechanised columns because of quick grouping and re-grouping as per specific tasks. With respect to mountains and high altitude areas, we have been able to procure large amount of equipment through the Emergency Procurement route recently, to address some of the critical voids. This includes sophisticated plants for quick execution of operational infrastructure along Northern Borders, boats for patrolling at Pangong Tso, water supply equipment to cater for high heads apart from ECM Jammers against RCIEDs during convoy movements, avalanche rescue equipment and mobile cranes etc. We are also in the process of finalising futuristic bridging and mine warfare equipment as per our perspective plan.
DEFSTRAT. Your vision of Corps of Engineers of the 21st Century?
E in C. To be the foremost engineer force of soldiers and civilians dedicated to the Armed Force’s engineering needs both in peace and war. The Corps of Engineers will always be:-
♦Professionally trained, optimally equipped and structured to be ready for all eventualities and contingencies,
♦A vital combat support arm of the Army across the entire spectrum of conflict,
♦Technically proficient, premier engineering force for Works Services, Border Roads Organisation and Military Survey,
♦First responders in times of disasters and in providing Aid to Civil Authorities,
♦Repository of core competence in Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Warfare, Geospatial Information System, Camouflage, Concealment & Deception and Disaster Management.