Friday, October 2, 2009

Indo-US defence drill off

A dozen officers of the armed forces preparing to go for a joint drill with the US were left red-faced after their trip to Japan was cancelled, an action that has raised questions on where the India-US military-to-military relations that have intensified over the last five years were headed.

The officers — eight from the navy, three from the army and one from the air force — were called to New Delhi from their separate stations across the country. They were preparing for the last 10 days in the capital.

The armed forces had got an “in-principle” approval for the exercise — an annual feature — last December, a navy source said. But a defence ministry source said, “the file for the requisite permissions was not moved in time”.

The source added that the defence ministry had “cleared it”. For international military exercises the armed forces also have to take clearances from the finance and external affairs ministries. The personnel involved are also checked and cleared by the Intelligence Bureau.

The failure of the armed forces to send a team to a regular annual drill immediately cast doubts on claims that India-US military relations were being strengthened. This was because there were other drills that could not be held this year.

In April, a contingent of the US naval special forces — called Seals — had reached Goa for an exercise with the Indian Navy’s Marine Commandos. Five days before the drill was to start the armed forces were asked to defer it. The move annoyed Pentagon.

In another case, after the permission for a drill was given at the last minute, a US officer told his counterpart: “I believe you guys in Delhi also reach late for your own wedding.”

An India-China army exercise (named “Hand in Hand”), said to be annual event since December 2007, has also been dropped from this year’s calendar.

Exercise Habu Nag, the drill for which the 12 officers were preparing, was to be held in Okinawa, Japan. Last year the exercise was held in Visakhapatnam — the third since it was initiated.

Defence ministry sources are quick to refute insinuations that the India-US military relationship was hitting stumbling blocks. They point to two major exercises scheduled in October. The latest in the series of Cope India — an air forces and paratroopers drill — is slated to be held in Agra from October 19 to 24.

Coinciding with it, the latest version of Exercise Yudh Abhyas is to be held near Babina. In scale and scope both these exercises are much bigger than Habu Nag. For Cope India, the US air force is deploying a C-17 Globemaster heavy lift transport aircraft, a C-130J Super Hercules and threeC-130H transport aircraft.

The Indian Air Force complement includes an IL-76 heavy lifter, four AN-32 transporters and two Mi-17 helicopters. For Yudh Abhyas, the US is deploying a big contingent of Stryker vehicles for the drill with the Indian army’s armoured corps. The Stryker deployment will be the largest by the US military outside Iraq and Afghanistan.

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