Ex­er­cise Mal­abar 2015

War­ships and sub­marines from the In­dian, Ja­panese and US Navies con­verged in the Bay of Ben­gal for a week­long joint ex­er­cise in Oc­to­ber 2015. Vayu’s An­gad Singh was on hand to file this first hand re­port from Chen­nai as well as from on board the US Navy’s

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The tur­bo­prop drone be­comes re­lax­ing – al­most som­no­lent – af­ter an hour aloft, and in­deed I might have even been able to snatch a few winks if not for the giddy anx­i­ety that had taken up res­i­dence in my stom­ach. The Grum­man C-2 Grey­hound I am cur­rently strapped into is about to make an ar­rested land­ing aboard its car­rier, USS Theodore Roo­sevelt, cruis­ing in the Bay of Ben­gal some 250 km east-south­east of Chen­nai. There is a light rum­ble as we pass through the stream of tur­bu­lent air – known as the ‘bur­ble’ – trail­ing in the wake of the car­rier’s im­mense su­per­struc­ture and a split­sec­ond later, we slam onto the deck. The de­cel­er­a­tion is tremen­dous as the 20-tonne air­craft goes from around 200 km/h to a com­plete stand­still in a hun­dred me­tres. It feels like lit­tle more than a barely-con­trolled crash! And just like that, I am a ‘tail­hooker’

– part of an ex­clu­sive group of peo­ple to have ex­pe­ri­enced an ar­rested land­ing aboard an air­craft car­rier at sea !

‘The Big Stick’

USS Theodore Roo­sevelt ( CVN- 71) is usu­ally re­ferred to sim­ply as ‘ TR,’ and some­times as ‘the Big Stick,’ in ref­er­ence to Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt’s fa­mous proverb “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” The 29- year old car­rier is cur­rently ex­e­cut­ing an around-the-world de­ploy­ment as part of a three- car­rier base swap ini­ti­ated by the de­par­ture of USS Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton ( CVN- 73) from Yoko­suka in Ja­pan to Nor­folk, Vir­ginia on the US East Coast in prepa­ra­tion for a sched­uled Re­fu­el­ing and Com­plex Over­haul (RCOH), akin to a com­pre­hen­sive mid-life re­fit and upgrade.

USS Ron­ald Rea­gan ( CVN- 76) has de­parted her home­port of San Diego to re­place CVN-73 at Yoko­suka, and TR has given up her place in Nor­folk to move to San Diego. The ship’s com­mand­ing of­fi­cer, Cap­tain Craig Clap­per­ton, noted that the lengthy de­ploy­ment has af­forded the ship and her crew

a num­ber of unique op­por­tu­ni­ties to con­duct var­i­ous en­gage­ments along the way, in­clud­ing Op­er­a­tion Inherent Re­solve against the Is­lamic State, dur­ing which the ship op­er­ated from the Per­sian Gulf, as well as this first-time par­tic­i­pa­tion in a Mal­abar- se­ries ex­er­cise.

The 70 air­craft on board USS Theodore Roo­sevelt are pro­vided by Car­rier Air Wing One (CVW-1), which con­sists of 9 squadrons, which are: Three Strike Fighter Squadrons, VFA-11 ‘Red Rip­pers,’ VFA-136 ‘Knighthawks,’ and VFA-211 ‘Fight­ing Check­mates’ with Boe­ing F/A-18E/F Su­per Hor­nets. Marine Fighter At­tack Squadron VMFA-251 ‘Thun­der­bolts’ with F/A18C/D Hor­nets. Car­rier Air­borne Early Warn­ing Squadron VAW-125 ‘Tiger­tails’ with Northrop Gur­m­man E-2D Ad­vanced Hawkeyes. Elec­tronic At­tack Squadron VAQ137 ‘ Rooks’ with Boe­ing EA- 18G Growlers. Fleet Lo­gis­tics Sup­port Squadron VRC40 ‘ Rawhides’ with Grum­man C- 2 Grey­hounds. He­li­copter Anti-sub­ma­rine Squadron HS- 11 ‘ Dragon Slay­ers’ with a mix of Siko­rsky HH- 60H and SH- 60F Sea­hawks. He­li­copter Mar­itime Strike Squadron HSM-46 ‘Grand­mas­ters’ with Siko­rsky MH-60Rs.

