Sea-Going Friends

With the US, Japan and Australia, India raises the bar with Ex Malabar 2020

Smruti D

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad is an informal strategic forum, which includes the US, India, Japan and Australia. This forum is seen as an anti-China grouping, however, the larger interest of the Quad remains a ‘free, open and prosperous’ Indo-Pacific region. These countries are trying to promote the Freedom of Navigation (FoN) and Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) as formulated by the United Nation Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in the Indo-Pacific, hinting at China’s belligerent motives and actions.

Aircraft carrier USS Nimitz alongside INS Vikramaditya participating in Malabar exercise 2020 in the Indian Ocean

The member countries of this grouping hold summit and military drills among themselves. With China on a spree of staking illegal claims on territories that either belong to other countries or are disputed for years, most countries have begun protesting China’s actions. The member countries in the Quad are directly or indirectly affected.

Captain Dalip Sharma (retd) says, “When China opened its economy, the world  did not realise that in addition to becoming economically strong due to the massive industrialisation happening over there, parallelly there was also ample military build-up happening in China. We can only see the result now in 2020, in the garb of Covid-19 pandemic, how they are unleashing their power by putting pressure on littorals of South China sea, East China Sea, Korea, Taiwan and India.”

In November, the Quad navies participated in the 24th edition of the Malabar exercise. These exercises made big headlines and attracted global attention because of the geostrategic and geopolitical importance of whole of the Indo-Pacific. Any volatile situation in any part of the Indo-Pacific holds the capability for a worldwide crisis. The reason is simple. Through the Indo-Pacific pass the most important sea lines of communication (SLOCs), which enable oil and energy trade.

These exercises were held in two phases in the Indian Ocean and were led by India. The first phase was carried out in the Bay of Bengal, off the coast of Vishakhapatnam, while the second phase was carried out in the Arabian Sea. It was in this edition that the navies of all the four countries participated together after 2007. The latest edition saw simulated war games and combat manoeuvres. It was a ‘non-contact, at sea only’ exercise due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The equipment used in these exercises was the US Navy Ship USS John S McCain (guided-missile destroyer), Australian Navy Ship HMAS Ballarat (long-range frigate) and Japan Maritime Self Defence Ship (JMSDF) JS Onami (destroyer) with SH-60 helicopter. The Indian Navy had deployed the Ranvijay (destroyer), Shivalik (frigate), Sukanya (offshore patrol vessel), Shakti (tanker) and Sindhuraj (submarine). In the second phase of the Malabar naval exercise, India’s Vikramaditya Carrier Battle Group exercised alongside US Navy’s Nimitz Carrier Strike Group. Australian ship HMAS Ballarat and the Japanese ship JS Murasame were a part of it.

Malabar exercise has garnered a lot of attention in India from defence experts and media, because these exercises are the first joint exercise that Indian Navy has been participating in. In 1992, an elementary level Malabar-I with basic passing exercises and manoeuvres was conducted. The lead in these exercises was taken by India. Early Nineties were important as two major developments had taken place. One, the Cold War was just over and India was seeking to forge relations with other countries and come out of isolation, while it also introduced the Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation (LPG) reforms. The US reached out to India for military-to-military cooperation as it saw the potential for growth in the country.

After the first edition of these exercises, the two countries conducted the next editions in 1995 and 1996 in the Persian Gulf and India’s west coast, respectively. There was a five-year suspension in place when in 1998, India tactfully test-fired a nuclear weapon. In 2002, India and the US resumed these exercises in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, to put up a fight against terrorism globally. The exercises remained bilateral till 2006 and limited to the Indian Ocean. While the US deployed warships USS Fitzgerald, USS Chosin, USS Pasadena, USS Paul F. Foster, USS Alexandria, Los-Angeles-class submarine among other equipment, India used the guided missile frigates INS Brahmaputra, INS Ganga, INS Shalki. Both the countries used different aircraft to carry out anti-submarine warfare. The year 2005 saw the participation of aircraft carriers such as USS Nimitz and INS Viraat. As the advanced equipment were used, the complexity of exercises increased. The two navies now carried out submarine familiarisation exercises and mock combats. The 2006 Malabar exercise also saw the exchange of a vast number of experiences between these countries.

In between, in 2004, when the Boxing Day Tsunami in the Indian Ocean occurred, all the littoral countries were severely ravaged. Being the most efficient navy in the region, India was the first country to send help. Subsequently, the US and Indian navies operated closely with one another, carrying out Humanitarian and Disaster Relief Operations (HADR). The two navies worked closely with one another. The US navy, then, took a note of the Indian Navy’s many capabilities. As the bilateral relationship became stronger, India was open to increasing the level of exercises carried out in Malabar to a higher level and associating more actively with friendly navies.

Malabar 2007 was carried out in two phases and remains significant in the history of the exercise. It had also created a furore within India’s political circle. This was the first time that India was participating in naval exercise that included more than two participants. Although not a permanent member, Japan joined the exercise as an observer and the three navies performed together. The first phase was held off Okinawa island in Japan in the western pacific, a first-time away from the Indian shores. The second phase, which was conducted off the coast of Vishakhapatnam, saw the participation of not just these three navies, but in addition, Singapore and Australia also participated. This was the only year until now that Singapore has participated; 2007 was also the only year that Australia participated before it quit and joined again in 2020.


