Soldiers from 11th Airborne Division, U.S. Army and 9th Assam Regiment, Indian Army pose for the opening ceremony of Exercise Yudh Abhyas 22 on Nov. 18, 2022. Photo by Benjamin Wilson, 11th Airborne Division, via DVIDS.
Some of the world’s most remote and rugged places are fast becoming forums of great power competition. The US, China, and Russia have competing interests in the Arctic. Also, with the US and India deepening their military ties, the Himalayan mountain chain, home to the world's highest peaks, marks another geopolitical flashpoint with China.
On Nov. 19, the "Denali Squadron,” the 1st Squadron of the US Army’s 40th Cavalry Regiment, under the command of the 11th Airborne Division, deployed to India’s Himalayan mountains to take part in the Yudh Abhyas 22 training exercise alongside soldiers from the Indian army’s 9th Assam Regiment.
According to India’s defense ministry, this is the 18th edition of the annual joint exercise. Last year's exercise took place in Alaska. This year, the drills were held near Auli in India’s northern state of Uttarakhand, some 20 miles from India’s disputed Himalayan border with China.
In preparation for the 12-day-long Himalayan war games, the Denali Squadron sent some of its members on an expedition to climb Alaska’s Denali, the highest mountain in North America. The Himalayan drills began on Nov. 19 with a ceremony held at 9,200 feet in clear view of 25,643-foot-high Nanda Devi, India’s second-highest mountain and the 23rd-highest mountain in the world.
“The Denali Paratroopers, joining the 9th Battalion, are aptly named for their focus on reconnaissance and mountaineering across the Arctic and Alaska’s formidable terrain — although the Himalayas will certainly be a new test,” Col. Jody Shouse, Commander of the 2nd Brigade, 11th Airborne Division, said in a Department of Defense release.
Lt. Villagomez, 1st Battalion, 40th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 11th Airborne Division, participates in weapon retention drills and combatives with other soldiers from the 9th Assam Regiment, Indian army, and 1-40th Cav during exercise Yudh Abhyas 22 in November 2022. Photo by Benjamin Wilson, 11th Airborne Division.
India’s defense ministry said in a release that this year’s exercise will focus on mountain warfare, counterdrone operations, casualty evacuation, and combat medical aid in “adverse terrain and climatic conditions.” The exercise will also include training in disaster relief and peacekeeping.
“The next two weeks will bring tough, realistic training,” Shouse said in the Pentagon release.
Soldiers and observers gather in Auli, India, on Nov. 19, 2022, to commemorate the opening of Yudh Abhyas 22. Photo by Benjamin Wilson, 11th Airborne Division.
China and India share a 2,000-mile-long border in the Himalayas. Much of the region is above 14,000 feet in altitude. It is arid and cold, and the unfiltered sunlight at high altitude can cause blindness without proper protection. The lack of oxygen can cause lethal afflictions like pulmonary and cerebral edemas.
Deployed troops spend weeks acclimating to the reduced oxygen levels. For some Indian army troops, this takes place at an outpost on the Chang La pass — at roughly the same height as Mount Everest base camp.
At 13,500 feet in altitude, Pangong-Tso is the highest saltwater lake in the world. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.
Following independence from the United Kingdom in 1947, India inherited a contested Himalayan frontier with China. China’s 1950 invasion of Tibet sparked frequent border skirmishes with India, culminating in a full-blown mountain war in 1962. Those border tensions remain unresolved.
Beginning in the 1950s, the CIA led a covert program to arm, train, and parachute drop Tibetan guerrilla fighters into occupied Tibet to wage an insurgency against Chinese forces. The CIA also recruited Tibetan refugees to stand up an elite mountain warfare unit for India, known as Establishment 22, which was meant to fight China in the Himalayas.
In 2016, India announced it was rebuilding the outfit — now known as the Special Frontier Force — to deter frequent incursions by Chinese troops along the Himalayan border.
In June 2020, at least 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese troops were killed in a brawl in the Ladakh region. Since then, tensions have remained high.
China is reportedly building a massive heliport in southern Tibet within striking range of India. In October, India announced plans to build a new military airfield in Nyoma, a village in the Ladakh region some 30 miles from the Chinese border.
China’s increasingly belligerent military behavior in the Indo-Pacific region is one driver of the tightening defense ties between the US and India, according to the US Department of Defense.
US and Indian military units regularly train together and share intelligence. For its part, India’s military, which has long relied on Soviet-era, Russian exports, has integrated more US hardware into its forces, including Apache helicopters.
In April, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called the US-India military relationship “one of the most consequential partnerships of our time.”
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