Malabar Exercises And The Chinese Intrusions

Indian Navy's most complex exercise--the Malabar-- is slated to be grouped again as the four formidable navies of the world come together. That forms the Quad. Vice Admiral HCS Bisht had participated in two Malabar Exercises in 2011-12 and later Malabar 2016-17 as the C-in-C of the Eastern Naval Command. He chronicles the Exercise Malabar and talks about the strongest deterrence & message to China against its transgression in IOR.

Photo Credit : HCS Bisht,

India's Mig 29 K flying over USS Nimitz during Malabar 2017

The Indian Navy (IN) has been undertaking Malabar Exercises with the US Navy (USN) since 1992. This was the period when the former Soviet Union had disintegrated and cold war between the two superpowers had ended. Though India had Defence co-operation with some western countries like UK, France, Germany etc even during the cold war period, the collapse of the former USSR gave India an opportunity to widen the base of its options. Concurrently Navies of the US, France, UK etc were also interested in co-operation with IN, primarily due to their strategic interests in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). 

It is with this backdrop that the first edition of Exercise 'Malabar ' took place in 1992. After three such exercises, the next few were suspended following US sanctions, consequent to India's conduct of nuclear tests, which were, resumed in 2002 post  9/11, when India agreed to join the US campaign on 'War on Terror'. Initially the scale and scope of these exercises was relatively limited. Over the years,  the exercises evolved considerably and, today, Malabar series are extremely complex naval exercises, encompassing literally every facet of Naval operations like Anti Air Warfare (AAW), Anti Surface Warfare (ASuW), Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW), Weapon firings, Dissimilar Air Combat,  Maritime Interdiction, Visit Board Search and Seizure (VBSS), Diving and salvage operation, Mine Countermeasure (MCM), Special Forces Operations etc.  

The exercises entail detailed planning, which begins months before with an Initial Planning Conference (IPC) followed by a Final Planning Conference (FPC) where participants from both sides iron out all major issues. The exercises are conducted in two phases, a harbour phase in which, the crew from both Navies get to know each other by way of  social and cultural events, sports fixtures,  lectures/debates on professional  and contextual subjects and detailed planning for each serial of the exercise. The duration of Malabar Exercises  is about 8 to 10 days, out of which 3-4 days are in harbour and the balance duration at sea.

Malabar 2017- US, IN and Japanese carriers

Most Malabar exercises have been bilateral between the USN and the IN. However, the 2007 edition of Exercise Malabar was a multilateral one held in the Bay of Bengal with USN, IN, Royal Australian Navy (RAN), Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) and Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN). Whilst the exercise was intended to enhance interoperability between like minded Navies, the Chinese seemed miffed with such a large coalition exercising together. Considering the Chinese sensitivities, it was decided to only have bilateral exercises between the two Navies. However since 2015, Japan is also a permanent member of the Malabar Exercise coalition.

The author had participated in two Malabar Exercises in 2011 and 2012 as the Eastern Fleet Cdr. The practice in such exercises is to have tactical command of all participating forces rotated between the two Commanders, the Indian Fleet Cdr and the US Strike Group Cdr alternately, so as give each side the exposure to conduct the various exercise serials as per plan. The 2011 edition of 'Exercise Malabar' was  held in the Western Pacific  in  April 2011 and  Malabar 2012 was held off the A&N islands in Mar 2012. During Malabar '12, the newly acquired INS Shakti carried out fueling of the US Aircraft Carrier USS ' Carl Vinson' at sea, thereby proving an important capability of underway replenishment of a US super carrier by an IN tanker. 

          Malabar 2012, INS Shakti fueling USS Carl Vinson

The author, thereafter, had a first hand experience of Malabar 2016 and 2017 as the C-in-C of the Eastern Naval Command  from 2016 to 2017. 'Malabar 2016' was conducted in the Western Pacific and 'Malabar 2017' was held in the Bay of Bengal. Out of the two, 'Malabar 2017' conducted between USN, IN and JMSDF grabbed news headlines,  since it was conducted in the midst of the ongoing Doklam crisis in Jul '17. The traditional press conference, which is part of the opening ceremony, generated tremendous media  interest in co-relating the exercise to the stand off in Doklam, despite repeatedly clarifying that it was pure co-incidence and that the two had nothing to do with each other. However, the congregation of such a powerful force undertaking a massive naval exercise in our backyard, apparently sent a strong message to China and was also probably one of the reasons for the crisis to eventually taper off. 

