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Leading the way - Exercise Yudh Abhyas

Colonel Arvind Dutta was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • October 29, 2009

    India's relationship with the United States has been a subject of debate and discussion. Both nations despite being large and stable democracies have had a contentious relationship demonstrating that shared value systems has not always been an insurance for building friendly relations. However, post 9/11, there has been a distinct transformation in India’s importance to the US strategic calculus. The inking of the 10 year ‘The New Framework of US-India Defence Relationship’ (NFDR) in Jun 2005, has led to defence cooperation becoming one of the most prominent features of US-India relations. Cooperation between India and the US in the fields of defence and security is one of the key pillars of bilateral ties identified by the Obama administration. This was amply reinforced during US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to India in July 2009.

    The ongoing Indo US army to army cooperation activities involve a multitude of initiatives such as joint exercises, professional courses, seminars, visits, exchanges, expert exchanges and observer programmes. Under India’s Ministry of Defence and the United States’ Office of Secretary of the Defense led Defence Policy Group guidelines, a number of army to army cooperation events, including joint exercises, are ratified for conduct in the annual Army Executive Steering Group meetings. Based on this agreement, significant command and field training exercises have been conducted bilaterally. The Indo US army to army activities started from a lower level of cooperation with subject matter engagements, to tactical level exercises at the sub unit levels. These have gradually grown in scope and complexity with each passing year. 2008 was indeed a watershed when both sides conducted a brigade level command post exercise in Hawaii, as a prelude to fielding a unit level strength (approximately 1,000 military personnel from the Indian and US Army) for exercises in Yudh Abhyas 09 – a field training exercise, currently under progress at Babina from October 12-29. While a Mechanised Infantry Battalion or ex 31 Armoured Division is participating in this exercise from the Indian Army. The US Army is fielding the 2nd Squadron 14 CAV of 25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team.

    Though India has been conducting a number of joint exercises with other nations, the sustained periodicity, enhancement in the quality, content and the level of joint exercises being undertaken with the Americans, require that Indo-US defence cooperation be granted a special status and importance. The continuation of bilateral joint exercises is also indicative of the mutual intent to learn from each other and work towards developing interoperability. Such events also facilitate sharing lessons learnt, experience gained, building trust and imbibing best practices of both sides. US experience and responses in the sub conventional arena in Iraq and Afghanistan have immense value to India for capacity building to meet future threats and challenges. The Yudh Abhyas series of exercises are being undertaken by the Indian Army with the US Army Pacific Command (US ARPAC) – a primary feeder of trained troops to US CENTCOM – the combatant command currently responsible for ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Special importance of such training activities for the US outfits, which subsequently get operationally deployed, needs no underscoring.

    Reportedly, the scope of the current exercise, set against the backdrop of sub conventional warfare, involves drills and procedures to be followed for the development of a cogent intelligence picture to locate and neutralize terrorists through a variety of offensive actions and engagements. Modalities of drills followed are such that both sides learn from each others tactics, techniques and procedures. Cross training and familiarization with weapons fielded in the exercise, military coordination, Military decision Making Process (MDMP) and Rules of engagement (ROE) during 'Peacekeeping Operations', Cordon and Search; Search and Rescue, Mine/Counter IED Operations, road opening, convoy protection and humanitarian assistance under 'Civil-Military Operations' and equipment issues under 'Logistics Support Operations' are some of the other facets of this exercise.

    Additionally, the exercise accounts for Indian sensitivities that it be geared towards participation in ‘UN mandated” operations. It may be recalled that a clause built in the NFDR states that both nations could ‘collaborate in multinational operations when it is in their common interest’, without mention of need for a United Nations directive. This had raised apprehensions in some sections of the strategic community about India’s willingness to participate in US-led military operations. Actualization of this exercise would also allay anxieties of those who feel concerned about India’s intention to seriously pursue defence cooperation with the Americans. A recently planned joint amphibious exercise was cancelled due to certain procedural issues.
    Other than the level of troop participation, the overseas deployment of 17 Stryker vehicles -- the largest deployment of such vehicles outside of Iraq and Afghanistan for the US Army for this exercise is another important landmark. The Strykers were shipped from Hawaii, the headquarters of the US Pacific Command, to Mumbai and then taken by road to the exercise location in Babina near Jhansi. ‘Stryker’, which has a number of variants, is a versatile vehicle which provides a high mobility platform for full spectrum operations. Its infantry-carrying version is capable of carrying a squad/section (10 persons) worth troops and has facilities affording good area observation to its occupant even while on the move. The infantry fighting vehicle also ensures that the troops following disembarkation are not disoriented. This vehicle can also be used as a medical ambulance and a mobile command post. The ‘Stryker Concept’, evolved from the transformation of the US Army, has provided a quick response capability to the US Army to meet their global expeditionary requirements. It can operate in a networked environment and has a high degree of survivability against anti tank weapons and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). These vehicles have especially proven effective while undertaking MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain). India can gain significantly from the practical applications of such US force transformation initiatives.

    While the principal aim of the US inducting Stryker vehicles and other high technology equipment for this exercise such as anti tank ‘fire and forget’ javelin missile and Raven mini UAV, may have been to bring greater pragmatism and realism in training. However, there could also be a ‘commercial’ motive for showcasing their capabilities to India. With a high degree of ‘ability to operate alongside’ US army components over the last five years or so, the stage may be set for India to actively consider procurement of arms and equipment from the US. However, the acid test lies in the degree of willingness of US authorities to transfer technology as well. Notwithstanding the openly articulated ‘training’ objective of this exercise by both, it showcases achievable goals in Indo-US collaboration, such as when it is their common interests to cooperate.

    There may be a desirability to conduct similar exercises overseas such as on US territory in the future, on a reciprocal basis, to validate our own capabilities. However, the logistic constraints related with transportation of heavy armament over such long distances may play a spoiler for India. After consolidating the lessons learnt from this exercise, a suitable way ahead, contributing towards achievement of overall national objectives, needs to be evolved in consultation with policy makers. This will help optimize gains. Clarity also needs to be brought into our policies about the actual end state desired from such exercises so that there is no perceptional gap between war gaming and the contingencies for combined operations.

    The recent emphasis, on austerity measures for foreign travel and a general directive not to have more than one overseas exercise it is important that engagement plans are in sync with the strategic importance of a country. A knee jerk reaction on imposing curbs may lead to a loss in the strenuously developed India-US military engagement. In this context the pending Indo–US ‘Mutual Logistic Support Agreement’ needs to be considered actively to cut costs, wherever feasible. Last but not the least, the government needs to ensured that the army to army cooperation events being planned in the future continue to create opportunities for both the Indian and US militaries to work together and build upon past success.