Bottomline | Misplaced Scepticism

Media and politicians doubts about joint military exercises are unwarranted

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

Even as the number and regularity of exercises that the Indian armed forces are doing with friendly nations is growing, there is increased scepticism, surprisingly in the media as well, about the purpose behind these military manoeuvres. Three such exercises that have generated speculation are the recently held Malabar series of naval exercise between India, US, Japan and Singapore in the Bay of Bengal; the forthcoming ‘Himalayan Warrior’ between the armies of India and the UK in Ladakh; and the proposed Sino-Indian army exercise in Chengdu military region in November that has now been cancelled at China’s behest. Before we delve into these specific cases, a generic understanding of what military exercises signify and portent would be in order.

In a multi-polar world where relations amongst nations are changing rapidly and Asia has been universally acknowledged to be the centre of major powers’ activity this century, it is good for India to undertake military exercises with friendly powers. After all, Indian diplomacy, that has intensified its activities, without a military muscle and economic strength backing it, would be futile.The Indian military should be able to protect our own assets overseas including the Diaspora, and it should have the ability to protect our expanding area of interest beyond geographical borders.

Considering that a stalemate has been reached in our disputed land borders with nuclear Pakistan and China, the Indian Ocean Region provides us the only opportunity to showcase our military presence. Coincidently, as the IOR, for reasons, is on the radar screen of all major powers, the importance of the Indian military as the force for stability has been accepted by them.

However, within our defence services, the army is least enthusiastic, and the navy, followed closely by the air force, are most happy to exercise with friendly countries. There are reasons for this. The army is overstretched in securing the home base within the country. Moreover, unlike the other two services, its force levels are defined around manpower and not weapon platforms. This means that the army’s tactics and operational art doctrines are region-specific and should be held close to the chest. Except for some low level interaction of its Special Forces (unfortunately, the Special Forces are essentially commandos and not what they ought to be), it would be dangerous for the army to discuss its Special Forces’ thinking even with friendly armies. Still, three reasons spur the army to not miss the action: it is the largest component of the armed forces; it has an illustrious history in UN peacekeeping operations; and exercising with foreign armies amongst other things is glamorous. On the other hand, while all navies have a diplomacy role, the Indian Navy has until recently remained constrained for political reasons. With growing relations between India and the US, it was only natural for the US Navy (the US Pacific Command is the biggest military command of the US) to seek greater interaction with the Indian Navy. Taking cue, other prominent navies have sought working partnership with the powerful combination of the US and Indian navies for stability in the region. The Indian Air Force has finally decided to exploit air power to its fullest and talks about strategic reach. As the IAF and IN are structured around equipment, exercises provide them the opportunities to appreciate first hand the state-of-the-art equipment with friendly nations. The only deterring factor for the IAF is the huge financial costs incurred on exercises that instead could be utilised in acquiring needed capabilities. If the three services are still unsure about the level of exercises they can do with outside forces, it is because the government has yet not clearly articulated how, when, where and in what combinations the armed forces could be used outside the country. At present, this is not a big deal as the Indian defence services are still doing tactical manoeuvres with friendly forces.

The big deal is how the media and politicians are continuously misinterpreting these exercises. The multi-lateral Malabar exercise provided three benefits: it was held close to the strategic Malacca Strait by navies that have a stake in the freedom of the choke point; the Indian Navy could exercise in a multi-lateral mode with four friendly navies, and it saved on finances that it would have incurred in training bilaterally with the three navies. Regarding the Himalayan Warrior, speculation has intensified because of the exercise venue. Islamabad has drummed up suspicion that it could be a joint Indo-UK Special Forces manoeuvre meant against Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir. Nothing is further from the truth. It is well known that western powers are keen to understand Indian Army’s successful tactics in high altitude areas. On the issue of exercising with China, it is evident that Beijing is interested more in the annual bilateral defence interactions to get an incisive glimpse into burgeoning India’s defence relations with the US. After all, Beijing views the Indo-US ties as directed against it. For India, China will remain an adversary and a middle-term military threat. This is the unsaid reason why the friendly powers are exercising with the Indian armed forces to meet the same challenge.


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