Dur­ing my day aboard the 100,000-tonne float­ing air­field on 17 Oc­to­ber, we were able to wit­ness a small part of the larger Mal­abar 2015 ex­er­cise that would run for an­other three days : from per­fectly chore­ographed flight op­er­a­tions on TR, to a pass­ing ex­er­cise (PASSEX) con­ducted by the var­i­ous par­tic­i­pat­ing war­ships, and de­tailed brief­ings by key US Navy of­fi­cials. A num­ber of In­dian Navy of­fi­cers and sailors were also on board the car­rier, in­clud­ing Cap­tain Anil Ku­mar, who heads the MoD’s air­craft car­rier pro­ject. With the In­dian Navy ex­pected to turn to the USA for as­sis­tance with its next gen­er­a­tion of air­craft car­ri­ers ( see ar­ti­cle in this is­sue), it was clear at the ex­er­cise that spe­cial mea­sures were be­ing taken to ex­pose In­dian per­son­nel to STO­BAR tech­nol­ogy and op­er­a­tions.

Mal­abar 2015

The Mal­abar se­ries of joint naval ex­er­cises was ini­ti­ated in 1992 as a bi­lat­eral ar­range­ment be­tween the In­dian and US Navies. Since then, the ex­er­cise has been car­ried out 19 times, with the scale and com­plex­ity of op­er­a­tions steadily in­creas­ing, and of­ten ex­pand­ing to in­clude mul­ti­ple par­tic­i­pat­ing Navies. The most re­cent of th­ese, Mal­abar 2015, saw the Ja­panese Mar­itime Self­De­fence Force (JMSDF) join the In­dian and US Navies for the fourth time, even in the face of stren­u­ous Chi­nese protests. Al­though this is nei­ther the largest edi­tion of Mal­abar, nor the first time Ja­panese war­ships have ex­er­cised along­side their In­dian and Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts, Bei­jing clearly be­lieves that the ex­er­cise is aimed at con­tain­ing its in­flu­ence in the re­gion, and takes a dim view on the US ‘pivot to Asia’ and the in­creas­ing close­ness be­tween Ja­pan, the USA and In­dia.

Based out of Chen­nai and held be­tween 14 and 19 Oc­to­ber 2015, this year’s Mal­abar saw a ‘mod­est’ to­tal of ten ships ex­er­cis­ing in the Bay of Ben­gal. How­ever, it was note­wor­thy for two prin­ci­pal rea­sons : this was the first time the In­dian Navy de­ployed a Rus­sian- ori­gin Kilo- class sub­ma­rine for the ex­er­cise, was also the first ever de­ploy­ment of US Navy Boe­ing P-8A Po­sei­don mar­itime pa­trol air­craft to In­dia, op­er­at­ing along­side their In­dian P-8I brethren from INS Ra­jali at Arakonam.

The In­dian Navy was rep­re­sented by two in­dige­nous guided mis­sile frigates INS Shiva­lik and INS Betwa, the Ra­jput- class guided mis­sile de­stroyer INS Ran­vi­jay, fleet

sup­port ship INS Shakti, and Sind­hugosh­class sub­ma­rine INS Sind­hud­hvaj. The ships de­ployed HAL Chetak and West­land Sea King he­li­copters, which were joined dur­ing some seg­ments of the ex­er­cise by Boe­ing P-8Is of INAS 312A ‘Sealions’ from ashore.

The US Navy de­ployed four ships from the 7th Fleet, which is based at Yoko­suka, Ja­pan. Th­ese were the Nim­itz­class air­craft car­rier USS Theodore Roo­sevelt, Ti­con­deroga- class guided mis­sile cruiser USS Nor­mandy, Free­dom- class Lit­toral Com­bat Ship (LCS) USS Forth Worth, and Los An­ge­les- class nu­clear pow­ered at­tack sub­ma­rine (SSN) USS City of Cor­pus Christi. USN air­borne as­sets in­cluded the afore­men­tioned P-8A Po­sei­don air­craft, var­i­ous in­te­gral he­li­copters, and a host of com­bat and sup­port types op­er­ated by Car­rier Air Wing One (CVW-1) aboard the USS Theodore Roo­sevelt.

