RAJASTHAN, India -- Soldiers of the U.S. and Indian armies concluded the 16th iteration of bilateral exercise Yudh Abhyas during a closing ceremony Feb. 21 at Mahajan Field Firing Range in India.
The two-week, U.S. Army Pacific-sponsored exercise included a combined total of approximately 500 troops from the two armies, who together conducted a challenging, realistic field training exercise (FTX) along with a complex command post exercise (CPX), designed to further foster Indo-U.S. partnership and interoperability.
The closing ceremony included remarks by Indian Army Maj. Gen. Michael AJ Fernandez, Vishisht Seva Medal, outgoing commander of India’s 24th Infantry Division, and U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Xavier T. Brunson, commander of the U.S. Army 7th Infantry Division.
“It is a singular honor for the Southwestern Army to conduct this exercise,” said Fernandez. “At the macro level, it has been a step further in the continuing journey of close friendship between our two great nations and world-class armies.”
Representing the Indian Army this year was 11th Battalion of the Jammu And Kashmir (JAK) Rifles, along with the command and staff of 170th Infantry Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Mukesh Bhanwala.
The U.S. contingent – from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. – included Soldiers of 2-3 Infantry Battalion, as well as the command and staff of their parent brigade, 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, commanded by Col. Jared D. Bordwell. Additional U.S. personnel came from 5th Security Forces Assistance Brigade, I Corps, and the Washington National Guard.
“We came here seeking opportunities for interoperability, to train and to learn from the Indian Army, and I think we achieved that significantly,” said Maj. Gen. Brunson.
The FTX allowed the infantrymen of 11th JAK Rifles and 2-3 Inf. Bn. to sharpen tactical skills and build interoperability through rigorous battle drills, combined maneuvers with mixed squads of Indian and U.S. Soldiers, stress shoots and hands-on familiarization with one another’s vehicles and weapons. More than 25,000 rounds of U.S. small-arms ammunition, plus over 150 mortars, were fired during live-fire ranges. Soldiers focused heavily on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations and practiced missions like cordon and search, room-clearing, counter-IED and various mounted and dismounted maneuvers.
Indian Army soldiers learned about the Stryker armored vehicle and special equipment like the recently fielded Black Hornet miniature drone, while U.S. service members became more familiar with Indian equipment like the BMP-2 Infantry Fighting Vehicle and the Medium Machine Gun.
“Our Soldiers loved working with their weapon systems and seeing how they did things,” said U.S. Army Capt. Michael P. Garman, commander of Company B, 2-3 Inf. Bn. “Our Soldiers definitely enjoyed just being there – the camaraderie with our Indian partners…It has been an absolutely pleasure to work with the 11th JAK Rifles.”
Their Indian Army partners expressed similar feelings.
“Exercise Yudh Abhyas has been an enriching experience for all of us,” said Indian Army Maj. Rajat Shikhar Joshi, of the 11th Bn. JAK Rifles. “Training with 2-3 Infantry Battalion has given us different perspectives of tactics and interoperability between our two great armies.”
At the same time, the CPX enabled the Indian and U.S. brigade staffs to practice planning and executing brigade-level missions based on a UN peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance scenario. Both staffs became more familiar with one another’s task organization, processes and capabilities as a result.
The complex scenario in the fictional, war-torn nation of Mojave challenged the Indo-U.S. brigade staff to engage with various stakeholders, determine how best to degrade insurgent networks within strict rules of engagement, safeguard humanitarian efforts, react to dynamically changing situations and set conditions for long-term peace and stability in the region.
Yudh Abhyas also included a rich array of cross-cultural experiences. U.S. service members joined their Indian partners for yoga and participated in sports tournaments with mixed Indian-U.S. teams. Both contingents traveled to the city of Bikaner to learn about the area’s history and culture. The Indian Army also invited their American counterparts to join them in celebrating the Indian festival of Basant Panchami; together they celebrated the coming of spring with dancing, food, kite-flying and camel rides.
U.S. Soldiers were impressed by the Indian Army’s hospitality during these events and indeed throughout the exercise.
“It’s amazing. Our living facilities here, the food, everyone’s personality – everyone’s so welcoming,” said U.S. Army Spc. Christie Demps, a medic assigned to 2-3 Inf. Bn. “I was really blown away…by this level of hospitality.
For some of the U.S. Soldiers, the cultural experience was uniquely personal. U.S. Army Capt. Tanvir Kalam was born and raised in Queens, N.Y. but as the son of immigrants from the West Bengal region of India, the 1-2 SBCT staff officer felt right at home with many aspects of Indian culture. He was excited to revisit some of his favorite dishes from childhood, including jelabi, a popular Indian dessert served at the final ceremonial dinner – an event that also featured a number of traditional dances and performances reminiscent of his early years.
“It made me feel very appreciative,” Kalam said. “Just to be in a setting where my fellow Soldiers were also able to enjoy the things I enjoyed as a child was both incredibly rewarding and fascinating.”
Both Kalam and another U.S. officer of Indian heritage, Maj. Sameer Puri of the Washington National Guard, also reconnected with the sacred rituals of Basant Panchami when they attended a temple service and took part in the ceremony alongside their Indian partners.
The exercise took place against the backdrop of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and was one of the U.S. Army’s first exercises to be completed in the Indo-Pacific region during this period.
Both the Indian and U.S. armies observed numerous precautions to mitigate the risks of COVID-19 before and during the exercise.
“Stringent testing along with restrictions of movement helped ensure the safety both of our unit and our Indian counterparts,” said U.S. Army Maj. Kevin Maskell, 1-2 SBCT surgeon. “Soldiers were tested prior to departing the U.S., and tested again by the Indian Army once we arrived in India. We then continued to require the wear of face coverings, provided hand-sanitizing stations at dining facilities and training sites, and monitored for any symptoms during the exercise.”
While addressing the combined team of Indian and U.S. soldiers at the closing ceremony, Brunson emphasized the importance of continuing this kind of training while remaining cognizant of the challenges posed by the pandemic.
“Given all that’s happening in the world, that you were able to support this exercise and conduct this exercise – and do it well – is a testament to your professionalism,” he said. “We must continue to train and be ready to answer the nation’s call, regardless of environmental changes that we face.”