India military units join Army paratroopers in Alaska for cold-weather joint exercises

The trainings aim to boost cooperation between the two militaries in extreme altitude and Arctic operations.

At a shooting range in view of the Glenn Highway, American and Indian soldiers took turns firing each other’s machine guns.

Around 350 members of India’s military are in Alaska for two weeks of joint exercises with units from the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division stationed at Anchorage’s Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. The bilateral set of trainings happens every year, though this round — which got underway over the past week — marks only the second time it’s taken place in Alaska.

American soldiers gave quick lessons in some of the infantry’s most common firearms before their counterparts received a chance to unleash them at targets scattered across the firing range.

“This weapon system gets really hot,” said Sgt. Xavior Lincoln, giving a tutorial on how to swap out the barrel of a .50-caliber machine gun to a clutch of Indian soldiers.

Lincoln showed them the posture U.S. Army soldiers assume, crouching behind the tripod-mounted machine gun and bracing their elbows on their knees as they pump bursts of bullets.

“They don’t have anything like it,” said Capt. Bradley Mikinski of the .50-caliber guns.

Likewise, the U.S. soldiers had been awed by the compact grenade launchers in the Indian arsenal, a novelty for the Americans, Mikinski said.

“Yudh Abhyas,” as the annual exercises are named, is intended to get the militaries of both countries better acquainted with each other’s weapon systems, war-fighting tactics, survival techniques and cultures. That includes mountaineering skills, as well as Arctic and high-altitude environment training. Both sides have lessons to share with the other.

“This is an opportunity to learn the best practices from each other,” said Brigadier Parag Nangare from the Indian Army (the Indian Army uses a different rank system from the U.S. Army).

“A lot of our forces are presently operating back home in a high-altitude and extreme cold climate weather, because our borders are such,” Nangare said.

India shares a long, mountainous border with China that cuts across the Himalayan Plateau. In recent years, tensions there have escalated into all-out violence, including clashes that have left dozens of troops dead. As China flexes its military might along its borders and across the Indo-Pacific region, the United States has repeatedly tried to shore up its presence in the area, first with the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” and more recently with the Biden administration’s push to strengthen ties with allies.

In addition to field exercises, another set of troops from both countries is spending its days hunkered down in a conference room working together on a large-scale simulation of a United Nations peacekeeping mission.

These bilateral trainings go back to 2004, Nangare said, and have nothing to do with the latest skirmishes along the Sino-Indian boarder.

At a tall tower tucked back on the base, troops from both countries showed off different techniques for rappelling. One, called “the scorpion” by the Indian mountaineers, involved soldiers flipping mid-descent, then lowering themselves face-first, stomach pressed flat against the wall, with one arm outstretched to hold a weapon. A commander explained it was an effective way to shimmy down on an unsuspecting enemy from above.

“We’re giving them demonstrations on actual drills that we follow in extreme cold climates, like avalanche crossing,” Nangare said. “We’ve got a lot of experience.”

“We know that technologically the U.S. Army is far superior, and something we’d like to take back is how they work in a technologically advanced environment,” Nangare said.

One such example are helicopter medevac trainings. In a field covered in cracked snow, teams of American and Indian soldiers took turns loading comrades strapped down to gurneys into the belly of a Blackhawk helicopter. The chopper would load up, lift off, then fly a little loop over the field’s far end, looming over leafless birch stands for a minute before swooping back down for a soldier swap-out. During each takeoff and landing, troops on the ground were instructed to lie over the prone faux-casualty in their care to shield them from the chilly blasts of wind kicked off the rotor wash.

In idle minutes, Indian and American soldiers crowded together for group photos on one another’s smartphones, snowy mountains and bobbing helicopters in the background.

One of the other aims of such bilateral exercises, Nangare said, is “to make good friends” and get acquainted with each other’s cultures.

Over the weekend, members of both militaries participated in an interfaith ceremony comprising Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian elements designed to introduce U.S. troops to India’s multiple religious traditions.

Troops from Alaska’s 4-25 brigade are scheduled to go to India next year for trainings there in the Himalayas.