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The story of Force Alpha, which included the INS Panvel, is the stuff of legends. A disparate group assembled from limited resources not only braved challenges and risked capture, but launched a mighty counter offensive against enemy forces and protected and rescued its comrades.




The India-Pakistan war of 1971 ended on 16 December with the surrender of over 90,000 troops of the Pakistan Military at Dhaka, the largest surrender after the Second World War. This war, for the liberation of Bangladesh, was special in many ways. While the political and diplomatic apparatus worked in tandem towards a common terminal objective, our armed forces fought with great cohesion to achieve a decisive military victory. This war was even more crucial for the Indian Navy, as it was for the first time, since Independence, that the Indian Navy was deployed for large-scale combat in an offensive role. There were innumerable acts of courage and audacity displayed by all the three services and they are rightfully celebrated. The Navy’s catalogue of glory included several feats, many of which are remembered 50 years later—be it the attack on Karachi, the sinking of Ghazi, the achievements of Vikrant’s air wing in the Bay of Bengal or the poignant loss of Khukri. However, one of the lesser known facets of the war is the sterling achievements of a small unit called the Force Alpha and its ‘flagship’ INS Panvel.

‘Force Alpha’ was a strange makeshift arrangement, a maritime task force comprising two gunboats of the ‘flower class’, Padma and Palash, loaned from the West Bengal government, Chitrangada, a watercraft of the Border Security Force (BSF) and INS Panvel, a seaward defence boat, as its command ship. Commander Mohan Narayan Rao (MNR) Samant, an outstanding submariner (the description by Lt Gen JFR Jacob, the Chief of Staff of Army’s Eastern Command) who had earlier commanded a frontline submarine, was the Senior Officer of this force. Padma and Palash were retrofitted with L-60 Bofors guns, machine guns on their bridges and had their decks reinforced. They were manned mostly by Mukti Bahini men. Chitrangada was fitted only with machine guns.

Line drawing of Poluchat Class.INS Panvel.

Table of Poluchat Class.
Lt cdr Noronha.
Cdr Samant
Photo of Cdr Ashok Kumar holding the phoot of Panvel.

Panvel, owing to her two 40 mm Bofors guns, seemed comparatively more ‘powerful’. However, Panvel was a very small ship of the Poluchat class, one of our smallest acquisitions from the erstwhile USSR. It weighed 90 tons and was merely 29 metres long. It had a single toilet, shower and kitchen shared among all personnel. From a small complement of 16, its crew grew to 30 when the Bofors guns were fitted. A latter day analyst may describe this as laughably Lilliputian, but to Lt Cdr Joseph Pius Alfred (JPA) Noronha, the Commanding Officer, this was no less than a Cruiser Command. In addition, the force carried limpet mines, explosives, small arms and other equipment necessary to undertake underwater sabotage, scuttling and boarding operations.

The task assigned to Force Alpha was to undertake a maritime attack on the port complex of Chalna and Mongla, thereby, achieving an offensive on the adversary from the sea and to dislocate its forces, as also to cripple the war waging potential which was being sustained through shipping at these crucial river harbours. Interestingly, the task force was operating directly under the orders of the Eastern Army Command at Kolkata and not the Eastern Naval Command.

In the book Transition to Triumph, Cdr (later Captain) MN Samant is quoted as saying, “After the war was declared, Lt General Arora and Major General Jacob ordered me to organize a maritime attack on Chalna and Mongla. This was because the Indian Army’s 41 Brigade was directly locked in combat with its Pakistani counterpart to take over the Chalna and Khulna area, which was not falling. So the next best alternative was to mount an attack from seaward to dislocate the Pakistan troops.” Attacks on Pakistani shipping in harbours and at the anchorages of Chalna-Mongla also formed part of the plan.

The Force departed on the morning of 07 Dec 71, from Hasnabad, a river port on the Indian side and travelled several miles in the Sunderbans delta. They braved numerous odds like Pakistani direction-finding teams trying to locate them, the lack of precise navigation charts (they had to use Indian Army Ordnance Maps instead) and the passages undertaken in the unfamiliar, narrow and complicated waterways of the Sunderbans, at times in pitch dark conditions. In fact, Palash ran aground on a sandbank soon after departure and had to be yanked out by Padma using her tow rope.

