The Emerging Strategic Importance of India’s Joint Military Exercises

14 September 2017 Balaji Chandramohan, FDI Visiting Fellow Download PDF

Key Points

  • The operational importance of the Malabar 2017 exercise assumes significance as the Indian, Japanese and US navies fielded a diverse range of platforms encompassing the air, surface and subsurface aspects of naval operations.
  • The focus of this exercise was aircraft carrier operations, air defence, surface and anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue and joint manoeuvres.
  • Malabar 2017 paves the way for the Indo-US Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), an updated version of the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement.
  • The Malabar exercises will take on increasing relevance, not only for the countries that participate, but also for regional states, including Australia and Indonesia, and extra-regional actors, such as China and Russia, which have important stakes in the Indo-Pacific.


As the United States, India and Japan contemplate China’s increasing maritime assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region, the sea phase of the Malabar 2017 trilateral naval exercise held in the Bay of Bengal assumes significance as an attempt to create an informal alliance.

The operational importance of the exercise becomes significant because the navies fielded a diverse range of platforms encompassing the air, surface and sub-surface aspects of naval combat. The exercise featured sixteen ships, two submarines and several aircraft.


The US Navy was led by the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz with its air wing, a cruiser, destroyers with embarked helicopters, an attack submarine and a long-range maritime patrol P-8A aircraft.

Japan dispatched its largest and most sophisticated maritime self-defence ship, the JS Izumo, along with the destroyer JS Sazanami. The Izumo is designated a helicopter destroyer and carries at least nine helicopters and resembles a small aircraft carrier, which is politically and symbolically significant. The Sazanami also carried its embarked helicopter.

India was represented by its lead ship, the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, with its MiG-29K aircraft. It was joined by a destroyer, stealth frigates, corvettes, submarine, P-8I (the Indian variant of the P-8A), and a fleet tanker.

The focus of this exercise was aircraft carrier operations, air defence, surface and anti-submarine warfare (ASW), search and rescue, and joint manoeuvres. It was aimed at mutual familiarisation of platforms, personnel and best practices between the three navies. The Bay of Bengal, with its increasing strategic relevance, was the locus of these operations.

Anti-submarine operations were a central element of this year’s iteration of the exercise, given the nature of this emerging threat in the Indo-Pacific. India and the US decided last year to enhance their co-operation on submarine detection and tracking in the Indian Ocean. To enhance that co-operation, India’s latest anti-submarine corvette, INS Kamorta, JS Izumo and helicopters from other warships practiced ASW operations. The presence of the P-8A and P-8I aircraft, along with the submarines, increased the sophistication of these operations.

During the exercise, India’s fleet tanker, the INS Jyoti, transferred fuel to American and Japanese warships. Helicopters from the American and Japanese warships landed and took off from those of the other two countries.

An important aspect of the exercise was the landing of the US P-8A aircraft at INS Rajali, the naval air station in Tamil Nadu which is home to India’s P-8I squadron. This would appear to indicate that, in the event of some future conflict, the US would be comfortable in sending its troops to aid India. It further indicates the development of an informal strategic alliance.

Returning to the exercise’s co-operation-building activities, India’s MiG-29Ks flew over the Nimitz and American F-18 fighters flew over the Vikramaditya. These flights initially appear to be of little significance but it is imperative for both navies to be comfortable with friendly foreign aircraft passing over their most valued assets. The flights could also serve to acquire and ascertain radar readings by both aircraft carriers to better identify those aircraft, indicating further co-operation in times of conflict. The aircraft did not perform cross-deck operations like the helicopters, given the technological differences between the two carriers.

On the other hand, the exercise also signalled the importance of the Air-Sea Battle concept developed by the United States to be used in the Indo-Pacific in the event of a confrontation – presumably with China – and, as a consequence, equal importance was given to anti-submarine warfare.

China has routinely watched naval exercises in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. For example, Chinese ships are detected in the vicinity of US-Australia Talisman Sabre and Rim of the Pacific naval exercises, which is ironic since China was invited to participate in those for the first time this year and in 2014, respectively.

The Malabar 2017 exercise saw 95 aircraft, sixteen ships and two submarines participate. The main operational importance of the exercise was that it involved participation from both the US Seventh and Fifth Fleets, implying that India could increase its co-operation with both Fleets in the future in order to nullify any increased Chinese maritime assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. It would appear, then, that the Indian Navy will increase its co-operation with the US Central, African and Pacific Commands, thus increasing the maritime synergy and coherence between India and the United States in the Indo-Pacific region.

