Urgency to Address Critical State of Bridges Leading to LAC with China

The commendable growth in road-infrastructure is well known. It enables reduction in transportation costs and enhances economic growth.

Urgency to Address Critical State of Bridges Leading to LAC with China
Urgency to Address Critical State of Bridges Leading to LAC with China

NEW DELHI- The commendable growth in road-infrastructure is well known.  It enables reduction in transportation costs and enhances economic growth.  Closer to the borders it boosts military logistics and adds to national security. But when a National Highway (NH)  is utilised to 25% capacity because of a single bridge in distress in vunerable border areas exactly the reverse happens.  The huge investment is under-utilised leading to recurring economic losses each day.

Military logistics is affected making us more vulnerable along our borders.  It is a fact that this is happening because of a lack of capability to respond to distressed bridges adequately. New Technology allows it to be rectified in days.  We need to understand and accept the problem first.  The solution is then just round the corner and available at a minuscule fraction of the cost of what we are losing. Let me put the problem in perspective and how we can resolve it before the next monsoons, when the incidence of distressed bridges increase and the losses to the nation mount exponentially each year, in addition to adding to the woes of the soldiers on the front line.

Economic Impact of Bridges in Distress on a National Highway (NH)

 There are numerous examples of National Highways  being underutilised because of a single bridge in distress on the highway for long periods.  These are bridges that were in distress and replaced by narrow Bailey bridges which though a quick fix, have reduced the capacity of the highway to 25 %; the bridges now are single lane, allow crossing of one vehicle at a time with loads limited to two axle, six wheel trucks which carry barely 8-9 tons.  Compare this to the NH design capacity of Double Lane, Class A loads which can allow for heavier 14 and 16 wheel trucks, and you know the NH is grossly underutilised causing heavy economic loss.

To understand how huge the economic impact is let us take the example of NH 37 from Silchar to Imphal, one of the life-lines of the state of Manipur which carries 20 t0 30% of their traffic.  Because of the weak bridge in Irang, the capacity of the entire NH 37 is affected. The order of the losses thereof, is close to 1000 Cr per annum. Similar situation on other National highways near the LAC.

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Impact on Military Logistics

Military logistics can be a battle winning factor.  Russia-Ukraine war  has demonstrated its importance once again.  To quote from a recent article I read where this was explained in the Indian context for the lay man to understand,  “better connectivity reduces travel time and increases loads that can be carried on any road or ‘axis’ as the army would like to call some of these roads.

It means faster logistics build up at a lesser cost. Along with quicker force build-up, is the ability to take larger equipment further ahead. If it is a heavier gun, the fire-power reach is enhanced. If it is better monitoring equipment like radars and sensors, the surveillance cover is enhanced. Repair facilities also move up, reducing down- time of machines. With better roads, barrack-accommodation can be closer to the front line, enhancing the efficiency of troops and their morale.  Reduced  turn-around for supplies to logistics areas is also a great advantage. The stocking levels can then be pruned, confident of a reliable line of replenishment. Food remains fresher, stores are more readily available. Add this to better accommodation and other ancillaries and you have the man behind the machine more efficient and operating a better-maintained machine.”

So what happens if this logistic chain is hampered by a weak bridge.  The investment on good roads again comes to naught and the logistic flexibility of military commanders is lost.  Logistics is no more the battle winning factor which it should be. This is again because our capability to bridge in difficult conditions or in quick response to an emergency in hilly terrain, is restricted by the World War II vintage Bailey Bridge.  

Of what use is a wider road, with a weak single-lane bridge?  Progressively the number of such sub-optimal bridges on two-lane roads and highways have increased.  There are over 400 such bridges between our logistic areas and the troops on the Northern border in high altitude terrain and sub-zero temperatures far more challenging than Ukraine or any battle field in the world.  That these troops still deliver with a high morale speaks well of them, and very poorly of our Infrastructure Industry.  It is a capability gap we need to address with better modular bridges.

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The Way Forward

In India the response to bridges in distress has been with Bailey Bridges, a modular steel panel bridge (MSPB),  which proved its worth in World War II as one of the three innovations that helped the allied victory, along with the Radar and the Heavy Bombers.  This first generation MSPB has a  limited load capacity and so is today at best a temporary bridge which become a bottle-neck where ever used. They have a life of only 25 years and are unsafe with trucks having higher axle loads.  The rest of the world graduated to 2nd Generation MSPBs in 1970s and today use 3rd Generation Modular Bridges.  These can span upto 65m, take two lane traffic and have a life of a 100 years.  They serve both as permanent bridges and as temporary detours in an emergency. 

To upgrade a highway, a Bailey Bridge can be replaced within a week using these 3rd Generation Bridges, as these bridges also come in similar modules of 3m.  They have all the advantages of speed and flexibility of the Bailey Bridge and yet meet Indian Road Congress Norms for permanent bridges.  

One such 60m double lane permanent bridge in 2016 was laid at Sonprayag in Uttarakhand, a big success. It is time such 3rd Generation bridges were introduced in larger numbers.  At a small cost the value obtained will be far higher, the results immediate.

For quick response these 3rd Generation Modular Bridges must be stocked close to where they are required so that in an emergency they are available at site within a day or two.  Stocking has to follow the model practised for  Bailey Bridges presently by the Army/BRO suitably modified for MORTH and better bridges.  This needs imaginative policy, introduced speedily.  

It will benefit the Road Infrastructure in general and also support Military Logistics.  A combined approach towards positioning and stocking between the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH )  and the Army/BRO will save time and effort.  

This is today a realistic possibility considering the Secretary Defence has moved from MORTH and understands both the Economics and the Military Logistics implications due to this critical gap in our national capability for emergency response to distressed bridges.

To make a start before the next monsoons by creating reserve stocks of better MSPBs is a challenge that can pay huge dividends to the economy in the region and greatly enhance our military capability.  Can we do it?  Yes we can, and we need to do it immediately.

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