When the US Navy and Indian forces held their annual bilateral amphibious training exercise in late September, it got little attention from the international media. It was, after all, a relatively small, joint tabletop exercise between the two nations.
But the interesting thing about Exercise Habu Nag was not in the manoeuvres that were being executed, nor their size. It was all about the location—in the waters off Japan’s Okinawa, just as Sino-Japanese tensions were rising over a maritime territorial dispute.
Indeed, it’s fitting that the issue of China again loomed so large over the exercises, because it has been Chinese criticism that in the past couple of years has deterred India from engaging fully with the United States in this way.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Habu Nag is only one of the 35 joint exercises conducted by the Indian and the US armed forces over the past five years. But it marked a noticeable shift even from last year, when the Indian Ministry of Defence refused to grant permission for similar participation by an Indian contingent in an exercise with the United States.
India’s hesitation in 2009 partly stemmed from Beijing’s very vocal protest in 2007 after the US, Indian, Australian, Japanese and Singaporean navies staged the unprecedented Malabar Exercise in the Bay of Bengal, manoeuvres that China saw as part of an attempt at encirclement.
But with India deciding this year to set such concerns aside, Habu Nag saw a week’s worth of training that involved the forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2). As part of the exercise, officers from the Indian Army’s lone amphibious brigade and Indian Navy embarked on the ship to observe the US Marine Corps in action, with a view to enhancing bilateral interoperability, including humanitarian assistance and disaster response between US and Indian officers.
‘A key aspect is that the US has Marines embedded with Navy staff, doing jobs for the Navy that are Marine Corps oriented and vice versa,’ Lt Col Evan Holt, a US Marine liaison officer who worked with the Indian officers, was quoted as saying. ‘We want to demonstrate how two different services with two different goals mesh their operations and personnel to complete those goals.’
Cmdr Gagan Kaushal, of the Indian Navy, noted for his part that the exercise gave India the chance to see for itself up close how the US military works.