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The Rediff Special/Josy Joseph

March 11, 2004

Indo-US defence relations are set to take a giant leap forward in coming days, in the wake of the first joint combat exercise between the two nations in 40 years. The exercises were held in Gwalior last month.

According to documents (of which has copies), defence cooperation between the two nations is making unprecedented strides. These include the American navy possibly placing a ship repair unit in Kochi, cooperation in military medicine, a regional HIV/AIDS prevention programme and adoption of several US principles and practices in new Indian military establishments including the National Defence University that is being set up.

The US Central Command, which covers Pakistan and regions that are of vital interest to India, will open its doors to India. The Indian Army chief is already making a historic visit to the Central Command (India is covered by the Pacific Command). There will be regular interaction between India's Integrated Defence Staff office and its Central Command counterpart over the coming days.

The moot question is: how far will the cooperation go?

In the long run, if the relationship between the two nations continues to develop at the present rate, officials on both sides say the Indian military will see a visible and lasting American influence, including the adoption of US tri-service doctrines.

According to sources, the 7th Fleet of the US Navy is keen on maintaining a mobile ship repair unit in Kochi, Kerala. This will help it meet any eventuality in the entire Gulf region and most of the Indian Ocean, where a large number of US ships are participating in operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. If the proposal works out, it will be the first time the US military finds a permanent foothold on Indian shores.

Says a senior Indian Navy officer, "Don't look at it as such a strategic jump. It will definitely bring in a lot of money to our dockyard."

In the coming days, the increased cooperation will be visible in several other aspects that have remained unexplored till now, say officials.

After several years of complaining that it was dealing with the Pacific Command while all the countries of its strategic interest, including Pakistan, were in the Central Command's sphere of influence, the Indian military is getting access to the latter. Senior and middle level officers of the Integrated Defence Staff have visited the Central Command in the last couple of years. Now, Army chief General Nirmal Chand Vij is paying an official visit to the Central Command.

According to a US official, India's Net Assessment office (which studies long term strategic issues; the US has one as well) and the Indian National Defence University are receiving inputs from the US military in doctrinal matters. America is acknowledged to have one of the world's most developed defence universities and Net Assessment office.

India's Joint Staff, says the US official, is taking the lead in "exchanges of ideas and planned visits of IDS personnel to US institutions" for cooperation on "tri-service institutions, military planning and tri-service doctrine."

India's Integrated Defence Staff will also co-host the Pacific Command's Multilateral Platoon Augmentation Team-07 exercise series in August. The US joint staff will continue to sponsor expert visits by officers from India's joint defence staff to various US military installations, including their key policy centres and joint training institutions. These visits will help the Indian military "gain lessons on joint-ness, which can be incorporated into India's nascent joint staff system," says the US officer.

From a military that is largely influenced by the colonial era, operates Russian systems and has mixed doctrines, the future Indian military could look more like an American one. He says India's dream of creating tri-service commands and unified war theatres of battle is "drawing heavily" from US doctrines.

Also in the planning stage is a regional HIV/AIDS cooperation programme between the Indian military, the Pacific Command's Centre of Excellence and the US Surgeon's Office.

The Navy will hold the annual Malabar series, the anti-submarine warfare exercise held jointly with the US, subject matter expert exchanges, port visits by ships from both sides and high level visits. Besides, the two sides will also have explosive ordnance disposal exercises and officer educational exchange programmes.

If the Gwalior exercise was a significant stride for the Air Force, bigger ones are on its way. The IAF will be sending its Jaguar fighters to participate in Cooperative Cope Thunder in Alaska in July. This exercise is hosted by the US and attended by NATO members and some of America's close allies. India's active participation for the first time signals its growing closeness to the Pentagon.

The US and Indian air forces are also exploring combined opportunities with Army, Navy and Special Forces (commando teams that are part of the Army, Navy and Air Force) to take the bilateral exercises to a notch higher. There will also be more officer exchanges between the two forces, say sources. Since 2002, the two sides have renewed the instructor pilot exchange programme, under which an Indian pilot instructor goes to US and an American pilot instructor comes to stay in Hyderabad to teach the Indian rookie pilots.

The two armies, which are already holding four field exercises per year, will also intensify their cooperation.

But the most vibrant cooperation is taking place between the Special Forces of the two countries. The commandos from both nations hold quarterly exercises, while the Special Forces of the Army and Navy hold separate exercises. During exercises in the recent past, India got to use several American equipment, over two dozen of which are now on India's shopping list. Sources say India has sought the supply of these items through the Foreign Military Sale route, which means it will get the equipment at the same rate as the US military.

"The more we exercise together, the greater the rationale on both sides for providing India access to weapons, communication, doctrine and other technologies," says a US official.

"Military cooperation remains one of the most vibrant, visible, and pro-active legs powering the transformation of US-India relations. There is a growing desire to expand defence cooperation. This is clear from the growing frequency of training exercises, seminars, personnel exchanges, senior visits, functional visits, unit/ship visit, and the existing and developing US-India military relationships that have emerged over the past three years," he adds.

This cooperation is based on the 1995 Agreed Minute on Defence Cooperation, which is designed to promote mutual understanding, familiarisation and confidence-building through exercises, exchange of doctrines, high-level visits, courses, seminars and a focus on areas of mutual interest.

US funding for military education and training of Indian officials in the financial year 2003-2004 was $1 million, the highest amount ever. Thirty-seven Indian officers trained in the US during this period. The allocation for the coming financial year is expected to be around $1.2 million. During 2003-2004, the US also coordinated the visits of more than 200 Indian military officers for conferences, again a record high.

The American side has also given India $800,000 to help improve its peacekeeping skills. This amount will be utilised to provide training, support US sponsored peacekeeping seminars and procure library sources and other material. India has already used half this amount, say sources.

"A generation of Indian officers -- more numbers when compared to the past -- are growing up exposed to US military values and doctrines. Is that good? It is definitely not very damaging," says a senior Indian military officer.

The officer adds that the two nations even cooperate in the area of intelligence sharing. "Who could have imagined such cooperation a decade ago?" he asks. The first chief of India's Defence Intelligence Agency has visited the US twice, and there are regular contacts between the two sides.

The two nations are also cooperating in missile defence programmes. Several rounds of consultations and visits are already over and a missile defence workshop is expected to be held in New Delhi this year.

"There are several areas of mutual interest and the changing scenario, post-9/11, is helping shape the emerging Indo-US defence relationship. There isn't any visible immediate threat to the growth," says an Indian official, adding, "However, there are seeds of distant conflicts of interests, especially in the way the US has deployed its military in Asia in recent times."

This is a real concern and is shared even at the highest levels of Indian government. During the last commander's conference in New Delhi, the three service chiefs held a close-door briefing for Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his senior cabinet colleagues on the US military deployments in the region.

IAF versus USAF

Image: Uday Kukcian
Photographs: US embassy, New Delhi

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