The sea phase of Malabar 2017 trilateral naval exercise held in the Bay of Bengal was successful. India, the United States (US) and Japan have fielded a diverse range of platforms encompassing the air, surface and subsurface aspects of a naval combat. The three navies shared their best practices and developed high level interoperability to deter and confront common maritime challenges in the Indo-Pacific. These exercises symbolize the political will to defend the status-quo in the region.
The Malabar 2017 featured sixteen ships, two submarines and several aircraft. The US is led by the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz with its air wing and followed by a cruiser, destroyers with embarked helicopters, an attack submarine as well as a long range maritime patrol aircraft P-8A.
Japan dispatched its largest and most sophisticated maritime self defence ship JS Izumo along with the destroyer JS Sazanami. Izumo is designated a helicopter destroyer carrying at least nine helicopters and resembles a small aircraft carrier, significant for political symbolism. The Sazanami also carried its embarked helicopter.
India presented its lead ship INS Vikramaditya aircraft carrier with embarked MiG-29K aircraft. It is joined by a destroyer, stealth frigates, corvettes, submarine, P-8I (Indian variant of P-8A) along with a fleet tanker.
The focus of this exercise are aircraft carrier operations, air defence, surface and anti-submarine warfare (ASW), search and rescue, joint maneuvers etc. It is aimed at mutual familiarization of platforms, personnel and best practices between the three navies. The Bay of Bengal with increasing strategic relevance accommodated these operations. The monsoon weather helped by creating rough sea conditions making the exercise as realistic and complex as possible.
ASW operations assumed a central element of this exercise given the nature of this emerging threat in the Indo-Pacific. India and the US decided last year to enhance cooperation on submarine detection and tracking in the Indian Ocean. To enhance this cooperation, India’s latest anti-submarine corvette Kamorta, Izumo and embarked helicopters from other warships practiced ASW operations during Malabar 2017. The presence of P-8A and P-8I along with the submarines increased the sophistication of these operations.
This brings out another key aspect significant for proper communication and coordination between different navies fighting common maritime challenges. Interoperability is the ability of forces to provide as well as accept services from other forces to operate together effectively. It helps arrange replenishment at sea to communications support to cross-deck operations.
During Malabar 2017, India’s fleet tanker INS Jyoti transferred oil to American and Japanese warships. Helicopters from respective American and Japanese warships landed and took-off from warships of other two countries. A point to note here is that the Indian Navy is yet to modernize and in some cases allot helicopters to its warships. These platforms help extend the range of a warship’s sensors, transport cargo and crew, search and rescue as well as attack.
Meanwhile, the US P-8A landed at INS Rajali, the naval air station in Tamil Nadu that is home to India’s P-8I squadron. It demonstrates India’s resolve to shed Cold War era inhibitions in the face of emerging threats. This could allow India
India’s MiG-29K flew over the Nimitz while American F-18 fighters reciprocated by flying over Vikramaditya. These flights appear to be of little significance but it is imperative for both the navies to be comfortable with friendly foreign aircraft passing over their most valued assets. The aircraft did not perform cross-deck operations like the helicopters given the technological differences between the two carriers. India’s carrier uses ski-jump to launch its aircraft while Nimitz uses steam catapult. However, the fighters practiced formation flying as well as ship attack and defence exercises.
The political symbolism of Malabar 2017 is accentuated by China sending a surveillance ship to spy on the exercises. The Indian Navy also detected an unusual surge in China’s surface and sub-surface platforms entering the Indian Ocean over two months prior to the exercises. China has been routinely surveilling on naval exercises in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. For example, these ships are spotted around US-Australia Talisman Sabre and Rim of the Pacific 2014 naval exercise, quite ironically, when China was invited to participate for the first time.
China could gather technical data on communications and radar frequencies but not the critical component of these exercises, including Malabar 2017. That is the development of interpersonal communication between the participating navies. This is essential for quick coordination during
natural disasters, fighting piracy and even wars. It enables basic understanding of the systems, practices and cultures of participating nations and their naval forces.
Malabar 2017 has brought together potent navies of the Indo-Pacific to interact seamlessly for sharing of data and resources in their fight against common maritime challenges. The personnel has honed their intellectual and fighting skills in addition to becoming accustomed to friendly foreign cultures. Such interpersonal contacts are essential for proper coordination during real time emergencies. These exercises demonstrated that responsible countries are willing to safeguard the global commons and defend the status-quo ensuring peace.