AS India has been participating in an increasing number of joint military exercises over the last decade, Pune, as the host city, as well as the Pune-headquartered Southern Command, have played a pivotal role in making them successful. While these exercises are essentially mechanisms of military diplomacy, they also provide a great platform for exchange of military strategy and practices, and also convey a message to other countries.
The focus of recent military exercises has been on counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations in various settings, like semi-urban or jungle terrain. These exercises have given opportunities to the Army units to share their experiences in dealing with terrorism, practicing various types of combat and handling improvised explosive devices. In 2016, Pune hosted one of biggest ever joint military exercises, which saw the participation of 18 ‘ASEAN plus’ countries. The focus of the training was on dealing with unexploded mines in various countries and peacekeeping operations.
Currently, a military exercise of five of the seven BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) countries is being conducted at the Foreign Training Node at Aundh in Pune city, with a focus on counter-terrorism operations in a semi-urban environment. On Saturday, the army chiefs of the participating countries held a conclave in Pune.
Speaking about the conclave, India’s Southern Army Commander Lieutenant General DR Soni had said, “It is aimed at sending a message to the world about the intent of the Bay of Bengal region in appreciating the emerging threat of transnational terrorism and the requirement to stand shoulder-to-shoulder.”
Lieutenant General D B Shekatkar (retired), who has headed the committee constituted for the enhancement of combat capabilities of the armed forces and has served in the intelligence wing of the Army for a long time, said, “All over the world, military diplomacy has become an essential part of conventional diplomacy. The joint exercises provide a platform for extensive discussions. For example, in the chiefs’ conclave, issues such as cross-border terrorism, drug menace and others that the countries are facing were discussed.”
Another retired Army officer said, “These exercises are essentially a mechanism of military diplomacy, which is a key component of any country’s foreign policy. Hosting and participating in such exercises is a suggestion of trust between two nations. The two countries may have issues on other fronts, but a joint military exercise is a strong statement of confidence. Just look at the names of these exercises of the Indian Army. The one with China is called Hand-in-Hand and the one with Sri Lanka is called Mitra Shakti, which means the power of friendship. The Indo-Seychelles exercise is called Lamitye, which in Creole language means friendship, and the India-Maldives exercise was called Ekuverin, which means friends in Maldivian language”.
He added, “India wants to play a key role in the Indian Ocean Region, which is strategically and economically very important. China is making attempts in the same direction. India has been holding exercises with several countries in the Indian Ocean Region for this reason. These exercises also attempt to give a message to the other players in the region. Diplomatic relations keep changing, so do military equations. But these exercises will always aim at furthering India’s interests.”
During a press conference, while answering questions on the goals India was trying to achieve in defence diplomacy by hosting the first BIMSTEC exercise, Lt Gen Soni had said, “India wants to be the one to initiate this. We are looking to start a dialogue, share procedures, thoughts, processes and certainly strategies, to deal with terrorism collectively.”
A serving officer, who has been a military observer for some exercises in the past, said, “In these exercises, participating troops overcome language barriers, develop a bond, and learn about each others’ equipment and tactics. They become one team. Even the varying marching and parade styles are synced for a joint drill. There is cultural exchange and contingents get to know each other’s food habits also.”
Pune has also emerged as a preferred location for holding such exercises and the Southern Command has played an important role. Pune not only has several military establishments, it also has conducive weather conditions to conduct such exercises.