Consequent to this anecdote of 2017, 'Malabar Exercise' is increasingly seen as a diplomatic exercise to send a strong strategic message to China. Whilst a skirmish of the type that was seen in the Galwan Valley recently had happened way away from the seas but media is seeing Malabar Exercise as a 'tit for tat' to  the PLA in response to their tendency of  intrusions in our territory. There is however, no doubt about China being aware that IN continuously monitors the choke points of Malacca straits through which nearly 80% of China's trade flows. Geography gives India a distinct advantage, wherein the Indian peninsula straddles the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) which crisscross the IOR and IN is well poised to not only undertake surveillance of our entire sea area of interest but also has the capability  to undertake SLOC interdiction, if the need arises.

         Malabar 2017- Opening Ceremony

The Doklam crisis was not as intense as the recent one in Ladakh since no lives were lost then. Also during that time US had apparently not implicated China, maintaining a rather neutral stance, since at that time Sino-US relations were relatively cordial. Even on the South China Seas (SCS) issue, whilst the US was concerned over Freedom of Navigation and over flights issues, they were not very assertive, probably because of the North Korean issue for which China had to be kept on the right side.

The dynamics in 2020 are such that US China relations have  hit a rock bottom, due firstly to trade disagreements between them and thereafter due to China's hiding of facts about the Wuhan virus, due to which US has been the worst affected country and is galvanizing  world opinion, against China.  The US has been particularly vocal about China's transgressions in Ladakh and SCS. The world fury against China has also intensified so much that, even a small one day Passage Exercise (PASSEX) between IN and USN in the Andaman Sea on 20 Jul garnered much media attention. There is also talk of having  the next Malabar Exercise include Australia. In that case it will be an exercise comprising members of the 'Quad', with all of them having serious issues with the Dragon. Naturally therefore, the forthcoming exercise is likely to give a strong strategic message to China. 

This also brings to the fore the world perception of the capabilities of the PLA Navy (PLAN). There is no doubt that the PLAN in the last two decades  has grown by leaps and bounds, as far as the numbers and capability are concerned, churning out platforms  at a break neck pace but there seems to be a question mark on their professionalism since firstly they have really not been involved in any combat operations and secondly PLAN apparently does not undertake any type of professional exchanges with experienced Navies like the USN.  They frequently exercise with Pakistan Navy but their exercises with professional Navies have been limited. For example, they were invited by the USN for the famous Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC), the biggest maritime exercise in the world,  only twice in 2014 and 2016 but were disinvited in 2018, because of the SCS dispute. On the other hand, IN has been a regular participant in the exercise since 2012 and has been continually honing its skills.  

PLAN tactics have also apparently  been developed in-house without exercising with any major Navies. On the other hand, IN SOPs and tactics have been fine tuned over decades of not only inhouse exercises but also with inputs from exercising with major Navies like the USN, RN, French Navy, RSN etc. Further, as far as Aircraft Carrier operations are concerned, Indian Navy has had years of head start, when compared to PLAN and this aspect of the culture of fighter flying from deck and the confidence of the carrier borne team, is something, which the PLA Navy apparently lacks. Also the network centric operations that we regularly undertake including with other Navies is a matter of solace for us, which also includes the Poseidon 8I aircraft (P 8I), an extremely potent force multiplier, having the capability to undertake surveillance over literally the whole of our areas of interest. China is aware of this capability since, PLAN  units have normally been picked up by our P8Is, whenever they enter our waters. Therefore though numerically superior, PLAN is acutely aware of our strengths in the IOR and will probably not rock the IN boat unnecessarily. 

Malabar Exercises therefore provide a platform for not only enhancing interoperability with like minded Navies but also are the manifestation of the IN's capability in the eyes of the world. As far as China is concerned, they probably see Malabar Exercises as a ganging up of like minded Navies, which can hurt  them where it matters, the SCS. Malabar exercises can thus provide the desired level of deterrence, inter alia, whenever China tries any new adventurism in our territory.


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