An hour past midnight of 8/9 December ‘71, when Force Alpha was at Akram Point at the mouth of Pussur River, Panvel detected two medium-sized ships fleeing the warzone. As the vessels had greater speeds than him and were out of the range of the force’s guns, Samant relayed information about them to the Eastern Fleet operating in the Bay of Bengal. This, thus, led to the Pakistani merchant ships MV Baqir and MV Anvar Baksh being apprehended by INS Rajput. These ships were carrying Pakistani military personnel and families and large quantities of weapons and ammunition. They were taken as prizes of war by the Indian Navy.

The ships of this task force now turned northwards into the Pussur. The river was the lifeline of Khulna and housed the largest inland port of East Pakistan, the Chalna-Mongla Port complex. These ports accounted for most of Pakistan’s waterborne trade, generated massive revenues for the government and, most importantly, provided the heavily guarded military garrisons at Khulna with critical supplies from West Pakistan through the maritime routes. To achieve maximum surprise, Force Alpha entered Mongla at first light on 10 December.

The enemy forces were nowhere to be found except for brief firing from isolated pockets which was quickly neutralized. The task force came alongside at Mongla and was greeted with joyous cheers by the local populace which had gathered on the jetty. Locals informed that the Pakistan forces had fled and Mukti Bahini was in control of the area. As a follow up, boarding parties were deployed by Samant to clear up small pockets of resistance and salvage whatever crucial information they could from the burning ships which included Pakistani flagged vessels. These boarding parties swiftly accomplished their tasks. Chitrangada was ordered to stay back at Mongla for overseeing salvage operations, rendering assistance to the local population and as a rearguard.

With no sign of the enemy at Mongla, Panvel, Palash and Padma began their journey towards Khulna which was 30 km upstream and arrived there around 1100 hours on 10 December 1971. East Pakistan’s industrial heartland, the Khulna area, was heavily guarded by Pakistani forces. The Indian Army’s 41 Brigade, which was advancing in this area from the west, was locked in fierce combat with Pakistan Army’s 107 Brigade. Force Alpha was ordered to launch a waterborne offensive on these Pakistani forces from their rear, from the Rupsha river (a tributary of Pussur), which lay east of Khulna, in order to dislocate the adversary’s spine.

Apart from being an important commercial hub, Khulna also housed PNS Titumir, an important naval base of East Pakistan. The siege of Titumir would have severely affected the morale of the Pakistani forces in the region. As the ships traversed the length of Rupsha, Pakistani soldiers and Razakars, the pro-Pakistan militiamen, emerged from bunkers on the western bank of the river and commenced firing at the ships with their rifles and machine guns.

Just when the ships had begun silencing the Razakars, Gnat fighter jets of the Indian Air Force (IAF) appeared on the scene. These, apparently, were not a cause for concern for Force Alpha as the ships were displaying large yellow flags, their pre-arranged signal for being identified by IAF aircraft as friendlies. Yet, the fog of war intervened. Despite the flags, the Gnats failed to identify the Indian ships and fired at them. Their rockets narrowly missed Panvel but Padma was hit. It burst into flames and was incapacitated instantly. Palash also took a massive rocket hit and was in flames. She managed to quickly head for the eastern bank while her crew abandoned the ship and leapt into the water. As the third Gnat again headed straight for Panvel, her Commanding Officer Lt Cdr Noronha carried out violent evasive manoeuvres to save his ship. He ordered the ship to be beached and abandoned, and within seconds, the crew took cover. Just two men — Sub Lieutenant Ashok Kumar and Raju, an electrical sailor — remained on board, keeping the engines running. Panvel had escaped the attack of the Gnats unscathed.

After the IAF fighters disappeared, Samant, Noronha and the other crew re-boarded Panvel. Using her engines effectively, Panvel unbeached herself and got underway. Samant decided to turn around and pick up the survivors of Padma and Palash, who were stranded in the river and were now facing heavy fire from the Pakistani Army and militia. As she approached to rescue the crew, she simultaneously engaged the enemy bunkers on both banks, thereby, suppressing their fire. At this time, the second wave of Gnats arrived. Panvel repeated the evasive manoeuvring and was saved again. After the Gnats peeled off, Panvel continued the rescue efforts and, by the end of the day’s action, picked up 14 crew members of Palash and Padma.

