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Navy in drill diplomacy

New Delhi, July 23: A week after war games with ships from Russia’s Pacific Fleet, three Indian warships will hold a week-long drill with US and Japanese vessels and aircraft, underscoring a policy of engaging contrary forces in testing times for diplomacy after the shooting down of the Malaysian airplane MH17.

The back-to-back war games are part of a calendar of events drawn up at least six months in advance but sources in the navy’s top brass emphasise the importance of being at sea over long periods because of the unpredictability of global developments.

In the latest voyage of warships from the Visakhapatnam-based Eastern Fleet, New Delhi’s diplomacy has found elbow-room to emphasise that it is not taking sides yet.

Apart from diplomatic compulsions, India’s navy is heavily dependent on both Russia, that is threatened with sanctions by the West, and Ukraine that is backed by the European Union and Nato in the strife with Russia in its south and east where the Malaysian aircraft was shot down by as yet unknown elements. Ukraine and Russia have both blamed the other directly or indirectly.

In the latest (18th edition) of the Malabar series of exercises, the ships — the INS Ranvijay (destroyer), the INS Shivalik (stealth frigate) and the tanker INS Shakti — will hold drills in Port Sasebo near Nagasaki in Japan and in waters off the Japanese coast in the north-west Pacific.

Elements of the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet that are based in Japan will participate in the drills. The ships and aircraft are from the USS George Washington carrier strike group and include the USS Shiloh (a Ticonderoga-class cruiser), the USS John McCain (Arleigh Burke-class destroyer), the nuclear submarine USS Columbus, P3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft and MH60R on-board helicopters.

The Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force will deploy destroyers Kurama and Ashigara, a P3C Orion, an amphibious aircraft, the Shinmaywa US-2 Seaplane and SH60J/K helicopters. The Japanese are in negotiations with India to sell the Shinmaywa US-2 to India. The seaplane can land and take off from the sea as well as from high altitude lakes, such as in Ladakh, that are disputed on the Chinese frontier.

Manoeuvres in the latest edition of the Malabar series will involve carrier operations, search and rescue, cross-deck landings by helicopters, mid-sea replenishment, counter-piracy VBSS (visit, board, search and seizure), anti-submarine warfare and gunnery.

The Malabar series is probably the most complex exercise that the Indian Navy engages in with any foreign country. The exercises involving Japan and the US are expected to be watched closely by the Chinese. But an Indian warship is likely to make a friendly port call in China after the drills end on July 30 on the way back to India.