How recent Indian military war exercises are walking the talk

Winds of change are sweeping the Indian military landscape

54-A-supply-drop-during Aid from the air: A supply drop during the Vayu Shakti 2024 exercise at Pokhran | Sanjay Ahlawat

Surely ‘the times they are a-changing’. In the second week of March, an Indian Air Force Avro aircraft suddenly developed a snag mid-air and made an unplanned landing at the Bhopal civil airport. The problem turned out to be big―the engine had to be swapped out. Faced with a challenging situation, IAF and Indian Army engineers trooped in as if on cue, changed the engine and sent the aircraft up again. There could easily have been a round of applause.

In a sense, Bharat Shakti may well mark the taking off of the integration effort. It is one thing to talk about it and another to walk the talk. Bharat Shakti walked the talk.

More recently, on April 1, the IAF embarked on its biggest exercise―Gagan Shakti―when fighter planes and helicopters took off from different parts of the country to engage pseudo targets at Pokhran. But, the Indian Army also moved ammunition and about 10,000 IAF personnel on 12 passenger trains in order to validate the IAF’s Operational Rail Mobilisation Plan. The passenger trains were named Sanyukta Express to denote the inter-service camaraderie.

In the first four months of 2024, four mega military exercises were organised. Gagan Shakti, which envisaged two-front war scenario and hence included logistics involving the western and northern fronts, preceded by the IAF’s Vayu Shakti (February 17), the Indian Navy’s Milan (February 19), the Indian Army’s Bharat Shakti (March 12). In all these, a key underlying theme was the unprecedented emphasis on jointness.

Such instances of synergy define the winds of change sweeping the Indian military landscape. The age-old practice of mainly operating in silos may soon be a thing of the past. The Centre’s vision of theaterisation, jointness and integration of the tri-forces is already under way under General Anil Chauhan, the chief of defence staff.

Fittingly, the national capital hosted the first ever tri-services planning conference on April 8 where General Chauhan underlined the need for a joint culture among the three services.

In that context, the massive, unprecedented tri-service fire and manoeuvre exercise Bharat Shakti at Pokhran broke new ground. On March 12, the test firing range in Pokhran’s Charlie Sector thundered with the roar of IAF aircraft in the skies as the Army’s artillery, mechanised forces and the infantry opened up their booming guns in a display of synergy in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and firepower coordination and communications.

There were bombing runs and precision bombings by IAF aircraft and helicopters, operations by special forces, and Indian Navy operations (in digital format; telecast on screen because of terrain challenges) that set an example of joint operations of offence and defence.

56-Bharat-Shakti-tri-service-war Full force: Bharat Shakti tri-service war exercise in progress at Pokhran. Naval operations were telecast | PIB

A target area in the desert―10km in length and 5km in breadth―bore the brunt of the bombardment.

A highly placed Army officer said: “The exercise is remarkable because it is practice and demonstration of how an operation would actually unfold, depicting synergy in joint planning and execution.”

A second Army source said: “Coordinating fire and manoeuvre drills by various arms and services is an essential requirement of such large-scale exercises and gives first-hand experience of dealing with such issues in actual battles. These activities include movement of large numbers of equipment and weapon pieces for firing and display, which involves coordination with other services at the highest level. While the efforts are in place and extensive plans are being made to orchestrate integration and bring jointness among the services, Bharat Shakti epitomises these efforts and highlights the contributions of the Army towards achieving integration.”

The officer added that Bharat Shakti signalled to the world military community to subscribe to India’s large defence manufacturing potential.

In a sense, Bharat Shakti may well mark the taking off of the integration effort. It is one thing to talk about it and another to walk the talk. Bharat Shakti walked the talk.

Military strategic analyst Lieutenant General Raj Shukla (retired) told THE WEEK: “India is undergoing the boldest and most ambitious national security reforms since Independence. They are deep, thoughtful and potentially game changing. The grand strategic geometry was laid out by the prime minister himself, in his address during the Combined Commanders’ Conference in December 2015.”

Shukla, who served as the general officer commanding-in-chief of the Shimla-based Army Training Command, added that there were also challenges galore. “On the one hand, we have the military gallop of a powerful China and on the other we face the most profound changes in the character of war in recorded history,” he said. “Bharat Shakti is a key element of this ongoing national security makeover.”

The exercise may be the first attempt by the forces to work out a military manual of combined operations.

The objectives of the exercise also have strategic connotations. Europe, especially the powerhouses France and Germany, view India as a credible military power that can be leveraged to make its presence felt in the Indo-Pacific. After all, the Indo-Pacific has become the new stomping ground for the world powers.

