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Making waves

Bigger in scale than ever before, the 13th edition of the joint exercise is also the most controversial, writes Rahul Singh.

india Updated: Sep 07, 2007 02:40 IST
Rahul Singh

The ongoing Indo-US joint naval exercise Malabar has grabbled the world’s attention to an unprecedented degree, arguably for the first time in its history. The two navies have expanded their circle of engagement by inviting Australia, Japan and Singapore to take part in the 13th iteration of the war games, making it bigger in scale and complexity.

Distrustful of the “quad” formed by the United States, India, Australia and Japan, China is intently watching every move in the high seas and making its own deductions. The spectacular scale of the war games — involving 26 warships, over 175 aircraft and 20,000 personnel from five nations — is sure to leave behind a legacy of controversy.

The Malabar has also become a symbol of the government’s bold defiance of the Left and its determination to forge robust military ties with the US. The waters in the Bay of Bengal are known to be choppy. But this time, some of that choppiness has spilled over to the shores and found manifestation in the Left’s high-decibel opposition along the eastern coast.

The exercise is taking place 500 nautical miles off the Vizag coast. Its thrust: predominance of air operations, with three aircraft carriers — the USS Nimitz, USS Kitty Hawk and INS Viraat — participating. The navies are collaborating for a wide range of air exercises such as air defence, air strikes, interceptions and aerial maritime surveillance.

<b1>Anti-submarine warfare is an important component of Malabar. The US Navy has sent the USS Chicago, a nuclear-powered submarine, while India has pitched in with a Shishumar-class HDW submarine. The USS Chicago is the fourth ship of the US Navy to be named after the city. It is bound to evoke some Russian interest, having featured prominently in the 1986 Tom Clancy novel Red Storm Rising, accounting for several submarine and surface warship kills and launching cruise missiles against military airfields inside the Soviet Union. It carries a complement of 110 men. The smaller Indian sub can accommodate a crew of 40.

The US Navy has fielded elements of its 7th fleet, the largest of the forward-deployed fleets, covering 52 million square miles with approximately 50 ships, more than 200 aircraft and 20,000 sailors and marines assigned at any given time.

The navies are exercising all major warfare areas; also undertaking at-sea training, which includes sea control operations and maritime interdiction. They are working together in a variety of functional skill areas, including visit boarding search and seizure (VBSS), formation steaming and coordinated surface fire support.

The Malabar kicked off in 1994 with the objective of increasing interoperability between the Indian and US navies while enhancing the cooperative security relationship between the two nations. India takes maritime diplomacy seriously and regularly exercises with foreign navies. Joint naval manoeuvres with Russia are conducted under the Indra series of exercises and its engagement with the French Navy is codenamed Varuna.

The Indian Navy maintains the aim of such exercises is to gain operational and doctrinal expertise, imbibe the best practices and enhance maritime domain awareness through sharing of information. It completed a deployment in the Persian Gulf in August, during which it exercised with the navies of the UK, France, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman.

The ongoing Malabar is designed to increase interoperability among the participating maritime forces. With the high seas vulnerable to terrorism, gunrunning, piracy and drug trafficking, better interoperability would help the navies counter contemporary threats more effectively.