The recently concluded Malabar exercise with American, Indian, Japanese and Australian navies participating was a milestone event in the cooperation between these countries to ensure the stability of the global commons in the IOR. The Chinese were obviously alarmed, with Australia also being a participant. The Indians followed up with two more exercises with navies of countries in the region. The author explains the mechanics of such multi-national exercises at sea and also reflects on the geopolitical messages that they convey.
In the recently concluded Malabar exercise, naval warships, submarines and maritime aircraft from India, US, Japan and Australia took part in two phases, conducted on India’s East and West coasts. Each of the Exercise Malabar phase witnessed the participation of a US Fleets viz. US Indo-Pacific Fleet in the first Phase and US Fifth Fleet in the second phase. Their participation was in conformity with the Areas of Operations assigned to the US Fleets on a geographical distribution under the Unified Command Plan rehashed post the 9/11 Twin Towers terror attack of 2001.
Exercise Malabar, conceptualised as a bilateral Indo-US maritime exercise in 1992, has grown in strength with the inclusion of Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) since 2015. The Australian participation during Malabar-2020 is its first inclusion in the Malabar series after 2007. And has China concerned due to the emerging geopolitical situation in the region. Such multinational naval exercises with India have taken an altogether new dimension in the backdrop of intrusions by China along the Eastern Ladakh borders. Despite multiple rounds of Sino-India government and military level meetings concluded to reach a solution, it is unlikely that the long-disputed border issue can be settled any time too soon due to China’s aggressive stance.
Principles of a Joint Naval Exercise
After the Malabar exercise, Indian Navy has also undertaken multiple maritime exercises viz. Trilateral Maritime Exercise SITMEX-20 in the Andaman Sea, with participation of naval units from India, Singapore and Thailand from 21-22 November. Further, from 23-25 November 2020, SIMBEX-20 an Indian-Singapore bilateral maritime exercise in the Andaman Sea was also conducted.
Maritime exercises are occasions where multinational naval forces assess the effectiveness of joint tactical operation doctrines and concepts. The warships, submarines and aircrafts are tested for the optimal performance of the weapons and sensors fitted onboard. The main aim here is always to build synergy amongst the naval war fighting units, complete with inter-operability to enhance the combat power of the flotilla. The joint task force rehearsal also tests the training, combat efficiency and sea-worthiness of war-fighting sea assets under simulated challenges, as expected during hostilities.
The multinational maritime exercises provide international benchmarks against which the Indian Navy evaluates its preparedness and professionalism in operations at sea. They are also a reflection of India’s intent to be a regional naval power. India too takes the opportunity to showcase its potent capabilities in a multi-national environment. Tasks practised include interceptions at sea, seamless information exchange and networked operations like Beyond-Visual Range (BVR) engagements as part of the collaborative threat identification and engagement principles. The maxim of Float-Move-Fight is evident during the high seas operations for each of the nation participating, reflecting the high standards of technical maintenance of the platforms for long-term sustenance of equipment and men under simulated war-time strenuous conditions. Such naval exercises are significant for the adversaries too, and they are carefully monitored covertly by the hostile nations using the underwater submarines and various space-based surveillance capabilities.
The joint operations undertaken through the concept of a networked naval force working on a Common-Operational Picture (COP) particularised using shared tracks and weapon engagement zones. These depict a comprehensive battle-space along with the threat perception for best weapon allocation for optimal resource exploitation.
NATO forces follow a common Standard protocol like MIL-STD 2525 to be able to implement operational manoeuvres for cooperative engagements. These Joint operations principles are practised during various NATO exercises held globally. The multinational integration under the NATO alliance especially for the nations speaking different languages, using a variety of equipment and having independent CONOPS (Concept of Operations) has been one of the challenges for the Alliance since its inception. A large amount of equipment standardisation has been attempted among various NATO members, with the supply of latest US weaponry for commonality. India too has procured US manufactured air assets through the special US DSCA (Defence Security Cooperation Agency) route since India is not part of the NATO alliance. Modern aircraft like P-8I, Anti-ship Harpoon missile etc., have already enhanced India’s air capabilities. The existing fleet of aircraft and helicopters of the Indian Navy faces rapid obsolescence issues due to fast-evolving technologies.
Phase I Malabar: Surface Action Group
India has the enviable position of being centrally located between the eastern and western stretches of the Indian Ocean to launch naval warfighting units in both regions thus maintains the Western and Eastern Fleets for active operations. Malabar saw the participation of both these Indian Fleets in the two phases on East and West seaward sides of the Indian peninsula.
