Examining Bilateral India-Japan Maritime Exercises

The three-day bilateral Japan-India Maritime Exercise JIMEX 2020 concluded recently. It involved the Indian Navy (IN) and Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF). The exercise included non-contact, sea-based drills in the North-Arabian Sea. Ships undertook anti-air and anti-submarine warfare exercises, weapon firings, tracking and tactical manoeuvres as well as seamanship evolutions and advanced exercises.

Participating IN assets included INS Chennai (destroyer), INS Tarkash (frigate), INS Deepak (fleet tanker), and P-8I Neptunes (long-range maritime patrol aircraft). Other naval aviation assets included fighter jets and helicopters of unknown type. The JMSDF assets included JS Kaga (helicopter carrier/ destroyer), JS Ikazuchi (destroyer) and other naval aviation assets (fighter jets and helicopters) of unknown type.

Overview

Bilateral naval cooperation between IN and JMSDF occurred through the JIMEX, held in intervals from 2012 to 2020. A Passage Exercise (PASSEX) was held in 2016.

JIMEX 2012

The inaugural JIMEX was held in Uraga Strait, off Tokyo in June 2012, hosted by the JMSDF. An IN battle group comprising INS Rana (destroyer), INS Shivalik (stealth multi-role frigate), INS Karmuk (corvette) and INS Shakti (fleet tanker). It was led by Rear Admiral Ajit Kumar P who was the then Flag Officer Commanding Eastern Fleet (FOCEF). The group was concluding its extraordinary two-month long-range deployment to the South China Sea and North-West Pacific as part of India’s “Look East” policy. It visited Japan after stopovers at Singapore, Vietnam, Philippines and South Korea.

Participants from the JMSDF included two Destroyers (JS Onami, other unspecified), P3-C Orion (maritime patrol aircraft) and SH-60K/J (anti-submarine warfare and search and rescue helicopter). There was no harbour phase, although high-level exchanges did occur between JMSDF leadership and visiting IN Field Officer Commanding Eastern Wing (FOCEF). Vice Admiral Anil Chopra, Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief Eastern Naval Command (FOC-in-C East), was also part of the entourage. The sea phase involved Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) drills and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations. The exercise did not appear aggressive in nature.

This was the first formal engagement of the JMSDF with IN. Previously; Japanese governments had restricted naval cooperation to the Japan Coast Guard only. The IN battle group later visited China and Malaysia. It would appear that the agenda to visit Beijing was to promote goodwill. It was to ensure that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) does not perceive JIMEX 2012 as hostile.

JIMEX 2013

The second edition of JIMEX took place in December 2013, off Chennai in the Bay of Bengal, in the Eastern Indian Ocean. It was the first bilateral navy exercise to be hosted by India. It was also the first to include a harbour phase involving professional interactions among staff for joint operational planning.

Participants from IN included INS Ranvijay (destroyer), INS Satpura (stealth multi-role frigate) and INS Kuthar (corvette) led by the then FOCEF Rear Admiral Atul Kumar Jain. The JMSDF participants included two Destroyers, the JS Ariake and JS Setogiri that were led by Captain Hirofumi Shimizu, the then Commander of Escort Division 7.

The sea phase of JIMEX 2013 involved VBSS drills, gun firings, cross-deck helo operations and operations in anti-surface, anti-submarine and anti-air threat scenarios. Its posturing was unlike that observed in Tokyo.

PASSEX 2016

The first and, thus far the only passage exercise between IN and JMSDF, was held in August 2016 at Mumbai Harbour in the Western Indian Ocean. JMSDF destroyers JS Yudachi and JS Yuugiri docked. They later participated in a passage exercise with INS Mysore (destroyer) and INS Brahmaputra (frigate). The Japanese side was led by Captain Takashi Inoue and Commander Escort Division 7. They later held meetings with Vice Admiral R. Hari Kumar, the then Chief of Staff at Headquarters Western Naval Command and presently Vice Chief of Defence Staff.

Both JMSDF destroyers arrived from the Omani port of Duqm after completing anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea. Two years later, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi would ink an agreement with Oman to give Indian Navy and Indian Air Force access to the same port.

