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  Indian Navy's Malabar
and other Exercises
By Mahendra Ved Published : September 2007

This sight of two aircraft carriers together underscored the growing importance of India in the military, especially maritime, scheme of things for many. Especially, the US, that wants to set the global agenda without the capacity to be everywhere, and must have partners.

New Delhi. While the India-US nuclear deal is still far, far away from being operationalised, the most significant change in India’s relations with the world’s only superpower is underscored by the holding of regular military exercises, bilaterally and jointly with other countries.

Also significant is the measure of equality in the give-and-take. Any doubts, any perception of a condescending approach by the US was set to rest after the successful exercises by the two Air Forces last year when the Indian Air Force (IAF) team repeatedly scored a bit better than the US Air Force (USAF) in friendly war games and exercises that were conducted.

This was in fact pointed out by US analysts. USAF personnel conceded this and some think tanks expressed concern about ‘smaller’ air forces getting to know better battle tactics.

This is despite the fact that the IAF has old aircraft, thanks to the virtual full stop put on new military and intelligence acquisitions by the political leadership in 1990, a decision that has had far-reaching negative consequences on the Indian armed forces.

As far as the Indo-US relations go, yesterday’s touch-me-not relationship has been transformed radically today. Economic ties are burgeoning and a large community of Indian immigrants in the US are playing an increasingly important part, both domestically as well as in the bilateral relations.

Not long ago, the US suspected, and openly expressed its suspicion, that if given any technology, India
might either utilize it for military purposes or pass it on to the erstwhile Soviet Union. That India has had a
proven record to the contrary did not help remove the political blinkers of the Cold War era.

It is now a matter of the past though.

The growing military relationship, not only with the US, but with other major military powers has been taken serious note of. Former Defence Secretary and now Deputy National Security Advisor Shekhar Dutt in fact pointed out at a discussion that New Delhi was keen to play the defence and diplomacy combination not only with Washington but also with Moscow, London, Paris, Beijing and others. Engagement helps.

Military exercises are planned and being conducted with all these and others.

In some quarters though, there is unease. Naturally so.

Pakistan has taken an opportunity to protest at India and Britain staging a military exercise in Ladakh region. Islamabad found it necessary to add a sour military/diplomatic note, saying that India and the UK ought to have kept away from Jammu and Kashmir, which is a disputed territory.

That the protest was at British military participation is by itself ironical, considering the British role, none-too-innocent, in creating the Kashmir issue and then fanning it over the years.

While the irony about the British in Jammu and Kashmir, in 1947 and 2007, may be considered indirect,
conjured up or even mild, in the case of India and the US, it is direct and telling.

The last time the US Navy’s 7th Fleet came to the Bay of Bengal, in December 1971, was to intimidate India as it fought Pakistan in the war that led to Bangladesh’s birth. Leading it was the USS Enterprise.

It may be recalled that the Nixon-Kissinger duo then at the helm in Washington DC, frustrated at the Indian defiance, had sent the fleet officially to “protect” the American citizens caught in the beleaguered and embattled Bangladesh-in-making, but really to arm-twist India.

Mrs Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, refused to blink at this American menacing posture. It was an affront India took a long time to forgive, marking one of the lowest points in relations between the giant democracies.

Perhaps an effort to wipe those bitter memories that lingered for years, but most certainly indicative of the American U-turn vis a vis India was the return of the 7th Fleet this year. With a hand of friendship.

In September 2007, the 7th fleet was back in the same waters of the Bay of Bengal, with a second aircraft carrier, a nuclear submarine and scores of fighter jets in the biggest known US naval assembly in the region in 36 years.

The US did not came not as a bully, but as a friend, wanting a military equation under which the armed forces of the two countries have some “interoperability” to help maintain peace in the region. A bigger role for India which New Delhi itself has been wanting in fact.

It was for joint war games with India and three other friendly navies–Australia, Japan and Singapore.

This was one of the biggest peacetime exercises and the largest in a series between New Delhi and Washington.

It turned out to be another stage in the dramatic upswing in ties between the two countries this decade after an estrangement of about half a century.

But there is nothing instant about this process. It had been coming for over a decade, especially since the end of the Cold War.

Since 1995 there have been 13 military exercises involving the armies, navies and air forces of India and the US.

US-India military ties are based on a 2005 agreement called the “Agreed Minute of Defence Relations”.
Under this 10-year-agreement, both countries should have an “enhanced level of co-operation” between their military forces as well as defence industry and technological development.

Why these exercises?

The following words of Admiral Arun Prakash, former Chief of Naval Staff, summed up the raison d’etre of the joint military exercise, particularly on the high seas:

“Why do we need to cooperate with navies of other democracies? The Indian Ocean’s vast reaches are full of security hazards, and we face the full gamut of low intensity threats from piracy and hijacking to trafficking in arms and human beings, and smuggling of WMDs.”

If Defence Minister A K Antony had to respond to criticism from political quarters to the exercise, giving a military rationalization was Arun Prakash again.

He said: “Why did we resume exercising with other navies? Four decades of almost complete insularity had taken its toll on the tactical and doctrinal skills of the Indian Navy. These cannot be had for love or money, and can only be acquired painstakingly by pitting yourself against mock adversaries. So when the opportunity presented itself to first exercise with the US Navy in 1994, it was eagerly grabbed.”

And at that time, he poined out, "the 123 Agreement was unheard of then.”

The month of September 2007 will thus go down in India’s military history as a major landmark, not because of any war won or lost, but for having come of age in its military diplomacy as a willing, reliable, knowledgeable -- and an equal -- strategic partner to the world’s most powerful nations.

