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US drill before seal on deal

New Delhi, Sept. 4: Units of the Indian and US armies, navies and air forces go into joint exercises this month as part of a larger Washington policy to engage with South Asian militaries.

The exercises take off despite New Delhi and Washington having not yet signed an agreement on military exchanges that was, in May this year, expected to be endorsed “within weeks”.

Troops from the Indian Parachute Brigade and an IL-76 (transport) aircraft of the Indian Air Force will participate in an exercise codenamed “Geronimo Thrust” from September 29 to October 2 in Alaska. The US Army’s Para Infantry Regiment, Alaska, a Hercules C-130 aircraft and Chinook helicopters from the US Pacific Air Force will be involved in the exercise.

“Geronimo Thrust” follows the joint training exercise, “Balance Iroqois”, involving parachute battalions, in May at Agra.

It is understood that the Indian side expects to gain from the experience by using modern equipment not yet readily utilised in the army. They would also share knowledge gained from high-altitude operations — such as at the Siachen Glacier.

The Indian and US navies are also set to revive a series of exercises named “Malabar” in the Arabian Sea from the last week of this month. Navy sources said two Indian vessels, possibly a frigate and a destroyer, and a submarine will be involved.

It is possible that the Malabar exercise will also include a manoeuvre called “turnaround” that will be centred at the US base in Diego Garcia. In the manoeuvre, ships will have to get to port and be replenished with fuel and ammunition within a short deadline. “Turnaround” demands and signifies a high degree of naval interaction.

The exercise is the fourth in the series. The Malabar series was suspended in the wake of the 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests.

India and US defence ties have been on the upswing since December after the joint Defence Policy Group, a secretarial-level committee of the two defence establishments, was revived. In May, the then defence secretary, Yogendra Narain, visited Washington even as tension on the border with Pakistan was mounting and opened negotiations on an Agreement on Acquisition and Cross-Servicing. Officials said the US signed the agreement with countries with whom it enjoyed military-to-military ties.

They said the signing of the agreement would not only balance out the cost of joint military exercises but also allow both sides to share transit facilities. The US has signed the agreement with about 60 countries, including Pakistan.

In another development, the Indian and Indonesian navies this week began “coordinated patrols”. This flows from the signing of an agreement in January this year between the two countries. “The purpose of the coordinated patrol is to check poaching, smuggling and drug trafficking” in the Bay of Bengal, navy sources said.

The patrol is being carried out along the International Maritime Boundary Line, with a fast-attack craft and an aircraft from each navy. The Indonesian ship will visit Port Blair after the first patrol. The command and control for the patrol vests jointly with the commander-in-chief, Andaman and Nicobar Command, and commander of the Western Fleet Command, Indonesian Navy.

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