Homeland Security

Significance of Joint Maritime Exercises
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Issue Vol. 37.4, Oct-Dec 2022 | Date : 02 Jan , 2023

Relevance of Joint Military Exercises

Joint Military Exercises are often used by nations to display their military might by showcasing weapons, systems and well-trained soldiers. Such exercises could be bilateral or multi-lateral in nature and conducted with friendly nations across the globe or with neighbours. It could be involving all the three services or any two of them or singly with just the Army, Navy or the Air Force. Today, Coast Guards too conduct joint exercises well away from their national maritime zones. Often shown as a sign of strength and solidarity, such exercises also allows the military personnel of the countries involved in the exercises to gain valuable information on the field and learn new tactics that are suitable to tackle emergent situations if the need arises. It is also significant that power politics still has an important role in international relations. Hence, military exercises are used by nations to send subtle messages to other countries of their capabilities. Further, when conducted between allies, it acts as a deterrent to adversaries. In other words, it helps a nation with a powerful military to bolster its diplomatic posture. The United States (US) is a good example of a nation using its military capabilities to bolster diplomatic posture.

In the post-World War II era, the concept of joint exercises was streamlined by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) alliance which has been conducting such exercises since 1951. It enabled the alliance to test and validate concepts, procedures, systems and tactics. It also enabled militaries and civilian organisations of the alliance to work together to identify best practices to improve inter-operability and bring in reforms as needed. Exercises were also designed to test the efficiency of the NATO military command structure and bring in the modifications necessary.

Maritime Domain and Diplomacy

In the past few decades, due to increased inter-dependence between nations, the maritime domain has become a critical factor in the economic well-being of most nations. This is essentially due to the fact that nearly 90 percent of world trade including energy resources and other critical commodities are transported across the oceans. It would be appreciated that a favourable maritime environment which ensures security and stability at sea is needed to ensure free trade across the seas and in turn enabling the economic well-being of nations. Such an environment needless to say, will require conditions wherein threats and challenges in the maritime domain can be regularly monitored and tackled as needed to ensure net maritime security.

Maritime dimensions of foreign policy have, therefore, emerged as an aspect that no nation can afford to neglect when looking at international relations. Maritime diplomacy is nothing new and has over the ages played a significant role in international relations. This was well articulated by Ken Booth in his study brought out in the 1970s entitled “Navies and Foreign Policy”. Examining the functions that navies can perform in war as well as in peace, he said that “Governments of naval powers have frequently employed their warships in a diplomatic or political mode, hoping to affect the thinking and behaviour of other governments with little or no intention or expectation of using brute force. By “diplomatic mode” in this context is meant the use of warships in support of a country’s general bargaining position, particular negotiating stances and influence building tactics….The question of influence is right at the core of international relationships”.

Need for Joint Exercises in Safeguarding Maritime Domain

The seamless nature of the maritime domain enables a steady flow of threats and challenges from one area to another. Hence, the need exists for a cooperative security approach to improve peace and security in the region. This in turn calls for enhancing mutual trust and confidence through confidence building missions. Naval dimensions are universally accepted to be naturally more suitable for it without undermining perceived national security issues as compared to other components of military power. While high level contacts at political and official levels including at military levels is called for, naval exercises at regular frequency would go a long way in enhancing bilateral and multi-lateral cooperation. Participation in joint maritime exercises and symposia both bilateral as well as multi-lateral has, therefore, emerged as a simple way of increasing the level of trust and confidence between participating nations.

On the operational side, joint exercises enable maritime forces, both navies and Coast Guards to understand each other’s methodologies, Standard Operating Procedures and enable familiarisation with equipment capabilities, including technologies used by other participating forces. Such exercises also help to assess the performance and observe shortcomings of own forces without engaging in an actual war. Joint exercises also have a strategic aspect of indicating to other nations of linkages between participating countries and how they could if need arises safeguard their common interests.