57-IAF-and-Army-engineers-work-together Joint effort: IAF and Army engineers work together to change the engine of an Avro aircraft after it was forced to land at the Bhopal civil airport | IAF

Evidently, the number of military exercises between India and these two European powers has also increased in recent years.

US foreign policy is at its most unstable. The possibility of a comeback by Donald Trump is also being viewed with apprehension by Europe as it may entail a policy change.

It would therefore be in the fitness of things for European powers to assert themselves more autonomously, and, India, with its increasing military, economic and strategic heft, can play a pivotal role towards that goal.

Moreover, with India being a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Indian military, mainly the Navy, will have to demonstrate its enhanced capability. The Indian Navy has propped up its presence in an unprecedented manner in three areas of operations―Gulf of Aden and adjoining areas, the Arabian Sea, and off the east coast of Somalia.

Since December, more than 5,000 Navy personnel have been deployed at sea, over 450 ship days (with over 21 ships deployed) and maritime surveillance aircraft have flown more than 900 hours to address threats. Milan, which took place at Visakhapatnam, saw the participation of about 50 countries. During the exercise, the two aircraft carriers ―Vikrant and Vikramaditya―sailing side by side in the Indian seaboard made for remarkable optics of power projection.

Before Milan, Vayu Shakti, the IAF’s biennial exercise, took place in Pokhran. This year’s exercise was the biggest ever. The IAF exploded 50 tonnes of ordnance in a 9sqkm desert patch in just two hours.

More than 120 aircraft of the IAF―including Rafale, Sukhoi 30, MiG-29, Mirage 2000, Jaguar, Tejas and Hawk fighter aircraft; Apache, Chinook, Prachand and other helicopters, besides the transporters C-17 heavy-lift Globemaster, the C-130J Super Hercules and the workhorse AN-32―had taken part.

The timing of Bharat Shakti was also interesting. Just six days before the exercise began, on March 6, two events on the same day marked two significant milestones for the Indian Navy.

The first MH 60R Squadron was commissioned at Kochi representing significant and effective expansion in the Navy’s reach besides supplementing combat readiness. Addressing a gathering, chief of the naval staff, Admiral R. Hari Kumar said: “With their cutting-edge sensors and multi-mission capabilities, MH 60Rs will augment our maritime surveillance and anti-submarine warfare capabilities.”

But more significant, with regard to strategic implications, is the second event―the commissioning of INS Jatayu at Minicoy island. It will strengthen the Navy’s foothold in Lakshadweep “while extending capacity building, operational reach and sustenance in the region”.

Said Admiral Hari Kumar: “INS Baaz to the east in Andamans and now INS Jatayu in the west at Minicoy will serve as the eyes and ears of the Navy... and the nation across the far reaches of the seas to safeguard our national interests―whatever be the challenge and whosoever be the challenger.”

INS Jatayu is basically a significant enhancement of the naval detachment at Minicoy that was set up in the early 1980s.

Explained Commodore R.S. Vasan (retired), director general, Chennai Centre of China Studies: “INS Jatayu will no longer be a naval detachment. It will be a full-fledged naval station with proper manpower and equipment sanction and unit holding.” He said the development was also related to what was happening in the Maldives, the Suez Canal area and the like. “So as a first responder in the region, the closer the Indian Navy is to the area of incidence, the faster it will be able to respond,” he said. “Moreover, it is close to the sea lines of communication.”

On the domestic front, too, compelling visuals from Bharat Shakti―signalling the rising capabilities of a major military power―would yield political dividends in a country that is going to the parliamentary elections from April 19.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his address at Bharat Shakti hammered in the elements, pointing out that Indian defence exports had increased eight-fold compared with 2014. He also spoke about the pre-2014 multiplicity of defence scams, scarcity of ammunition and deterioration of ordnance factories.

With China replacing Pakistan as India’s biggest adversary, the ground-breaking exercise was also a statement of India’s growing military readiness in the face of growing Chinese presence overseas like Sri Lanka’s Hambantota and on Myanmar’s southern seaboard, and China’s domination in the politics of the strategically located Maldives, not to speak of an up-and-running military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. The Chinese moves are read by strategic experts as a furtherance of China’s String of Pearls strategic initiative.

An interesting facet of Bharat Shakti was that only homemade weapon systems, platforms, and technologies were featured. It was a message to the world that India can produce effective platforms on its own.

What slightly marred the exhibition of India’s synergised military machismo was the crash of a Tejas LCA fighter aircraft that had taken part in the exercise. The Tejas is expected to make up for the depletion of fighter squadrons in the IAF besides being a prime item of export to foreign countries.