Indian Army comes to the Home of the Airborne
May 23, 2013
FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- What enduring benefit can be gained when two armies, each over a million strong, chip in 200 soldiers apiece for partnered training?
"You'd be surprised," said Blaire Harms, a former military intelligence officer of 21 years and current exercise planner for United States Army Pacific. Case in point: Yudh Abhyas, an annual training exercise between the armies of India and the U.S. that Harms has taken the lead on planning for the last five years, running its ninth iteration May 3-17.
"Especially in foreign militaries where the terms of service are longer, onesies and twosies stay in to carry the training forward," she said.
The initial term of service in the Indian Army is 15 years.
From a company-sized engagement in 2004, Yudh Abhyas 2013 was executed with battalion-level field exercises and brigade-level command-post exercises.
This year's exercise paired historically heralded units from both countries -- the Indian Army Gurkhas assigned to the 99th Mountain Brigade, the Indian paratroopers with the 50th Independent Para Brigade, and U.S. Army paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team (504th Parachute Infantry Regiment).
While still sponsored by USARPAC, the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, N.C., hosted this year's training.
Fittingly, the capstone exercise was a combined airborne operation.
"The camaraderie I saw here has been outstanding," said Harms. "Everything has been developing proportionally each year."
While the vastness of the Pacific region makes strong partnerships all the more important, it also makes them more logistically challenging. The old adage of "500 miles is a long distance in Europe, 500 years a long time in America" does not apply. The history is deep, the distances great.
Since 2005, Harms has been involved with planning bilateral U.S. training operations with Japan, Mongolia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and India, she said.
Personally, Harms believes that economic challenges in the region may in fact overshadow military ones, but because the military is such a major player in many Pacific Rim countries and because military leaders often move on to positions of political leadership, bilateral training is a very practical way to engage them and to re-enforce the benign nature of the U.S. military, that it really is there to help, she said.
Capt. David Von Bargen, a battalion-level military intelligence officer with 82nd's 1st Brigade Combat Team, said that the logistics involved with bringing the two armies together provides much of the challenge but also much of the knowledge gain.
"Scheduling the flights, getting embassy to embassy and higher-level commands talking is a big portion, so if we need to do this again, whether it is for additional training or some sort of real-life aid scenario, we have those systems in place," Von Bargen said.
Von Bargen's job was to build an opponent force for the participating soldiers to face during partnered field training, and then to deliver intelligence on the opposing forces to those troops.
A seven-year veteran who has been in and out of combat multiple times, Von Bargen
said his goal was to build a realistic scenario that was useful to the commander and soldiers doing the training, while simultaneously building bilateral relationships.
"Relationships at all levels," he reiterated. "Even privates need to see the other army not just as partners, but as equals."
The Indian Army commander of the 99th Mountain Brigade, 26-year veteran Brig. Gen. Jagdish Chaudhari, said the way Indian and America soldiers think and act is essentially the same. The profession of soldiering is such that it demands certain attributes that one finds in any army.
The other brigadier who attended this year's event, Indian military attaché and paratrooper, Brig. Gen. Ashok Dhingra, explained:
"Our culture may be different, but our attitude and approach to work, what we yearn and fight for and honor -- those qualities are just the same. However, when you have a hierarchy of other institutions and organizations affecting the way you work, you find there are certain roadblocks, bureaucratic procedural delays and lack of understanding that comes about."
Yudh Abhyas spurred both armies to become more self-aware of those challenges and how to surmount them, he said.
During this year's exercise, there were very few troops in either force who had not experienced combat. That and the professional execution of training, including live-fire ranges, situational training exercises, and combined air assaults and airborne operations, made soldiers of each army receptive and respectful while learning from the other.
"We know that the U.S. Army is one of the strongest armies in the world, so we want to know why, and what we can learn from them," said company 1st Sgt. Indra Kumar Pradhan of 2nd Battalion, 5th Gurkha Rifles.
A self-described connoisseur of outdoor adventure and physical activities, Pradhan said that the Indian Army also has its strengths, one of those being its ability to be effective in challenging topography.
"We operate in mountainous jungle," he said. "In India, that starts at 9,000 feet. We don't have the technology that the U.S. Army has, so we have to do everything manually and physically."
The Gurkhas are superbly fit.
Many U.S. soldiers commented favorably throughout the exercise on the Gurhkas' ability to move silently and quickly through the forest, using a minimum of verbal communication to maneuver.
As light infantry, paratroopers have great respect for that.
Brigadier Dhingra, who works out of Washington D.C. and came down for the exercise in part to represent the Indian airborne contingent, said that jumping with his countrymen at the Home of the Airborne was a dream come true.
"That is something that I think I will keep in the corner of my heart forever," said Dhingra.
North Carolina's stormy spring weather thwarted the Indian paratroopers' first attempts to jump with the 82nd Paratroopers, and as a major facet of the capstone field exercise, cancelling the jump altogether was something that no paratrooper wanted to do.
"But you know, even if something is dominating your thoughts, it doesn't come to the fore when you are executing the very basic drills and actions that you are expected to be taking on [during an airborne operation]," said Dhingra of his thoughts when he finally made it to the jump door above a Fort Bragg drop zone.
"It was the culmination of all the things we have been attempting to do over the last two weeks," he said. "It was a huge sense of satisfaction finally leaving the aircraft."
For Harms, Yudh Abhyas 2013 was a fifth consecutive win for the bilateral planning team, that also generated fresh ideas for next year's exercise in northern India.
For the soldiers on the ground, it proved to be a curious mix of the rigors of field training and the cultural abstractions of world travel, without the travel.
For Dhingra, who was in his third month of overseeing defense activities between the two countries at his new post in D.C., it helped to quickly settle him into the role.
"From here I can only look at the sky and have blue skies," he said. "I am sure when I get back home, I will be able to influence and get those good things I have learned into our organization."
The general said that he had personally benefited from joint training at the right time in his military career. It molded him and changed his attitude about the kinds of things the Indian Army might do to enhance its skills, and to pass along its skills to theater partners.
"If I am here today, perhaps it is because of the good things that I did in the days before," he said.