It will also be evident that it would further promote camaraderie between armed forces personnel of participating nations. Needless to say, such understanding will go a long way when real time joint operations are needed. In this, becoming part of a coalition force in war or a near-war situation is just one aspect. What is more important and often called for, is joint operations for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations and for Low Intensity Maritime Operations (LIMO) which today is a major threat to nations cutting across boundaries and could be broadly looked at under maritime terrorism, drugs and arms trafficking, piracy, human trafficking and smuggling, Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported or IUU fishing and other threats to economy and the environment. This issue was highlighted by the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral R Hari Kumar at the recent Indo Pacific Regional Dialogue at New Delhi when he said that “While the possibility of conventional interstate conflict cannot be ruled out, there is an increased risk to the rules-based order, which is emanating from disputes of jurisdiction, undermining UNCLOs, piracy and armed robbery, illegal human immigration, drugs and arms trafficking and IUU fishing.”

HADR and LIMO are best tackled by joint operations between nations as we have seen in operations post the tsunami of 2004, and in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. An example of how joint exercises help in real time situations was also evident in the rescue operations by the Indian Navy where several French nationals among others were rescued from war-ravaged Yemen as part of ‘Operation Rahat’ in 2015. During a later interaction, the French Task Force Commander attributed the success of ‘Operation Rahat’ to naval exercises such as ‘Varuna’. Essentially, the understanding and cooperation developed between forces facilitates their cooperation for any kind of mission. Strategies and procedures evolved and practiced during exercises helps in undertaking real time missions.

India and Joint Maritime Exercises

The Indian Maritime Security Strategy doctrine, published in 2015, calls for a number of actions to shape a favourable and positive maritime environment for enhancing net security in India’s areas of maritime interest. ‘Maritime Engagement’ is one of the initiatives called for to counter the flow of threats and challenges from one area to another in the maritime arena, as cooperative efforts between the nations concerned and their maritime forces are needed. Maritime engagements, therefore, emerge as the principal means of conducting maritime diplomacy. The doctrine envisages interaction with maritime forces of different nations to mitigate traditional concerns and address non-traditional threats for mutual benefit. Such interaction will enhance mutual understanding, cooperation and inter-operability between the maritime forces. The document envisages that the Indian Navy will pursue maritime engagements in multiple ways such as port visits, personnel exchanges, staff talks and interactions, exercises with foreign navies, maritime assistance, operational interactions and high-level maritime strategic interactions.

Ships of the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard regularly undertake port visits to other nations, to promote goodwill and professional interactions. Similarly, port visits to India by warships of friendly nations are welcomed. The Indian Navy also undertakes attachments and exchanges of personnel with other maritime forces for training interaction, gaining operational experience, sharing and developing skill sets, building interoperability and strengthening maritime diplomacy. Staff talks provide the mechanism for deliberations with personnel of friendly navies on issues of mutual interest. This, in turn, helps in formulating plans for further maritime engagements and cooperation.

The Indian Navy regularly exercises with various foreign navies, at bilateral and multilateral levels. These exercises are used to project Indian capabilities, hone operational skills, imbibe best practices and procedures and to enable doctrinal learning. Exercises also provide a benign means for benchmarking our capabilities against international standards and to develop mutual friendship and respect. The Indian Navy has been conducting exercises with foreign navies in three basic formats – passage, occasional and institutionalised. Passage Exercises essentially look at the opportunity of port visits and passages to conduct exercises with friendly navies when ships of either Navy pass near the other’s coast or enters a harbour. The duration and complexity of the exercise would depend on operational considerations and degree of interoperability attained between the two navies. Occasional exercises as the name states are conducted occasionally as situations emerge and could be HADR exercises or even maritime security exercises on the sidelines of overseas deployments or post International Fleet Reviews (IFR).

The main thrust of exercises with foreign navies is, however, on institutionalised bilateral/multilateral exercises. These are conducted on regular basis in areas of maritime interest with a select group of Navies, with whom maritime relations are strong. The scope and content of these exercises are progressively enhanced to keep pace with both traditional and non-traditional maritime challenges. The most often cited one is Exercise Malabar which started as a bilateral exercise with the US Navy in 1992, and has since become multilateral with Japan and Australia also as regular participants. It has also seen participation of Singapore and Canada on one occasion. Others are Exercise Varuna with the French Navy since 2001, Exercise INDRA with the Russian Navy since 2003 and SIMBEX with the Singapore Navy. Exercises are also conducted regularly with Royal Oman Navy, Sri Lankan Navy, Brazil and South African Navies and the Indonesian Navy. The Indian Coast Guard too has been exercising and interacting on a regular basis with a number of countries such as Japan, Philippines, Singapore, the US, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bangladesh. These include tri-lateral Exercise Dosti with the Maldives National Defence Force and Sri Lanka Coast Guard since 2012.