Thereafter, Panvel unleashed her firepower. She destroyed every single fortification of the adversary on either side of Rupsha. Her 40/60 Bofors gun rattled the town of Khulna for over an hour, annihilating the shipyard, many government offices and other significant infrastructure which stood on the western bank. As Samant recollects, “At about the time that the second wave of Gnats attacked, the Pakistanis opened fire on us, including on those survivors who were swimming in the water to save themselves. This was something which I could not tolerate, so I replied furiously, firing almost all Panvel’s ammunition to subdue the Pakistani attack. After that, I collected the wounded people on board and after hoisting the Bangladesh flag on Khulna Jail, we returned to attend to the wounded.”

Noronha had similar recollections. As he stated, “After rescue, we started the attack on the shore defences. Some Pakistani ships which were hit earlier had been brought to Khulna for repairs and were being used as fortresses. They were firing at us through the port holes and from whatever vantage point they could get. So I used gunfire to silence them”. Ashok Kumar, who was in-charge of the firing, remembers counting 600 shells. He says, “Not a single shell misfired, not a single shell got jammed. My crew was doing all this even though they were facing enemy fire and had no cover. That day, fortune favoured the brave as Panvel rained destruction on Khulna.”

Eleven members of Force Alpha had laid down their lives in this bloody action. They included seven Mukti Bahini personnel, a soldier of the BSF and three Indian Naval personnel. Apart from these, several others were missing in action and later reported as captured by the Pakistani forces at Khulna. These included four Indian Navy personnel who were released after the surrender. In custody, they were initially roughed up—Lt Mitter was almost shot and Petty Officer Chiman Singh’s finger nearly hacked—but, later, they were given good medical care. Further, many others were injured seriously— losing a limb or flesh or having deep searing wounds due to a combination of fire, explosion, shock, exhaustion due to swimming or other reasons. While Noronha narrowly missed getting injured, Samant had a grazing bullet wound and Kumar had a bullet injury through his ribs.

To summarize, Force Alpha’s story is of a disparate group assembled from limited resources scoring big in the war. They braved navigational and other challenges to penetrate deep into enemy heartland. They risked capture with attendant consequences. Be it the interception of Pakistani merchant ships or the destruction at Khulna, the naval task force proved its mettle. To face enemy fire and respond with fury while also taking hits in a ‘blue on blue’ situation and, at the same time, rescuing one’s injured comrades haplessly swimming in the waters, were acts of extreme courage under fire. INS Panvel’s actions in evading Gnats by evasive manoeuvres, beaching and un-beaching, raising smoke to appear as a stricken ship, abandoning ship and re-boarding it, keeping the flock together, rescuing many, protecting itself from enemy fire and then launching a mighty counter offensive, all in the matter of a few hours, is the stuff of legends, in which navigational savvy, bold leadership and cool temperament came to the fore. 

Force Alpha was named after Lt Gen JS Aurora, the GOC in C Eastern Command. The exploits of the force led by INS Panvel would have pleased him undoubtedly. It is, therefore, no surprise that it was the Army that recommended Cdr Samant for a Maha Vir Chakra. This is testimony to the high mutual respect among soldiers. It is nobody’s case that without Force Alpha the eventual outcome of the war would have been different. Possibly, the Force Alpha raid would be classified as no more than a skirmish. However, the riverine action needs to be viewed in terms of the physical and psychological damage caused to Pakistan assets, the possibilities offered by the maritime vector in a theatre of war and ‘fairytale’ like bravado shown by the small team of Indian and Mukti Bahini naval personnel.

This is evident from the large number of gallantry awards which was awarded to this tiny force. Three Maha Vir Chakras (including Samant and Noronha), 5 Vir Chakras, 2 Nao Sena Medal Gallantry and 2 Mention in Dispatches made up the rich haul garnered by this small force of less than 100 people in all. Pro-rata wise, this would possibly be the highest among any unit and certainly highest in the Indian Navy. Force Alpha is, ultimately, the story of a spirited, intrepid bunch of people pulling off a daring act.

