By Cmde Ranjit B Rai (Retd)
As Indian Navy celebrates 48th Navy Day on December 4, discussing its operational advances seems relevant at a time when India’s relations with an assertive China has dipped to its nadir after Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) surreptitiously intruded across India’s Line of Actual Control (LAC) in May and a brutal clash took place at Galwan in Eastern Ladakh on June 15, and India lost a Colonel and 19 brave hearts. The Armed Forces went on alert and Prime Minister Narendra Modi assured a riposte and cleared defence purchases worth Rs 34,000 crores for the Air Force and Army, and revised rules of engagement (ROE) which saw the Army act in early August to take heights on the Southern shore of the Pangong Lake, overlooking PLA forces at Moldo, as PLA illegally dug in from Finger 4 to 8 on the Northern shore of the Lake and in Depsang Plains. The Navy’s operational ships commenced patrols and exercised with firings, and were kept replenished at sea as Covid raged ashore. US came in support of India against China’s actions.
China has been uneasy about India’s increasing closeness to US and the QUAD coalition of the willing, who have been demanding free navigation in the Indo-Pacific and adherence by China to UNCLOS 1982 and to deny its claims in the South and East China Seas it has converted rocks into islands by force. Nations harbour fears of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which have maritime connotations that has put them in debt. India has objected to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), which has projects in Gilgit Baltistan (GB), a part of PoK. Pakistan is attempting to convert GB into its sixth province.
Most analysts ascribe to the fact that the India-US bilateral relationship, which has deepened over time, is maritime-led and has been propelled by Indian Navy’s closeness to the US Navy. The step for closeness was taken after 1991 when US’ Lt Gen Claude M Kicklighter visited India to explore military cooperation and the Indian Navy commenced Malabar naval exercises in 1992 and steadily moved to higher levels. A number of officers trained in US, at Rhode Island’s Naval War College (NWC) and on US aircraft carriers. The 123 nuclear deal in 2009 saw acceptance of India as a de-facto nuclear power outside NPT and Indian Navy armed OPV INS Subhadra with a nuclear tipped Dhanush missile as a test bed. Even today a former Indian Navy Chief Admiral Nirmal Verma is permitted to be on NWC’s staff.
In January 2015, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi jointly released the path breaking Joint Strategic Vision for Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region (IOR) in New Delhi. US Congress designated India as a major defence partner and launched a bilateral maritime security dialogue. US-India defence trade galloped from roughly US$1 billion in 2008 to over US$22 billion and today includes more P-8Is and 24 MH60R multi mission naval Lockheed Martin helicopters for US$2.1 billion which was confirmed in February 2020 during President Trump’s visit to India. President Trump and Prime Minister Modi announced a vision for a Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership. India defence relationship reflects a new high with alignment on security issues of mutual concern and Indian Navy has taken the lead with net centricity with the US Navy for interoperability.
QUAD Foreign Ministers met for the first time in Tokyo on October 6 to send a message of solidarity to China. This was followed by the third annual 2+2 ministerial dialogue on in New Delhi on October 27, among Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Defense Secretary Mark Esther from US and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister (EAM) S Jaishankar demonstrating the strength of the India US bilateral relationship as another message to China to follow international laws.
India’s Navy has taken part in 23 Malabar naval exercises since 1992 with the United States Navy (USN), and with Japan’s Maritime Self Defence Forces (JMSDF) since 2015. To facilitate common Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) Pentagon cleared the internet controlled Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System (CENTRIX) for the duration of the exercises with US Navy Sea Riders embarked in Indian Navy ships. Computer typed communication replaced voice communications for swiftness and safety in surface, aerial and submarine operations with net centricity.
The signing of the first of four Foundational Agreements, the General Security of Military Information Agreement in 2002 (GSOMIA) had enabled US Congress to release military equipment to India and Air Force’s C-130s, C-17s, Apaches and Chinooks and P-8Is were ordered and are operational in India. In 2006, the Navy bought 13,000 tonne Landing Platform/ Dock (LPD) INS Jalashwa (USS Trenton) in a FMS sale for US$48 million, with six second hand Sikorsky helicopters. The ship’s selected crew took over the ship after spending months in Newport imbibing the best of US Navy practices. This led to the signing of the Logistic Exchange Memorandum Of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016, which has made it possible to order fuel and stores not only for Indian Navy but Air Force and Army and India has similar agreements now with Japan and Australia. The QUAD navies can provide mutual logistical support to each other with seamless escrow accounting, and LEMOA recently saw a US Navy P-8A MR Poseidon aircraft fuel at Port Blair.
In 2018, US and India signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) for sharing and provision of restricted US communications and equipment which has a Maritime Information Sharing Agreement (MISTA) clause. Pentagon extend Internet CENTRIX access to NHQ and major ships and Indian Maritime Fusion Centre (IMFC) at Gurugram by releasing passwords and black boxes to view the Indo Pacific MDA annotated plot along with QUAD nations to track ships and submarines.
To facilitate sharing of best practices in maritime information sharing and better understanding the maritime security challenges in the IOR, the Indian Navy hosted a Maritime Information Sharing Workshop (MISW) at the Indian Fusion Centre at Gurugam (IFC-IOR) for 50 delegates from 30 countries from June 12 last year. Table top information sharing exercises were also conducted. The centre has established linkages with more than 16 countries and 13 international maritime security agencies and a US naval officer is appointed to the centre. An Indian naval officer is reportedly posted to the US Indo-Pacific Command Headquarters at Hawaii.
With this backdrop the 24th edition of the MALABAR 2020 naval exercise phase 1 was executed from Vishakhapatnam in the Bay of Bengal from November 3 to 6 with USS John S McCain, JMSDF Onami, and RAN Ballarat with an integral MH-60 helicopter. The Indian Navy as hosts led by Rear Admiral Sanjay Vatsayan, Flag Officer Eastern Fleet (FOCEF) fielded BrahMos fitted INS Ranvijay, Type 17 Shivalik, OPV Sukanya, Fleet Support Ship Shakti and submarine Sindhuraj, Advanced Jet Trainer Hawks, and long-range maritime patrol aircraft P-8I and Dorniers operated from air stations. The phase 2 was also planned in the Arabian Sea in mid November before Navy Day on December 4. The high-levels of synergy and coordination between the QUAD navies is based on their shared values and commitment to an open, inclusive Indo-Pacific and a rules-based international order.
This writer as a former Naval Director of Intelligence and Operations in the IN credits Prime Minister Narendra Modi for deftly navigating the India-US relationship and an extract of his address to US Congress deserves recall. “Mr. Speaker, as we deepen our partnership, there will be times when we will have differing perspectives. But since our interests and concerns converge, the autonomy in decision making and diversity in our perspectives can only add values to our partnership. In my final words and thoughts, let me emphasise that our relationship is prime for a momentous future. The constraints of the past are behind us and the foundations of the future are in place. In the lines of Walt Whitman, the orchestra has sufficiently tuned their instruments, the baton has given the signal and to that, if I might add, there is a new symphony in play.”
Evidently in the present circumstances the US and India need each other with necessities to counter China. Indian Navy appreciates it requires to co-operate with the powerful American Navy as Raksha Anirveda wishes all the Naval Personnel serving the country with pride, A Very Happy Navy Day!
–The writer is former DNO and DNI, Indian Navy. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda