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India, US carry out Naval exercises
India and America are holding their latest round of Naval exercises off the coast of Goa.

But though both countries have made remarkable strides in their military equation there are some who believe that both sides still consider each other regional rivals waging a turf battle for control of the Indian Ocean.

Even exercises as basic as the current ones, would have been unthinkable just a few years ago when diplomatic ties between the two sides were tepid at best.

Today though, the Navies of the two sides are involved in a series of relatively advanced annual exercises held off India's West Coast.

This year's exercises called Malabar 4, feature an American nuclear attack submarine, a frigate and the USS Cowpens - a cruiser equipped with state of the art radars and surface to air missiles.

But there's more to the new military relationship than just exercises.

But for the moment, the Indian Navy seems reluctant to reveal its true capabilities.

More than three decades after the USS Enterprise sailed into the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 war, there has been a profound change in America's military equation with India.

But despite that, there is a sense of curiosity, even suspicion. The US has an enormous Naval presence in the Indian Ocean, but India considers itself a blue-water force, at least in our own backyard. It is here that there are differences.

India has consistently rejected the American demand to field its latest Russian built Kilo class submarines in naval exercises, choosing instead to deploy the German HDW-1500 submarine – a type which the US Navy is familiar with.

The intention here is to prevent the US Navy from getting an idea of just how quiet the submarine actually is.

For America this is a setback because besides India, two of its primary military adversaries – China and Iran also operate these submarines and a better understanding of the true capabilities of this vessel would be invaluable.

"I wouldn't necessarily say that they are holding back. What I would say is that we are working towards having a mutual allied relationship," said Lt Henry Holcombe of the USS Cowpens.

But it's not just the Indian Navy which is denying the US a peek at its latest technology.

The Indian Air Force has also consistently denied the Americans a chance to exercise with its latest Sukhoi 30 MKI fighter, widely considered the most advanced fighter currently in service.

In exercises earlier this year in Gwalior, the IAF gave the Americans a whiff of the far less advanced Su-30K and again rejected an American request when they sent in 25 year old Jaguar fighter-bombers for multinational exercises held in Alaska recently.

Perhaps to drive home the point, it is the tiny Singapore Air Force which is the first air force to exercise with the IAF's Su-30 in exercises over Gwalior with the Israeli Air Force next in line.

"Whenever the US carries out military exercises with other countries, it's really clear who's calling the shots. All other countries are subordinate powers. For India, we have not worked out the nature of this relationship," said defence analyst Commodore Uday Bhaskar.

Senior US military officers linked to the Malabar exercises say off the record that making progress in the bilateral military relationship has not been easy.

They say the Indian Navy needs to accept that the US has the largest maritime force in the region and it is in India's interests to fully engage the US Navy.

The Indian Navy sees things quite differently. In its maritime doctrine released this year the Navy has moved to an aggressively competitive strategy aimed at dominating the Indian Ocean Region.

It says, "If India is to exude the quiet confidence of a nation that seeks to be neither deferential nor belligerent, but is aware of its own role in the larger global scheme, it will need to recognise what constitutes strategic currency."

And clearly, the Navy is wasting no time in implementing this doctrine. The cream of the Western Fleet – six ships and one submarine – are presently operating in the Persian Gulf – a region which the Navy says is well within its sphere of influence.

Some of these ships will sail into the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, a move bound to irritate the US.

But despite these differences, for the sailors and pilots not involved in deciding policy, the experience of working closely with professionals of the Indian Navy is a new and positive experience.

"I just spent 3 days on the INS Mysore and I didn't detect any reservation at all. I detected fellowship and friendship. We have several vital interests that coincide - regional stability, anti-terrorism, and these exercises bring all of that together," said Lt Sam Barris of the USS Cowpens.

"I have been on the INS Mysore and it's a beautiful ship. I have talked to some of the Indian pilots and they were very professional. They do exactly what I would expect from another navy," said Lt James Thompson, US Naval Aviator.

One way or the other, the partnership with the most powerful armed forces in the world will continue, but unless both sides take a leap of faith, it may be a relationship with an uncertain future.

Posted by Jehangir Unwalla @ 6:57 AM


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This blog focuses on current issues concerning defense and national security for the world's largest democracy - India. It is updated regularly providing readers with in-depth information on technology transfer, acquisitions, counter-terrorism, security and military collaboration and strategic dialogue between India and the United States. The site includes links to top defense policy & research institutes, think-tanks, military sites and research organizations.
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