- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 12, 2008

LAS VEGAS (AP) | India’s military pilots are expected to participate for the first time in Air Force training exercises above the Nevada desert, marking another step in steadily improving U.S. relations with the Asian subcontinent nation since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

South Korean and French pilots will also take part in the combat exercises that began Monday and will put about 65 airplanes in the skies over two weeks, Air Force officials said.

“This particular Air Force exercise is important because India is included among some very important allies,” said Christine Fair, a South Asia specialist at the RAND Corp., a nonprofit think tank. “This is definitely an extension of an arc that has been mapped out since 2000, and it really signifies that what India and the United States have is a strategic relationship.”

The Indian and U.S. militaries had little interaction during the Cold War, when India was more closely aligned to the Soviet Union and the United States was seen as an ally of Pakistan, India’s neighbor and rival.

But relations have improved, with increasing political, economic and military ties. The Sept. 11 attacks in the United States and the subsequent fight against terrorism brought the two sides even closer.

Military ties have expanded rapidly since then, with a series of joint exercises in the air, on land and at sea. Analysts say the U.S. is eager to use India as a counterbalance to China in the region.

India also is extremely worried about China’s growing military and political influence and has upped its military spending.

The strongest negative reaction to the joint military exercises would most likely come not from China, but from North Korea, said Jing-dong Yuan, a nonproliferation expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

“Pyongyang … has consistently and passionately criticized such ventures, accusing the United States of harboring hostile intentions toward North Korea,” Mr. Yuan said. “Beijing would likely remain reticent [about] such training since it does not see itself as directly and imminently affected by such activities.”

The Air Force exercises are not designed to target any specific country or threat, but to test how the forces would work together during large scale missions, said Capt. Marcus Wilson, team chief for the exercises.

Capt. Wilson said more than 1,000 people would participate in simulations ranging from bomb-dropping to hostage rescue.

A growing military alliance would be welcomed by U.S. firms eager to get a share of the arms market in India, where Russia has long been the prime supplier. India already has agreed to buy six of Lockheed’s C-130J Hercules airlift aircraft for roughly $1 billion.

Boeing Corp. and Lockheed Martin are among those bidding on a $10 billion deal with India to supply 126 fighter aircraft.

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