Malabar naval exercise, with an eye on China, a potent symbol of India-US strategic embrace

New Delhi: Prime Minister Modi and US President Trump have vowed to further strengthen the already expansive India-US defense and security partnership, a highly visible symbol of which will be the massive Malabar naval exercise with Japan as the third participant in the Bay of Bengal next month.
The US is now one of the top three arms suppliers to India, notching up sales worth $15 billion since 2007 to even dislodge Russia from the top slot for the last couple of years. The bilateral defense trade could well cross the $20 billion mark within the next few years, with several defense deals in the pipeline amid the US designating India as a “Major Defense Partner” on par with its “closest allies” to make transfer of technology swifter and smoother than ever before.
The US, of course, is also hard-selling its F-16 and F/A-18 fighters to India , which is keen on jump-starting a second jet production line after the Tejas light combat aircraft under the “Make in India” framework. But there is still no clarity on how this proposed project will square up with Trump’s hard-line policy on not allowing jobs and factories to be shifted out of the US.
The joint statement after the Modi-Trump summit noted Washington’s “offer” to sell 22 Predator Sea Guardian surveillance drones worth over $2 billion to New Delhi, even as the Pentagon also notified the US Congress about the sale of another C-17 Globemaster-III strategic airlifter to India for $366 million.
The IAF has already inducted 10 gigantic C-17 aircraft under a $4.1 billion deal inked in 2011. In conjunction with 13 C-130J “Super Hercules” aircraft also ordered from the US for over $2.1 billion, the C-17s provide India with power-projection capabilities to swiftly transport combat-ready troops and weapons to the border with China for any contingency.
The Malabar exercise, with a pronounced thrust on anti-submarine warfare, also comes at a time when Chinese submarines are making regular forays into the Indian Ocean Region+ . The Indian Navy has tracked at least seven Chinese submarines entering the region, with nuclear and conventional boats alternating with each other, since December 2013, as was first reported by TOI.
Pointing to the Malabar exercise, Trump said, “Our militaries are working every day to enhance cooperation, and next month they will join together with the Japanese Navy to take part in the largest maritime exercise ever conducted in the vast Indian Ocean.”
India, incidentally, will be deploying its 44,570-tonne aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya for a combat exercise with foreign countries for the first time. In addition to a US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Malabar exercise will witness several front-line warships, submarines and aircraft from the three countries.
India and the US will also “hunt submarines” together with their Poseidon-8 long-range maritime patrol aircraft during the exercise. The Indian Navy has inducted eight of the 12 P-8I aircraft ordered from the US for $3.2 billion, which are packed with radars and armed with deadly Harpoon Block-II missiles, MK-54 lightweight torpedoes, rockets and depth charges, while the US Navy operates the P-8A variants.
The US, of course, would like to include other countries like Australia in the Malabar wargames on a regular basis to build interoperability in the Asia-Pacific region. But China views any such “naval grouping” as a move to contain it, and had lodged a strong protest against the Malabar exercise in the Bay of Bengal in 2007 when it had been expanded to include Japan, Australia and Singapore.

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