Malabar naval exercise: Cautious China 'listens' as India, US and Japan bond on sea

New Delhi: Through the winds and waves in the North Bay of Bengal on Saturday and Friday night, a formidable battle group surrounded the USS Nimitz supercarrier of the US Navy, seeking to protect it from a possible submarine attack.

Protecting an aircraft carrier from possible surface, undersea or aerial attack is the primary responsibility of a navy battle group.

 Malabar naval exercise: Cautious China listens as India, US and Japan bond on sea

INS Sahyadri during Malabar naval exercise 2017. Image courtesy Indian Navy

In simulating the protection of the carrier, the Indian Navy and a flotilla from the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) were practising drills that they have carried out earlier.

The first time it happened in waters close to India in the Bay of Bengal was exactly a decade ago this month. From Port Blair, the capital of the Indian archipelago of the Andamans, a C2 Greyhound COD (Carrier Onboard Delivery) took off and landed on the USS Nimitz. In 2007, the Nimitz and the then outgoing US aircraft carrier, the USS Kitty Hawk, and the Indian carrier the INS Viraat, made up three aircraft carriers in that year’s Exercise Malabar.

It wasn’t the first of the series of such exercises held every year. But 2007 marked a difference of magnitude. Flotillas from five navies hosted by India converged in the Bay of Bengal for the wargames. They included, apart from the Indian and the US’, Australia, Singapore and New Zealand.

Even as the exercises were underway, China issued a demarche to the Indian government. Beijing wanted to know from New Delhi why it was hosting such drills. The question that was unstated: is this the beginning of an Asian NATO?

Following that, the then UPA government with AK Antony as defence minister decided, all international maritime exercises involving the Indian Navy would be kept bilateral, meaning if the Indian Navy was in drills with the US, no other country would be allowed to participate.

Cut to 2017.

This is the second time on Indian shores — the third time in a series — that the Indian, US and Japanese navies are in the Malabar wargames. A request from Australia to participate in the drills has been kept pending by New Delhi for nearly three years now. As the warships left Chennai and maritime surveillance aircraft of the Indian and US navies — all US-origin Poseidon 8s — took off from INS Rajali in Arakonnam — China also began deploying personnel of its PLA-Navy to Djibouti, a naval base on the Horn of Africa. Even as the Indian-US-and Japanese warships turn around to return to port from the latest edition of the Malabar series of wargames or set sail for onward destinations, a Chinese fleet is due to transit through the Straits of Malacca and waters close to the Bay of Bengal.

In the Indian Navy, there is strong suspicion that the Chinese flotilla is accompanied by — or it has already deployed — submarines and surveillance warships to "listen into" the Malabar wargames.

But that is not deterring either of the participants in going through what they are claiming is among the largest and most complex of naval wargames to ensure “interoperability” – an euphemism to prepare for acting together as a coalition in the event of hostilities.

New Delhi and Washington DC, in particular, are well on the way to reinforcing an already going military relationship. Earlier this morning, in Washington DC, the US House of Representatives passed an enabling act that could allocate upto $621.5 billion to promote defence cooperation with India. The US Department of Defense and the US State Department have been given six months within which to propose a roadmap to intensify the cooperation.

But that roadmap is most likely to depend on India agreeing to sign a new military pact, called the COMCASA – Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement. The COMCASA is the most recent nomenclature for a pact the US proposed more than a decade-and-a-half back. It was then known as the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA). India has been hesitant because of fears that such a pact could compromise its military-grade communications equipment.

Year after year, however, and especially in the current edition of the Malabar exercises, the US has sought to demonstrate that a CISMOA or a COMCASA would allow Indian and US military platforms to "talk" to one another seamlessly.

This correspondent has been aboard US and Indian warships during exercises at least thrice — and once last year in the Persian Gulf on the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier — where the US was operating with its 5th fleet partners — and has personally seen the communication that was made possible simply among coalition partners.

India, on the other hand, insisted in 2015 that it would like to use its own communication nodes. But they were incompatible with the US’ and the Indian Navy finally accepted within its warships and submarines "talk boxes" of the US navy for the purpose of the Malabar exercise.

The current and latest edition of the exercise in the Bay of Bengal coincides with an unusually long stand-off between the Indian and Chinese armies. Also, in the South China Sea, where China is locked in maritime disputes with five countries, Indonesia renamed part of its maritime boundaries on Thursday irritating Beijing further.

Like a decade back, this edition of the Malabar series also has three carriers. The Japanese flat-deck carries only helicopters. The USS Nimitz can carry about 90 aircraft of different types. India’s Russian-origin INS Vikramaditya – the only carrier in service in the Indian Navy today – operates the MiG29Ks, also of Russian-origin.

On the deck of the USS Carl Vinson in the Persian Gulf last March — the carrier from which Osama Bin Laden was given a sea-burial after being killed in Pakistan’s Abbotabad in 2011 — the thump of aircraft landing and the boom of aircraft taking off never ends.

It is the same on the Nimitz. This correspondent landed on the Nimitz in 2007 on a C2 COD — short for carrier onboard delivery — going from a speed of 300kmph to zero in 15 seconds flat. The aircraft was “arrested” by cables strung across the deck. From the Nimitz, he was “shot off” — like a human arrow from a bow — in the same plane that was catapulted to fly in the sky.

Ten years back this month, the USS Nimitz, the US’ largest ship, steamed into Indian waters captained by a man who was called “Nasty”. That was Captain Michael C Manazir’s “call sign”. All pilots from carriers have call signs.

In the Bay of Bengal today, there are signs for calls too: from a trijunction in the Himalayas between India, China and Bhutan. And from the Pentagon in Washington DC.

Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.

Updated Date: Jul 15, 2017 15:46:19 IST