Ships and aircraft carriers sailing together during Phase-I of Exercise Malabar

The military exercises that India had conducted before 2007 with non-North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (non-NATO) were smaller in comparison with this edition. This edition saw participation of 25 vessels. China was obviously closely taking note. The maritime exercises carried out included staged interception, submarine and anti-submarine warfare, maritime interdiction and Visit Board, Search and Seize operations (VBSS) as counter terrorism ops. Special attention was dedicated to maintaining sea-lane security in the area around the strategic Malacca strait—something China would have been vary of, due to its ‘Malacca Dilemma’. Among the participating ships and submarines were 13 of US warships including USS Nimitz, USS Kitty Hawk and nuclear submarine USS Chicago. The Indian Navy had eight vessels participating including the carrier INS Viraat, INS Rana, INS Ranjit and INS Kuthar among other vessels. India’s Sea Harrier fighter jet, Sea King Helicopters and Jaguar strike aircraft were also included. Japan was represented by two destroyers, Singapore by a frigate and Australia by a frigate and tanker.

Even as India participated and operated efficiently with these navies, India’s Left parties created a political storm and staged street protests over India’s growing closeness with the US, against the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh-led UPA government. They called it the ‘sovereign surrender’ to the US, forcing the then defence minister A.K. Antony to issue a clarification that the exercise was a mere naval drill and there were no political interests involved. The following edition of 2008, saw the participation of just the US and Indian navies. Falling for the Chinese pressure, India had in 2007, stopped involving more participants, keeping it bilateral.

Australia backed off from the Quad, due to the same reason in 2008. As its participation in the Malabar had visibly come to anger China, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd decided to withdraw. In February 2008, with the Chinese foreign minister by his side, Australia’s then foreign minister in a presser announced Australia’s withdrawal from the Malabar exercises.

After the 2007 exercise, Japan went on to participating selectively. The edition of 2008 shifted  to becoming a bilateral exercise from a multilateral one, with just the US and Japan participating. In 2009, Japan joined again and then the trilateral exercise was held off the coast of Japan. In 2010, again, India and the US were the only ones participating. The two countries, while using their high-end platforms, focussed on building interoperability. In 2011, when Japan participated again, the exercise was held at the Okinawa coast. This annual exercise focussed on sharing and exchanging complex exercises carried out by the navies. The participation of complex equipment made their way into these exercises. In 2012 and 2013, Japan stayed out of these exercises. In 2014, when it participated, the exercises were held at the Sasebo Naval Base in Japan. This exercise was an exhaustive one which involved carrier strike group operations, maritime patrol and reconnaissance ops, anti-piracy, VBSS, Search and Rescue (SAR), helicopter cross-deck landings, underway replenishment, gunnery, anti-submarine warfare and Liaison officer exchange and embarkation. INS Ranvijay, INS Shivalik, INS Shakti, ShinMaywa US-2, Nimitz class carrier USS George Washington were among the naval platforms that participated.

In 2015, India invited Japan to join the exercises officially and as a permanent member. That year the exercises were held in the Bay of Bengal. In 2016, the exercise was carried out in the Philippine sea. In 2017, the exercise included a harbour phase at Chennai and a sea phase in the Bay of Bengal. This year also saw joint training being carried out between the naval special forces of the Indian and the US navies at INS Karna in Vishakhapatnam. In 2018, while the sea phase was carried out in the Philippines sea, the harbour phase was carried out at the Naval Base Guam. The 2019 exercise was held off the coast of Japan.

In 2020, after over a decade, Australia came back to the Quad. In October 2020, it was finally decided to include Australia in naval exercises. In a statement, the Indian ministry of defence (MoD) stated, “as India seeks to increase cooperation with other countries in the maritime security domain and in the light of increased defence cooperation with Australia, Malabar 2020 will see participation of the Australian Navy”. Australia was the only non-operational member of the Quad in the Malabar exercises. India had been wary of inviting Australia given its economic interests with China. Australia has been vocal enough about the importance China holds for its economy. It is through this lens of scepticism that India was looking at Australia’s participation in these naval exercises. This came even after India and Australia elevated their bilateral ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) in June this year. After India finally decided to open the doors of Malabar for Australia to come in, Australia said it was ‘delighted’ to be a part of the exercise and that it was a ‘mistake’ to have walked out in 2008. To elevate the military ties, only recently, India has signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with Australia and Japan. Just as it had with the US in 2016.

After the latest edition of 2020 got over, the Indian Navy termed it to have ‘extraordinary degree of intra-operability’. Speaking to ANI about the wargames, Rear Admiral Krishna Swaminathan, Flag Officer Commanding Western Fleet, said, “Although there were many unique aspects of this particular edition, three stood out as being extraordinary. First, it was pronounced for the first time that the exercise was conducted in two phases. The first phase in the Bay of Bengal and the second in the Arabian Sea. Thereby, locating the exercise in both seaports in the Indian peninsula for the first time. Second, it saw the participation of all four possible member navies—the US Navy, the Japanese maritime self-defence force, the Royal Australian Navy and the Indian Navy. Thereby, making the quorum complete for the first time after a long gap. Third, it is on the extraordinary degree of what we call intra-operability among forces of the various nations.”

Speaking to FORCE about how successful the Quad will be in dealing with Chinese assertion, Captain Sharma says, “There is no denying the fact that China is an economic giant and militarily very strong. So, if the situation demands to stand against a superior power, the relatively weaker forces will have to combine and put pressure from various sides. So if you can’t take it on one-to-one, you have to probably join hands and pressurize China.”

As China increases its footprints by acquiring ports from Gwadar to Djibouti, there is a vast area of influence that it is covering, whether diplomatically or forcefully. To contain China, while Malabar exercises are a good answer, India needs to take into account that Chinese threat can successfully be contained only by building futuristic military capacity.






Call us