US and Indian troops are teaming up for tough training in the Himalayas near a tense border with China

US and Indian troops are teaming up for tough training in the Himalayas near a tense border with China
US and Indian soldiers during a field-training exercise for Yudh Abhyas in Alaska in October 2021.US Air Force/Alejandro Peña
  • US soldiers are training with Indian troops in the Himalayas this month for exercise Yudh Abhyas.
  • This year's version of the exercise is being held near India's disputed border with China.

US soldiers arrived in India this month for Yudh Abhyas, venturing to the Himalayas for the 18th iteration of the annual exercise to train in cold, mountainous conditions with Indian troops.

The exercise, held around Auli in the northern state of Uttarakhand, comes as the US and India both manage rising tensions with China, and the training is seen as a message to each other and to China about the strength of their relations.

Yudh Abhyas has alternated between the US and India since the early 2000s. In 2021, it took place in Alaska for only the second time. The US participants this year are members of the Alaska-based 11th Airborne Division, which was reactivated this summer to focus on operations in extreme cold and mountainous conditions — a skill set getting renewed attention from the US, its allies, and their rivals.

"The Army typically doesn't go to the Himalayas, and now we have an Arctic force and we're training in the Arctic. We feel confident that we could do things like that now that the Army couldn't do before," Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, 11th Airborne Division commander, said in an interview at the Association of the US Army conference in Washington DC in October.

"The Indian Army asked us last year to train at 10,000 feet up in the Himalayas," Gen. Charles Flynn, head of the US Army's Pacific forces, said at the conference. "Now we have a force capable of being able to say, 'Yes, we'll be there.'"


According to an Indian press release, the two-week exercise will focus on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and include "all operations related to peace keeping & peace enforcement."

In addition to a command-post exercise and expert discussions, it will include a field-training exercise involving "establishment and functioning of surveillance grids," mountain-warfare training, and casualty evacuation and combat medical aid "in adverse terrain and climatic conditions," as well as drone and counter-drone operations, the release says.

The exercise was originally scheduled for October and US soldiers wanted to parachute in, but the jump didn't work out and the exercise was delayed until this month, kicking off on November 19.

US and Indian troops are teaming up for tough training in the Himalayas near a tense border with China
US soldiers play cards as they acclimatize to the elevation in Uttarakhand in November.US Army 11th Airborne Division

"But they do want us to be up there and have us in Himalayas, and we're like, 'Yeah, absolutely,'" Eifler said, adding as part of US Indo-Pacific Command, his division's task is to focus on working with countries in the region "that have those extreme cold [conditions] and mountain terrain."

Yudh Abyhas has previously taken place elsewhere in northern India, including in Uttarakhand, but this year it is being held only about 60 miles from the Line of Actual Control, a 2,100-mile boundary separating China and India that was established as part of a truce following their 1962 border war.


Parts of the LAC remain disputed, and after decades of relative calm, that dispute flared in June 2020, when at least 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese troops were killed in a brawl in the Ladakh region northwest of where Yudh Abyhas is being held.

Since then, New Delhi and Beijing have held a series of talks leading to the disengagement of troops and equipment that both sides moved into the area before and after the June 2020 clash, but they continue to bolster their military presence and infrastructure in the region.

US and Indian troops are teaming up for tough training in the Himalayas near a tense border with China
An Indian army convoy on a highway leading to Ladakh, in Kashmir's Ganderbal district in June 2020.REUTERS/Danish Ismail

"The US and India probably anticipated that conducting the exercise near the Chinese border would draw Beijing's ire. It sends a useful hint — to both China and equally the Indian Army — that the US appreciates India's security concerns on the border," Arzan Tarapore, South Asia research scholar at Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, told Insider.

"But as far as political signaling goes, the US and India have still left some room to escalate — while this iteration is near the border, it is not near disputed stretches of the LAC or near recent crisis areas," Tarapore added.

The exercise also reflects the recent advancement of US-Indian relations, particularly on defense issues. "The deepening of strategic and defense ties on a bilateral front has been significant," India's ambassador to the US, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, said this month.


Between 2002 and 2020, the two militaries signed four foundational agreements allowing for expanded cooperation on logistics and communications and sharing of classified information.

US and Indian troops are teaming up for tough training in the Himalayas near a tense border with China
Indian soldiers during Yudh Abhyas in Alaska in October 2021.US Air Force/Alejandro Peña

In addition to increased US arms sales and larger exercises, the militaries have achieved several milestones in recent years, including the first visit by a US bomber aircraft and the first repair of a US naval ship in an Indian shipyard.

The US Army has sent India's army some 30,000 sets of "extreme cold-weather gear" for individuals and small units "over the last couple of years," Flynn said in October, "because operating at that altitude and in those conditions is radically different" from other environments.

Tarapore, whose researches Indian defense policy, said that beyond political signals, US-Indian military exercises should aim to build "understanding, trust, and interoperability."

"We should be watching to see if each iteration of Yudh Abayas gets more realistic, more complicated, tests more military functions, and scenarios more likely to be used in the real world," Tarapore told Insider, adding that this year's focus on disaster response and "some fairly complex staff and field components" was "a good sign."


"The more complex and realistic an exercise is, the better postured they will be to work together in real contingencies — and to deter potential adversaries," Tarapore said. "Ultimately, that's the goal of the military relationship."