The JMSDF sent a lone Ak­izuki- class guided mis­sile de­stroyer, JS Fuyuzuki, with an in­te­gral Siko­rsky/Mit­subishi SH-60K he­li­copter. Fuyuzuki is equipped with an in­dige­nous bat­tle man­age­ment sys­tem named ATECS, that has been favourably com­pared to the Lock­heed Martin Aegis Com­bat Sys­tem, and is some­times re­ferred to as the ‘Ja­panese Aegis.’ Ak­izuki- class ves­sels serve as air-de­fence es­corts for the JMSDF’s larger ves­sels such as Hyūga- and Izumo- class he­li­copter car­ri­ers, as well as Kongō- and Atago- class de­stroy­ers, which are more fo­cused to­ward the bal­lis­tic mis­sile de­fence (BMD) role. Nev­er­the­less, all mod­ern Ja­panese war­ships are mul­ti­role, ca­pa­ble of op­er­at­ing in the air de­fence, an­ti­sur­face and anti-sub­ma­rine warfare roles.

Train­ing to­gether

The ex­er­cise be­gan as usual with a two­day shore phase, which saw par­tic­i­pat­ing per­son­nel train­ing to­gether at Chen­nai. The three navies cov­ered top­ics such as car­rier strike group op­er­a­tions, air­borne mar­itime pa­trol, sur­face and anti-sub­ma­rine warfare, ex­plo­sive ord­nance dis­posal (EOD), Visit Board Search and Seizure ( VBSS), and joint Hu­man­i­tar­ian As­sis­tance and Disas­ter Re­lief (HADR). The shore phase al­lowed all three Navies to achieve a de­gree of fa­mil­iari­sa­tion with each other’s pro­ce­dures for var­i­ous com­mon tasks, as well as to es­tab­lish pro­to­cols for clear, un­am­bigu­ous com­mu­ni­ca­tion dur­ing the at-sea phase of the ex­er­cise. Cul­tural pro­grammes and sports fix­tures were in­cluded to build a sense of ca­ma­raderie right from the start, so as to ease joint op­er­a­tion, of­ten aboard for­eign ves­sels, in the days to fol­low.

On 16 Oc­to­ber, the ships de­parted Chen­nai for in­ter­na­tional wa­ters off the east coast, and kicked off the at-sea por­tion with an air de­fence ex­er­cise (ADEX). This first en­gage­ment fea­tured co­op­er­a­tion be­tween USS Theodore Roo­sevelt, USS Nor­mandy and In­dian stealth frigate INS Shiva­lik, who worked to­gether to de­fend the high­value tar­get (the car­rier) from a com­bined air­craft and mis­sile at­tack sim­u­lated by

el­e­ments of USS Theodore Roo­sevelt’s own Car­rier Air Wing. While USS Nor­mandy typ­i­cally serves as the air de­fence es­cort for the high-value as­set in Car­rier Strike Group 12 (CSG-12), that role was handed over to both Ja­panese and In­dian ships dur­ing the course of the ex­er­cise. The close co­op­er­a­tion in the open­ing at-sea ex­er­cise was wel­comed, with one US Navy of­fi­cer re­mark­ing that the ADEX “sup­ports the over­all Mal­abar ex­er­cise by shar­ing how we con­trol air­craft and learn­ing how the In­dian navy con­trols their air­craft. We’re up on the same voice cir­cuit, so it’s a nice op­por­tu­nity to col­lab­o­rate and com­pare and con­trast our pro­ce­dures. We’ve sent li­ai­son of­fi­cers to the In­dian ves­sels and wel­comed their of­fi­cers aboard our ves­sels as well to ob­serve and learn.”

Rear Ad­mi­ral Roy ‘ Trig­ger’ Kel­ley, Com­man­der of CSG-12, re­in­forced this point dur­ing Vayu’s visit to the air­craft car­rier, say­ing, “the whole idea is to get the three dif­fer­ent Navies to­gether, and fig­ure out how we op­er­ate dif­fer­ently, and how we can com­mu­ni­cate and co­or­di­nate in our op­er­a­tions…. We want to make sure that when we op­er­ate to­gether, we’re com­fort­able with each other.”

