This year, U.S. has deployed just a guided missile destroyer and India, two ships

At least a few in the strategic community resent the Indian defence establishment’s stance in scaling down Exercise Malabar, the annual India-U.S. naval interaction, whose at-sea segment now under way on India’s eastern seaboard is a shadow of the previous editions.

The ongoing edition is indisputably the weakest, with just a guided missile destroyer of the U.S. Navy, with a few helicopters to boot, operating alongside two frontline Indian warships — the stealth frigate INS Shivalik and the destroyer INS Ranvijay — besides a few soon-to-be phased out Tu-142 long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft.

In contrast, the U.S. Navy last year fielded the super-carrier USS Carl Vinson, a destroyer, a cruiser, a supply vessel, a submarine and a P-3C Orion patrol aircraft and India mobilised at least five frontline platforms, besides a fleet tanker.

“The beauty of the Malabar series was that we [the Indian Navy] got so much exposure to super carriers and nuclear submarines operated by the world’s biggest naval force. We have benefitted immensely from the exercise,” said the former Navy Chief Admiral (retired), Sureesh Mehta, who was at the helm when the exercise faced flak from India’s Left parties.

Taking exception to the scale-back, Admiral Mehta said multilateralism had a vital role to play in the present strategic environment, and the magnitude and complexity of the event should be enhanced. “Our Navy periodically exercises with many naval forces, be it the British, the French, the Russian, the Japanese or the American, but large-scale multilateral exercises are more complex and therefore needed. We are not going to align with anybody. But it is important for us to learn from those operating more advanced platforms. As for the willingness of other navies to operate with us, countries like the U.S. and Japan go out on a limb to hold exercises with us in the region.”

Admiral Mehta said Australia and Japan would still be ready to take part in the Malabar series if invited, as “strategic submission,” fearing Chinese outrage, wouldn’t augur well for the country.

The former diplomat, M.K. Bhadrakumar, said it was only right for India to do some course correction in respect of Exercise Malabar, as it had been overhyped. There was no question of India distancing itself from the U.S., which promised to bend over backwards to facilitate critical technology transfer to India and with which India held, by far, the largest number of military interactions.

Citing the Chinese reaction to India’s attempt to forge a naval-power quadrilateral using the exercise, he said change of governments in Japan and Australia rendered the move impractical. Australia’s calibrated response to China, its largest trading partner and contributor to economic growth, pre-empted the possibility. While it was legitimate for India to hold military exercises with other countries, if it stemmed from a containment strategy towards China, it would be unsustainable and antithetical to our traditions, he said.

On the part of the U.S., in the wake of its pronounced policy of ‘strategic balance’ in the region, it needed to maintain a certain distance with India, as Pakistan was a key ally, giving it critical logistics support in AfPak.

Requests for response from the Indian and U.S. Navies went unheeded.

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