By Brig Narender Kumar
The military is undoubtedly a powerful instrument of state policy for securing vital national interests. Military diplomacy is symbolic of strategic signaling and ability of a nation to use the military as a tool of national power. Joint military training, multinational exercises, port calls by naval ships, military to military dialogues, imparting training and cross-attachment of military personals is part of military diplomacy and military to military engagement. It enhances the level of trust, familiarity with the armies, equipment, development of concepts, joint doctrines, development of drills and procedures for out of area contingencies and understanding of the functioning of other armies. Operationally joint exercises help in refining drills and procedures for disaster relief operations, dealing with common threats, counter-terrorist operations and joint operations under United Nations Flag. There is also strategic signaling when two allies undertake joint exercises with high-end military hardware such as combat air arm, naval warships and Special Forces. Even cyber and electronic war exercises are also a new activity being undertaken among the allies and defence partners against common threats.
India has realized the potential of joint military exercises as part of military diplomacy. In the last decade or so India has undertaken army joint exercises with 18 countries, naval exercises with 14 countries and air force exercises with 08 countries. It includes neighbouring countries, strategic partners, maritime neighbours and countries with whom India share common interests and common threats. The objectives for joint military exercises are different, it ranges from inter-operability to demonstration of capabilities, developing trust, comradery and familiarity between militaries. It is also used to reduce trust deficit and building bridges with strategic competitors. The location of exercises in itself is an indication of deep engagement and trust with the partners. The naval exercises between India, Japan and the US in the Sea of Japan obviously is a signal directed to China.
It is important to understand the process of joint military training that require detailed planning, common understanding and common interests aligned with national strategic interests. It begins with formal discussions between the commanders and staff officers to discuss the scenarios, force levels, locations, a broad discussion on outline plans and objectives of the exercises. Next stage is a tabletop exercise where plans are discussed and war-gamed between commanders and staff officers involved in the conduct of the exercise. For land forces the commanders or the representatives’ visit on the ground to assess the logistic requirements and suitability of the exercise areas for administrative purpose as well as form the training point of view. The joint exercises begin with refreshing the drills and procedures, familiarity with the weapons, equipment, cultural exchange programs and sports competitions before the troops undertake final war exercises to test the skills and joint-ness achieved between the units and formations. The joint military exercises culminate in summing up where commanders highlight objectives achieved, areas of further refinement of drills and procedures and setting the stage for next set of exercises planned in future.
India has been a late starter as far as military diplomacy and cooperation between the militaries is concerned. The purpose of joint military exercises varies from country to country and region to region. Military exercises with the US, Japan and Vietnam could be strategic signaling to China and test interoperability between the participating nations in a conflict scenario. Joint military exercises between India and regional neighbours such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka could be to develop trust, create a deeper understanding for inter-operability during Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations and counter-terrorism operations. Joint training with African Armies is to build a military to military relation and develop goodwill between the armies of participating nations. The question is why should India carry out joint military exercises with China? It has a dual purpose, first is confidence building measure and second, to display combat skills and capabilities.
NATO conducted Exercise Trident Juncture 2018, where more than 50,000 soldiers, 250 combat aircraft and 65 naval vessels took part. NATO Spokesperson said that “Trident Juncture sends a clear message to their nations and to any potential adversary: NATO does not seek confrontation but stand ready to defend all allies against any threat”. He further said, it is a strong display of NATO capabilities and resolve to work together." Such exercises are conducted in real war scenarios to give confidence and a sense of security to the allies. The war scenario created during the exercises may be fictitious but the lessons that the forces derive are often real.
In response to NATO exercise, Russia and China conducted Vostok-2018 exercise by mobilizing 300,000 Russian soldiers, 36,000 military vehicles, 80 ships and 1,000 aircraft, helicopters and drones, and 3,500 Chinese troops. On one side it displayed Russian military might and on the other side, it also showed coming together of Russia and China for common strategic interests even if it means confronting NATO. It signalled a potential future alliance between China and Russia, should the interests of these countries are compromised by Western Military Alliance.
These exercises also act as a platform to assess weapons, equipment and a display of technology that can be made available to allies. Russia has been using such opportunities to showcase their technology and how these high-end systems can enhance the capabilities of their potential buyers.
Attending courses under military exchange programs build a lasting partnership among the alumnus. There is a strong alumni association of National Defence College and Defence Services Staff College Wellington, India, with their foreign colleagues/ course-mates. Such alumni associations work effectively while the military leaders reach higher ranks and form a strong military to military bond and assist in settling issues that at times diplomats may not be able to settle. Joint military training exercises are a potent tool of military diplomacy and need to be given due importance in an era where strategic posturing is becoming a tool of diplomacy.
The author is a distinguished fellow of United Service Institution of India