Even as the border skirmish between India and China escalates along the Indo-China-Bhutan tri-junction international border, frontline battleships of the US and Japanese navy have berthed alongside Indian warships in the port of Chennai as part of an annual naval war game.

The warships, which include of nuclear propelled aircraft carrier and attack submarine, have arrived in India’s Southern port for participating in Exercise Malabar – 2017, an annual trilateral maritime war game, featuring naval assets from the Indian, US and Japanese Navy. The exercise, which has been held since 1992, features real-time and near war-time scenarios, thus, enabling participating naval forces to advance national maritime relationships and to answer mutual security issues.

Exercise Malabar – 2017, the 21st edition of the exercise, is being hosted by the Indian Navy in the Bay of Bengal. Exercise Malabar, through which the forces have drastically boosted their interoperability levels, has time and again been addressed to as the cornerstone in the robust Indo-US strategic relationship.

For the naval exercise, scheduled from July 7 to July 17, the Indian Navy has deputed its lone aircraft carrier – INS Vikramaditya and its battle group consisting of a kilo-class diesel-electric submarine, Kolkata and Delhi class guided missile destroyers, Shivalik-class stealth guided missile frigates and Kamorta-class ASW corvettes.

The Indian ship Rajput class destroyer INS Rana (D 52) leads the passing exercise formation during Exercise Malabar – 2008; U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Gary Prill/Released

The US Navy, meanwhile, has dispatched its most potent power-projection platform – the Nimitz-class super aircraft carrier – sailing with its complement of tens of F-18 Super Hornet multi-role fighter aircraft and EW (Electronic Warfare) warplanes from the Carrier Air Wing 11. Accompanying USS Nimitz are USS Princeton, a guided-missile cruiser; guided-missile destroyers USS Howard, USS Kidd and USS Shoup and a lone nuclear propelled Los Angeles class fast attack submarine.

The Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force has deployed its flagship – JS Izumo – a helicopter carrier and also JS Sazanami – a 6,000 tonne guided-missile destroyer for the exercise. Apart from these combatants, the Indian and US Navy have also deployed P8I/A long range maritime surveillance aircraft for conducting simulated ASW exercises. Armed with some of the most advanced radar and sensory packages such as the magnetic anomaly detector and sonobuoys, these aircraft can detect lurking submarines hundreds of feet underwater.

For the exercise, Indian Navy has planned both at-sea and ashore phases. During the ashore phase, which is to be held in the Southern port city of Chennai, the navies have planned for exhaustive expert and professional exchanges in regard to carrier strike group operations, maritime patrol and reconnaissance operations, surface and anti-surface warfare, medical and damage control operations, explosive ordnance disposal, helicopter operations and visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) operations.

Following the professional exchange on subject matters the naval forces will take to the high seas to begin the at-sea phase of the exercise in the Bay of Bengal. According to a statement by the US navy, the at-sea phase is largely aimed at enhancing the military-to-military co-ordination shared between the navies and also to help the participating forces in planning and executing tactical operations in a multi-national environment.

Further, the navies have planned to conduct liaison officer professional exchanges, submarine familiarisation operations, high-value unit surface and air defence exercises, medical evacuation drills, surface warfare and communication exercises, search and rescue operations, cross-deck air asset and at-sea replenishments operations.

In a clear message to the prowling Chinese nuclear-powered submarines operating in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and in the Pacific waters, the naval forces will for a major part of the at-sea phase of the exercise concentrate on ASW (anti Submarine Warfare) operations. While the Indian and US navy have deputed all the three essential components for sustained ASW missions — surface, aerial and under-water combatants, the Japanese navy will be using dedicated ASW helicopters from the decks of JS Izumo.

P8I Neptune ASW aircraft of the Indian Navy. Source – Boeing.

These exercises featuring multinational forces will help in drastically boosting the interoperability levels shared amongst the navies. Further, joint exercises like Malabar also enable the navies to advance the level of understanding between the sailors themselves. This is critical for countries such as India, Japan and USA, which are the core partners in maintaining the peace and stability in the contested Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

China, a communist power which is rapidly spreading its wings in the region, has time and again objected to the increasing scope of Exercise Malabar. As three massive aircraft carriers converge close to strategic choke points in the IOR, the Chinese Navy – PLAN – has already deployed a Chinese spy vessel in an effort to snoop upon the multinational vessels involved in the high stakes simulated manoeuvre.

This comes even as India had in the last month rejected Australia’s request to join the exercise as an observer nation in a move to pacify the Chinese reservations. In 2007, when Australia, Singapore and Japan had joined as observer states, China had resorted to sabre rattling along the maritime and land borders and had also issued demarche orders to all the states.

Exercise Malabar – 2017, comes at a time when tensions are flaring in the regions around the contested South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, as regional and global powers contest the unwarranted incursion of the PLAN vessels. India, which itself is an emerging maritime regional power, has its share of struggles with China, as its interests in the region have increased by several folds in the past few years. As India marches on in lieu with regional partners to counter the dragon, one country India is actively stoking under its ‘Act Policy’ is Japan, an arch-rival of China. Through sustained diplomatic and military-to-military dialogues, India and Japan have embraced each other in ever closer knots.  Much to the dismay of China, India and US in 2015 elevated the bilateral Malabar Exercise to a trilateral affair with the inclusion of Japan as a permanent member for the exercise.

‘Exercise Malabar’ is one such event that provides a common platform for the navies to sail square to square and to address the problems that question the stability and the long lived peace in the region. For USA and Japan, this exercise acts as a precursor to the much talked maritime dialogue and for India, the exercise is an opportunity to boost its operational strategies, as it contests and operates alongside the best of the best.

© Karthik Kakoor