Engagement on the high seas

Print edition : November 07, 2003

The recent Indo-U.S. naval exercises in the Arabian Sea constitute a pointer to the growing military ties between the two countries, but scepticism over U.S. intentions remains.

RAVI SHARMA on board INS Brahmaputra and USS Chosin

The guided missile frigate INS Ganga during the Indo-U.S. naval exercises.-

COMMANDER Harjit Singh Girn and Lieutenant Commander Ajay Sharma, both experienced Sea King Mk-42B pilots with the Indian Navy's air squadron, had just completed their sixth circuit around the United States' guided missile cruiser USS Chosin, operating around 130 km off the coast of Kochi in the Arabian Sea. They were attempting to land their Sea King on the deck of the Chosin, having taken off from the guided missile frigate INS Brahmaputra with a couple of journalists on board. The battleship had been informed via radio telecommunication (R/T) about the Sea King's arrival, but it would take a while before the helicopter was allowed to land. Girn's headphones were crackling with a voice from the Chosin seeking details about the wind envelop required, the speed at which he would be coming in, the direction of approach, why he was landing and how long he wished to stay. It was only then that the Chosin set the course that the Indian pilots wanted.

Once the Sea King landed on the 54-foot-long deck of the Chosin, it took more than a few minutes of waving of arms by both sides and much shouting before the two sides understood each other. Understanding each other's operating philosophy was the theme of the recently concluded Malabar 2003 Naval exercises, code-named MALABAREX, the Indian Navy's biggest ever joint exercises with the U.S. Navy.

Taking part in the exercises, besides the Brahmaputra and the Chosin were the Indian Navy's guided missile frigate (Godavari class) INS Ganga, the diesel-electric powered Shishumar (Howaldtswerke Deutshe Werft, HDW 209) class submarine INS Shalki, and the replenishment tanker (force multiplier) INS Shakti. The U.S. flotilla had, besides the Ticonderoga Class Chosin, the Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Fitzgerald, the Los Angeles class nuclear-powered submarine USS Pasadena, and the 62,000-tonne oil tanker USS Chesapeake. Two U.S. P3C-Orion long-range maritime patrol aircraft (LRMPS) also took part in the exercises. (India hopes to part-replace its aging fleet of 12 Russian-made LRMPS with the P3C-Orions and has started negotiations with the U.S.)

INS Shalki, a submarine of the Shishumar class, surfaces during the exercises.-

Absent from the exercises, despite persistent U.S. requests, were the Indian Navy's Russian-built Sindhugosh (Kilo class) submarines, also called Type 877 EKM or Black Hole because of their silent operation. Explained an officer: "The Americans did bait us to get one of our Kilo class subs. We did not... . Stealth is the key when it comes to submarines. If they are operated in close proximity, their distinctive underwater and acoustic signatures, emissions... can be made out." The Iranian Navy has three Kilo class vessels and the U.S. is keen to measure the submarine's distinct underwater signatures. INS Viraat, India's only aircraft carrier, was also initially slated to take part in the exercises. But the plan was dropped.

For three days from October 6, nearly 1,500 personnel of the Indian and U.S. navies and their battleships strode the waters 70 to 200 nautical miles off the Malabar coast, playing out fictional scenarios involving contraband control, anti-submarine maritime interdiction operations, air defence, counter-terrorism manoeuvres and sea control operations. Cross defence flying or landing helicopters on each other's deck for familiarisation; surface shoot, that is, firing at a target by the ship's surface guns; and UNREP (replenishment when the ships are under way) were also conducted jointly. The idea was to simulate a situation that might develop at sea and solve it. While this was the fifth in the series of Indo-U.S. naval exercises begun in 1992, off the Malabar coast, it was for the first time that anti-submarine operations were included in the exercises.

The Visit, Board, Search and Seize (VBSS) operations had INS Shakti masquerading as a ship carrying contraband and proceeding towards a South-East Asian country. While Ganga was tasked to operate `toted', Chosin, Fitzgerald and Brahmaputra were given the task of locating, detecting, trailing and interdicting the tanker. Boarding parties in rubberised dinghies from Chosin, Brahmaputra and Fitzgerald eventually went aboard Shakti playing out a mock VBSS of the tanker.

Anti-submarine operations had the surface ships trying to track the submarine, charting out its future course and then, instead of launching a missile as would have happened in a real battle scenario, informing the submarine of that projected future position. The submarine's commanding officer (CO) would compare the projected position with his own course and realise that if the positions dovetailed a launched missile would hit him. His position known, he would have to surface.

In the Operations Room of the Brahmaputra, nine multi-functional displays provide the raw and synthetic feed as personnel try to track a submarine. Sonars - the Indian-developed Bharat HUMSA (Hull Mounted Sonar Array) and the French/British Thales (Thomson Marconi) Sintra towed array - provide passive and active detection and classified pictures. The discreets, which come in passive form, are worked on and classified. The discreets are compared with sounds that are already available (of known submarines) in the ship's library and a match is made. During the exercises Brahmaputra was able to detect Pasadena "from over 8 miles away", and engage it, "getting a mission kill" in the process.

According to naval experts, the larger nuclear-powered submarines are easier to detect (they displace more water) than the conventional smaller diesel submarines, especially in the murky Indian waters. Tracking a conventional submarine's propulsion system is difficult in Indian waters, whereas a nuclear submarine is far more noisier.

Anti-submarine warfare also saw low frequency analyser recording exercises, with rotary winged aircraft dropping sonar buoys in an area where a submarine was suspected to be hiding. The buoys emit a high-frequency sound, which bounces off the submarine's hull, giving out its distinctive underwater signature in the bargain. Helicopters were used in the operations against surface vessels; they carried out radar searches, found the ship's position and then simulated an attack. Most of the Sea Kings (the backbone of the Indian Navy) are equipped with two 110-km-range torpedoes or two deft charges.