The display of its military prowess, along with those it partnered in a number or exercises, should silence critics at home or anywhere, be they of the military or the political variety.

The term ‘non-aligned’ may be a misnomer here. But India, indeed the founder-leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, has displayed this credo in an otherwise highly partisan field of military strategy, while conducting the latest series of exercises.

In the same week it participated in the five-nation “Malabar-2007” that took place in the Bay of Bengal between September 4-9, Indian and Russian Army’s Special Forces, backed by their respective air forces, began conducting “Indra-07”, another five days-long joint anti-terror and search-and-destroy exercise on the plains of Pskov, southeast of St Petersburg.

And even as “Malabar-2007” was on, Mr Antony announced that later this year, India will have its first-ever joint naval exercise with China.

There could not be a more fitting response to the criticism, at home and abroad, that India is tilting one way or the other in its military relationships.

“The propaganda that conduct of joint military exercises will amount to surrendering India’s independent policy had no basis as such exercises had taken place under all the governments since 1992,”said Antony.

Antony’s take on the exercises was significant: “Joint exercises are some (of the) measures for maintaining good order at sea in the (Indian Ocean) region. India also holds interactions and joint exercises with some other countries including USA. In such interactions, issues of mutual interest including providing security to sea-lanes in the IOR (Indian Ocean region) are also discussed.”

The exercises are to prepare for a war, an effort which any armed force does in routine always, but the purpose does not limit itself to that.

India and the US had agreed to ink a Maritime Cooperation Framework “to prevent piracy and other transnational crimes at sea, carry out search and rescue operations, combat marine pollution, respond to natural disasters, and address emergent threats”.

If it was USS Enterprise, the aircraft carrier in 1971, this time it was Kitty Hawk. Anchored under cloudy skies in the middle of the Bay of Bengal, the US aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, which had been involved in the war against Iraq in 2003, lay alongside the INS Viraat, India’s lone aircraft carrier.

This sight of two aircraft carriers together underscored the growing importance of India in the military, especially maritime, scheme of things for many. Especially, the US, that wants to set the global agenda without the capacity to be everywhere, and must have partners.

Indian officers rubbed their epauletted shoulders with their US counterparts on the Kitty Hawk’s flight deck, swapping notes as US Navy F-18 Super Hornets roared off into the sky. Indian officers and sailor even had to chance to go onboard an advanced nuclear powered, and perhaps nuclear-armed, submarine. Of course, if the US officers learnt something about us, so did we about them, and of much advanced equipment that the Indian Navy itself should have got long ago.

The exercise saw numerous spectacles like the pairs of Indian Sea Harrier jets and US Hornets flying past as in an air display.

Visiting Indian officers, wearing American head-protection gear with VIP stickers on them, inspected US missiles, lounged in the private cabin of the Kitty Hawk’s captain and ate in the officers’ dining hall.

The commander for part of the exercise by the five-navy fleet – including nearly 30 ships and over 100 aircraft – was Indian Vice Admiral Raman Prem Suthan.

Vice-Admiral Doug Crowder, commander of the Seventh Fleet, headed the American side.

The Indian Navy, Adm Suthan said, got an opportunity to see how the ‘art’ of launching jets with catapults was being sustained as his force had ‘lost the art’ after the retirement of its INS Vikrant aircraft carrier years ago.

“These are different arts. It’s great exposure for us,” he said.

In what could signal a paradigm shift in its philosophy, the Indian Navy adopted NATO procedures during “Malabar-2007”.

These procedures have largely been evolved by the US and are familiar to the Australian, Japanese and Singaporean navies that participated in the five-day Malabar-2007 joint drill and to that extent, were a unique first for the Indian Navy.

For example, in NATO-prescribed procedures, US Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets operating from the carriers Nimitz and Kitty Hawk flew upwards of 20 “buddy” refuelling sorties with the Indian Navy’s Sea Harriers flying from INS Viraat.

The NATO procedures were extended to other sectors of the exercise as well in areas like antisubmarine warfare drills and aerial offensive and defensive manoeuvers.

More significantly, the US gave the Indian Navy access to its Centrix satellite-based system that enabled the exchange of audio, video and data between the participating ships.

Given the vast scope of the war games, the operational area of Malabar-2007 stretched from Vishakhpattanam on the eastern seaboard to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands that guard the approaches to the Strait of Malacca, considered the world’s busiest waterway.

The US Navy had the largest representation at Malabar-2007 with 13 warships, including the Nimitz that generated much heat when it dropped anchor off Chennai in July.

The other vessels included the only conventionally powered carrier in the US Navy, the USS Kitty Hawk, the nuclear submarine USS Chicago, two guided-missile cruisers, and six guided-missile destroyers.

Seven warships, including the aircraft carrier INS Viraat, represented the Indian Navy. Viraat’s Sea Harrier jets and Sea King helicopters, and the Indian Air Force’s Jaguar deep-penetration strike aircraft were also seen in action.

Australia sent a frigate and a tanker, Japan sent two destroyers and Singapore sent a frigate for the drill.

Malabar-2007 featured 25 vessels participating in a variety of manoeuvres. These included interception and dissimilar air combat exercises, surface and anti-submarine warfare, maritime interdiction and VBSS (visit, board, search and seizure) operations to counter piracy and terrorist acts at sea.

The Malabar series completed its 13th year. The drill has previously been a bilateral India-US engagement and has been expanded for the first time to also include Japan, Australia and Singapore.

The Malabar series, the Indra exercises, the one coming up with China, those with French and other navies, and much else that is in the offing, should help the Indian armed forces stay in touch with the latest happening worldwide.

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