Indian and U.S. Troops Train for War
The exercise went pretty well, minus a few cultural mishaps
This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one.
Indian troops peppered U.S. Army Sgt. Miguel Andrade with questions. Pvt. Harendra Singh wanted to know what Americans do when they’re trying to cross open terrain under fire.
Both soldiers have previously deployed overseas — Andrade to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan and Singh as a peacekeeper in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
As they struggled to find the words to explain each other’s tactics, they realized that both Indian and U.S. troops would react the same, by “leapfrogging” their fire with and moving in buddy teams. “A lot of what we do is similar,” Andrade said. “It’s just trying to figure out those little differences.”
Hand gestures and body language helped them communicate. Though most of the Indians spoke English, it was often heavily accented and sometimes laced with British expressions the Americans didn’t recognize right away.
The soldiers were taking part in Exercise Yudh Abhyas — which translates literally to “training for war” in Hindi — an annual joint-training event for the U.S. and Indian armies. In September, about 150 Indian troops trained for two weeks at Joint Base-Lewis McChord in Washington state.
The exercise paired up members of the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division’s 1st Stryker Brigade with the Indian Army’s Kumaon Regiment. It was the first time the exercise had taken place at JBLM, an installation oriented to deploy troops to the Pacific and Asia.
India has one of the world’s strongest economies and is the world’s largest democracy. It also has one of the largest militaries. The United States and India have no formal alliance, but shared concerns about China’s military buildup and unstable states in South and Central Asia have been bringing both countries closer together.
An important part of the exercise was having soldiers learn about India and America’s different military cultures. U.S. Army Capt. Shawn Scott said the Americans took the Indian troops to the beach for a day, and took some of the Indian officers to a Seattle Mariners game. Several Indian troops also attended the final day JBLM’s 2015 Modern Combatives Tournament.
Maj. Ravi Panwar, an Indian company commander, explained that the social functions helped them bond, and made them more enthusiastic about the training. “The most important thing which I have learned from them is the bonding and the interpersonal relationship between their officers and their men,” Lt. Col. J.S Ulshai said. “That is one thing which we have to take back home.”
At one point, Andrade acted as Indian Capt. Rajev Ranyan Bharti’s platoon sergeant. The two worked together to set up a patrol base.
As Ulshai observed, he asked Andrade and other American sergeants about their tactics as the soldiers went through their operations. Treating enlisted men as experts and leaders is something out of the ordinary for officers in many countries, including India.
Lt. Col. Teddy Kleisner explained that Americans had predicted that sergeants would play a huge role in the exercise, and made a deliberate effort to highlight the role of non-commissioned officers in U.S. operations and leadership. “Our NCOs have always known empowerment,” he said.
The Indian officers were typically very stern in their interactions with subordinates. Ulshai said that the Indian military’s emphasis on discipline, etiquette and tradition is something they pride themselves on. As he spoke, rap music began blaring out of a nearby Stryker vehicle as U.S. troops blew off steam during their lunch break.
At the same time, Ulshai said he could see the tangible benefits loosening the rigid divide between officers and their soldiers, and explained that the Americans communicated very well with each other.
“There is a very good understanding between the commanders and their subordinates,” Ulshai observed. “I have seen them, they do everything together, which is very unlike in other world armies.”
Some of the Americans admitted they didn’t really know what to expect from the Indians. “Our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan was working with armies we were building from the ground up,” Kleisner said.
The Indian Army has a very different experience, but it is experienced. The Kumaon Regiment has fought in every major war India has been involved in since the 19th century — including both world wars. In the recent past, the regiment has taken part in peacekeeping missions abroad and conducted counter-insurgency operations at home. New Delhi is fighting Islamist insurgents in Kashmir and Maoist rebels in southern and eastern India.
Kleisner said that the Indian troops were competent, handled their weapons well and learned quickly. He said working with the Indians was a refreshing change of pace for many of the Americans. Their presence gave the U.S. troops a chance to learn from an army with direct experience.
In short, they swapped war stories. “The counter-insurgency we faced in Iraq and Afghanistan is not the same kind of counter-insurgency they face,” Scott said.
Scott said he was impressed by how the Indians tailored their tactics to serve their strengths and adapt to their terrain. He explained that the Kumaon Regiment is a mountain infantry unit, and they do things very differently than the mechanized American Stryker troops.
“We were actually were able to learn some techniques from them,” Scott said. One example he had in mind was in regard to how the Americans use ladders to scale walls and obstacles.
“One of the things they offered to us that we’d never considered was just using a flat plank to slide down,” Scott explained. “That’s just something we’d never really thought about, but it’s an awesome idea I don’t think any of us would have thought about if we hadn’t had this experience.”
Overall, the soldiers got along well. But Yudh Abhyas wasn’t without the occasional cultural mishap. During a lunch break it became apparent that many Meal, Ready-to-Eat packs provided for the Indian troops had beef in them. Eating cows is forbidden in Hinduism. Ulshai hauled a box of MREs to a group of American soldiers to explain the mistake.
Several American troops looked on with horror as the Indian officer approached, realizing immediately what had gone wrong. The Americans apologized profusely. Many of the Indian troops laughed it off, offering the Americans their beef MREs.
“In the future we’ll have to work with other armies more and more,” Kleisner said. “That’s basically a requirement these days.”
The U.S. Army plans to cut 40,000 troops by October 2017 — falling to 450,000. As a result, it’s more important than ever for American troops to know how to jointly operate with foreign troops if U.S. policymakers want the military to continue to operate globally. Developing relationships and trust with other armies is fundamental to making that work.
Before the exercise got underway on the morning of Sept. 17, one of the Indian soldiers gave Andrade a gift. The sergeant told his new Indian friend he’d return the favor with a gift of his own.
Andrade said that as an immigrant — he originally hails from Cape Verde — he sometimes misses his own culture and enjoys any opportunity to interact with new ones. “I actually want to visit India,” he said. “So I’m trying to find out as much as possible about it.”