The Indian Navy is preparing for a busy month ahead with exercises planned with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), France, and the Quad countries. According to media reports, the UAE is set to join India and France for a trilateral naval exercise in the strategically vital Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman in late April. The exercise under the Varuna banner is to be held on April 25-27. This is the first time that the UAE will be joining India and France for such an exercise. The French Carrier Strike Group led by aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and the Indian Kolkata-class destroyer will be part of this exercise.
Earlier, India also sent a warship to Abu Dhabi to take part in two naval defense exhibitions held on February 20-25, another sign of the breadth of military-to-military engagement between India and the UAE. The Indian Navy ship Pralaya participated in the naval defense exhibition, NAVDEX 21, and the international defense exhibition, IDEX 21. INS Pralaya, built by Goa Shipyard, is a Prabal-class missile vessel fitted with a range of weapons and sensors and is considered a versatile platform meant to undertake a number of surface warfare missions. Indian Navy ships also do routine port calls in the UAE, the latest being that of INS Mysore in February 2021, highlighting the closer maritime cooperation between the two sides.
India and the UAE started a new bilateral naval exercise in March 2018. “Gulf Star 1” was held off the coast of Abu Dhabi from March 17 to 22, 2018, and saw the participation of two major Indian Navy ships, INS Gomati (a guided missile frigate) and INS Kolkata (a guided missile destroyer). The exercise was a follow up to and a further sign of strengthening defense cooperation between India and the UAE. During the exercise, the ships carried out force protection measures drills, maritime interdiction operations, and cross-deck landing exercises during the sea phase of the exercise. In December last year, in a first, the Indian Chief of Army Staff General M.M. Naravane visited the UAE, reflecting yet again the growing facet of military and security collaboration between New Delhi and Abu Dhabi.
France is likely to join another bilateral exercise in the Indo-Pacific, this time with Australia, too. Since the Galwan clash, India has shown an eagerness to expand its security and strategic partnerships with a number of states. France has been a key strategic partner in the Indo-Pacific. Although relatively new, India-Australia bilateral strategic engagement has gained significant momentum in the last few years. The naval exercise, AUSINDEX, has been maturing and now France is keen to join the series. Officials who spoke to media commented that “discussions are under way on how to take it forward.”
There is also another trilateral – India-Australia-Indonesia – under discussion. More trilaterals and minilaterals are likely to shape up in the coming years with much of the Indo-Pacific broiled in tensions with China due to Beijing’s aggressive behavior across the region and beyond. These exercises also indicate India’s own growing comfort and confidence as well as its increasing preference for naval and other military engagements that are aimed at facilitating and strengthening interoperability, and gaining operational experience in different maritime spaces and with multiple partners. India, as with other countries, stands to gain from these energized engagements.
The second major exercise involving the four Quad countries and France, a Quad-Plus naval exercise, is scheduled for April although the dates are still being worked out. France’s role and presence in the Indo-Pacific is unambiguous and the planned Quad-Plus naval exercise is a reiteration of the Quad’s commitment to ensure a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific, with a firm commitment to freedom of navigation. The Quad-Plus exercise will also be an opportunity to showcase the enormous naval strength that the five countries can bring to bear in the Indo-Pacific. According to reports, the exercise in the Bay of Bengal may take place around April 4-7 with missile-guided destroyers, frigates, submarines, and surveillance aircraft engaging in complex maneuvers under the La Perouse banner. India’s lone aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, will not be part of this exercise as it has gone into maintenance after an extended deployment during the Galwan crisis with China. It is reported that Indian destroyers, P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft, and a submarine will participate in the Quad-plus naval drills. The naval drills will engage in formation sailing, live firing, communications, search, rescue, damage control, and personnel transfers.
While details are still sketchy, the Quad-Plus naval engagement can be the beginning of a series of such engagements between the Quad countries and a number of European countries who have lately shown quite some interest in the Indo-Pacific. France became the first country to post a liaison officer at the Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Center for Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR), which is one of the critical steps in strengthening maritime domain awareness in the Indian Ocean region. With more European countries releasing Indo-Pacific strategies, including France, Germany, and the Netherlands, it is clear that European countries also now see a clear interest in maintaining a stable and peaceful Indo-Pacific.