Maritime Cooperation: Indian Navy’s Gallant Effort

Over the last two decades, in keeping with its growing stature as a regional power, India has shown enhanced interest in international military-to-military cooperation, including maritime cooperation. Defence cooperation is being effectively employed as a foreign policy tool to promote India’s national interests. It is now one of the main forms of engagement with many countries such as Bhutan, China, France, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Mauritius, Myanmar, Nepal, Oman, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, the United Kingdom and USA. Military to military contacts are particularly vibrant and dynamic with countries like Bhutan, Nepal and USA.  There is increasing realisation in the Government of India that defence cooperation can play a key role in regional and global security and it must be further enhanced with countries in the region so that bilateral and multilateral ties can be improved even further. While inaugurating a seminar on defence cooperation organised by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi, on February 18, 2008, Mr. A K Antony, India’s Defence Minister, said that globalisation has affected defence as much as any other activity and there is a need to continually find avenues for exchanging points of view with colleagues overseas, as well as learning from successful innovations being implemented elsewhere. 
Throughout history, India had major maritime trade links with Africa, Arabia, Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and West Asia, the Mediterranean, South East Asia and China.  Many Indian kingdoms located on the Deccan Plateau had fairly sophisticated navies and their cultural and civilisational influence extended all along the Indian Ocean littoral. Today the region faces a variety of security threats from non-state actors that endanger maritime peace and stability.  The threats include the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) – in June 1999, alert Indian customs officers in Kandla port had discovered a North Korean ship carrying a clandestine cargo of missile components from Pyongyang to Karachi, organised crime, trafficking in human beings and drugs, poaching in territorial waters and in the EEZ, environmental degradation through oil and even radioactive spills, maritime terrorism and piracy. Almost 70 per cent of the world’s natural disasters also occur in the Indian Ocean region.  
No navy can undertake these diverse tasks single-handed and it makes sense to make common cause with other friendly navies in the region. The Tsunami disaster relief and Lebanon refugee evacuation operations clearly showed the huge benefits of working alongside and operating seamlessly with other navies. Hence, in the fragile regional security environment obtaining in the Indian Ocean, it is essential for the Indian Navy to cooperate with other friendly navies to maintain peace and stability. The Indian Navy can do this only through constructive engagement.
However, the Indian Navy has had some unsavoury experiences in the past and has there fore taken its time to come into its own as the predominant maritime force in the region. On two different occasions, the Indian Navy was a victim of gunboat diplomacy. During the India-Pakistan war in 1965, Indonesia had dispatched its submarines to aid Pakistan and had threatened to open another war front in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. During the next India-Pakistan war in 1971, the US Seventh Fleet, consisting of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and its escorts sailed through the Bay of Bengal to deter India from dismembering Pakistan. 

Constructive Engagement 

Although the problems of comprehensive maritime security in the Indian Ocean are enormous, opportunities are not lacking either.  According to Rear Admiral Pradeep Chauhan, “The concerted and cooperative effort of the littoral states of the Malacca Strait has led to a dramatic decrease in depredations such as ‘armed robbery’ that were, not too long ago, being visited upon ships with disconcerting regularity and ferocity.  On the western flank of the region, the efforts of the multi-national Task Force 150 in keeping the incidents of piracy off the coast of Somalia under control need to be appreciated.  Similarly deserving of praise are Australia’s, South Africa’s, and India’s efforts towards capacity-building and capability-enhancement… Cooperative mechanisms for the speedy, effective and humane application of maritime power for regional Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief operations form an obvious and important aspect of this ‘Constructive Engagement’.  Yet, it took the Tsunami of 2004 to drive this home with telling effect.  With the more recent example of the Yogyakarta earthquake in Indonesia and cyclone Sidr that struck Bangladesh in November of 2007, the criticality of working towards interoperability right from the planning and induction process of new platforms needs no great elaboration.  The widespread publicity that was accorded to the regionally-inclusive evacuation undertaken in July 2006 when warships of the Indian Navy, moved as many as 2,280 nationals of India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Lebanon, and even Greece, to safety from war-ravaged Lebanon, makes it unnecessary to expound unduly upon the advantages of having succour and extrication options available to non-combatants and civilians — even in distant lands.”  

Present efforts at constructive engagement are truly multilateral.  The operations undertaken by the USNS Mercy and USS Pelelieu, have been commendable. In response to a 2006 request, an Indian Navy medical team consisting of five specialist doctors and two general practitioners (including a lady medical officer) and three paramedics, along with another team drawn jointly from the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force, participated in a four-month operation to provide medical and humanitarian relief to affected people in the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and East Timor.  In 2007, 10 medical, veterinary and medical-engineering specialists from the Indian armed forces sailed with the USS Peleliu on the ship’s mission covering the Philippines, Marshall Islands, Vietnam, and Papua New Guinea.

