A US Navy carrier strike group, led by USS Nimitz, on Monday conducted maritime drills with Indian warships in the Indian Ocean region (IOR), against the backdrop of the India-China border standoff in Ladakh, people familiar with the development said on Monday.
The passage exercise involved a total of eight Indian and US warships, said an official, requesting anonymity. The drills also came at a time when tensions have mounted over China's activities in the South China Sea, where the US Navy has just conducted a major exercise that involved two carrier strike groups.
"The Nimitz Carrier Strike Group is transiting through IOR. During the passage, #IndianNavy units undertook Passage Exercise (PASSEX) with #USNavy. Indian Navy had also conducted similar PASSEXs with #JMSDF (Japan) and #FrenchNavy in recent past," the Indian Navy tweeted.
The Eastern Fleet of the Indian Navy is currently carrying out manoeuvres near Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the warships that took part in the exercise were from that fleet, said a second official, also on condition of anonymity.
While operating together, the US and Indian naval forces conducted high-end exercises designed to maximize training and interoperability, including air defence, the US 7th Fleet said in a statement. It said the Nimitz carrier strike group's operations were designed to provide security throughout the region while building partnerships with friends and allies.
The 7th Fleet is the largest of the US Navy's forward deployed fleets.
"Naval engagements such as these exercises improve the cooperation of US and Indian maritime forces and contribute to both sides' ability to counter threats at sea, from piracy to violent extremism. These engagements also present opportunities to build upon the pre-existing strong relationship between the US and India and allow both countries to learn from each other," it added.
The Nimitz carrier strike group, consisting of flagship USS Nimitz, Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser USS Princeton and Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers USS Sterett and USS Ralph Johnson took part in the drills. India was represented by INS Rana, INS Sahyadri, INS Shivalik and INS Kamorta.
"It was a privilege to operate with the Indian Navy," said Rear Admiral Jim Kirk, commander of the Nimitz carrier strike group.
The Indian Air Force has deployed half a squadron (eight to 10) of its Jaguar fighters at the Car Nicobar air base, in a show of strength amidst the tense confrontation between Indian and China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, said a third official.
The IAF has raised its guard along the northern border to deal with any military provocation by the Chinese forces and forward bases have been ordered to be on their highest state of alert.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are more than 1,200 km from mainland India. A significant volume of China's oil imports passes through the Malacca Strait, which is south-east of these islands.
The Nimitz carrier strike group entered the Indian Ocean from the Malacca Strait and is on its way to the Persian Gulf.
"A passage exercise is normally undertaken whenever an opportunity arises, in contrast to pre-planned maritime drills. While the Malabar exercise with the US will be conducted later this year, it is always good to exercise with like-minded navies and exchange best practices whenever there is a chance," said naval affairs expert Captain DK Sharma (retd).
The navy has been on an operational alert in the Indian Ocean where scores of warships are ready for any task in the aftermath of the border row. It has positioned warships along critical sea lanes of communications and choke points under its mission-based deployment and the vessels could be diverted for any mission.
Indian warships are deployed from as far as the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Strait and northern Bay of Bengal to the southeast coast of Africa.
The nuclear-powered USS Nimitz, one of the largest warships on the planet, is returning from an operational deployment in South China Sea. A carrier strike group led by USS Ronald Reagan was part of the US drills in South China Sea.
The US deployment to South China Sea came after China's People's Liberation Army-Navy conducted drills in the contested waters, provoking a sharp reaction from neighbouring countries and Washington. The US Navy has said its operations in South China Sea are designed to support a "free and open" Indo-Pacific.
The stage is also set for Australia to be part of the next Malabar naval exercise conducted by India with the US and Japan, as reported by Hindustan Times on July 17. The next edition of Malabar, already delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, is set to be held by the end of the year.
The formal invitation to Australia is expected to be extended after some time in view of delicate negotiations between India and China on disengagement and de-escalation to end their standoff along the LAC.
China has also been wary of the Quadrilateral security dialogue or Quad that was revived in late 2017 by India, the US, Australia and Japan, and these suspicions have increased since the four countries upgraded the forum to the ministerial level last year.