In 1971, when INS Panvel was blazing a trail of glory, the town it was named after was a small outpost near Mumbai. The town has an illustrious history as an ‘influential province in the Maratha Empire’. Due to its proximity to Bombay and the maritime connect with the Arabian Sea through the ‘Panvel Creek’, she continued to be important throughout the British Era. Today, Panvel is a bustling, densely populated city and part of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. A new Panvel has sprung up on National Highway 4 that connects Mumbai and Bengaluru.

Capt MNR Samant passed away in his beloved Mumbai in March 2019, and Cdr JPA Noronha this year in July in Bengaluru. Apart from close relatives and the military and naval fraternity, their passing went largely unnoticed. We owe it to their memory that their deeds and that of INS Panvel are recounted for posterity. One of the Vir Chakra awardees, Sub Lt Ashok Kumar, retired as a Commander and is now settled in Mumbai. Let us recognize our heroes in their times and not after. Hopefully, the citizens of this nation and the denizens of Panvel will take note.

An interesting piece of trivia to end the story: Noronha perfected the difficult art of beaching his ship—remember it was not an amphibian—on the soft riverbanks of the Icchamati to take freshwater supplies while patrolling there in November for a fortnight. Later, this skill not only saved the ship but enabled the counter offensive.

Cmde Srikant B. Kesnur and Lt Abhijeet Patil are serving naval officers associated with the Naval History Project. Views are personal. References and first-person accounts have been taken from the books ‘Transition to Triumph’ by VAdm G.M. Hiranandani, ‘War in the Indian Ocean’ by VAdm M.K. Roy and ‘Operation X’ by Capt M.N.R. Samant and Sandeep Unnithan.

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The Army is fully prepared to meet any challenge like the use of drones and social media by adversaries to safeguard the country, said Commandant of Chennai-based Officers Training Academy (OTA) Lieutenant General M K Das. Lt Gen Das, who is also the colonel of the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry (JAKLI) regiment, said the situation in J&K is getting better with the Army and other security agencies working together to stamp out terrorism. Speaking to media on the sidelines of the maiden attestation parade of 460 new recruits of the 126th batch after a successful 40-week training period at Dansal here, he said the Indian Army is aware of the challenges and prepared to give a befitting response to the enemies of the nation.

Talking about the need to introduce special training courses for soldiers in the aftermath of the developments in Afghanistan, he said, “Our training is very contemporary as it caters for all the contingencies and unforeseen situations. My young soldiers, who have taken the oath to defend the constitution and the country, will live up to all the challenges. One of the unique things of this regiment (JAKLI) is all our troops hail from J&K and Ladakh. They have ingrained quality to be security conscious much more than others.” Lt Gen Das said, “All the situations unfolding in the country or in our neighbourhood, the JAKLI regiment will continue to excel and be the lead agency in the fight against terrorism.” Asked about the challenges posed by the use of drones to hit targets and deliver weapons and narcotics from across the LoC and International Border, he said a capsule course on anti-drone measures has been introduced. “On Army Day on 15 January, our chief took the threat seriously and our soldiers are being prepared to deal with the challenge in a better way.” During recruitment training, Lt Gen Das said that besides the arms handing and exercises, thrust is also given on science and technology, cybersecurity and other new challenges. He said the misuse of social media by “anti-national” elements is a reality and the new recruits are being trained in cybersecurity during their basic and orientation courses.

On attempts by Pakistan to mislead the youth of J&K, Lt Gen Das said, “The youth of J&K is showing keenness to be a part of the regiment which is a message to those who think they can mislead our youth. Joining the regiment is the best way to serve the nation, the youth live like a family and there is complete communal harmony.” He said the regiment is increasing the number of local youth from Ladakh and would also go for recruitment in J&K to provide an opportunity to the local youth to become part of this regiment. Asked about his message to the misguided youth, he said, “J&K is the crown of India but if I focus as a soldier, I feel they (misguided youth) have not understood their country… the situation has not gone out of hand and the Army has kept its window open to allow them to surrender and join the national mainstream.”

He added, “We have a unit of 162 Infantry Territorial Army who are former militants but have become upright soldiers.” Lt Gen Das said the Army and other security agencies are working in close coordination and the situation in J&K is getting better and the “day is not far when this region will make our country proud.”

