Commentary - Takeaways from Joint Exercises; Some Tangible Mostly Intangible
Lt Gen (Dr) V K Saxena (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM

Indian armed forces continue to engage with a large number of friendly foreign counties for the conduct military exercises. Most of these are yearly or biannual events conducted alternatively in each other’s location. For instance, in our immediate neighbourhood we connect with China in conduct of Exercise Hand-in Hand, Exercise Surya Kiran with Nepal, Exercise Sampriti with Bangladesh, Exercise Maitri Shakti with Sri Lanka, Exercise Ekuverin with Maldives, and Exercise Lamitie with the Seychelles.

In our extended neighbourhood, as well as in external environment we connect with Russia in Exercise Indra, with USA in Exercise Yudh Abhyas and Exercise Vajra Prahar, with Kyrgyzstan Exercise Khanjar, with Indonesia Exercise Guard Shakti, with France Exercise Shakti, with Australia Exercise Austra Hind, with Mongolia Exercise Nomadik Elephant, with Oman Exercise Al Nagar, with Singapore Exercise Agni Warrior and Exercise Bold Kurukshetra, and with Thailand Exercise Maitryi. In addition, there is a trilateral naval Exercise Malabar involving USA, India and Japan … and the list goes on. While some takeaways from these exercises are easily seen being in the tangible domain, the others and the more important ones, lie in the intangible one.

Talking of the tangibles, such yearly/biannual engagements promote deeper military ties between exercising nations, build mutual understanding and respect for each other’s military, which in turn, promotes trust and enhances confidence in each other. Participating troops learn to inter-operate with each other by evolving joint drills and procedures leading to inter-connectivity and seamless co-working of dissimilar platforms. In the course of exercises, participants pick up each other’s best practices and learn from each other’s experience gained in actual combat. Taking the case of Indra 2017, here Russian troops, fresh from their experience of dealing with the Islamic State (IS) in Syria were exercising within our troops carrying recent first hand experience of counter-insurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir. In such scenarios, each other’s experiences and best practices are seen in real time and get picked up easily. Such was the case in Indra 2107.

The most optimal real time advantage of joint training exercises is probably achieved in scenarios of mixed crew operations, i.e., where a particular weapon platform is operated by mixed crews of participating nations. In the Indo-Russian scenario, this happened for the first time in Indra 2017 when mixed crews of Indian and Russian Air Forces operated the SU-30, AN-26 and MI-8 aircraft. This provided a big takeaway of picking up each other’s best practices, learning inter-operability and smoothening joint drills in real-time.

Such exercises are particularly relevant in confidence building and easing tensions with nations with whom our relations are less than best. For example, the importance of Exercise Hand-in-Hand with China is huge, even if the scope and the format of this exercise is limited in not getting beyond the tactical level. When nations keep engaging , the pent up tensions tend to get diffused a bit; an exercise with Pakistan, maybe?

Besides the tangible, the real gain of such exercises however lies in the intangible domain. Essentially, there are two areas in which the gains can be perceived. The first is confidence building through image projection while the second is strategic messaging. For India, image projection and confidence building is particularly relevant in joint exercises with smaller neighbours – say, Nepal, Bangladesh, Maldives, Kyrgyzstan, Seychelles, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and more. Not only the participating troops, and through them, their respective militaries and the governments see the range and depth of our vast potential, capability, firepower and battle-ready postures, they also see our huge territorial, commercial and economic stature. This breeds confidence in smaller neighbours, kind of reassures them of our overall strength, and develops prudence in seeing India as an anchor in times of need.

Demonstrating the capability, and more importantly the intention to ‘walk the talk’ from time to time also helps in building and revalidating the projected image of one’s capability and resolve in the minds of smaller neighbours. Taking for instance the case of Doklam, our standing firmly with Bhutan reassured the Himalayan neighbour that we intend to honour our commitments and treaties. Besides pure intentions, such resolve needs to be also backed with capability and wherewithal. This gets 'seen' and hence corroborated and reaffirmed when militaries (and leaders) of smaller neighbours engage with each other in joint discussion.

A word on strategic messaging. The apt example is our engagement with leading world navies in the Indian Ocean and the Asia Pacific region. The reference is to Exercise Malabar, the tri-nation exercise involving India, USA and Japan. Take for Instance Malabar 2017. 16 ships, 95 aircraft and two submarines of three leading navies of the world exercising together in the Bay of Bengal did send several strategic messages. Besides the tangible advantage of building deeper military ties, participating nations gained confidence by their realisation that they are ‘fighting fit’ and are capable of operating as a joint naval task force with other leading navies of the world. More importantly, such exercises also send a message to the world at large that the exercising nations, in their collective will, have the required naval prowess to address common maritime challenges across the whole spectrum of operations. Such overt messaging in the strategic domain also helps in boosting maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region for the benefit of the global maritime community.

The spectrum of operations stated above is indeed a vast canvass which includes keeping the Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs) open, providing convoy escorts, Visit Board Search and Siege (VBSS) operations aimed at anti-drug smuggling, disaster management, humanitarian relief operations, and more. The cumulatIve power projection in such exercises not only enhances national stature of each participating nation in terms of its respective Comprehensive National Power, but also works to convey a sense of strategic deterrence which acts as a counter-weight to aggressive posturing by other nations. The obvious reference here is to China whose designs towards aggressive posturing and power-play are well known. Whether it relates to increased attempts by its submarines to venture into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), building ports in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan, or the defiant stand on its claim of of ownership of the South China Sea. In brief, China’s growing dominance in capabilities, wherewithal and intentions actually gets pitched in a complex power play while engaging with regional players.

Joint exercises are a win-win event for the participating nations. In this context, it is heartening to note that the range and numbers of such exercises involving our defence forces have seen steady rise over the past two decades. It is therefore in our national interest not only to continue to participate in joint exercises with our smaller neighbours, but also to continue to seek greater involvement in multilateral events on land, sea and air.

(Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the VIF)

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