Phase I of the Malabar was mainly focussed on the surface and underwater sea assets with dedicated missile defence ships providing the aerial cover. The destroyers and frigates with specialised sensors operated as ‘eyes and ears’ of the Fleet for the joint Fleet Level Surface Warfare, ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) and anti-air warfare tactics. Advanced radars like Phased Array Multifunction Radars in association with Combat Management Systems create the Common Operational Picture for the fleet ships to act upon as a team. The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA), when implemented for the Indian Navy, shall support the creation of an accurate battlespace picture for joint operations with Quadrilateral (QUAD) Navies.
Similarly, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) framework shall assist in the transmission and reception of the tracks, symbols and attack alerts as part of the combat information exchange among the warships, aircraft and submarines using the specialized On-Air protocol. NATO forces utilise the Link-16/Link-11 systems for Land, Sea and Air Tactical Data communication while India uses its indigenous Tactical Data-link to achieve the COP. A bridge between the Indian and NATO data links is a technological challenge under analysis for COMCASA implementation. The execution of BECA and COMCASA shall make the QUAD Joint Naval Task Force highly efficient.
Phase II Malabar: Aircraft Carrier Battle Group
US Fifth Fleet’s USS Nimitz (CVN 68) along with Nimitz Carrier Strike Group (CSG) participated in Phase II. Nimitz Carrier Strike Group participated with a cruiser, destroyer and frigate. The Carrier Strike Group warships have the role of maritime security operations and theatre level cooperation. The participating Air Wing components of Nimitz were Airborne Early Warning E2C Hawkeye aircraft, multi-purpose F-18 fighter jets and the Electronic Warfare (EW) aircraft. The specialized E2C Hawkeye aircraft in close coordination with the Flag Officer maintains the Air Command and Control.
The shore launched US P8A and India’s P8I maritime aircraft ensured ASW screen for the Joint Fleet and provided the ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) support. The Indian Carrier Battle Group spearheaded by INS Vikramaditya aircraft carrier was composed of stealth missile-guided destroyers INS Kolkata and INS Chennai, stealth Russian built frigate INS Talwar, indigenous submarine INS Khanderi and Fleet support tanker INS Deepak.
Joint Carrier Task Force Operations was a unique opportunity for F18 Hornets and MIG 29K deck launched fighter jets to participate in the simulated fleet defence and attack exercise. A Combat Air Patrol (CAP) protecting a Carrier Battle Group involves fighter jets flying a tactical pattern over the Fleet while creating an Air Screen to thwart incoming attackers. Such Joint Carrier Task Force operations provide invaluable data to assist Indian Navy to fine-tune its carrier-borne tactics, which is under the process of an evolutionary change with the induction of Russian aircraft carrier and deck launched fighter jets. The Malabar exercise was also an opportunity for Indian Navy to closely observe operations of the multi-mission Naval helicopters MH-60R, which are under procurement by India. These helicopters operating in the exercise provided the AEW&C (Airborne Early Warning and Control) and ASW capabilities, while also carrying out logistics transfers at sea.
Way Ahead to Malabar-2021
Recently, U.S. Navy Secretary announced the intent of creating a new fleet within the Indo-Pacific theatre which is focussed on the southwest Pacific and the Indian Ocean. It is expected to take some load off the US 7th Fleet based at Japan since its Area of Operations covers the five large foreign militaries viz. Russia, China, India, North Korea and the Republic of Korea. In the proposal, Singapore, India or other allies are being looked at in a larger support role to US Forces. The US strategically wishes to enhance military focus in the regions closer to the Malacca Strait since this can be the mode to throttle Chinese main trade route while also maintaining an appropriate distance from China’s aircraft and missiles. It may be an acceptable proposition for India as long as its own well established naval supremacy remains intact in the region and the collaborative naval forces provide deterrence in support of India’s objectives.
China’s ambition to project itself as a global superpower with aggressive intent in the South China Sea, IOR or Indo-Pacific has been under observation by India and other Western global powers for some time. With other interested regional nations and those from Europe (like France) keen to participate in the Malabar-2021, Indian Navy would be in a niche position to maintain its pivotal role in the IOR and Indo-Pacific regions. A Joint Naval Force operating near the tri-services command at Andaman-Nicobar shall be a reckon sea force and surely create a strong deterrence to China’s increasing influence in the region. Through a vigorous inter-governmental process, India can establish a large collaborative patrol and ISR missions in the IOR and the Indo-Pacific, and boost its own dominance before the region becomes a contested zone as China enhances its presence in these regions.
Cdr Milind Kulshreshtha
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BharatShakti.in)