As if to emphasise that point, the US House of Representatives passed an enabling act that could allocate up to US$621.5 billion to promote defence co-operation with India. The US Defence Department and the State Department have been given six months in which to propose a roadmap to intensify that co-operation.

But that roadmap is most likely to depend upon India agreeing to sign a new military pact, the COMCASA or “Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement”. The COMCASA is the most recent nomenclature for a pact that the US proposed more than a decade-and-a-half ago. It was then known as the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA). India has been hesitant to enter into this agreement because of fears that such a pact could compromise the security of its military communications equipment. That fear could dissipate, however, following the Malabar 2017 exercises. If that is the case, it would imply that a much deeper level of military co-operation between the US and India is imminent.

Military co-operation between the two countries was mooted during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the United States earlier this year. Their maritime co-operation was strengthened during an earlier visit. It was reported that the United States was considering selling twenty-two unmanned, unarmed, long-range maritime surveillance aircraft to India. These are a variant of the same aerial systems used by the US military and Department of Homeland Security. The drones can be used in concert with the American-made P-8I Poseidon surveillance aircraft, greatly increasing India’s ability to monitor the Indian Ocean – a vital thoroughfare for international trade and important for India’s security.

Apart from its operational importance, the exercise signals a change in the strategic orientation of the three countries involved and a move towards an informal strategic alliance, despite contrary arguments that the exercises were solely an operational continuation of the strategic ties forged between the governments of India, Japan and the United States.

It is also expected that the maritime co-operation between India, the United States and Japan will be facilitated by joint maritime co-operation around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which India is trying to convert into a military base.

To achieve that objective, India is expected to undertake joint projects with Japan and the United States to install sound surveillance sensors in the vicinity of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This is an important element of controlling the Indian Ocean operations of China’s Southern Fleet and to monitor its activities. Australia could join in the installation of the sound sensors as it will help Canberra to project its influence in the Indian Ocean and, in so doing, aid in tracking the movements of Chinese submarines in the wider Indo-Pacific. It could also compensate for India’s refusal to permit Australia to participate in the Malabar 2017 exercises.

The co-operation between India, the United States and Japan in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands may not stop with the installation of acoustic systems and it is expected that a joint project to lay an undersea optical fibre communications cable from Chennai to Port Blair could eventuate. Once completed, the network is likely to be integrated with the existing US-Japan “Fish Hook” network that was created specifically to monitor the Chinese navy’s submarine activity in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean Rim. Australia will watch such developments with interest.

On the other hand, it is understood that Australia’s participation in the next iteration of the joint exercises maybe on the cards in 2018. The navies of India, the US, Australia, Singapore and Japan last conducted joint exercises in the Bay of Bengal in September 2007.

Despite refusing to permit Australia to take part in the Malabar 2017 exercise, India and Australia conducted the AUSINDEX exercises 2017 in Perth, as part of which the Indian naval ships Jyoti, Shivalik and Kamorta visited Fremantle, signalling more maritime co-operation between the two countries.

It is not entirely out of the question that Australia, Japan, the United States and India could reconsider forming a quadrilateral strategic alliance if they find increasing reason to be concerned about China’s naval operations in the Indo-Pacific region. It is also understood that the United States agreed to sell India 22 advanced surveillance drones, which could be deployed to the Strait of Malacca and used to track Chinese naval movements.

India and Japan have an institutionalised trilateral strategic dialogue partnership with the United States. Initiated in 2011, the partnership aims to maintain the existing balance of power in the Asia-Pacific as well as maritime security in Indo-Pacific waters. A similar dialogue exists between the US, Japan and Australia.

At the strategic level, the expectation is that Australia could be invited to participate in the Malabar exercises from next year and that the subsequent quadrilateral military exercise could even evolve into a pentagonal format, if Indonesia were to also join.

On the other hand, the conjoining of the US, Indian and Japanese maritime forces in this exercise could prompt increased military co-operation between China and Russia, at least in the Indo-Pacific region. Although the odds of that occurring might be long, it would pose operational and strategic challenges to the other maritime powers in the Indo-Pacific region.

After Malabar 2017 and AUSINDEX, the maritime co-operation between India, Japan and the United States is set to increase in both the Indo-Pacific and the wider Asia-Pacific region. The expectation will be for Indonesia and Australia to become more involved in such initiatives in the years to come, with the annual maritime exercises eventually evolving into a quadrilateral involving India, Japan, the United States and Australia and, later, possibly a pentagonal by tempting Indonesia to also take part. On the other hand, countries which are not participants, such as China and Russia, may decide to conduct similar such maritime exercises, even despite their differences in other areas, such as Central Asia.


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