French Navy Amphibious Assault Ship FS Tonnerre at Cochin Port Trust, earlier this week (Image courtesy: Indian Navy)
The combined might of the navies from India, Australia, Japan, and the United States of America will be on full show in the Bay of Bengal this weekend as they prepare for Exercise La Perouse, a French-led multilateral maritime exercise. The joint initiative, which reaffirms growing partnership and interoperability between India and its major partners, would be followed by a trilateral dialogue between the foreign ministers of India, Australia and France in Delhi on April 13 to further advance the common vision of Indo-Pacific, ensuring peace and stability.
The first edition of the La Perouse joint exercise, initiated by France in 2019, included ships from Australia, Japan and the USA. It is for the first time that India will be joining the initiative for a large-scale five-country naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal waters from April 5 to 7. The exercise provides an opportunity for the 'five like-minded, high-end naval forces' to develop closer links, sharpen their skills, and promote maritime cooperation throughout a free and open Indo-Pacific.
It also puts words into action after the last month's 'historic' first Leaders’ Summit of the Quadrilateral Framework where Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, US President Joe Biden, Australia PM Scott Morrison and Prime Minister of Japan Yoshihide Suga had reaffirmed their commitment to strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion.
Without mentioning China, 'The Spirit of the Quad' joint statement had also listed redoubling commitment to Quad engagement as one of the five major points.
The process of cementing a group of strong democracies that will work together going forward to secure a free and open Indo-Pacific began immediately as the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin, the US Secretary of Defense, kicked off what the United States described as an 'intensive stretch of diplomacy' in the region.
As soon as Austin wrapped up his visit to New Delhi, the Indian and US Navies started preparing for joint multi-domain operations in the Indian Ocean.
Earlier this week, the US Navy's Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group (TRCSG) conducted a "highly successful" exercise with the Indian Navy and Air Force to elevate capability and capacity in the maritime domain.
The exercise focused on complex operations such as anti-submarine warfare, joint air operations, and command and control (C2) integration. It demonstrated the capacity of the two nations to operate together to advance a common vision of Indo-Pacific, ensuring peace and stability.
The Indian Navy Shivalik-class guided-missile frigate INS Shivalik (F47), front, transits in formation with the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Russell (DDG 59), part of the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group, during a joint force maritime exercise in Indian Ocean on March 28 (Image courtesy: U.S. Navy/Brandie Nuzzi)
USS Bunker Hill (CG 52) and her embarked Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM 75), the 'Wolf Pack' USS Russell (DGG 59), and USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) operated with INS Shivalik (F 47) with embarked helicopter, Maritime Patrol Aircraft (P-8I) from INAS 312 – 'The Albatross', and Indian Air Force aircraft from 'The Tigersharks' squadron.
As the Indian and the US forces exercised together seamlessly across all domains, demonstrating the compatibility of their platforms and operations on the sea and in the air, they also sent a strong message of building a strong partnership which would act as deterrence to potential malign actions.
"I'm so grateful for the opportunity to conduct this exercise with the Indian Navy and Air Force. Not only do we share a common desire for a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific, we also share common values and maritime traditions which make training together all the more meaningful," said Rear Adm. Doug Verissimo, Commander of the Carrier Strike Group 9.
After last year's Malabar war games, the collective strength would once again be showcased to the world during the La Perouse exercise.
Two Royal Australian Navy ships, anti-submarine warfare frigate HMA Ships Anzac (III) and Sirius will be participating in the French-led multilateral maritime exercise in the Northeast Indian Ocean.
Australia's Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, who was also holding the Defence portfolio till recently, said last month that the deployment is part of the Australian Defence Force’s robust and longstanding program of international engagements.
"We are strongly committed to our vital work with regional partners to address shared challenges, including our region’s maritime security," said Payne.
As you read this, two French Navy ships - the Tonnerre and the Surcouf - have also sailed to the Bay of Bengal to add massive firepower to the engagement.
The Tonnerre, an amphibious assault helicopter carrier, is a versatile ship that can deploy assets for amphibious and air assault,conduct troop transport, as well as command a maritime task force and hospital ship. The Surcouf, a La Fayette-class frigate, is designed for high stealth and reduced acoustic signature, and can act as escort to capital ships like the Tonnerre.
The Tonnerre and the Surcouf, together, form the battlegroup Jeanne d’Arc which set sail from France in February 2021 for a five-months long deployment in the Indo-Pacific region with the aim of providing training for the new cohort of 148 on-board French naval officer cadets, demonstrating France’s capacity to deploy assets in strategic areas, and strengthening interoperability with major partners in the Indo-Pacific, particularly India, France’s foremost strategic partner in Asia.
"I am proud of the exceptional level of trust and interoperability that our Navies have achieved. It is no surprise that India and the Indo-Pacific are at the heart of the training for the new generation of French Navy officers. I look forward to the La Perouse joint exercise," said Emmanuel Lenain, the Ambassador of France to India.
After the joint exercise, The French ships will sail through the South China Sea twice before returning home in July.
In addition to the La Perouse exercise, France and India will also, in the coming weeks, hold a large-scale Varuna bilateral exercise in the Western Arabian Sea which will involve the French aircraft carrier battle group. The first joint Varuna naval exercise took place in 1983.
Both countries had reaffirmed the high priority they accord to the India-France strategic partnership during the annual Strategic Dialogue held in January which was led by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Emmanuel Bonne, the Diplomatic Advisor to the French President.
After La Perouse, the foreign ministers of both France and Australia are scheduled to visit New Delhi. "The foreign ministers of India, France and Australia will hold a trilateral dialogue in national capital Delhi on April 13 to discuss steps to strengthen maritime security and collaborate on shared challenges in the Indo-Pacific region," people familiar with the development told the Hindustan Times.
As the Indo-Pacific region evolves and faces new challenges, the friendship between the trusted allies has never been more important.