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The Southern Naval Command observed International Coastal Clean-up Day on Saturday with a focus on mangrove plantation and clearance of plastic/non-biodegradable waste along with waterfront areas in and around Kochi, said a press release from the Ministry of Defence.

Pursuant to the global campaign of keeping coastlines clean, more than 600 Naval personnel and the families of Southern Naval Command undertook clearance of plastic and non-biodegradable waste at different locations spread across the city, coastal areas such as Fort Kochi beach, Thevara waterfront, Willingdon Island, Cherai beach, Bolgatty and around 2 km stretch of the Venduruthy channel while restoring around 1 lakh sqm of mangroves to the pristine condition. In addition, 80 mangrove saplings were also planted along the Venduruthy channel. Similar coastal cleanup drives and lectures/webinars/competitions emphasising protection of the coastal and marine environment were undertaken with the enthusiastic participation of the Naval community at other outstation Naval units located at Lonavala, Jamnagar, Chilka, Coimbatore, Goa, Ezhimala and Mumbai.

Being the Training Command of the Indian Navy, the Southern Naval Command has always been at the vanguard in promoting environmental conservation activities both at the Command Headquarters, Kochi as well as at Naval stations spread across the country.

Mandated to oversee naval training, the Southern Naval Command has conceptualised and implemented a variety of green initiatives. Keeping environmental preservation as one of the Key Result Areas, the Command has constantly endeavoured to motivate young officer and sailor trainees of the Indian Navy to imbibe the habit of protecting mother nature as part of their grooming efforts in preparing them to become responsible future Naval leaders and dependable citizens of India.

Particular attention has also been given to create more awareness among the families and more importantly the children.

During the last three years, the Command has adopted a multi-dimensional approach towards conservation of the environment and implementation of energy conservation methods.

To highlight a few, the personnel of the Command were actively involved in the rejuvenation of 4.5-km-long Venduruthy Channel near Kochi Naval base, creating awareness in and around Naval establishments.

Efforts were undertaken to enhance green cover by conducting mass plantation drives which included planting more than 75,000 trees, using the fast-growing Miyawaki forestation method. In addition, regular coastal clean-up drives, mangrove plantation drives, in-house handling and recycling of bio and non-biodegradable waste, adopting efficient energy and water-saving methods etc were also undertaken. The Command has also earnestly endeavoured to continue all the efforts for protecting and conserving the environment and natural resources. Towards achieving the same, the Command has implemented a Green Initiative and Environment Conservation Roadmap with a prime focus on Carbon footprint reduction.

With the personal involvement of Vice Admiral Anil Kumar Chawla, Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Southern Naval Command is committed to creating a clean, green and healthy environment in line with the visionary environment conservation policies of the Govt of India. On the occasion, Adv M Anilkumar, Mayor, Kochi Municipal Corporation and staff also participated in Kochi.

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An air show will be held here on 26 September where IAF’s skydiving team Akash Ganga and Suryakiran Aerobatic and Display Team and paramotor flying will manoeuvre the skies over the famous Dal Lake, officials informed on Saturday.

The air show will be organised by the Air Force Station Srinagar and the Jammu and Kashmir administration as part of the ongoing celebrations commemorating ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’, they said. The main aim of the exercise—under the theme ‘Give Wings to Your Dream’—is to motivate the youth of the valley to join the Indian Air Force (IAF) and to promote tourism in the region, the officials said.

The event will be flagged off Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha at the Sher-e-Kashmir International Conference Centre (SKICC) overlooking Dal Lake.

More than 3,000 college and school students are expected to participate in the programme to witness the impressive manoeuvres of the IAF, which will motivate them to dream about a career in the force and in the aviation sector, the officials said. “The show will also develop passion among the students to give wings to their dreams. Along with the students, 700 teachers will also be present at the venue,” they added.

During the demonstration, students will also be familiarised with the new technological advancements achieved and incorporated by the IAF while flying aircraft in the sky over the world-famous Dal Lake, the officials said. Stalls will be established at SKICC where students will be familiarised with the achievements of the Air Force, employment opportunities in the IAF, recruitment rules and eligibility criteria, they added.

