Photo Credit Press Information Bureau, Press Release 21 August 2023

Rupal Kalebere and Commodore Sujeet Samaddar

Against the backdrop of the vast blue expanse of the East Coast of Australia, the 27th edition of Exercise MALABAR concluded on August 21, 2023, off the shores of Sydney. This multi-nation naval exercise bore witness to the participation of ships, submarines, and aircraft from the Indian Navy (IN), Royal Australian Navy (RAN), Japan Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF), and the US Navy (USN). A testament to international collaboration and shared commitment, Exercise MALABAR 23 demonstrated the prowess of these maritime forces in enhancing security and stability within the Indo-Pacific region.

Exercise MALABAR 23 unfolded in two distinct phases, spanning from August 11 to August 21, 2023. The initial harbour phase, conducted from August 11 to August 15, set the stage for collaboration and synchronization among the participating nations. This phase saw the gathering of indigenously built Indian Navy warships, including the destroyer INS Kolkata and frigate INS Sahyadri, alongside the P8I Maritime Patrol Aircraft. The Royal Australian Navy Ships HMAS Brisbane and HMAS Choules are participating in the exercise with Navy MH60R helicopters and Royal Australian Air Force F-35A Lightning II, Hawk 127 and P-8A Poseidon aircraft. The US Navy deployed the Arleigh Burke Class Destroyer, the USS C, a fleet Tanker,  USNS Rappahannock (T-AO-204), a submarine, P-8A Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) and special operations force. The JMSDF was represented by their Asahi Class Destroyer the JMS Shiranui. The ensemble of submarines, fighter aircraft, maritime patrol aircraft, and shipborne helicopters further amplified the exercise’s complexity and scale.

At the end of the harbour phase, the QUAD maritime forces embarked on to the sea phase from August 16 to August 21, 2023. Departing from Sydney Harbour, the multinational naval armada set sail into the open waters, while air assets took to the skies from RAAF Amberley Brisbane. This phase marked a culmination of strategic planning and operational execution, designed to hone war-fighting skills, deepen interoperability, and solidify the commitment to regional security.

The sea phase of Exercise MALABAR 23 was characterized by dynamic and high-intensity exercises across air, surface, and undersea domains. Weapon firings reverberated through the waters, as vessels executed complex manoeuvres, demonstrating precision and coordination. The inclusion of cross-deck helicopter operations added another layer of sophistication to the joint exercises. Seamanship skills by way of exercises in carrying out replenishment at sea also marked a higher level of interoperability between the QUAD Navies. These operations showcased the seamless integration of maritime forces, underlining the exceptional level of coordination and interoperability achieved among the Indian, Australian, and US maritime patrol aircraft units.

The exercises were more than just displays of maritime prowess; they were purposeful endeavours to sharpen the participants’ war-fighting capabilities and enable them to undertake advanced maritime operations. In this synergy of forces, the distinct strengths of each navy came to the forefront, combining to form an integrated and formidable maritime force. This provided yet another opportunity for learning new practices, new skills and new SOPs in a multinational multi cultural setting.

Beyond the strategic manoeuvres and synchronized exercises, Exercise MALABAR 23 underscored the participating nations’ shared commitment to maritime security and regional stability. Collaborative training and mutual understanding were the cornerstones on which this commitment was built. As ships and aircraft moved in unison, a powerful message emerged: the four navies were not merely operating as individual entities, but as a unified force striving to uphold peace and security in the Indo-Pacific.

China’s Satellite Surveillance: A New Dimension of Geopolitical Complexities

While the participants focused on joint drills and high-intensity exercises, the invisible eyes of China’s satellites were fixed on the unfolding activities. At the time, they tracked the high-orbit Shiyan 12-01 satellite moving into position over northern Australia, while the Shiyan-17 and Shiyan-23 satellites also began moving towards Australia’s east coast. The deployment of numerous satellites by China over Australian skies aimed at gathering intelligence on the Exercise MALABAR and other military manoeuvres, such as “Exercise Talisman Sabre,” signals Beijing’s intent to closely monitor its regional competitors. This covert approach highlights the growing role of space-based assets in modern warfare, expanding beyond traditional domains.

China has been significantly ramping up its satellite capabilities, spearheaded by their Long March space launch vehicle launches that can launch multiple satellites into orbit in one go. Increasingly, the Chinese are very much focused on achieving a kind of asymmetric capability where they don’t have the same number of satellites as the US, but they develop capabilities that can undermine that US quantitative dominance, particularly regarding wartime scenarios.

The Australian Defence Department’s response to China’s satellite surveillance highlights the sensitivity of the matter. With a history of monitoring the Exercise MALABAR, including sending a spy ship in 2007 and similar activity in 2014, Australia’s concern about safeguarding its national security and the security of participating forces is justifiable. The Australian Defence Force’s proactive steps, including monitoring satellite movements and information security measures, underscore the challenges posed by China’s covert surveillance. According to the ABC News report, ‘Australian defence company, EOS Space Systems, in July, tracked three Chinese geostationary orbit satellites manoeuvring into position below the equator to monitor the US and Australian militaries along with the troops of 13 other countries’ that carried out the biennial Talisman Sabre exercise across northern Australia’.

A Resounding Call for Unity and Collaboration

Exercise MALABAR 23 transcended its role as a mere naval exercise; it was a testament to international collaboration, shared values, and a collective commitment to maritime security and regional stability. Amid the complexities of modern geopolitics, the participating nations demonstrated that unity and cooperation remain the bedrock of countering challenges to the Indo-Pacific’s delicate balance. While China’s satellite surveillance added an unexpected dimension, it only served to emphasize the importance of exercises like MALABAR in upholding peace, security, and the rule of law in an increasingly interconnected world.

As the sun set on the exercise’s conclusion, it left in its wake not only the spectacle of maritime prowess but also a resounding call for unity and collaboration in the face of evolving geopolitical complexities. In an era where regional stability is essential for global peace, the harmonious convergence of naval forces from across the Indo-Pacific sends a strong message: democracies stand united to protect their shared values and maintain the rule-based international order. It is through these joint endeavors that the world witnesses the enduring strength of alliances, the power of coordinated action, and the collective commitment to preserving the stability and security of a region that holds profound significance for the world at large.

But as a note of abundant caution and serious warning the age of satellite-based intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance is now an integral part of modern warfare. Coupled with AI and Natural Language Processing capabilities, it becomes entirely possible to determine form ship tracks and eavesdroping on communications to not only know what the formation did in the past but also predict what it might do in the future. For the next edition of Malabar Exercise the QUAD nations must incorporate Satellite based ISR in their operational philosophy. This might pave the way for short reaction launch on demand and launch on purpose satellites from ship borne VLS modules.


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