- The Washington Times - Friday, April 19, 2002

India and the United States are planning joint military exercises in Alaska that could boost Indian capabilities in the Himalayan glaciers of northern Kashmir where it faces Pakistan and China.

A spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii said the plan is being worked out and the exercises will be held next year.

The U.S. plan to help India, which in the past has fought at high altitudes against both China and Pakistan, is likely to anger those countries. Pakistan has become an important U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.

This will be the first time Indian forces have been invited to participate in military exercises on the North American continent. It signals an expansion of defense links between the two countries that already encompass intelligence sharing and joint naval patrols in the Indian Ocean between the Straits of Malacca and the Straits of Hormuz.

"Post September 11, there has been a sea change in our relationship with the United States, and things have changed," Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes said in an interview. "Our troops and air force units will soon go to Alaska to do joint exercises. You wouldn't have thought about it earlier."

Mr. Fernandes said the climate and terrain in Alaska would match conditions in the Siachen Glacier of northern Kashmir, where the Indian and Pakistani armies have clashed periodically.

"After all, the Indian army would also like to be trained in areas where the climate is like Siachen. There is nothing amazing about it," Mr. Fernandes said.

The U.S. and Indian air forces also will conduct joint exercises in the South Asian region, he said. "All the three services will have joint exercises."

Joseph Cirincione, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said the plan for exercises in Alaska "definitely marks new levels of cooperation" with India. The United States conducts these kinds of training exercises only with its allies and close friends.

Mr. Cirincione said Washington should be prepared to face the political and diplomatic implications of the move. "It's very likely that Pakistan will have a strong reaction. The same might be said of China. What's the purpose of this training, and who are they training against?"

Capt. John Singley, spokesman for the Pacific Command, which deals with India but not Pakistan, said the plan includes airborne, platoon-level training with the U.S. Army in Alaska. A platoon is composed of roughly 60 soldiers. The Indian side would include a platoon and some observers.

During a visit to New Delhi on Nov. 29, Adm. Dennis Blair, commander of the Pacific Command, proposed improving bilateral military ties that had been frozen since India conducted nuclear tests in 1998. The plan for the Alaska exercises was requested by Mr. Fernandes, Capt. Singley said.

Adm. Blair's visit was followed by a defense policy group meeting in December and a lower-level executive steering group meeting in February, when several training opportunities between the two countries, including the Alaska exercise, were discussed, Capt. Singley said.

He said the original idea was for a "mountain warfare exercise." The mountains in Alaska are "tall and cold," Capt. Singley said, but "it may not be extremely accurate" to derive that the intent of the exercises is to prepare India for warfare in the Himalayan glaciers.

At an altitude of 18,000 feet with temperatures dropping to 50 degrees below zero and sudden blizzards, Siachen Glacier, claimed by both India and Pakistan, is one of the toughest battlefields in the world.

At $13.3 billion, India's defense budget is a fraction of the U.S. defense budget of $379 billion. Meanwhile, India's powerful neighbor, China, has projected its annual defense spending this year at $20 billion.

Mr. Fernandes said India's defense budget for this fiscal year will grow 14 percent according to published figures but that substantial sums are needed to build houses for armed forces personnel and to upgrade weapons that he describes as of "vintage quality."

Shyam Bhatia contributed to this article from New Delhi.

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