May 29, 2002


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The Rediff Special/ Josy Joseph

Band of brothers
If the way the American Special Forces took to Indian Army food at Agra during their recent joint exercises is any indication, then Indo-US military relations are scaling dizzying heights.

Leaving aside their pre-packed food in the blazing summer of Agra, the small group of US Special Forces tucked into aloo-puri, chicken curry, et al, during their joint exercise with Indian paratroopers as part of the two nations' attempt towards inter-operability.

The Americans' fondness for Indian food might have stemmed from curiosity, but hidden underneath their interest in finding a rhythm with their Indian counterparts is the larger Indo-US defence relationship that is conquering virgin territories, especially after 9/11.

This camaraderie is visible in the Malacca Straits, which the Indian and US navies are jointly patrolling against terrorists and pirates.

Come September, it will be visible in Alaska, as a contingent of Indian commandos arrives in an Russian-manufactured Indian Air Force transport aircraft to conduct further joint exercises in conditions of extreme cold.

It was visible in Washington on May 20-23, when the Indo-US Defence Policy Group met after about six months and chalked out plans for future cooperation.

It will also be visible in the Indian arms and ammunitions sector, where US-manufactured weapons locating radars, unmanned aerial vehicles, etc, are scheduled to make an appearance in the immediate future, slowly nibbling at the Russian dominance over India's war machines.

On the ground, the cooperation was put to public display as detachments of the US Special Forces and Indian paratroopers carried out the biggest-ever joint land and air exercises between the two countries in the backdrop of the Taj Mahal, a few kilometres away from Agra.

The exercise, which extended from May 11-26, was primarily aimed at understanding each other's military concepts and systems, even as they looked at possible future joint operations against real enemies instead of the mock raids that were practised in Agra.

"Considering the speed with which military cooperation is progressing between India and the US, it is almost impossible to predict what is in store for the future," says a senior Army official, admitting it would not come as a complete surprise if Indo-US forces carry out joint operations against terrorism, especially in Jammu and Kashmir, in the near future.

But India's long-stated, well-guarded position of not allowing foreign militaries to operate on its soil, and its non-aligned status which it adhered to even at the height of the Cold War, may fall victim to Indo-US cooperation, say several military officials in New Delhi.

At the same time, in the emerging scenario where non-state players can pose a key threat to nations, such special forces "would play a critical role in all future military operations," point out the Indian and US officers who oversaw the Agra exercise.

At Malpura, the dropping zone of the Indian Para Training School, elements from the US Special Forces Group and India's independent para brigade carried out preliminary exercises such as testing each other's equipment, jumping off each other's planes, coordinating mutual para drops, etc.

The US Special Forces which took part in the exercises were from Fort Lewis, Washington State, and are the same group that will take part in any future joint operations with Indian forces, should such an occasion arise, said a senior Indian Army official.

US defence and military attaché in India Colonel Donald Zeider says both sides are trying to "pick up from where we left over" before the 1998 US sanctions in the wake of India's nuclear tests at Pokhran. Before the tests, a platoon of Indian paratroopers and a small US Special Forces group had practised high altitude para drops.

"Once we cross the present familiarisation process, then our forces will, at frequent intervals, engage in highly complicated mock exercises both in the US and in India," says a senior Indian Army official.

Re-enforcing this new relationship between the two nations is the decision to hold the next step of the present Exercise Balance Iroquois (02-1) in Alaska in September, where a team of Indian para commandos and Indian Air Force transport aircraft will exercise with a team from the US Special Forces Group, Brigadier Hardev Lidder, India's defence attaché in Washington, who was also present at Agra, says.

The "specific goal of the exercise is to conduct joint parachute training and mutual familiarisation with small arms," US assistant secretary of state for South Asia Christina Rocca said, during her visit to New Delhi early this month. She added that the "long-term goal is much more ambitious and is based on strategic, diplomatic and political cooperation as well as sound economic ties."

Rocca added that the Indian and US military forces are "now actively developing the capability to work together effectively."

The Agra exercise was a visible pointer in this direction. These saw Indian commandos jump off the US Air Force's MC-130 H Hercules transport aircraft using American parachutes, and American commandos jumping from Indian AN-32 and IL-76 aircraft, both of which are of Russian manufacture.

"It was a refreshing experience. Their equipment is much lighter and more advanced than ours. But, ultimately, it is in the individual to carry out a clear jump and special operations are about team work," said a young Indian Army paratrooper, after jumping off an American aircraft wearing US equipment.

The joint mission commander of the US forces in Agra, Special Forces Ranger Major Thomas Seagrist said he was impressed by the "professionalism of Indian Army and Air Force." After jumping off an AN-32 aircraft wearing an Indian parachute, he said the common factor between the Indian and American forces is their "professionalism."

"Some of our equipment are different, but the big thing is our dedication and expertise," he added. Though the exercises were routine, the aim was to provide the forces with an opportunity to "learn about each other's methods and ability and share ideas."