Multilateral Exercises

Large naval exercises are not new to the Indian Ocean region and the Indian Navy has always participated in them with gusto. From 1949 up to the 1965 war, the Indian Navy joined other Commonwealth navies, including Australia, Britain and Pakistan, to participate in exercises called Joint Exercises Trincomalee. Then the Royal Navy pulled out of the Indian Ocean and the US Sixth and Seventh Fleets sailed in to fill the vacuum. Around this time, India-Pakistan relations also soured and thoughts of joint naval exercises fell by the wayside. As Indo-US relations became estranged, especially after tough sanctions were imposed on India consequent to the Pokhran-I nuclear test in May 1974, the Indian Navy was isolated. As was bound to happen, almost four decades of insularity took a toll on the tactical and doctrinal skills of the Indian Navy. 

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Indian Navy, though still a “brown water” navy suitable mainly for coastal defence but with two operational aircraft carriers, was seen as somewhat of an emerging threat by some countries in South East Asia, including Indonesia, Malaysia and even Australia. In March 1989, India had intervened in the Maldives to suppress a coup against the government of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. A Time magazine cover story (April 3, 1989) of India’s emergence as an Asian power, with an Indian Navy ship on the cover, had further fuelled suspicion in the region. However, the littoral countries soon realised that a strong India could act as a regional stabiliser and over time initial suspicions gave way to thoughts of mutual cooperation.

Gradually, defence relations with the US improved, particularly after the 1991 visit by General Kickleighter of the Pacific Command. The first joint exercises with the US Navy, part of the Malabar series, were held in 1994. In the beginning, the exercises were basic in nature and progressively improved in content and complexity with the introduction of advanced surface ships, while submarines and long range maritime patrol aircraft acted as a catalyst to the nascent naval cooperation. The relationship was beginning to gather momentum when the Pokhran-II nuclear explosions in May 1998 led to some knee-jerk international reactions as India was seen to have rocked the non-proliferation boat. However, a more rational appraisal of India’s emergence as a Southern Asian military power followed soon after and many navies made it a point to come calling. 

With India's unique position astride the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean, which has over 100,000 ships transiting through annually, it was only natural that the maritime community that depended on these sea lanes of communications should befriend the sole regional navy. The Indian Navy began to exercise with the navies of Britain (Konkan series), France (Varuna series), Indonesia, Oman, Russia (Indra series), Thailand, Singapore (Simbex series), and the US (Malabar series). In addition to these bilateral exercises in the Indian Ocean, the Indian Navy availed the opportunity of port calls to Australia, China, Japan and New Zealand to carry out limited tactical manoeuvres at sea. 

From bilateral exercises to multilateral ones, which reduce sailing time and costs and multiply operational benefits, was but a short step. According to Admiral Arun Prakash, former Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), “Over the past decade or so, our surface-ship operators, submariners and aircrew have gained tremendously in self-confidence and expertise by pitting their professional skills against the best in the business. However, each such exercise takes months of preparation, and consumes ship, submarine and aircraft operating hours; and, in the past few years it was becoming obvious that by exercising separately with so many navies we were overstretching both our material and personnel. The answer: go multilateral, reduce the time, multiply the benefits, save machinery hours, and give more leave to the sailors. The Ministry of External Affairs was not very keen, but obviously the navy managed to convince them. This is the real reason that for the first time 'Malabar' (now) has five navies participating — not secret instructions from the Pentagon.” 

The Varuna series of Indo-French joint naval exercises were held in 1993, 1996, 1999 and 2000. In May and November 2002, there were two joint exercises, including with the Charles De Gaulle, a French nuclear powered aircraft carrier. The two navies have also held passage exercises whenever an opportunity had presented itself. The two navies have now formalised the scope and extent of their cooperation and are expected to hold joint naval exercises annually. Annual exercises are also held with the Singapore Navy. Coordinated patrolling exercises are being undertaken with Indonesia twice a year in March and September to prevent illegal fishing, poaching, migration and smuggling of arms. 

Despite wide-ranging political, economic, social, cultural and linguistic differences and varying military structures, the Indian Navy has actively participated in UN Peace Keeping and Multilateral Track II arrangements like the Council for Security Cooperation in Asia Pacific (CSCAP) and Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS). India's first integrated military command at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands at Port Blair hosted 'MILAN 2003' from 11 to15 February 2003. The  gathering was a confluence of navies from several Indian Ocean countries. Warships and naval delegates from Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Thailand participated in the event.

