The U.S. and Indian Armies Get Friendly
Training exercise highlights growing cooperation
This is part one of a two-part series. Read part two.
Gunfire rang out violently. Indian and American troops stormed a compound in Leschi Town, a mock city soldiers use for urban combat training at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. The soldiers hauled ladders to scale the walls while a machine-gun team laid down suppressing fire from a nearby ridge.
The soldiers hurriedly scurried over the wall shouting instructions at each other. The American and Indian troops occasionally struggled to understand each others’ accents — and vocabularies. The Indian troops’ English had different words for tactics and formations.
But the soldiers ultimately figured out how to communicate fairly quickly — often through gestures — as they worked together to take the facility. Mixed teams worked together to breach doorways and clear out buildings.
It’s part of Exercise Yudh Abhyas 2015, the 11th iteration of an annual exercise between the U.S. and Indian militaries. The two militaries trained together for two weeks in September while also breaking for social functions like going to the beach and tailgating at a Mariners game.
India and the United States have been seeking closer ties in the 21st century, and this exercise is just one part of that effort. As the U.S. broadens its engagement in the Pacific and continues operations in Central Asia, military relations between Washington and New Delhi are growing.
“Both the armies have very common concerns, we have very similar interests, and we have similar kinds of challenges to face,” said Indian Army Lt. Col. J.S. Ulshai, an officer with the Kumaon Regiment. “We know that the U.S. has got its interests in the Pacific and the areas around the Indian Ocean, so it is important because in their future the U.S. is going to work with India in a broader perspective.”
“They want what we want,” said political scientist Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow and India expert at the Brookings Institution. However, he told War Is Boring that while Washington and New Delhi are seeking closer ties and have cooperated in the past, it’s a stretch to call them allies. “There’s no formal [military] agreement between the two.”
Lt. Col. Teddy Kleisner, the commander of the 1-2 Stryker Brigade’s 23rd Infantry Regiment, said that though this exercise is mostly tactical rather than strategic, any interaction between between the United States and India is obviously important.
“On our end we’re keenly aware that our two countries are having conversations,” Kleisner explained. “What we’re doing here is making good on that dialogue.”
During the early 1960s, the U.S. government made support for newly independent India a priority. Pres. John F. Kennedy mobilized American aid in support of India during the Sino-Indian War in 1962 as Indian troops fought against Communist China in the mountains.
After the JFK assassination, shifting attention to Vietnam led to a lack of interest on the part of most U.S. policymakers toward India. This in part lead to New Delhi seeking closer ties with the Soviet Union. By 1971, Pres. Richard Nixon openly supported Pakistan during the Indo-Pakistani War.
But the end of the Cold War and increasing globalization have led India to build strong trade relations with both the United States and China.
In recent years, U.S. Pres. Barack Obama has put renewed military focus on Asia as part of the “Pacific Pivot.” The U.S. has strengthened ties with Cold War allies Japan and the Philippines — and even former enemies such as Vietnam — many of whom are suspicious of China’s growing military strength and increasingly bold moves in the South Pacific.
JBLM is home to the U.S. Army’s I Corps, which oversees Army units based on the American West Coast, most of which operate in Asia and the Pacific. While Indian troops trained at JBLM, I Corps also hosted Japanese troops just across the Cascade Mountains as they trained at the Yakima Training Center.
India, in many ways, shares concerns about its large and powerful neighbor. Lately, trade relations between the two giants have heavily favored China. There have also been continued tension along the border. In September 2014, Indian authorities accused the Chinese military of crossing the border into India’s Chumar sector.
“India is a major regional power, at present, in Asia with a long standing border dispute with China with no foreseeable solution,” said Gopalan Balachandran, a researcher at India’s Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses. “It is a border dispute over which the two countries had gone to war, of a sort, in the past and where Chinese actions in recent past have raised tensions between the two countries.”
“Many of the East and South East Asian countries have felt, and expressed in many open fora, that India should play a more active role in future Asian security architecture,” Balachandran added.
Cohen said that New Delhi is definitely wary of Beijing’s growing military strength and the security along the two nations’ borders. But he added that preparing for natural disasters, “broken down governments,” and quelling insurgencies are in many ways more pressing in the eyes of many Indian officials than fear of potential Chinese expansionism, which Cohen called a “hypothetical threat.”
Tragedies such as the massive 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the destructive earthquake in nearby Nepal have made New Delhi concerned about disaster readiness. In the immediate aftermath of such huge cataclysms, the military’s logistical capabilities are often needed to deliver aid and conduct search and rescue operations.