While it may not be formally called an exercise, the Indian Navy has been providing maritime assistance to friendly nations on their request to the Government of India, to address specific requirements. These include hydro graphic surveys, diving assistance, ordnance disposal, salvage (removal of wrecks), sea-lift of critical stores, search and rescue, and overseeing ship construction. Such assistance has been instrumental in enhancing diplomatic relations and goodwill with those nations and is also indicative of the trust and confidence reposed by requesting nations in India’s capabilities and readiness to assist.

The Indian Navy also has Operational Interactions with friendly maritime forces to enhance mutual understanding, operational coordination and maritime security cooperation. These include Exercise MILAN, International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) Meetings and Anti-Piracy cooperative mechanisms. Among these, the biennial meeting of regional navies named as MILAN and started in 1995, is significant. It has emerged as a major forum for improving operational interaction between Navies in the region. Participation in MILAN has steadily increased from five countries in 1995 to 40 in 2022 in the 11th edition. The sea phase in 2022 had 26 ships, one submarine and 21 aircraft, which is indicative of its progress and success.


In order to safeguard her maritime security interests, India would need to safeguard not only her littoral region but also enhance net maritime security all along the Indo Pacific region in cooperation with the maritime forces of friendly nations. In this regard, India has over the years been leveraging international cooperation in the maritime arena by participating and conducting bilateral and multi-lateral exercises, dialogues and symposiums. The Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard have also been regularly exercising with maritime forces of other nations to enhance inter-operability and confidence building. Initiatives such as SAGAR, IPOI, QUAD, exercises such as Malabar, Varuna and other bilateral and multi-lateral exercises and symposium like IONS, are all pointers towards this.

The Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), that India proposed at the East Asia Summit at Bangkok on November 04, 2019, to manage, conserve, sustain and secure the maritime domain, also seeks to create partnerships with like-minded countries across the expanse from the Eastern shores of Africa to the Western Pacific Ocean, to ensure security and stability in the maritime domain through a non-treaty-based, cooperative and collaborative approach. IPOI covers a wide spectrum of significant issues through its seven pillars of Maritime Security, Maritime Ecology, Maritime Resources, Capacity Building and Resource Sharing, Disaster Risk Reduction and Management, Science, Technology and Academic Cooperation and Trade Connectivity and Maritime Transport. The pillar of Maritime Security is an ideal forum for India to take the initiative to enhance Maritime Engagement with more nations across the Indo-Pacific. This could be through Maritime Exercises and Operational Interaction.

India has realised the potential of joint military and specifically maritime exercises as part of diplomacy. Over the last decade or so, Indian maritime forces namely, the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard have been undertaking regular exercises with a number of countries. The location of exercises across the maritime domain in itself is an indication of deep engagement and trust with the partner nations. Exercises such as Malabar and Milan have helped in sending the right diplomatic messages on India’s standing in the global comity of nations.

At the commissioning ceremony of INS Visakhapatnam on November 21, 2021, Raksha Mantri Rajnath Singh highlighted the role the Indian Navy could play in enhancing maritime security in the region, “Challenges such as piracy, terrorism, illegal smuggling of arms and narcotics, human trafficking, illegal fishing and damage to the environment are equally responsible for affecting the maritime domain. Therefore, the role of the Indian Navy becomes very important in the entire Indo-Pacific region.” Needless to say, Joint Maritime Exercises between nations in the region would go a long way in creating transparency, closer understanding and confidence building which, in turn, would enhance net security across the region.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Vice Admiral MP Muralidharan

was the first Commandant of Indian Navy Academy at Ezhimala.

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