On the night of 27-28 January, 2021, three more Rafale fighters joined the Indian Rafale squadron, taking the total to 11 aircrafts. A total of 36 aircrafts have been contracted by India in a government-to-government deal. The contracting of 83 Tejas aircrafts, the demonstration of the will to go in for armed drones in a big way, the successful landing and take-off of the LCA Tejas Navy, test firing Akash, the new generation air defence missile designed to intercept high-speed aerial threats with a very small ground footprint, and the completion of the wind tunnel test of the LCA Tejas Mk 2 are all very encouraging steps in military capability development.
Future wars are going to be won by the side that can wage successful effect-based operations with lean and mean ground forces ready to exploit the favourable situations created by manned or unmanned aerial firepower, using high precision and lethal technologies. The concept of support and supported arms will continue to get defused. In such a milieu, China enjoys a significant military edge over India. India, therefore, needs to explore all options to ensure its security against external military threats. Defence diplomacy is an important soft power component of Comprehensive National Power (CNP) and joint bilateral and multilateral military exercises are an effective instrument of defence diplomacy. In turn, defence diplomacy helps in building strategic partnerships and contributes in furthering our national interests.
The US and China practice military diplomacy in a big way. A Chinese scholar has defined China’s military diplomacy as “the pursuit of foreign policy objectives under the guidance of China’s national grand strategy through the peaceful employment of military resources and capabilities to maintain national interests (both domestically and overseas), security, and development.” India too has embarked upon this path in recent times and intensified its efforts in conducting bilateral and multilateral military exercises. As mentioned before, bilateral and multilateral exercises are important tools of defence diplomacy, and as part of this strategy, India recently conducted two major exercises whose details and impacts are discussed below.
THE INDO-FRENCH JOINT AIR EXERCISE
The Indian Air Force and the French Air Space and Force recently conducted a five-day bilateral exercise, Desert Knight-21, from 20-25 January, 2021. As per MoD reports, for the first time, Rafale aircrafts from both sides participated in the exercise. The Indian participation comprised the Sukhoi-30, Rafales, Mirage 200, AAR (Air to Air Refueler) AWACS and AEW&C aircraft. Similarly, Rafale, Airbus A-330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT), A-400M Tactical Transport aircraft and approximately 175 personnel participated from France. This was the seventh joint exercise between the two countries.
India and France also conduct hop exercises, in which, if India or France are moving to a third country for a joint exercise, a short joint exercise is conducted if the other country falls en route. For example, in 2018, while going to Australia for a joint exercise called Pitch Black, France conducted a joint exercise with India. The exercise provided an opportunity for the two sides to learn from each other›s best practices, besides improving interoperability. Interoperability is an essential component in multinational task force operations either as part of the UN or regional grouping.
THE MALABAR EXERCISE
Earlier in November and December 2020, the navies of the US, Japan, India and Australia took part in the 24th edition of the Exercise Malabar. The first edition started as a bilateral exercise in 1992 between India and the US. The Australian Navy took part in the exercise for the first time. The exercise was conducted in two phases. Phase I of the 24th edition of the Malabar was held from November 3 to 6 off the Visakhapatnam coast in the Bay of Bengal and Phase II was held from 17-20 November in the northern Arabian Sea.
The exercise was led by dual carrier operations by USS Nimitz and INS Vikramaditya. Besides surface vessels and submarines, the event also included firing and Air Defence exercises with the MiG-29K and F/A 18 and E2C Hawkeye aircrafts. The consistency and regularity with which this exercise has been conducted since 1992 has the potential to emerge as the backbone of the military component of Quad or Quad plus, with the UK and France joining in as and when that happens. The Malabar Exercises, in conjunction with the US operations to ensure the freedom of the seas by regularly deploying a carrier group in the South China Sea, would ensure security in the Indo-Pacific and IOR, as would the commitment of the participating countries to support a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific as well as a rules-based international order. For example, the USPACOM deployed the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group (TRCSG) in the South China Sea on 23 January to conduct routine operations. The US operation aims to ensure the freedom of the seas, build partnerships that foster maritime security and conduct a wide range of operations. The combined impact of Malabar and USPACOM operations will also help India manage its security threats slightly better.
While it is understood that merely conducting joint exercises does not assure deterrence against our adversaries, it still is an important component of military diplomacy in furtherance of our CNP. Such exercises are also seen as an assurance that critical supply of spares and accessories will be guaranteed during a possible conflict. Further, it ensures a positive attitude in international forums in favour of India, such as the UNSC. Moreover, with shifts in the security concern for most of the major powers such as the US, UK, EU, Japan and Australia in the Indo-Pacific, militarisation of a QUAD-like grouping appears to be a distinct possibility and India must not shy away from joining such an alignment.
It is high time we realise that like Pakistan, China is an arch rival of India. Henceforth, we need to deal with China as a rival. Recently, the Indian External Affairs Minister minced no words when he said, “The Ladakh incident profoundly disturbed India-China relations.” He went on to state that instead of mitigating matters, China has acted by amassing troops along our borders, contrary to existing agreements, and refused to disengage from their current positions, despite nine rounds of border talks. In such a security scenario, expecting reconciliatory behaviour from China is naive and wishful thinking.
In a one-on-one situation, India is the weaker power in comparison to China. Further, the China-Pak collusion is a reality which demands that India explore partners and, if need be, become a part of an alliance of like-minded democratic countries with common interests in the region. Despite the willpower, physical and mental robustness of our troops, the experience of operating in super-high altitude terrain and the recent measures to build our military capability, it still needs the backing and support of major military powers. India has conducted bilateral exercises with eight countries, including China, till now. It conducts and participates in five multilateral exercises, of which the Malabar (4 countries), RIMPAC (26 countries) and Milan (30 countries) exercises are yearly/biennial events. Such activities are ideal tools of defence diplomacy and strategic communication which can further our national security interests and provide the necessary backing for India to adopt a firmer approach while dealing with adversaries.
Lt Gen Dushyant Singh (retd) has served in varied terrains and theatre of operations, in India and in the UN as Military Observer. He has commanded an Infantry Battalion, Brigade and a Division in Jammu and Kashmir. He is currently Professor Emeritus Defence Studies at Gujarat Raksha Shakti University.