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Russia & India set for wargames first

New Delhi, May 19: Russian and Indian navies begin an exercise on India’s western seaboard tomorrow for the first time. The Indian Navy has been a major buyer of Russian equipment, but the two navies have never gone beyond trade in military hardware and engaged in wargames of this scale.

Navy sources in Delhi said the exercise was planned at short notice after an initiative taken by Moscow only last month. “Exercise Indra 2003” will be watched closely by the US.

The exercise is a major one by the scale of comparable engagements the Indian Navy has had with the Americans and the French. Nine vessels of Russia’s Black Sea and Pacific Sea fleet led by missile cruiser Moskva will reach Mumbai from Socotra near the Gulf of Aden tomorrow. The Russian flotilla is said to include two submarines.

Navy sources said the Russians will disengage from the western seaboard on May 25 and sail to Visakhapatnam on the Bay of Bengal for a second phase of the exercise beginning May 29 that will cover naval air defence, replenishment on the high seas and anti-submarine warfare. The exercise ends on June 4.

It was initially planned that the Russian flotilla will reach India on May 15. Sources said the programme was rescheduled because of intense naval activity in the Arabian Sea during the Iraq war.

One of the reasons for Russia’s keenness is clearly the presence of a large number of naval vessels from several countries in the Indian Ocean and in the Arabian Sea. The waters around India are crucial for high sea merchant traffic, specifically of crude. India has also been involved with the Americans in escort services for tankers and high-value vessels from the Strait of Malacca.

In the first two days of the exercise in Mumbai, naval officers from the two sides will hold a pre-sail conference. The conference will work on the details and will specifically focus on communication since the two navies do not speak the same language. While Indian naval commands and instructions are in English, the Russian naval procedures are in Russian.

After the conference, the vessels will sail beyond Indian territorial waters in the Arabian Sea. The navy sources did not identify the Indian vessels to be involved but said it was likely that the aircraft carrier, INS Viraat, would participate. This presumes a large deployment from the western fleet since the aircraft carrier always sails in a battlegroup. Air elements integral to the navy — like Kamov and Seaking helicopters and the maritime version of Jaguar aircraft and maritime surveillance aircraft are also listed for participation.

The Russian team is led by Rear Admiral Vladimir Pepelyayev and the deputy commander of the Black Sea fleet, Vice-Admiral Yevgeny Orlov.

Off Mumbai, the Indian Navy will be led by the flag-officer commanding the Western Naval Command, Rear Admiral Vijay Shankar. In the Bay of Bengal, the Indian leader will be the Eastern Naval Command chief, Rear Admiral R.P. Suthan.

Anti-submarine exercises will be of particular interest on the eastern seaboard. The Indian Navy’s submarine base is at Visakhapatnam. Also, the draft on the eastern seaboard will allow anti-submarine exercises closer to the coast.

The sources said the Russian flotilla includes two Krivack class frigates, the kind of vessels India is expected to take delivery from the Russians next month. Among the Russian vessels are two anti-submarine warfare ships the Admiral Panteleyev and the Marshal Shaposhnikov and a tanker, the Vladimir Kolchitsky.

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