Colonel J P Singh, deputy commandant of the Agra-based 50 Independent Para Brigade, says some of the Indian para commandos' "practical experiences," such as operations in the difficult mountainous terrain of Kashmir, are "unique to us." At the same time, he added, the technical expertise displayed by the US special operations team was "amazing… The combination the two will produce a vibrant and effective joint operations ability."

While the commandos accustomed themselves to each other's ways and equipment, the pilots from the US and Indian Air Forces who fly the Special Forces familiarised themselves with each other's aircraft.

Lieutenant Colonel GS Buterbaught, who commanded the group representing the USAF's 353 Special Operations Wing, said this was the first time in his two-decade-old career that he flew in the cockpit of a Russian made IL-76 aircraft. Lieutenant Colonel Buterbaught is an Operation Desert Storm veteran; he had then dropped relief material for the Kurd rebels in northern Iraq.

"I have trained with several foreign air forces and the Indian Air Force is certainly among the most professional forces I have known," he said.

The exercises were a culmination of attempts to overcome several handicaps, especially those facing the US forces who flew in from the cool environs of Fort Lewis into the burning furnace of Agra.

"It took us about three days to acclimatise to Agra's temperature, but we have faced such climatic changes often," said a US special force soldier. The Americans have been cautious, drinking only mineral water and studiously avoiding unhygienic Indian food items. However, they couldn't resist the temptation of tucking into Indian Army food. As days progressed, almost every US soldier without exception was sampling Indian cuisine.

But the two sides did face a problem when it came to language -- the US troops only spoke English, while only the Indian officers knew the language.

Sergeant Baljeet Singh, a US soldier whose grandfather hailed from Punjab, proved to be the solution. Singh's knowledge of Punjabi and Hindi came in handy for his colleagues and that knowledge soon made him the most popular person in the place. A naturalised US citizen, this was Singh's first trip to India. His grandfather had migrated to Fiji early this century and then moved to the US in the quest of a better life.

Officials said Singh and other US soldiers of Indian origin would be seen more frequently in joint exercises with Indian forces. "It helps create better interoperability and easy handling of common tasks," says Brigadier Lidder.

The communication gap was specially taken care in the final stages of the exercises, when small joint teams of commandos were dropped somewhere between Agra and Gwalior, and asked to return to their base. Each group was provided with an Indian soldier who could speak English, said an Indian Army official.

While Agra was mostly symbolic, the changing contours of the Indo-US military relationship are visible at several other regions: from the Malacca Straits to Washington, where the DPG met on May 20-23 to redraw the road map for future cooperation.

The DGP had earlier met in December last year in Delhi; it was then chaired by Indian Defence Secretary Yogendra Narain and US Under Secretary of Defence for Policy Douglas Feith. The DGP had then decided to translate into action the vision put forward by US President George Bush and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee during the latter's visit to Washington in November.

The latest DPG meeting in Washington stated, "India and the United States have charted a new course in their bilateral relationship. This course reflects appreciation on both sides of the importance of the US-India relationship in building stability and security in Asia and beyond. This new course entails rapid growth in cooperation on defence and security matters. In a matter of months, the US and Indian defence establishments have translated the broad vision for the relationship into action. No fewer than a dozen separate groups have met to map out a purposeful path for the US-India defence relationship."

During the latest round of meetings in Washington, the Indian defence ministry and the Pentagon have agreed that "missile defences can enhance co-operative security and stability."

Both sides would, in the immediate future, hold a missile defence workshop in New Delhi and would also collaborate in "pursuing a missile defence requirements analysis for India." India has also accepted invitations to the June 2002 missile defence conference in Dallas, Texas, and the June 2003 Roving Sands missile defence exercise.

"Our security concepts are undergoing drastic changes. The US is a perfect ally in helping us meet our demands, given its standing as the worlds' only super power and its amazing technological developments," says a senior government official who participated in the DPG's Washington round.

The other area where the rejuvenated Indo-US relationship would be visible is in close coordination in international peacekeeping needs. As a symbolic gesture, India has accepted the US invitation to participate in the multinational peace operations exercise in Bangladesh in September 2002 and has agreed to co-host, with the US Pacific Command, a peacekeeping command post exercise to be held in New Delhi in early 2003.

Officials on both sides affirm the relationship is on a fast track.

The only hiccup, senior military officials admit, could be the spill-over of Indo-Pakistan tensions. An Indian military offensive would directly hamper America's operations in Pakistan against the Al Qaeda.

However, even that fear seems to be fading away, as the US puts the onus of ending cross-border terrorism on Pakistan. The information available at present reveals there is a clear and tacit understanding between India and US, as a crackdown on Pakistan-based Kashmiri militant groups would directly help US interests as well. Groups such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed are actively providing logistical support to the Taliban and Al Qaeda members hiding in Pakistan.

For now, at least, there seem to be no barriers in the burgeoning Indo-US military relationship.

The Rediff Specials

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