Saturday, November 17, 2007

India’s Largest Naval War Game in Bay of Bengal

India’s Largest Naval War Game in Bay of Bengal
Syed Ali Mujtaba

The largest-ever war game hosted by the Indian Navy, codenamed Malabar CY 07-2, kicked off in the Bay of Bengal from 4-9 September. However, this has stirred a hornet’s nest in the country. Opinions remain divided for and against New Delhi’s military engagement with the US.

Twenty-four warships from five countries are taking part in the Malabar series of naval exercises at 100 nautical miles west of the Andamans and 500 miles East of the Indian shores in the Bay of Bengal.

The US will have major presence in the exercise with participation of its 13 warships erasing the memories of the USS Enterprise in the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 Indo-Pak conflict. The US contingent includes nuclear powered submarine USS Chicago, Air carriers USS Nimitz and USS Kitty Hawk.

Nevertheless, in the run-up to the exercise things were not as smooth as they appeared to be. The Left parties geared up for a major protest against this multi-national naval exercise. Its criticism stems from the fact that any strategic pact with the United States would be fraught with dangerous implications. It is of the view that such an exercise would give the U.S. an opportunity to achieve its long-cherished hegemony in the Indian waters. Not only that it would serve Washington ’s agenda to make India a military base for its operations in South-east Asia.

The Left brigade also thinks that the multi-lateral naval exercise is an attempt to co-opt India into the Israel-U.S. axis. It further suspects that the experience the US may gain from such an exercise could be passed on to Pakistan. It therefore decided to mobilize public opinion against the multi-lateral naval exercise cautioning India becoming another pawn in the hands of the imperialist America.

In Kolkatta the left front took out a mammoth procession on September 1 to highlight the "dangerous implications" of the multilateral naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal . The march coincided with Nazi Germany's unprovoked attack on Poland on this day in 1939 that sparked off the World War II. West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee released a white pigeon on the occasion and procession carried placards 'No war, only peace'.

Notwithstanding the Left’s protest against ‘Operation Malabar’, the Union Government made it clear that political positions had not been factored into its decision concerning the armed forces as the defence services is apolitical and New Delhi is going ahead with the September 4 naval exercise plan in the Bay of Bengal.

Besides, the Government views the exercise as strategically important to the country's defense and in the interest of national security the Indian navy must engages with navies of different countries across the world. Moreover New Delhi ’s naval perspective views Bay of Bengal as country’s backyard where India has a crucial role to play in protecting the sea-lanes of communications via the Malacca Straits. Additionally it is conscious of the Chinese efforts to reach out to the Indian Ocean via Myanmar , Bangladesh and Pakistan.

There is little doubt that Malabar CY 07-2 will be unique experience for the navies of India, US, Singapore, Australia and Japan that are participating in the five-day naval exercise This an air-defense exercise involves over 200 aircraft operating from both land and sea. The scenario being played out entailed operating combat ships in an air-dominated environment.
With close to 40 types of aircraft participating in the maneuvres, planners had worked out scenarios like dissimilar air combat, interception of shore-based aircraft and air defense of war ships towards the end of the exercise. A group of vessels are also playing out an anti-submarine operation to hunt the USS Chicago using air assets. The exercise also involves cross deck helicopter operations to develop inter-operability for disaster relief and rescue missions.
India's Naval Chief Admiral Suresh Mehta, has commented, "The Indian Navy stands to benefit a lot from this exercise. It is quite an experience for our sailors and officers as they get a chance to acquaint with the top of the line technology and weapons systems. If you have 40 different types of aircrafts operating... ships to go...get battle ready... its quite an experience… I don't think we can have such an environment with just one country."

The Naval Chief clarified that the Indian navy in past had conducted similar exercises with the navies of US, Britain, France, Russia, Sri Lanka and China and such naval exercises had been extremely successful. “We have worked with the Chinese Navy in March this year. We did some work basically in the search and rescue aspects, the common thing we do to start with such exercises. And from there onwards, we graduate to major exercises," Mehta emphasized.

There is nothing unusual about ‘Malabar CY 07-2’ except the presence of the huge US contingent. India conducted similar exercise 'Milan 2003' (11-15 February 2003) a confluence meeting of the navies from the Indian Ocean countries. Warships and naval delegates from several nations (Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Singapore) participated in the event.

However, controversies fail to die about the multilateral naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal . Up till now the Malabar series of the Indo-US exercises have always been conducted off the western coast of India. It is for the first time that such exercises are being held near the Andaman Islands, close to China ’s monitoring stations at Coco Islands and near the strategic Strait of Malacca .

Analysts view this development a deliberate attempt to counter Chinese efforts to reach out to the Indian Ocean via Maldives, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Pakistan. India seems to have joined the quadrilateral security engagement of NATO between Australia , US and Japan in ‘strategic encirclement’ of China. There are some who view that China is unlikely to take the exercise too well.

Notwithstanding the geo-strategic implication of the multilateral naval exercise on India- China relationship, the fact remains that the Malabar series exercises is an opportunity for the Indian navy to get battle hardy and remain in state of alertness to meet any future challenges. The political motives attributed to otherwise military exercise would be stifling the dynamism of our military capabilities. Perhaps, the mascot of MILAN 2003 a dolphin, symbolizing friendship and a desire for reaching out for peaceful co-existence in the seas, sums up the purpose of such exercises.

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai, India. He can be contacted at


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