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Explained: The Malabar Exercise of Quad nations, and why it matters to India

Malabar, which began as a bilateral exercise, is now one of the cornerstones of military interoperability of the Quad forces.

Malabar is a multilateral war-gaming naval exercise that was started in 1992. It began as a bilateral exercise between the navies of India and the United States. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Navies of the four member nations of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad — India, the United States, Japan, and Australia — are participating in the 25th edition of the Malabar Exercise, which began off the coast of Guam in the Pacific Ocean on Thursday (August 26).

Malabar, which began as a bilateral exercise, is now one of the cornerstones of military interoperability of the Quad forces, and Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat said on Wednesday that the Quad’s charter is to ensure freedom of navigation for all nations.

What is the Malabar Exercise?

Malabar is a multilateral war-gaming naval exercise that was started in 1992. It began as a bilateral exercise between the navies of India and the United States. Two more editions of the exercise were carried out in 1995 and 1996, after which there was a break until 2002 in the aftermath of India’s nuclear tests.

From 2002 onward, the exercise has been conducted every year. Japan and Australia first participated in 2007, and since 2014, India, the US and Japan have participated in the exercise every year.

What happened during the exercise last year?

Last year, the exercise was conducted in two phases — the first off the coast of Vishakhapatnam in the Bay of Bengal, and then in the Arabian Sea in November. In 2019, the exercise had been conducted off the coast of Japan, and in 2018, in the Philippine Sea.

The Malabar Exercise includes simulated war games and combat manoeuvres. Last year, “dual carrier” operations were carried out — joint operations centred around the Vikramaditya Carrier Battle Group of the Indian Navy and the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group of the US Navy.

The two carriers, along with other ships, submarines, and aircraft of the participating navies, engaged in high-intensity naval operations, including cross-deck flying operations and advanced air defence exercises by MiG 29K fighter aircraft from the Vikramaditya, and F-18 jets and E2C Hawkeye airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft from the Nimitz.


Advanced surface and anti-submarine warfare exercises, seamanship evolutions, and weapon firings were also undertaken, which demonstrated the synergy, coordination and inter-operability among the four friendly navies.

The Indian Navy guided-missile corvette INS Kulish (P63) leads the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG 52), and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Halsey (DDG 97) while underway in formation with Indian Navy ships during Exercise Malabar 2012. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

And what will happen this year?

This year, the Navy has said, Malabar will witness “complex exercises including anti-surface, anti-air, and anti-submarine warfare drills, and other manoeuvres and tactical exercises”.

Such complex exercises have further enhanced synergy and mutual understanding among the four navies in undertaking joint maritime security operations, and will go a long way in further strengthening their already close strategic partnership, it has said.


The Defence Ministry had said earlier that “exercise will strengthen the coordination between the navies of the participating countries”.

Which warships are participating this year?

The Navy mentioned on Thursday that the INS Shivalik multirole frigate, the INS Kadmatt anti-submarine warfare corvette, and P8I long-range maritime patrol aircraft will be part of the exercise.

The US Navy will be represented by the USS Barry, USNS Rappahannock, the USNS Big Horn, and P8A patrol aircraft.

The Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force will be represented by the JS Kaga, JS Murasame, and JS Shiranui destroyers, in addition to a submarine and P1 patrol aircraft.

The Royal Australian Navy will be represented by the HMAS Warramunga.

How did it the exercise expand from a bilateral exercise?

Japan joined the naval exercise in 2015 as a permanent member, and Malabar became a trilateral exercise.


But last year was an important milestone. For the first time in over a decade, the exercise saw the participation of all four Quad members. It was the second time that Australia participated in the Malabar series of Naval exercises.

In 2007, there were two Malabar Exercises — the first off Okinawa island of Japan in the western Pacific, which marked the first time that the exercise was held away from Indian shores; a second Malabar Exercise was held in September 2007, off Visakhapatnam, which saw India, Japan, the United States, Australia and Singapore participate.


The very next year, however, the government in Australia changed, and the country stopped participating in the exercise.

Why did Australia return, and why is its participation important?

The main reason is China. As a grouping of four powerful navies in the Indo-Pacific region, the Quad has irked China, which is flexing its military power globally. Earlier, it was due to the possibility of riling China that India had not expanded Malabar and, to an extent, why Australia had pulled out after 2007.


But with China’s relations vexed with all four participating nations — and with an ongoing military standoff in eastern Ladakh for more than 15 months — the Malabar sends a strong message.

What is the message from Malabar, then?

After the 2+2 dialogue with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Defence Secretary Mark Esper, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had said on October 27 last year: “In our meeting, we shared assessment of the security situation across the Indo Pacific. In that process, we reaffirmed our commitment to peace, stability and prosperity of all countries in this region. We also agreed that upholding the rules-based international order, respecting the rule of law and freedom of navigation in the international seas, and upholding the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states are essential. Our defence cooperation is intended to further these objectives. Both sides welcomed Australia joining the forthcoming Malabar Exercise.”

Rear Admiral Sudarshan Shrikhande, who retired in 2016 and had headed Naval intelligence earlier and had served as the Defence Advisor at the Indian High Commission in Canberra between 2005 and 2008, had told The Indian Express earlier that “with the clearer enunciation of the Quad… it would have been counterproductive to the objectives of statecraft not to invite Australia”.

He had said that the Quad “must, among other things, contribute to being a key instrument of deterrence that is necessary keeping China in mind”, and added that “continued tendencies to pussy-foot around this central objective is to have a millstone of comorbidities of statecraft that actually end some nations to, perhaps, appear self-deterred”.

Self-deterrence, Shrikhande had said, “never served useful purposes earlier and in fact would be dangerous now”, and while “the Quad need not be NATO in its formality, in its political congruence and as a post war response”, it can “deter nonetheless”.

Speaking at an event on Wednesday, where the commander of US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPAC) Admiral John Aquilino was present, General Rawat said that while both countries participate in several exercises with like-minded nations, Quad will “expand, the way it will expand, after we have discussion among the four nations”.

Does India conduct any other naval exercises with these countries?

India has several kinds of bilateral and multilateral military exercises with all these nations. Last year, the Indian Navy conducted a number of Passage Exercises (PASSEX) with the navies of Japan, Australia, and the US. These are basic exercises to increase operability between the navies.

The Navy has said that it “regularly” conducts such exercises “with units of friendly foreign navies, whilst visiting each other’s ports or during a rendezvous at sea”.

Has Covid-19 had any impact?

The exercise last year was planned on a “non-contact-at sea” format keeping the Covid-19 protocols in mind.

The Navy had mentioned that this year too, the “conduct of the exercise while observing health protocols during the Covid-19 global pandemic is a testimony to the synergy between the participating navies and our shared vision for a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region”.

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First published on: 26-08-2021 at 03:36:45 pm
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