India–Australia defence ties grow in the face of rising strategic challenges
7 Oct 2022|

There has been a discernible upturn in India–Australia defence ties in recent months, with increased interaction between the two maritime nations through bilateral and multilateral military exercises.

The maritime waters between Indonesia and northern Australia are an area of mutual interest to both countries, being a gateway to the Indian Ocean region. These drills have reaffirmed the shared objectives of an open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific region, an oblique reference to the threat of Chinese expansionism that has raised strategic challenges in the region.

Several such exercises have taken place in the wake of the June meeting in New Delhi between India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and his Australian counterpart, Richard Marles. Defence and security are the main drivers of the India–Australia comprehensive strategic partnership, based on ‘mutual trust and understanding, shared values, and common interests, of democracy and rule of law’.

During a series of high-level visits in April, the chiefs of the Australian army and navy visited India, leading Australia’s high commissioner to India, Barry O’Farrell, to remark that joint defence activities had experienced a ‘near four-fold increase’ since 2014.

Within a month of the defence ministers’ summit, the Indian Navy and Royal Australian Navy reasserted their strong navy-to-navy links and interoperability by conducting their Maritime Partnership Exercise off Perth on 19 and 20 August. Indian-built offshore patrol vessel INS Sumedha joined HMAS Anzac to conduct cross-deck landing of helicopters, tactical manoeuvres and a farewell steam-past.

The exercise was also in consonance with the joint guidance provided by the chiefs of the two countries’ navies in August 2021.

From 19 August to 8 September, more than 100 personnel from the Indian Air Force, flying four Russian Sukhoi-30MKI fighters and two Boeing C-17 Globemaster military-transport aircraft, were among 2,500 military personnel from 17 air forces that participated in Exercise Pitch Black 2022, the Royal Australian Air Force’s capstone biennial engagement with key strategic partners. Back after a hiatus of four years on account of Covid-19, this mammoth exercise was conducted from the RAAF bases at Darwin, Tindal and Amberley, and featured a range of realistic and simulated complex aerial scenarios involving large formations.

Four days after the end of Pitch Black, the RAN, supported by the RAAF, hosted its other flagship biennial exercise, Kakadu 2022, ashore in Darwin and in the waters off northern Australia. The 12-day exercise has grown in size and complexity since its inception in 1993, and this time involved ships and maritime aircraft from 14 navies. India participated with a Boeing P-8I maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft, and the indigenously designed and built 6,000-tonne guided-missile stealth frigate, INS Satpura.

‘Exercise Kakadu is our navy’s most significant international engagement activity and is vital for building relationships between participating countries,’ said RAN chief Vice Admiral Mark Hammond.

In April, P-8 aircraft from both countries conducted coordinated anti-submarine warfare and surface surveillance operations. A team from the Indian Navy’s maritime patrol squadron, Albatross, engaged with its counterparts from the RAAF’s 92 Wing.

This engagement coincided with the 14th India–Australia navy-to-navy staff talks over three days, where the deputy chief of the RAN, Rear Admiral Christopher Smith, and Rear Admiral J. Singh, an assistant chief of India’s naval staff, acknowledged the two countries’ growing cooperation amid emerging challenges on the maritime front. The talks were held under the framework of the 2021 joint guidance for the India–Australia navy-to-navy relationship, the first such document signed by the Indian Navy with any country.

That was also the time the two nations held the fourth iteration of their biennial naval exercise AUSINDEX in Australia. Commenced in 2015, the exercise has grown in complexity and spans complex surface, subsurface and air operations between ships, submarines, helicopters and long-range maritime patrol aircraft of both countries.

Australia has been a late entrant to the annual Malabar exercise, which had started in 1992 as a bilateral drill between the Indian and US navies in the Indian Ocean. Japan became a permanent member in 2015 and Australia, in 2020, making Malabar a pivotal operation involving the four Quad countries.

In September, the Quad foreign ministers reaffirmed their commitment to oppose any unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo in the Indo-Pacific.

These four powerful navies will be holding Malabar exercises off Yokosuka in Japan from 8 to 18 November. The US Navy has a base in Yokosuka that is currently the home port to Carrier Strike Group 5, led by USS Ronald Reagan. The advanced exercises will involve live firing and war-gaming manoeuvres. The RAN participated once in Malabar in the past, in 2007, when the Republic of Singapore Navy also participated.

And in its first large-scale multilateral exercise this year, the RAN deployed HMAS Arunta to the 11th edition of India’s largest multinational exercise, Milan 2022, which was themed ‘Camaraderie, cohesion and collaboration’. The biennial exercise was held in March in the port of Visakhapatnam and in the Bay of Bengal, and drew together 26 ships, one submarine and 21 aircraft from 16 navies from across the Indo-Pacific.

Visakhapatnam will be a port of call—at the end of this month—for Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2022, a key regional engagement activity of Australia that runs across Southeast Asia and the northeast Indian Ocean from September to November. These engagements with a record 14 countries will be supported by a Maritime Task Unit of RAN ships and embarked Australian Army members, as well as RAAF air mobility aircraft for fly-in, fly-out engagements, totalling 1,800 personnel, five ships and 11 helicopters. The centrepiece of the task group will be the Canberra-class landing helicopter dock HMAS Adelaide.

Indo-Pacific Endeavour began in 2017 as an annual activity to deliver on the promise of the 2016 defence white paper to strengthen Australia’s engagement and partnerships with regional security forces.

There will also shortly be a meeting in Australia of the India–Australia Joint Working Group on Defence Research and Materiel Cooperation. The group will probe further opportunities for bilateral industrial cooperation to increase the resilience of supply chains and deliver capabilities to their respective defence forces. India will also be offering niche opportunities to Australian defence firms.

Both partner countries have also set up programs for facilitating the exchange of young officers from their armed forces for joint training and military-to-military exposure.