Thursday, May 14, 2009

Keating Visit Promotes Growing U.S.-India Military Relationship

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

May 14, 2009 - The senior U.S. commander in the Pacific today shared with Indian government and military leaders the importance of the U.S.-Indian military relationship in furthering peace and stability in a challenging neighborhood. Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters after a whirlwind day of sessions here he hopes that relationship can grow in ways that promote the two countries' shared interests in maritime security, counterterrorism and defense trade.

Keating met with Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and National Security Advisor Mayankote Kelath Narayanan. He also called on Adm. Zurres Mehta, the naval staff chief and chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee; Lt. Gen. Noble Bhawan, vice chief of the army staff; and Air Marshall Pradeep Vasant, slated to take India's top air staff position later this month.

Throughout his visits, Keating said he emphasized the principal tenets of U.S. Pacific Command's strategy: partnership, readiness and presence. He called India an important partner in carrying out that strategy.

"We have a longstanding friendship on a military-to-military basis, we exercise frequently, we exchange personnel, [and] we have frequent visits," he said. "India is a strong partner and a good friend."

The relationship, he told reporters, enhances both militaries' high state of readiness as it enables them to operate together and share expertise and lessons learned.

Keating pointed to the Malabar 2009 naval exercise that wrapped up May 3 as an example of the growing combined exercise program.

India led Malabar 2009, in which about 4,000 members of the Indian, U.S. and Japanese navies trained together in surface, subsurface and air operations. They also conducted a visit, board, search and seize operation aboard USS Blue Ridge to simulate searching a merchant vessel.

Keating said his talks today focused on continuing the increased scope and sophistication of these exercises and exchanges in ways that improve cooperation while sending a strategic message to friends and potential allies alike.

"It demonstrates our commitment to peace and stability throughout the region by being present forward all throughout our area of responsibility," he said.

Responding to reporters' questions, Keating addressed a few of the challenges facing the region: China's military expansion, turmoil in Pakistan and the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka, among them.

Today's talks also focused on violent extremism and ways the United States and India can work together more closely, particularly through the continued sharing of timely information and intelligence that could preclude an attack.

That issue is near and dear to Indians, still stinging from the November terror attacks in Mumbai. The coordinated bombings in the country's financial capital left 173 people dead.

"We want to make it increasingly difficult for those who support violent extremists to move, whether it is financial or logistical support throughout the region," Keating said. "We want those extremists themselves to find it increasingly difficult to move.

"And we want to emphasize our relentless commitment to help those countries who have similar perspectives as we [have], and want to curtail or eliminate the threat of violent extremism," he said. He noted that "almost every country in the world" shares this goal.

Today's discussions also focused on defense cooperation and India's efforts to modernize its military, in part through its military weapons systems program.

This program has grown exponentially since 2006, when India purchased USS Trenton at a cost of $50 million, Joel Ehrendreich, political-military officer at the U.S. Embassy here, told American Forces Press Service.

Since then, India has bought six C-130J Hercules aircraft for its special forces and $2.1 billion in P-8-I maritime reconnaissance aircraft to add more capability to what Keating noted already is a world-class maritime force.

The latest military sales issue on the table involves India's plans to purchase more than 100 multi-role combat aircraft for its air force. The U.S. F-16 Fighting Falcon and F/A-18 Hornet are among the contenders in the $10 billion competition.

India also plans to buy more computer technology so its forces can better network battlefield information, Ehrendreich said.

While boosting India's capabilities, Ehrendreich said, these sales are "completely transforming the way our militaries interact" and improving opportunities for them to work more closely together.

Keating arrived in the world's largest democracy last night as it was wrapping up the last phase of its huge general election. Results are slated to be announced May 16.

"We emphasized from a Pacific Command perspective our terrific respect for and admiration of the democratic process that is unfolding," he said. An estimated 60 percent of India's 714 million eligible voters reportedly cast ballots over the past five weeks.

Regardless of which party wins, Keating expressed confidence that the positive trends between the United States and India will continue. "We look forward to dealing in the same manner in an open, candid exchange of ideas with the new administration in India," he said.

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