Srinagar-based PRO Defence Col Emron Musavi said the display will include flypast by various aircraft of the IAF. The spectators would also get to witness paramotor flying and IAF’s skydiving team Akash Ganga in action. ‘Ambassadors of IAF’, Suryakiran Aerobatic Display Team, will be performing in the valley after a gap of 14 years, he said. Col Musavi said the symphony orchestra of the IAF would also be performing at the event. The event would also consist of a photo exhibition depicting the history of the

IAF, he said. 

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JAIPUR : South Western Command of the Indian Army on Saturday organised an exhibition showcasing defence equipment at Chitrakoot Stadium in Jaipur to mark the 50th anniversary of India’s victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war.

Speaking to ANI, an Indian army official said, “We have displayed the defence equipment in this exhibition to make people aware of the Indian army achievements. We want to motivate the youth by showcasing these types of equipment.” “Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, these events had been started to make people aware of Indian Arm Forces. So, we are also continuing the move by organising these kinds of events,” he added.

Further, he said that India’s victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war is memorable for all the Indians, so, every citizen should be aware of this war.  

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BRO makes history, appoints woman Army officer in-charge of road construction unit



The Border Roads Organisation (BRO) has appointed a woman Army officer for the first as the Officer Commanding of its 75 road construction company (RCC) in Uttarakhand, the Defence Ministry said on Sunday.

The three platoon commanders under Major Aaina, Captain Anjana, AEE (Civ) Bhawana Joshi and AEE (Civ) Vishnumaya K became the first women RCC. The appointments were made on August 30.

BRO on Sunday recalled the list of women officers who were assigned higher leadership roles in the organisation in the current year.

According to a statement issued by the Defence Ministry, BRO has inducted a large number of women into its workforce over the years, right from officers to the level of commercial pilot license holders. “In this regard, a General Reserve Engineer Force (GREF) officer EE (Civ) Vaishali S Hiwase took over the reins of 83 Road Construction Company on April 28, employed on an important Indo-China road connecting Munisairi-Bughdiar-Milam, in an area full of adversity and challenges. The lady officer has taken control and is leading the charge with meticulous execution of her tasks,” the statement said.

“The BRO created history again on 30 August when Major Aaina of Project Shivalik took charged as Officer Commanding, 75 Road Construction Companies (RCC) at Pipalkoti in Chamoli district in Uttarakhand. She is the first Indian Army Engineer Officer to command a road construction company. Not only this, all three platoon commanders under her, Captain Anjana, AEE (Civ) Bhawana Joshi and AEE (Civ) Vishnumaya K are lady officers and they have together created a first-ever women RCC. The Border Roads plans to make four such all women-led RCCs, two each in North Eastern and Western Sectors.”

As India celebrates 75 Years of Azaadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, it also celebrates the ongoing efforts of our Nation towards women empowerment. Women today have started assuming their rightful, equal place as the frontrunners in nation-building and representatives of our strong national character, the statement read.

Over the last six decades, in a graduated and steady manner, the BRO has increased the number of women employed in various roles and duties of road construction. A consolidated effort is being made to empower them by giving them authority and responsibilities to undertake work independently. These women have become symbols of Nari Shakti in their respective areas.

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In his first visit abroad after taking over as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat will be visiting Russia and the US.

Rawat took over his new office as CDS on 31 December 2019, and since then has been declining foreign invitations for focusing on the new assignment of integrating the defence forces as a combined fighting force. “There is a conference of the CDS-rank officers of the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement member countries. China and Pakistan are also part of this grouping,” senior defence officials said.

The CDS conference would be focusing on addressing the regional security issues and Afghanistan is also likely to come up for discussion, they said.

The CDS would also witness the activities of the respective armed forces taking part in the SCO peace mission drills being held in Russia. Indian Army and Air Force are also taking part in the exercise there.

The visit will take place in the coming week and soon after return from Russia, Rawat would be leaving for the US for meeting his counterpart and other American military leadership at the Pentagon.

The two countries have been coming closer militarily in the last few years and have been holding multiple military exercises and hardware cooperation.

The Indian military saw a major change in senior-level structures under the Narendra Modi government as the focus is now on the theatrisation of the fighting forces and bringing in more capabilities and jointness among the three services. 

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