Cohen explained that the U.S. military is an attractive partner for India. In particular the U.S. Navy has ability to rapidly respond and work with Indian forces after disasters. Training together in advance and learning how to work together will make it easier to respond jointly in the event of another calamity.
Floods and earthquakes have been particularly destructive in recent years. Both India and its neighbors have growing populations and economies, but in some ways have struggled to build the infrastructure to support both. Maintaining order is a major concern for New Delhi.
Natural disasters aren’t the only threat to that stability.
Failed states and insurgencies
The Indian Army is one of the largest military contributors to United Nations peacekeeping missions, sending thousands of soldiers on missions around the world. They’ve operated in the midst of some of the most dangerous and politically complicated conflict zones today.
Ulshai, a veteran of the U.N. mission in the Congo, explained that for peacekeepers the role is to protect civilians while using what he called “minimum force.” It’s a challenging balancing act in which soldiers act as armed diplomats trying to diffuse conflicts before they turn violent, and do their best to protect innocent people if they do.
The United States is the largest financial backer of U.N. peacekeeping operations, but is hesitant to send its own troops on blue helmeted missions. Western countries have instead relied on troops from developing countries — mostly in Africa and Asia. For rising powers such as India, Brazil and China, peacekeeping missions are an opportunity to look assertive on the international stage.
“[The Indian army] is a huge army and they like to go oversees,” Cohen said. Cohen explained that there’s financial incentives for the Indian Army to take part in the missions. But Cohen said he thinks the Indians have a sense of pride in being part of international efforts to end conflicts.
Lately, the mission in South Sudan has proven to be a particularly challenging mission. When a coup attempt sparked a bloody civil war, peacekeepers became responsible for protecting thousands of civilians seeking shelter in their bases. Indian troops are among those protecting U.N. compounds as dangerous militias roam the countryside.
Early in the conflict, as wounded civilians flooded into the bases, some Indian troops donated their own blood for military doctors to use on patients. Two Indian troops died protecting the sites in December 2013 and several others have been wounded in intermittent attacks.
Even as Indian troops patrol roads and watch over civilians in civil wars abroad, the Indian military and police have seen their fair share of violence at home. “They’re dealing with insurgencies that have been going on for 40 years,” Cohen said.
Capt. Shawn Scott, an American company commander who participated in Yudh Abhyas 2015, said that learning about the Indians’ experience with counterinsurgency was particularly eye-opening for him.
The American and Indian officers swapped war stories. Scott and his fellow officers told the Indians about their experiences in Iraq transitioning from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn while overseeing the elections.
“The counterinsurgency we faced in Iraq and in Afghanistan is not the same kind of insurgency they face,” Scott explained.
India has struggled with several insurgencies. From battling Islamists in Kashmir, the Maoist Naxalites, Naga ethnic nationalists and others, Indian security forces have had their hands full. Weak governments in neighboring countries often allow for smuggling networks to move weapons, funds and fighters in and out of the country.
In June 2015, Indian sent elite troops into neighboring Myanmar to strike at a joint base of Naga and Manipuri rebels, killing between 30-50 rebels. The attack was in retaliation for a convoy ambush in Manipur state that killed 20 Indian soldiers and injured 15.
Outside of peacekeeping missions, it’s incredibly rare for Indian troops to venture into other countries. But concerns with terrorism and fragile states along its borders seems to be making India more focused on regional security.
India has also provided training and assistance to neighboring countries in fighting their own insurgencies. For instance Cohen explained that India has begun training security forces from neighboring Afghanistan for law enforcement and counter-terror operations. “Pakistan isn’t very happy about that,” Cohen added.
Relations with Islamabad have long been a challenge for both Washington and New Delhi.
The Pakistan problem
“Neither country knows what to do about Pakistan,” Cohen said.
The British Empire ruled over both countries until 1947 as British India. When both attained independence, there was a race for remnants of the British Indian Army’s equipment and a bloody battle for the mostly Muslim region of Kashmir.
The two counties fought bloody wars and engaged in a nuclear arms race — resulting in both counties becoming nuclear powers. Though relations have improved and there is a degree of economic cooperation, both nations remain sullenly suspicious of each other. U.N. military observers still watch over Kashmir to maintain the fragile ceasefire and report any violations from either side.
