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Indian troops train with U.S. in Hawaii
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Wednesday, September 20, 2006 Last updated 2:29 a.m. PT

Indian troops train with U.S. in Hawaii



Indian troops from the Gorkha Rifles battalion sit near American "Stryker" Interim Armored Vehicles, during a joint anti-insurgency exercise with U.S. 25the Infantry Division members, at the Schofield Army Base in Wahiwa, Hawaii, Friday, Sept. 15, 2006. (AP Photo/Ronen Zilberman)

SCHOFIELD BARRACKS, Hawaii -- As 40 Indian soldiers descend on a mock village in the Oahu mountains to hunt for insurgents, they are watched by U.S. Army officers looking for lessons they can apply when leading their units through the same exercise.

The troops are on the island for the biggest joint drills the Indian and U.S. armies have had to date, the latest sign of growing military relations between the two nuclear powers.

The bilateral exercise, called Yudh Abhyas, or "training for war" in Hindi, started four years ago with a handful of Indian and U.S. soldiers. It has since ballooned to feature hundreds of troops, including 140 Indians who flew to Hawaii, which hosts the U.S. Pacific Command whose reach extends to their homeland.

"It's a tremendous expansion," said Col. Dinesh Singh, of the Indian army's 3rd Battalion, 9th Gurkha Rifles. He added the exercises were now teaching platoons from the two nations how to talk to each other in the field.

"If you're talking about interoperability, this is the basic thing. We should be able to understand each other's actions," he said.

The U.S.-Indian military relationship is relatively young. The two sides had little interaction during the Cold War when socialist India was closer to the Soviet Union. They found more common ground in the 1990s, a trend that accelerated after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks when the U.S. cultivated India as a partner in the war against terror.

Analysts say the U.S. is eager to deepen military ties with India to learn some of the counterinsurgency methods India's military has developed during its long battle against separatists in Kashmir. The Americans also want India's large navy to help patrol the seas for terrorists and pirates, analysts say.

There's also a U.S. desire to use India to balance China's growing power and influence, said Itty Abraham, research fellow with the East-West Center in Washington, D.C.

"From the government's point of view, India has become, though people in Washington won't admit it so openly - it's not a nice thing to say - America's counterweight to China," said Abraham. "So anything that increases U.S.-India ties - military, business, cultural, media, any of that stuff - is moving in the right direction as far as Washington is concerned."

India, meanwhile, is eager to learn from the world's most technologically advanced military.

Donald L. Berlin, a professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, said India also believes a closer relationship with the U.S. will help it become a bigger power regionally and internationally.

The friendship has its obstacles though.

The U.S. Congress still hasn't approved an agreement signed by the two nation's leaders in March that allows U.S. nonmilitary nuclear trade with India in return for safeguards and inspections at India's 14 civilian nuclear plants.

Supporters say the deal strengthens a strategic relationship with a friendly country that has long maintained a responsible nuclear program. Plus it would provide clean energy to a country desperate to fuel a booming economy.

Critics counter that the plan encourages the spread of nuclear weapons and fans an India-Pakistan nuclear arms race by effectively giving U.S. recognition to India's nuclear weapons program. They also complain the agreement doesn't allow for inspections at India's eight military plants.

Such concerns were absent at Schofield Barracks, however.

Maj. Bob Risdon, who designed the exercises for the U.S. Army's 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, said U.S. troops could learn search tactics from Indian forces, who ask homeowners to lead them on searches of their homes. Such searches appear less intrusive and could help troops win the trust of the local population, he said.

"You can figure out a lot about people that way, too. You can figure out if they're trying to hide something," Risdon said.

Lt. Col. Matt Kelley, the 1st Battalion commander, said he was impressed by the way Indians ambushed and disarmed two insurgents during one exercise. American troops, in the same drill, simply shot and killed the men, he said.

"They've just gained huge intelligence value from that - instead of killing them, they've captured them," Kelley said.

Singh, the Indian army commander, said he valued the heightened reality of the U.S.-designed exercises, which forced troops to react quickly and rely on their reflexes.

Military planners say the joint exercises are getting more complex each year as the two nations find more ways to work together.

"India is the world's largest democracy. They're a strategic partner for the United States and an important friend for the United States," said Col. Mark Haskins, the U.S. Pacific Command's South Asia policy chief.

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