The second phase of the 25th iteration of the Malabar Exercise in October 2021 showcased the interoperability skills of the QUAD navies in the Bay of the Bengal, sending signals of collective resolve for a free and open Indo-Pacific. As the Malabar Exercise concluded on 15 October 2021, another joint military exercise between the armies of the two largest democracies went underway in the far-flung Chugach Mountains of Alaska. Indian soldiers from the 7th Madras Infantry Battalion Group alongside American soldiers from the 40th Cavalry Regiment of the US Army engaged in intense training exercises focusing on combined arms manoeuvres under extreme cold climatic conditions.
By R. Vignesh
Exercise Yudh Abhyas is the largest joint military training between India and the US aimed at tactical level drills and developing interoperability. The key focus of the 17th Edition of Yudh Abhyas, conducted recently in Alaska, was on aspects of high-altitude warfare like helicopter-based mobilisation, assault on an enemy position in mountainous terrain and securing critical infrastructure. Along with this, a demonstration of the US Military’s drone buster gun, as part of Counter Unmanned Aerial Systems (C-UAS), survival and acclimatisation to the inhospitable terrain during mountain warfare were the other key highlights of the exercise. Exercise Yudh Abhyas has been conducted since 2004, hosted alternately between India and the US with the previous iteration of the exercise held in Bikaner, Rajasthan in February 2021. However, the latest iteration does imply significance for both Indian Army’s strategy for its Northern Borders and the US Army’s Arctic Strategy.
Strategic Significance of Yudh Abhyas in Alaska
The location, time, scale, participants and objectives of any joint military exercise can project a signal to a common adversary. In this context, the latest iteration of Yudh Abhyas assumes strategic significance as it comes amidst the ongoing impasse in the mountainous terrain of LAC. The Chinese government on several occasions in the past has expressed its apprehensions over India’s joint military exercises with the US and its other allies like Japan and Australia. Yudh Abhyas has also come under the notice of the Chinese government in the past. An article published by the Chinese state-run Global Times views the previous iteration of Yudh Abhyas held in February 2021 as an indicator of the future of Indo-US defence cooperation, as it was the first joint exercise after Joe Biden assumed the presidency in January 2021. This article cautions India against engaging in joint military exercises with the US as it labels these exercises as part of a greater American strategy to contain China. The article perceives that the previous iteration of Yudh Abhyas was not directed against China but Pakistan as the location of the exercise was in proximity to the India–Pakistan border. Among other things, the article gives insight on China’s insecurity and its perception of India’s enhancement of defence cooperation and interoperability with the US Military being detrimental to its interests.
The location of the latest iteration of the exercise is situated far away in the wilderness of Alaska, and the topography of the terrain bears striking similarities to the rugged mountainous terrain of the Sino-Indian Border along the LAC where the impasse between the two nations continues. Aspects like cold weather combat skills to train troops for survival in Arctic conditions akin to the Himalayas were the central theme of the 14-day-long intense exercises. Although there have been no Chinese reactions to this exercise available in the public domain so far, it would be fair to assume that China must have taken note of the agenda and timing of this exercise. Despite China’s apprehensions, the Indian government has repeatedly made it clear that none of its political and military cooperation forums with the US or any other nation is directed against any third party. This was expressed by the Hon’ble External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar in his address to the press with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during the latter’s visit to India in July 2021.
Significance for Indian Army’s Strategy for the Northern Borders
As far as the Indian Army is concerned, aspects of Yudh Abhyas 2021 are extremely significant for its strategy of enhancing deterrence along the Northern Borders which has been emphasised in its ‘Land Warfare Doctrine of 2018’. The doctrine describes the Indian Army’s operational strategy along the Northern Borders as force-centric and multi-tiered, characterised by rapid mobilisation through augmentation of force multipliers. The capability to engage the adversary in a self-contained and isolated manner is deemed crucial for Indian Army units deployed along the mountainous terrain of northern borders. To achieve this, the doctrine recommends deployment of highly agile strike formations acclimatised for rapid application in high-altitude environments. Towards this end, Yudh Abhyas in Alaska assumes significance, given its focus directed towards cold weather survival skills and tactical offensive operations in high-altitude environment.
