Malabar Exercise Highlights Maritime Fault Lines

Malabar 2017 Photo Exercise
With their carriers in the lead, Indian, Japanese, and US warships sail in formation in the Bay of Bengal during exercise Malabar 2017. Image Credit: Cole Schroeder/ US Navy

At approximately 10 am on Monday, three aircraft carriers, India’s INS Vikramaditya, the American USS Nimitz, and Japan’s JS Izumo sailed up to each other off the east coast of India in the Bay of Bengal. Forming a row, the three carriers were followed by several smaller vessels in a manoeuvre marking the end of the 2017 Malabar exercise. This year’s ships included the three carriers (the JS Izumo is a helicopter carrier, but is still the size of Japan’s Second World War flattops), 13 other surface vessels, two submarines and 95 aircraft.

The Malabar exercise started out as a bilateral India-US exercise in 1992, when the two countries were tentatively beginning to reach out to each other. India’s 1998 nuclear tests halted them for a few years, but the exercises resumed in 2002.

Malabar 2007 was the largest ever, including Japan, Singapore and Australia as participants besides India and the US. The five-nation multilateral exercise spooked China, and India has since preferred to keep Malabar at a lower profile. Japan became a permanent member of the exercise only in 2015. Australia was looking to join this year, but India was apparently not very enthusiastic. Considering that the two countries just conducted a bilateral naval exercise last month off Australia’s western coast, the reticence is puzzling. It may have had something to do with India not wanting to upset China gratuitously. But with the Doka La stand-off being what it is, India is likely to be more welcoming of Australia next year.

Also on the subject of Indian reticence, while Delhi signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the US last year to facilitate mutual logistics support, it was not used this year. While American ships docked at Chennai, LEMOA was never activated, according to reporting by Manu Pubby, because ‘a lack of clarity on the authority chain to be followed and the points of contact to be approached on the Indian side is believed to have held back the actual operationsalisation of the pact.’

An anti-submarine focus?   

The eight-day Malabar exercise began on July 10 with a “harbour phase” in Chennai, giving officers a chance to discuss operational issues and get to know each other. The sea-going phase began on July 14. According to the Indian Navy,  it focused on ‘Aircraft Carrier operations, Air Defence, Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Surface Warfare, Visit Board Search and Seizure (VBSS), Search and Rescue, Joint Manoeuvres and Tactical procedures.’

Both Indian and US naval authorities have, rather unconvincingly, argued that the Malabar exercise was not aimed at China. In reality of course, the annual exercise is part of an attempt to balance China in the wider Indo-Pacific. One facet of the exercise in particular caught the attention of the Indian press this year: The focus on anti-submarine warfare. This is at least partly justifiable. Among the planes participating was an Indian P-8I maritime patrol aircraft and a US P-8A. Both are ideal for hunting submarines, as are some of Japan’s carrier-borne helicopters.

Chinese nuclear submarines have increasingly made their presence felt in the Indian Ocean. Some have been accompanying Chinese “anti-piracy” task forces headed towards Somalia, amd have made port calls in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. These submarines are also likely to get much quieter- and hence harder to detect in the near future. Last June there was much speculation that India and Japan were setting up a “sea wall” of hydrophones in the waters between Indira Point (the southernmost tip of the Nicobar Islands) and Sumatra, to detect Chinese submarines.

Indian anxieties about Chinese submarines lurking around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are understandable. According to retired Vice Admiral Arun Kumar Singh, the Chinese ambassador to India told a Delhi think tank last April that ‘Someone in future may dispute the ownership of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.’ This message was then repeated the following month to some Indians visiting China during an off-the-record discussion.

Exercise Malabar may not resolve India’s woes in the Indian Ocean Region, but it helps, however modestly.

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