‘Force 18’, initially labelled ‘FTX-2016’, is an ambitious military training exercise involving army units from eighteen countries – ten members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN,) plus eight observer states – India, Japan, Korea, China, Russia, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. It is scheduled to be held from 2-8 March, in Pune, headquarters of the Indian Army’s Southern Command.
It is interesting that India was readily accepted as the host, planner and manager of the first such war game. May be because India is crucial to maintaining the geopolitical balance in the extended region, and serve as a bridge between China and the United States. It is, moreover, the preferred strategic partner for the littoral states on the South China Sea, as it riles Beijing less to see these countries concert with India than with the US.
It is curious that so many otherwise adversarial armies agreed to be a part of this drill. Perhaps, none of the major military powers – China, US and Russia – wanted to be left out of a group, which could emerge as the lynchpin in a stable Asian order.
Preparations for Force 18 began in September last year with an Indian team, led by Brigadier Ashok Narula. It involved articulating the tasks, defining the tactical manoeuvres, and laying down the benchmarks. Twenty-five foreign army personnel were brought in for training, acquainted with the exercise plan and the separate, distinct roles assigned to various country units in detail. Trainees were taught to recognise and how to go about realizing the planned action parameters. These trainees returned to prepare and train their units for ‘Force 18’.
Achieving a modicum of interoperability between these disparate armies in bilateral/multilateral peacekeeping and mine clearance operations under the aegis of the United Nations in conflict zones is the ostensible aim of this massive exercise. But it will be more a test of the Indian army’s logistics management.
A Unique Military Drill
It is curious that so many otherwise adversarial armies agreed to be a part of a multinational drill.
None of the major military powers – China, US and Russia – wanted to be left out of a group, which could emerge as the focal point of geopolitics.
Interoperability, after all, is a function of familiarity with each other’s best practices and standard operating procedures (SOPs). The first such exercise, in the event, will have the very basic goal of not getting in each other’s way. Many more such military exercises will be needed before the relevant capabilities of the ‘Force 18’ constituents can be meshed.
Observing, interacting and working with each other at close quarters on common military tasks will enable the more advanced, technologically savvy, organisationally flexible, integrated and network-centred militaries to emerge as models to emulate. All this is theory, but will the exercise proceed smoothly in practice?
Adversaries Come Together
There are intriguing aspects of this massive multi-nation military exercise. First, how will these militaries, vastly differing from each other in military culture, ethos and way of doing things, dovetail their attitudes, operating systems and SOPs?
And secondly, how will they perform their assigned collective tasks while remaining careful not to reveal too much of their own specialised weapons, weapons handling skills and modes of command and control and communications in the field, lest this information be used against them during possible tussles in the future?
It is hardly a secret that India and China are at odds, or that ASEAN, backed by the US, are on a collision course with China in the South China Sea. And, that America is at loggerheads with Russia in Syria, and in a revived confrontation redolent of the Cold War, in Europe. Or that Japan is in a condition of near-permanent hostility over the Senkaku/Diayou Islands with China, and more passively with Russia over the Kurile Islands that Stalin ordered to be occupied at the fag end of World War II.
Strong animosities even in peacetime military exercises can, however, translate into rumbles. Violent incidents can be sparked by young, charged-up soldiers over imagined slights, and the situation can quickly get out of hand if the host Indian Army managers fail, for whatever reasons, to maintain control, and the participating troops lose their sense of equanimity. It could well be that – rather than the 18 disparate land force units together honing their respective peacekeeping skills, the Indian side will be kept busy with maintaining peace between them!
Published in ‘The Quint’ March 2, 2016; at http://www.thequint.com/opinion/2016/03/02/force-18-multi-nation-military-drill-will-indian-army-host-well