Free and open Indo-Pacific are simple and beautiful objectives of a nascent on-again off-again grouping which includes the QUAD (India USA Australia and Japan) and for India’s strategy subsets such as France and the Indian Ocean islands weaved into a military diplomatic bandwidth of influence.
The idea of the QUAD is gathering momentum. The combination is dictated by the concept of Maritime and naval interoperatibility with the QUAD navies working together to leverage their respective formidable capabilities as one force. Indeed, while China is on course to overtake the USA in the number of ships that can be put to sea and submarines that can lurk underwater taking on the four navies together will be an altogether different strategic challenge.
This is because having ships and operating them far from shores are very different things. The operational readiness, tactical employment and underlying strategic parameters need constant drilling from which over time a doctrine of the QUAD can be derived. China has for example struggled with the operational aspects of its aircraft carrier something India has been putting to sea and indeed has tested at war since the 1960’s.
The grand design in the distant future for the QUAD may be to attempt bottling up China within the South China Sea and frustrating Chinese oil supply choke points in the Persian Gulf and the Malacca straits. Finally, there is also the added strain on Chinese resources that QUAD could bring stretching Chinese supply lines and PLA resource allocation choices.
These objectives are to be proactive and its concepts need to be seen drilled in the annual MALABAR naval exercise that India undertakes, along with the United States. The grand maritime exercise underlines both the scope and limitations of the QUAD. It was in 1992 – a long time ago – when the exercise started between India and the United States, it was only in 2015 that India invited Japan.
Japan is very important in the QUAD. Not many realise that it has arguably the most powerful navy in the Pacific. Japan is already planning to introduce 42 front line submarines over the next fifteen years and has plans to acquire 42 F35 B aircraft that can take off from ships. Furthermore, Japan will have two helicopter carriers, 52 amphibious assault vehicles, 17 American V-22 transport aircraft for fast insertion all of it pointing to an expeditionary capability.
In 2020, Australia was invited after thirteen years. India has been extremely timid in putting the QUAD in practice while it has been going on about it in theory from every available foreign office forum and thinktanks.
The hardware on display at the Malabar exercises is a story in itself. One ship – the Japanese Takanami class destroyer Onami sums up not just the Malabar exercise but indeed the Quad. Onami in Japanese means wave. And for the free and open Indo Pacific on display at the Malabar are waves upon waves. In the latest exercise in 2020 India opened up both the eastern and the western seaboards with the first phase off Vizag in the Bay of Bengal and the second off Karwar in the Arabian Sea.
In the first phase the US sported John S McCain, Australia the Ballarat, and Japan the Onami. Indian Navy’s participation had the destroyer Ranvijay, indigenous frigate Shivalik, Offshore Patrol Vessel Sukanya, Fleet Support Ship Shakti, and submarine Sindhuraj. The aircrafts included US and Australian Romeo helicopters, the Indian navy’s P8I and Dornier maritime reconnaissance aircraft and Hawk aircraft.
The second phase was even more fire power with the USS Nimitz nuclear powered aircraft carrier battle group joining India’ own aircraft carrier battle group lead by the INS Vikramaditya. Besides these, the Japanese sent in their frontline destroyer Murasame. Employment of two giant aircraft carrier groups together with nuclear submarines and destroyers over a larger sea face goes way beyond the hardware.
Malabar is QUAD sharpening the knife as it were. Testing tactics such as refueling, joint attack and defence plans, supply and reinforcement get honed and can be allow for ensuring the goals of the QUAD, including sea control and sea denial depending on the circumstances.
Quite aside from the sheer ability to control and deny space to the enemy, this sort of line up in Malabar has a singular purpose- exercising togetherness. Interoperatability or the ability to work as one unit beyond the codified protocols of different navies is the grouping. To be sure, this is a work in progress. For example, India does not share many communication codes with the US and Australia and likewise many tactics that may require radar signatures or codes that are not shared by the US fleet. However the work in progress is critical as it builds confidence over time.
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