During `surface procedures' (when the two submarines surfaced) Captain Ravi Gaikwad, CO of Brahmaputra, striding the ship's battle bridge asked his men to R/T Shalki to surface and confirmed his helicopter's presence over the Indian submarine. Ganga had, meanwhile, sighted Pasadena on 0700 (direction).

USS Chosin, one of the two American ships that participated in the exercises. The other was USS Fitzgerald.-

The exercises over, the captains from the four surface ships met on the USS Chosin to review them and conduct a debriefing. Engagement records of the exercise were also passed on to a designated umpire who decided who won and who lost.

THE exercises were aimed at allowing the two navies to familiarise themselves with each other's operating philosophy and improve inter-operability. Many observers see the exercises as logical since the two navies are the dominant ones in the North Indian Ocean. Said Rear Admiral (Retd) Sampath Gopal: "Joint exercises are important for any navy. Navies cannot be confined to any sea. We have to operate in international waters, and to do that we have to know how other friendly navies operate. Joint exercises provide an opportunity for better navy-to-navy understanding. Each navy has its own operating philosophy. When two or three navies operate together, it is very important to know not only the rules of the sea but also how the others operate. Inter-operability is very important."

While this is true and the fact that naval exercises are generally conducted as a training aid, the high-profile nature of the Indo-U.S. exercises made sure that they attracted global attention. The view that the U.S. wants a permanent presence in the area (North Indian Ocean) finds many takers. They also like to know what the Indian defence forces are doing.

During the exercises two officers and two sailors from each of the surface battleships crossed over to the other side and spent three days studying how the other side operated and trained. Said Chris Spargur of Chosin: "Besides learning how they train, a lot is in learning to communicate with the other side. A lot of the tactical manoeuvres, equipment and technologies are similar or serve the same purpose." The Americans on Chosin spoke about "learning a thing or two" from the way the Indian ships took fuel on board. "We have never done it that way."

Said an Indian officer: "We got to know about common operating procedures. In case of future operations they will be useful. Also their technology is the best. We got to see it." The fact that Chosin (as is the case with most U.S. warships) has a spare engine on board (thereby allowing the ship to have a refit even while on the high seas) was something that Indian officers and sailors found interesting. Said a Commodore: "These seemingly small things affect the Navy. A spare engine gives more flexibility. An exchange like this is part of the learning process. We could also ascertain their methods of designing ships."

There are, however, no illusions when comparing the firepower and agendas of the two navies. Indian naval ships at best spend a week to a fortnight (not counting rare exceptions like INS Tarangini, which is circumventing the globe) on the high seas. U.S. Navy ships, on the other hand, spend months. Chosin, for example, has been away from its home port for seven months. But then that is primarily because U.S. ships can go to any number of friendly foreign ports for spares and refits, rest and recuperation. The U.S. also has the financial wherewithal. On the other hand, while there is a view that India should be a `true blue Navy' with its `vision' set far beyond its waters, the fact is that currently operations, strategically and financially, are only meant to protect its own waters.

Interestingly, there was no exchange of personnel on the submarines. While each side is entitled to keep a few aces up its sleeve, the exercises reflect Indo-U.S. relationship in general. Close, but not close enough. Even in the joint exercises, while tactical information was shared, strategic information was not discussed. Defence analysts averred that if the two countries were to be allies, especially militarily, there had to be a sharing of strategic information. But is the U.S. prepared for this? Or does it continue to eye India with suspicion, and vice versa?

A Sea King of the Indian Navy on the deck of INS Brahmaputra.-

However, according to Gopal, it is not for the Navy to get too tied up with strategy. "Strategy is not something that is written in black and white. It is fluid. It is created/written by politicians/governments, depending on the geopolitical situation. For the Navy it is a question of `we operate this way, you operate this way'. Let us find a common operating platform."

Defence analysts see the biggest joint naval exercises as another stage in the growing Indo-U.S. ties, especially in the military sphere. After years on the backburner, the ties were given a fillip in 1991 after the visit to India by Lieutenant-General Claude M. Kicklighter, who was then the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Central Command. But the process came to an abrupt end when India conducted its second nuclear explosions, in 1998. Subsequently, 9/11 resurrected the process of constructive engagement between the world's two largest democracies. Two Indian naval patrol vessels, INS Sharada and INS Sukanya, escorted high-value ships flying the U.S. flag between March and September 2002 in the Malacca Straits, the Andaman Sea and the South China Sea. The engagement was in support of Operation `Enduring Freedom' during the war in Afghanistan.

Foreign Military Sales (FMS) to India, which were zero in September 2001 after the U.S. sanctions were lifted, have since climbed to $190 million, according to the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. Among the FMS items for which deals have been struck are the eight Thales Raytheon `Firefinder' Weapon Locating Radar systems, worth around $140 million. India, which was to lease four more Firefinders, is now said to be interested in purchasing them. Spares for the Sea King were delivered in early 2003. The Bush administration has also okayed the sale of the Israeli-manufactured Phalcon AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) to India. India is also keen on the Israeli and Boeing manufactured Arrow anti-ballistic missile system. Costing $3 million apiece, it is claimed to be the world's only interceptor of tactical ballistic missiles.

But the congeniality is clouded by scepticism over U.S. intentions, given the backdrop of U.S. pressure on India to send troops to Iraq. And more so the U.S' disinclination or inability to pressure Pakistan into stopping cross-border infiltration in Kashmir. Given this reality, will the deepening defence ties fructify into a broader security alliance, which the U.S. is extremely keen on?

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