Cooperation for Active Operations

After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the US requested New Delhi to support the international war on terrorism by undertaking escort duties in the Malacca Straits. India agreed and Indian naval ships escorted US-flagged High Value Vessels through the Strait under an operation that was code named “Op Sagittarius”.  Indian Naval Ships Sharda and Sukanya escorted 24 US vessels between April 2 and September 16, 2002. The Indian and the Sri Lankan navies have considerable experience in joint operations. The Indian Navy had actively participated in Operation Pawan in the mid-to-late 1980s at the request of the Sri Lankan government to help it to fight the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). The Indian Navy conducted maritime operations in the waters around Sri Lanka and in Palk Bay, north of Sri Lanka.

Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS)

In 2007, the Indian Navy launched a new cooperative regional maritime movement called the ‘Indian Ocean Naval Symposium’ (IONS). The aim is to provide a platform for the ‘Chiefs of Navy’ of all littoral States of the Indian Ocean region to meet every two years to discuss multilateral issues having a bearing on regional maritime security. IONS is founded upon the concept of cooperative comprehensive security rather than competitive security.  It asserts that the oceans connect landmasses and challenges the long-held belief that the oceans separate landmasses. 

International Fleet Review

In 2001, the Indian Navy hosted the International Fleet Review (IFR), the first of its kind, since independence. Addressing the gathering of sailors and ships from 23 countries, the Indian Prime Minister noted that the Indian Navy plays a crucial role in India's co-operation with other countries, especially those that share maritime borders. He said that active co-operation between navies was necessary in these times of sea piracy, gun running and drug menace, which are all part of international terrorism. He added that by institutionalising arrangements for cooperation, it could be said India had built 'bridges of friendship', which was also the theme of the IFR. 

Exercise Malabar 07

Exercise Malabar 07 was perhaps the largest ever multinational exercise in the Indian Ocean and merits detailed mention. It was conducted in the Bay of Bengal by the navies of Australia, Japan, India, Singapore and the United States in early-September 2007. Over two dozen destroyers, corvettes, submarines and three aircraft carriers (USS Nimitz, USS Kitty Hawk and INS Viraat) and a large number of shore-based aircraft participated in the exercise. The declared aims of this major naval exercise were to practice joint patrolling and anti-piracy measures and procedures for disaster relief, understand and learn from each other’s tactics, techniques and procedures, augment levels of interoperability and show presence for enhancing maritime security in the Indian Ocean region. 

However, there was clearly an underlying message in this naval exercise that has not gone unnoticed in the intended quarters. Much like the Great Game played out in Central Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the major Asian powers and the US are jostling for advantage to maintain the balance of power in Asia. India is a reluctant newcomer to this new Great Game. China, Russia and the Central Asian Republics have come together to form the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to guard their interests and balance ASEAN and APEC. China is assiduously engaged in pursuing a “string of pearls” doctrine that is clearly aimed at the strategic encirclement of India. By creating client states around India that are dependent on it for their major arms purchases (Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan), making inroads into Nepal and building ports at Gwadar (Pakistan), Hambantota (Sri Lanka) and in Myanmar and Maldives, China is not only safeguarding the sea lanes over which its oil and gas flow but also attempting to confine India to the backwaters of the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.

When Japanese Prime Minister Abe suggested a “quadrilateral” meeting between Australia, Japan, India and the US over a year ago, the move raised China’s suspicions. China formally queried the Japanese about the underlying motives as it became apprehensive that the four countries were likely to gang up against it. Chinese scholars and analysts have even dubbed this loose group of democracies as an Asian NATO. The quadrilateral is far from becoming a cooperative military venture as India does not join military alliances and prefers to maintain its strategic autonomy. In fact, it is not so well known that the Chinese, Indian and Russian foreign ministers have met four times in the last three years. Hence, there is a clear attempt on India’s part to cooperate with all the major Asian powers to maintain peace and stability in the southern Asian and northern Indian Ocean regions.

