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Two B1 heavy bomber jets of US to join exercise in India for first time

B-1B Lancer. Photo: Boeing

NEW DELHI (PTI):  For the first time, two B1 heavy bomber jets of the US Air Force will be part of an India-US mega air exercise that began on Monday amid rapidly evolving regional security scenario and China's growing military muscle-flexing in the Indo-Pacific.

The American platforms at the exercise 'Cope India' that started off Kalaikunda will also include a fleet of F-15 E fighter jets, C-130 and C-17 transport aircraft.

The B1 bombers and F-15 E fighters will join the exercise later this week, Gen Kenneth S Wilsbach, the commander of the US Pacific Air Forces, told a small group of journalists.

Two B1 bombers had joined the American exhibits at Aero India in Bengaluru in February but this will be for the first time that the aircraft will be part of an exercise in India.

Nicknamed "The Bone", the B-1B is a long-range, multi-mission, conventional bomber capable of carrying out missions worldwide from its bases in the United States, as well as from forward deployed locations.

The bomber carries the largest conventional payload of both guided and unguided weapons in the US Air Force and is considered the backbone of America's long-range bomber force.

Talking about the regional security scenario, the senior military commander said the objective of the US as well as other like-minded countries like India is to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Replying to a question, he said the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force along with the PLA Navy has had significant advancements and modernisation of their forces over the last 15 to 20 years.

Gen Wilsbach said Chinese forces have taken a look at who they perceive as their challenges and their threats and are pursuing policies accordingly .

The air forces of the US and India are watching it very closely, he said.

Asked about China ramping up air assets along the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh, he chose not to give a direct reply but noted that the main issues are adherence to rule of law and sovereignty.

The US military commander met Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari and discussed issues of mutual interest and means to further enhance cooperation between the two air forces.

Gen Wilsbach also called on Defence Secretary Giridhar Aramane.

He said the US will deploy two B1 bombers, four to six F-15 Es, one C-17 and two C130s.

The exercise is being held at Air Force Stations Arjan Singh (Panagarh), Kalaikunda and Agra.

It aims to enhance mutual understanding between the two air forces and share their best practices. The first phase of the exercise commenced on Monday.

The Indian Air Force said this phase of the exercise will focus on air mobility and will involve transport aircraft and Special Forces assets from both the air forces.

"We are in a unique part of history. The US's objective in the Indo-Pacific is a free and open Indo-Pacific," the US military commander said.

He said almost all the countries in the region share that goal.

"Certainly India is one of them. What you are seeing is unprecedented cooperation among like-minded countries that value free and open Indo-Pacific, that value democracy, that value that their citizens get to determine their future by voting for their leaders and taking their countries forward," he said.

"That is very positive. That is something happening in the Indo-Pacific. If you bring it down to strategic political, into the military, a lot of those like-minded nations are also working together in one way or the other," he said.

"For those countries which perhaps do not want it to be a free and open Indo-Pacific, they would like to impose their will, that could be problematic," he added.

The Indo-US defence ties have been on an upswing in the last few years.

In June 2016, the US designated India a "Major Defence Partner" paving way for sharing of critical military equipment and technology.

The two countries have also inked key defence and security pacts over the past few years, including the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016 that allows their militaries to use each other's bases for repair and replenishment of supplies.

The two sides also signed COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) in 2018 which provides for interoperability between the two militaries and provides for the sale of high-end technology from the US to India.

In October 2020, India and the US sealed the BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement) agreement to further boost bilateral defence ties. The pact provides for sharing of high-end military technology, logistics and geospatial maps between the two countries.

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