JIMEX 2018

The third edition of JIMEX was held after a considerable gap of five years at Vishakapatnam in the Bay of Bengal, in the Eastern Indian Ocean. Participants from IN included, INS Kadmatt (corvette), INS Shakti (fleet tanker), P-8I (long-range maritime patrol aircraft) and several helicopters of an unspecified type. JMSDF assets included the JS Kaga (helicopter carrier/ destroyer) and JS Inazuma (destroyer). IN ships were led by the then FOCEF Rear Admiral Dinesh K Tripathi. JMSDF was directed by Rear Admiral Tatsuya Fukada, Commander Escort Flotilla 4 (CCF-4).

The harbour phase of JIMEX 2018 involved professional interactions and joint operational planning. There was an addition of sports activities to boost personnel-level understanding. The sea phase involved VBSS drills, gun firings, cross-deck helo operations and operations in anti-submarine and anti-air threat scenarios. It was similar to the previous exercise.

Analysis

Excluding the brief PASSEX (2016), JIMEX 2020 was the first formal bilateral exercise between Indian and Japanese naval forces to be held in the Western Indian Ocean. IN and JMSDF assets exercised together in the North Arabian Sea. It falls under the Pakistan Navy’s “primary area of interest”, as per the 2018 Maritime Doctrine of Pakistan.

Vice Admiral Ajit Kumar P was the Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief Western Naval Command (FOC-in-C West), under whose watch JIMEX 2020 took place. He was the FOCEF who led IN ships in the inaugural JIMEX 2012.  In similar vein, Vice Admiral Atul Kumar Jain, FOCEF during JIMEX 2013, is presently FOC-in-C East. We can observe the fact that the first two JIMEX commanders from the Indian side are presently commanding the western and eastern seaboards of India. Both have direct experience of interoperability with the JMSDF. They also have experience with counterparts from the United States (US) Navy during various other exercises.

Only one former FOCEF was given a staff appointment. Vice Admiral Dinesh K Tripathi was earlier the commander of IN ships in JIMEX 2018. He was appointed Director General Naval Operations (DGNO) at Naval Headquarters in August 2020.

(Based on open source data compiled by the author from various JIMEX editions; probability of error exists due to undisclosed information in some cases)

The table above highlights that the foundation for multi-spectrum collaboration between Indian and Japanese naval forces, laid down in 2018, is continuing. IN is taking the lead in demonstration of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) collection capabilities. It has been possible through P-8I Neptunes; the long-range,”multi-mission” versions of P-8A Poseidon aircraft. Consistent focus of both navies remained on flexing surface warfare capabilities.

The past conduct of India-Japan bilateral naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal were described by mainstream media groups and Asian observers as “signalling“ to China.

Japan has apparently been apprehensive of sending ISR aircraft for exercises beyond the Pacific. Also, it was only in the latest edition of JIMEX, that naval aviation fighter jets participated. Both India and Japan have so far refrained from disclosing the type and number of combat aircraft that participated in JIMEX 2020.

The past conduct of India-Japan bilateral naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal were described by mainstream media groups and Asian observers as “signalling“ to China. Notably, none of these exercises, including the recent one in the North Arabian Sea, featured submarines. This could also be attributed to the fact that after the Pak-India standoff in early 2019, India deployed a nuclear submarine to up the ante, an effort that was promptly bogged down by an alert Pakistan Navy.

Japan has cordial relations with Pakistan as a partner in its own “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy, an understanding that was evidently reinforced through recent discussions between Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff and the Japanese Defence Minister. More importantly, the JMSDF held a PASSEX with Pakistan Navy in Gulf of Aden after JIMEX 2020, which appears a Confidence-Building Measure to alleviate perceptions that Japanese naval posturing in Western Indian Ocean is directed against any regional country.

While India may have its own qualms about the PLAN, for now Japan remains precautious about sending mixed signals to Pakistan.

Zaki Khalid

Zaki Khalid

Zaki Khalid is a strategic analyst and freelance commentator based in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. His areas of interest include national security, geopolitics, cyberspace and maritime affairs. He is also the founder and editor of 'Pakistan Geostrategic Review (PGR)', an independent platform publishing a premium newsletter and podcasts on geostrategic developments. He can be reached on Twitter @misterzedpk.

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