By Milind Kulshreshtha
The multilateral maritime exercise Malabar-2021 is underway from 26-29 Aug’ 2021 off the coast of Guam with participation of naval units from US, India, Japan and Australia. The flotilla includes main battleships, submarines, helicopters and long-range Maritime Patrol Aircrafts. Indian Navy’s multi-role guided missile stealth frigate INS Shivalik and ASW Corvette INS Kadmatt are participating in the exercise. Such full-scale naval exercises on the high seas are the opportunities to experience the most realistic war scenario simulation. During the ongoing live operations, the highlights shall be the jointness in manoeuvres and collaboration of the warfighting tactics related to anti-aircraft, anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare operations for continued maritime security operations. Along with the two frontline warships participating in the Malabar-2021, the Destroyer Ranvijay and Missile Corvette Kora are also deployed in Southeast Asia, the South China Sea and the Western Pacific for an extended duration of two months. During their voyage, the naval ships are scheduled to carry out bilateral maritime exercises with Brunei, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia. However, during the sailing, the Indian Task Force shall be steering clear of any of the disputed Chinese islands in the South China Sea or undertake any aggressive FONOPs (Freedom of Navigation Operations).
Guam for Malabar-2021
Guam is a US island territory in the North Pacific Ocean, which is much closer to China in the East than to the US mainland in the West. It is 2700km from the East China Sea and 3725km from the South China Sea, making it an ideal US military strategic outpost for Indo-Pacific operations. The island is the first response location for US military activities in Asia and the US has accordingly developed major military installations like an Air Force Base, warship wharfs, a naval air station, a Naval ship repair yard and a military hospital on the island. The US Commander, US Forces Marianas (COMNAVMAR) is based at Guam to provide ordnance and logistical support for the US Fifth and Seventh Fleets.
Evolution of Maritime Exercise Malabar
When the Malabar series of naval exercises commenced as a bilateral US-India annual drills in 1992, it was not anticipated that the maritime exercise shall evolve into a crucial multinational naval war game in the Indo-Pacific. After the first few exercises, the exercise was discontinued till 2002 due to constrained Indo-US relationships post Pokhran-II nuclear tests by India.
In June 2020, the abrupt Sino-India skirmish at Galwan forever changed the geo-politics of the Indo-Pacific region, with India’s alignment clearly resting with the like minded nations already concerned with the Chinese expansionist agenda in the Indo-Pacific. Within a few months of the Galwan clash, the 24th edition of Malabar conducted in Nov ‘2020 saw the participation of the Royal Australian Navy to complete the maritime dimension of QUAD Security Dialogue.
Interestingly, the QUAD Security Dialogue between US, Japan, Australia and India had itself reappeared only by 2019, after about an eight-year hiatus. QUAD was created as a core group after the 2004 Tsunami and by 2017 QUAD Security Dialogue was firmly established to focus on a free and open Indo-Pacific rules-based system. After completion of Malabar-2020, by Jan ‘2021 maritime exercise Sea Dragon 2021 was concluded in the Guam region with representation from QUAD countries and Canada with main focus towards honing the anti-submarine hunting skills of the multi-national fleet.
Malabar is being viewed with a greater concern by China and such multilateral military manoeuvres have been criticised by China as destabilising for the region. However, China’s unabated progress in creating artificial military islands to extend its maritime boundaries has resulted in multiple disputes regarding Freedom of Navigation (FONOPs) and maritime rights of its neighbours.
Non-Interoperability between Indo-US Warships
The main aim of any large scale multinational maritime exercise like Malabar-2021 is to test out the efficacy of Joint Tactical operations not only from their own ships’ point of view, but for an integrated approach at the overall fleet level. This requires building a synergy amongst the multinational war fighting units at sea through interoperability to enhance the fleet’s combat potential. The issue of interoperability was even highlighted on August 25, 2021 by Commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command (US INDOPACOM) during his official three day visit to India. Further, earlier this month, Indian Navy fleet commander had interacted with the Commander of US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), US Fifth Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), at the Bahrain headquarters of the US 5th Fleet. The US Central Command has shown interest in Carrier Strike Group joint operations and Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) to include Indian Navy as part of Combined Maritime Forces. Looking forward, the Indian Navy is now a significant player in the Indo-Pacific as part of the multinational naval force and shall be further collaborating with the UK and EU (European Union) for maintaining assured rights, freedoms and lawful use of the seas within the purview of the international laws. Hence, interoperability amongst the Indian Navy units and other NATO warships is a critical requirement today.
A true interoperability and joint operations are possible only when a networked Task Force works on a Common-Operational Picture (COP). This COP shares the track data, overlapping Weapon Engagement Zones, Threat Alarms etc. so as to depict a comprehensive three-dimensional battle-space domain which is common for all the Net Units. The Indo-US Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA) and Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) framework shall support transmission and reception of the tracks, weapon status and other real-time information over a Tactical Data Link (as part of the combat information exchange). The Tactical Data Link used by Indian warships and those by US forces (Link16/Link11) do not map at any levels and a bridge between the two may be one of the most important technological breakthroughs. Here, the ideal solution shall be the one which is indigenously developed under the aegis of Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative. The option for importing a foreign solution as a retrofit on Indian units is not considered secure since the information riding over the Tactical Data Link is considered highly confidential.
The Indian Navy’s growing security role in the vast global oceans shall require additional resources to be deployed farther away from the Indian coastlines for much longer durations. The weapon systems, machineries and hull on board warships and submarines require a regular and dedicated maintenance period in harbour to achieve the reliability of operations at sea. With the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) Area of Responsibility re-defined to a much larger Indo-Pacific maritime region, in due course, the Indian Navy may be over-stretched with the existing fleet level resources and requires additional ships, submarines and aircrafts to remain effective and contemporary in the near future. Further, naval exercises like Malabar have advanced to highly complex maritime drills which represent a multinational relationship and a military mechanism for mutual support to overcome various security issues in the Indo-Pacific. However, the interoperability amongst the multinational forces is a solution which India has to evolve so as to remain a potent and effective arm of the flotilla. The indigenous implementation of BECA, COMCASA and Tactical Data Link solutions remains the only way forward here.
(The author is a Strategic Analyst with a keen interest in technology related to C4I solutions and Multiplatform Multi-sensor Data Fusion (MPMSDF). Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)