At the same time, in keeping with its growing power and responsibilities, India has been steadily enhancing its expeditionary and military intervention capabilities for out of area contingencies. Some of these growing capabilities have been amply demonstrated. During the 1991 Gulf War, India airlifted approximately 150,000 civilian personnel who had been forced to leave Iraq from the airfield at Amman, Jordan, over a period of 30 days. During the South East Asian tsunami in 2004, the Indian armed forces were in the forefront of rescue and relief operations. Over 70 Indian Navy ships had set sail with rescue teams and relief material in less than 72 hours of the disaster even though the Indian people on the eastern seaboard had themselves suffered horrendously. Indian naval ships on a goodwill visit to European countries during the Lebanon war in 2006 lifted and brought back 5,000 Indian civilian refugees.

With the arrival of INS Jalashwa, the erstwhile USS Trenton, at Mumbai in September 2007, India’s strategic sea-lift capability has been substantially upgraded to lifting one infantry battalion at a time. The SU-30 MKI long-range fighter-bombers with air-to-air refuelling capability that India acquired from Russia, the C-130J Special Forces transport aircraft now in the pipeline and the AWACS and maritime surveillance capabilities that India intends to build over the next five to 10 years, will give India considerable strategic outreach. However, India has consistently favoured military interventions under a UN umbrella. Though that position is unlikely to change quickly, India may join future coalitions of the willing when its vital national interests are threatened and need to be defended.

As a key player in Asia and a large democracy with which India has commonality of interests, the US is fast becoming a major strategic partner. Though there is a broad national consensus on the contours of the emerging relationship with the US, particularly enhanced defence cooperation and civil nuclear energy cooperation, the Left Parties are steadfastly opposed to these moves on the grounds that India will become a subaltern power and will be forced to compromise its strategic autonomy. Their opposition stems from a pathological hatred of the US as an imperial power rather than from genuine national security concerns and they are completely outnumbered, even though they can destabilise the government because of the seats they hold in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s Parliament.

Facing complex strategic scenarios and living in an increasingly unstable neighbourhood, India has no option but to encourage a cooperative model of regional security and is willing to work with all friendly countries towards that end. At the same time, India finds it pragmatic to hedge its bets just in case “worst case” scenarios begin to unfold and threaten its economic development or territorial integrity. Finally, as far as India is concerned, Exercise Malabar 07 is part of a long-standing initiative to engage with the littoral navies to enhance maritime cooperation for security and stability in the Indian Ocean region. As a present-day regional power and an aspiring global power of tomorrow, India is gearing up militarily to discharge its responsibilities in the service of peace.  Malabar 07 was an important naval exercise that was part of India’s continuing efforts to achieve these goals. 

Defence diplomacy and maritime cooperation are potent instruments for promoting national interests. In recent years, the Indian armed forces have shed their hesitant approach to engage more widely with friendly the armed forces of other friendly countries, but most endeavours are still essentially in the fields of training and visits. The most notable engagement has been that with the US armed forces, especially the US Navy. However, there is still obviously a long way to go before the operations of both the navies in the Indian Ocean region can be truly harmonised in the common interest of the international community.
Speaking at a symposium organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) at New Delhi, Admiral Blair, former C-in-C of the Pacific Command, India and the US should think of joint military operations in four areas: maritime security, where the U.S. already has its “1000 ship navy” concept to “make the seas safe for lawful use”; in peacekeeping operations in which there is a need for the armed forces of the two countries to conduct not just joint exercises but also “do serious work” and evolve new concepts; the Horn of Africa and Somalia where India and the US could work together; and, counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism training and operations to build on India’s experience in Jammu and Kashmir and the US experience in Afghanistan. While these are all good suggestions, there is still no political consensus in India on closer military contacts with the US and it will take some more time to substantially upgrade the present level of military and maritime cooperation.

Admiral Sureesh Mehta, the Chief of Naval Staff, has set five objectives for multilateral and bilateral exercises with other friendly navies: the gaining of operational and doctrinal expertise; the sharing of transformational experiences; the examination and imbibing of ‘best practices’; the generation of inter-operability; and, the enhancement of maritime domain awareness through a variety of information-sharing mechanisms. In his view, “very high comfort levels have been established” and this has enabled the Indian Navy to concentrate on high-end activities. In order to upgrade maritime cooperation in the field of real-time operations, so as to contribute more effectively to regional security, Admiral Arun Prakash advocates an ‘Asian Maritime Partnership’ to establish “a modest naval ‘force in being’ to serve the common cause” of ensuring the security of the SLOCs. 

There can be no doubt at all that the Indian Navy has gained immensely from its experience in maritime cooperation and is now ready to meet the challenges posed by India’s growing responsibilities as a regional power. However, given the political tensions prevailing in the Indian Ocean region, the pace of enhanced maritime cooperation is likely to be incremental rather than spectacular.

Brig Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd.) is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. Views are personal.