Significance for the US Army’s Arctic Strategy
In 2019, the US Department of Defence (DoD) submitted a report to Congress highlighting the strategic significance of the Arctic Region to America’s national security. This report identifies the Arctic region as a key avenue where great power competition with China and Russia poses a direct threat to US’ national security. Here the Arctic has been described as a potential vector for an attack on the US homeland. The report advocates the US Army maintaining credible deterrence in the Arctic by developing a lethal, resilient and agile military capability specially tailored for the mountainous terrain of the Arctic.9 Cold weather training of the US Military personnel for acquiring specialised tactics and procedures of mountain warfare is cited as a vital element in achieving this objective.
On 12 December 2020, the Arctic Security Dialogue was organised by the Woodrow Wilson International Centre in Washington DC. In this dialogue, top US Army Generals participated and spoke on US Army’s Arctic Strategy. Amongst the most notable speaker in this event was Maj Gen Peter Andrysiak, the former commander of the US Army Alaska. He pointed out several existing capability gaps of the US Army in waging high-altitude warfare including lack of equipment and training for troops. Here he highlighted Yudh Abhyas as a critical platform for the US Army to derive from the Indian Army’s expertise on Mountain Warfare due to the latter’s long history of combat and peacetime operations in the Himalayas.
Citing the US Army’s focus on high-altitude warfare, Gen Andrysiak stated that Yudh Abhyas 2021 will be hosted in Alsaka for this purpose and announced that the future iteration of the exercise will be conducted in the Himalayas in 2022. He further stated that he considers the Yudh Abhyas in conjunction with the US Army’s ‘Arctic Warrior Exercise’ as vital avenues for enhancing US Military’s capability to operate in the Arctic. Collective deterrence fostered by the like-minded Arctic and Non-Arctic nations is cited as crucial for a stable and conflict-free Arctic region. This is an area where Yudh Abhyas stands in conjunction to the DoD’s report which advocates cooperation with strategic partners as the cornerstone for the US government’s strategic approach towards the Arctic region.
Prospects of Yudh Abhyas Evolving into a Multilateral Exercise
Another aspect about Yudh Abhyas is that it is the only joint military exercise series with the US that continues in a bilateral format. Other bilateral military exercises with the US like the Malabar Exercise for the Navies and the Cope India for the Air Forces have organically evolved into trilateral and multilateral formats assuming greater strategic significance. In the past US had suggested inclusion of Japan in Yudh Abhyas but this was declined by India. Evolving geopolitical dynamics of Indo-Pacific have led many democratic nations of the region to look for avenues to bolster their military capability. In this context, the Yudh Abhyas has the potential to be elevated into a platform for enhancing military cooperation of QUAD and other like-minded nations focusing on the land warfare domain akin to the Malabar Exercise for naval warfare.
Over the last decade, military exercises both in the bilateral and multilateral formats have become the mainstay in India’s defence diplomacy with other nations. Since 2010, India has undertaken joint army exercises with 18 countries, but what makes the Yudh Abhyas stand out is the fact that it has extensively evolved since its first iteration in 2004. Initially, Yudh Abhyas like all other joint military exercises focused on establishing familiarity between militaries and learning from best practices of each other. Another factor for Yudh Abhyas gaining significance is due to the increasing number of Western platforms being inducted into the Indian military. The induction of C-17 Globemaster strategic airlift aircraft, C-130 Hercules tactical airlift aircraft, Chinook Heavy Lift Helicopters and M777 Ultra-Light Howitzer has taken place over the last decade. These platforms are extensively used by the US Army and have become instrumental in the Indian Army’s operations along the mountainous terrain of the LAC. Adding to this expanding Indo-US defence cooperation has been reflected by a number of agreements over the last five years including Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), Communication Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and the Industrial Security Agreement (ISA). These agreements are likely to facilitate the induction of more American platforms in the Indian Military. Exercise Yudh Abhyas acts as a platform for both armies to enhance their interoperability through these commonly used military platforms.
Addressing the Goa Maritime Conclave on 8 November 2021, Defence Secretary Mr Ajay Kumar stated that aggressive and expansionist behavior in the Asia-Pacific region is a source of great concern for India’s national security. He reiterated India’s resolve to deter aggressive and expansionist moves both on land and the sea. In this context, Yudh Abhyas like the Malabar Exercise, is bound to play a significant role for India and its partners to project credible strategic posturing. As a result, the future iterations of the Yudh Abhyas will be keenly watched by both allies and adversaries of India.
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