The Rear Ad­mi­ral also in­di­cated that fol­low­ing Mal­abar 2015, the ex­er­cise would be ex­panded to in­clude Ja­pan as a per­ma­nent par­tic­i­pant. “The Indo-Asia-Pa­cific, this vast area of ocean, is very, very im­por­tant to the rest of the world, mostly be­cause of the com­merce that comes through it. If you look at the Straits of Malacca alone, 600 mer­chant ships travel through that strait ev­ery sin­gle day. We want to make sure that th­ese lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the lines of com­merce, con­tinue to stay open. Thus, the Navies work­ing to­gether for in­ter­op­er­abil­ity helps to make sure that hap­pens,” he stated.

While US and In­dian of­fi­cers were care­ful to re­it­er­ate that this ex­er­cise was not aimed at coun­ter­ing China or the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army Navy ( PLAN), the em­pha­sis placed by all three par­tic­i­pat­ing Navies on the im­por­tance of open oceans seemed a clear ref­er­ence to China’s var­i­ous ter­ri­to­rial claims in the re­gion and the chal­lenges that Chi­nese land-recla­ma­tion and ar­ti­fi­cial is­land build­ing pose to free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion.

As if to un­der­line this very point, the re­main­ing at-sea tasks were far from the be­nign HADR and mar­itime polic­ing ac­tiv­i­ties that one of­ten hears of from ex­er­cises such as this. Apart from the usual pro­fes­sional ex­changes and cross-em­bark­ing of of­fi­cers on dif­fer­ent ships, the ten ves­sels at sea car­ried out fur­ther joint air de­fence op­er­a­tions with dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tions of at­tack­ing and de­fend­ing forces, en­gaged in search and res­cue op­er­a­tions, a range of an­ti­sub­ma­rine warfare ex­er­cises with In­dian and US sub­marines, sur­face warfare ex­er­cises, medevac, com­mu­ni­ca­tions ex­er­cises, live­fire gun­nery, Visit Board Search and Seizure (VBSS), re­plen­ish­ment at sea (RAS) ex­er­cises with INS Shakti, and a full ‘warat-sea’ ex­er­cise.

In fact, on 17 Oc­to­ber, the day that Vayu was aboard USS Theodore Roo­sevelt, and the day af­ter the open­ing ADEX, a Siko­rsky Sea­hawk he­li­copter from the car­rier flew to INS Shiva­lik to fetch an ex­plo­sive ord­nance dis­posal (EOD) de­tach­ment of In­dian Marine Com­man­dos (Mar­cos), led by an IN Lieu­tenant. Their task was to work along­side a US EOD team to de-mine the area around the car­rier – pre­cisely the sort of joint op­er­a­tion that might some­day be needed if a re­cal­ci­trant re­gional na­tion should at­tempt to deny ac­cess to con­tested wa­ters.

Be­tween the present In­dian govern­ment’s ‘Act East’ pol­icy and the USA’s strate­gic re­bal­anc­ing to­ward Asia, there is no ques­tion that the Mal­abar se­ries is only go­ing to grow with each suc­ces­sive edi­tion. The US Navy’s as­sertive pos­ture dur­ing ‘Free­dom of Nav­i­ga­tion’ op­er­a­tions ( FONOPS) con­ducted around Chi­nese ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands shortly af­ter the ex­er­cise seems to have driven this point home, and both In­dian and US of­fi­cials are pri­vately hope­ful that fu­ture Mal­abar ex­er­cises will in­volve other key re­gional Navies, such as those of Viet­nam, In­done­sia, Sin­ga­pore and even Aus­tralia.

Mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism in ac­tion — In­dian Navy tanker INS Shakti con­duct­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ous re­plen­ish­ment train­ing with USN car­rier USS

Theodore Roo­sevelt: and JMSDF de­stroyer JS Fuyuzuki (photo: USN/Mass Comm Spe­cial­ist Sea­man Chad M Trudeau)

The C-2 Grey­hound that brought Vayu to and from the car­rier be­ing towed

A Siko­rsky HH-60H Res­cue Hawk from He­li­copter An­ti­sub­ma­rine Squadron HS-11 ‘Dragon­slay­ers’ com­ing in to land

on USS Theodore Roo­sevelt while the cruiser USS Nor­mandy con­ducts a PASSEX in the back­ground

Air­craft from Car­rier Air Wing One (CVW-1) parked on board the car­rier as the JMSDF de­stroyer JS Fuyuzuki con­ducts a PASSEX

con­trols in the air

Dra­matic high speed pass by a VFA-136

‘Knighthawks’ F/A-18E Su­per Hor­net

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