Today, Pakistan and India continue to compete for influence in neighboring countries — including Afghanistan. India was a key backer of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and Indian intelligence aided coalition troops as they fought to overthrow the Taliban after 9/11. Since then India has become an important trading partner and source of aid for the struggling nation.
The United States maintains a robust military presence and continues counter-terror operations in Afghanistan — despite the official end of combat operations in 2014. “Both India and U.S. would like to see a politically stable, democratic and inclusive society/government in Afghanistan,” Balachandran explained. “While U.S. is a far more active partner with Afghan government/society in both economic and military spheres, India has limited options because of connectivity issues primarily because of Pakistan’s refusal to allow any such connectivity.”
The U.S. still officially considers Pakistan an ally — providing advisers and military aid. But relations between Washington and Islamabad have been complicated. American drones have flown over Pakistan for years striking at suspected terrorists in a controversial campaign. And in August 2015, U.S. officials threatened to slash aid for counter-terror operations after Pakistan based militants wreaked havoc in Afghanistan.
A particular low point in U.S.-Pakistani relations was after SEAL Team 6 killed Osama Bin Laden in his Abbotobad compound — just a few miles from Pakistan’s military academy. Despite the deaths of thousands of Pakistani troops fighting against Taliban insurgents and Al Qaeda cells, some officials have questioned how serious Islamabad really is about defeating the Islamist movement.
Members of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service are believed to have aided in the formation of the Taliban, and have often been accused of training and arming terror groups to fight as proxies throughout South and Central Asia.
“While both India and the U.S. share many common concerns about Pakistan, there is unfortunately, at this moment, not much common ground on how to deal with the shared concerns,” Balachandran explained.
Afghan officials have accused the ISI of manipulating events in Afghanistan and engineering terror attacks. Likewise, Indian officials accused Pakistani spies of supplying insurgents in Kashmir and Jammu, and of having a hand in the bloody Mumbai attacks of 2008.
Since the Mumbai attacks, counter-terror operations and training have become a major focus for Indian troops and police. Ulshai cited America’s war on terrorism as a major reason for the two armies to seek closer ties.
During the exercise, Ulshai was particularly impressed with the resources the U.S. troops had at their disposal. “They have the best possible means of carrying out any kinds of operations,” he said. The Indians got to work with American Strykers in action and train on a handful of weapon systems.
India is trying to rapidly upgrade its military capabilities and is currently one of the world’s largest weapons buyers.
“India’s domestic indigenous capabilities, while quite strong by standards of developing countries, is still weak in relation to its primary military security concern, namely China,” Balachandran explained. “India has to source advanced technology from elsewhere to make up for its current weakness in defense resources and R&D capabilities.”
For much of the Cold War and even into the 21st century, New Delhi turned to Moscow for weapons. But in recent years, Indian officials have become increasingly dissatisfied with Russian arms deals. From cost overruns on the Russian-built aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya to frequent problems with Russian fighters, India is testing the waters elsewhere for weapons.
Some elite units have fielded Israeli Tavor assault rifles as an alternative to their unpopular Insas rifles, and officials have mulled over purchasing French jets. India military recently explored the possibility of purchasing U.S. Javelin anti-tank missiles, but opted instead for the Israeli Spike for $525 million. Nevertheless, American war tech is still enticing to Indian military officials.
“The U.S. is undoubtedly the strongest nation in terms of available advanced technologies,” Balachandran said. “For a variety of reasons, in the past, India-U.S. relations in matters of high technology transfers, especially military, had been weak or non-existent.”
“There’s skepticism on the American side about how far that should go,” Cohen explained. He said that there’s concerns that U.S. military technology could leak or otherwise fall into the hands of Russia or China if India got them. Though relations have warmed, many American policymakers still view India with suspicion.
Despite some residual suspicion, U.S.-India military ties are likely to continue to grow and mature as the two nations continue to encounter common challenges, and India continues to develop.
“With no outstanding political differences and with a growing economy India presents opportunities for U.S. business interests both military and non-military,” Balachandran added. “Hence there is a move towards improving U.S.-India military ties especially in military supplies and technology.”
Balachandran added that increasing communication and training between soldiers is an important part of advancing that relationship.
As the Americans and Indians finish clearing the compound in Leschi Town a, Stryker rolled in to collect the “wounded.” American and Indian troops worked together to haul them out on stretchers. Soldiers began to laugh and joke with each other as the scenario wound down.
Then a torrential rain fell from the sky, which drenched Indian and American troops alike. Shared hardship is one of the fastest ways for soldiers to bond.