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
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.
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.
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