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Exercise DHARMA GUARDIAN Concludes: What It Means for India and Japan

Completing the 5th edition of the DHARMA GUARDIAN exercises shows the deep commitment Japan and India have made to deterrence in the Indo-Pacific.



From February 26 to March 5, JGSDF and Indian Army conducted basic and functional training, including combat shooting and search and destroying terrorists.(X on @JGSDF_pr)

The 5th edition of the DHARMA GUARDIAN exercises between the Indian Army and the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) concluded recently.  These exercises were held from February 25 to March 9 at the Mahajan Field Firing Ranges in the western Indian state of Rajasthan.

DHARMA GUARDIAN is an annual exercise conducted alternatively in India and Japan, with a contingent of 40 personnel on each side. This time the Japanese side was represented by troops from the 34th Infantry Regiment. Meanwhile, the Indian side was represented by a battalion from the Rajputana Rifles. 

As per a press release of the Indian Ministry of Defense, the exercises aim to "foster Military Cooperation and enhance combined capabilities to execute joint operations in semi-urban environment under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter."  

The same press release noted that tactical drills to be practiced during the exercise included "establishing of Temporary Operating Base, creating an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Grid, setting up Mobile Vehicle Check Post, executing Cordon and Search Operations in a hostile village."

JGSDF and the Indian Army launched the bilateral FTX "Dharma Guardian 23 " in India on Feb ruary 25. (X on @JGSDF_pr)

Why DHARMA GUARDIAN Is Important for Japan

For Japan, this is a major move forward as such bilateral exercises could never be thought of in the not-too-distant past. The Japan Self-Defense Forces have been increasing their collaboration with many countries in the region, especially in the Indo-Pacific.

Recently, the MILAN multilateral naval exercises were organized by the Indian Navy. For these, too, many other countries participated, including Japan. 

In addition, Japan's defense budget has seen a big increase in recent times. In December 2023,  Tokyo approved ¥7.95 trillion JPY ($55.9 billion USD) in defense spending for fiscal year 2024, starting in April this year. This marks a massive increase of 16.5%, or $7.92 billion, from fiscal year 2023. In addition, Japan has outlined that it will be spending roughly $302 billion in the field of defense over the five-year period through FY2027.

There is a lot for the JGSDF to learn from India in fields like counter-insurgency since Indian forces have had a long experience in the same domain. In these exercises, a unique concept was recently displayed which was the use of eagles for anti-drone activities and surveillance. India has expertise in these areas. It has faced many terror attacks in the past, such as the Mumbai attacks in 2008. 

March 8th, JGSDF and the Indian Army conducted closing ceremony in Dharma Guardian 23. There were many lessons learned from Indian Army. Moreover, the JGSDF and Indian Army deepend their bond.(X on @JGSDF_pr)

What Does It Bring India?

For India, it brings more options on the table. Already it has been working with a host of countries in the region. The Indian Army has seen combat as recently as the summer of 2020. At that time, Chinese troops pushed into Indian territory in the icy heights of the Himalayas. Skirmishes followed.  

The joint exercises also allow New Delhi to showcase its "Atmanirbhar Bharat" (Self-Reliant India) and "Make in India" initiatives. In the recent exercises, India did this through a weapons and equipment display.

The JGSDF and the Indian Army conducted the comprehensive training exercise "Dharma Guardian 23" from March 6-7, 2024. (X on @JGSDF_pr)


Nevertheless, there are many challenges before India and Japan can take their partnership to the next level.

For one, Japan is bound by its constitution not to deploy troops in offensive operations. That means practically all types of operations outside the scope of the Constitution are ruled out.

Second, what would happen in case India is involved in a clash with China in the Himalayas, for example? Would the Japanese Self-Defense Force come to its rescue? That is very unlikely to happen. 

On the other hand, in case hostilities were to break out over Taiwan, it is unlikely that India would come to the aid of Japan and the United States.

Third, in addition, there have been some cases where the two countries have not seen eye-to-eye in the field of defense. India was supposed to buy Japan's ShinMaywa US-2 maritime reconnaissance aircraft. However, that deal fell flat, supposedly over issues like pricing and technology transfer.  

In addition, India still maintains substantial defense ties with Russia. That, too, could also be a sticking point.  Though India is now buying military hardware from the US, France and other countries, the biggest supplier of military hardware to India is still Russia

The JGSDF and the Indian Army conducted the comprehensive training of the Exercise "Dharma Guardian 23" from March 6-7, 2024. (X on @JGSDF_pr)

The Road Ahead

India's External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar was on a visit to South Korea and Japan recently. He made his argument in a presentation at the Nikkei Forum in Tokyo:

My argument is that India-Japan ties will both draw strength from our larger activities together, especially from Quad; but as well contribute to its effectiveness and to its breadth. The bottom line is that the world is changing, the Indo-Pacific is changing, India and Japan are changing, but that in our relationship, many solutions for us nationally, as well as for the region and for the world, lie there.

There is no denying that military-to-military exercises between the two countries have been increasing. Last year (2023), the air forces of the two countries kicked off their first-ever joint air combat exercises known as the "Veer Guardian 23." 


Their relations have improved steadily since 2008. That is when Japan and India signed a joint declaration on security cooperation "to enhance information exchanges and policy coordination." 

In September 2020, the countries signed an ACSA(Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) which allows the "reciprocal provision of supplies and services between the Self-Defense Forces and the Indian military."    

The first DHARMA GUARDIAN exercise was held in November 2018. That was at the Counter-Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School (CIJWS) in Vairengte, Mizoram in northeast India. The fact that DHARMA GUARDIAN is now in its 5th edition goes to show the deep commitment of the two sides to these exercises. It also demonstrates the growing collaboration between the two nations in the field of defense.


Author:  Rupakjyoti Borah

Dr Rupakjyoti Borah is a Senior Research Fellow with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo. The views expressed are personal.

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