Exercise Paschim Lehar and Maldivian Imbroglio

Recently concluded Exercise Paschim Lehar extensively tested and revalidated the operational plans and manoeuvres in a hostile maritime scenario on India’s Western seaboard

Issue: 2 / 2018By Rear Admiral Sushil Ramsay (Retd)Photo(s): By Indian Navy
Ex Paschim Lehar (XPL 18) tested the operational effectiveness of the Western Naval Command

During the anual campaign season each year Theatre Level Operational Exercises, commonly known as TROPEX are conducted on the western seaboard. One such exercise to operationalise and validate the theatre level operational doctrine was held during November 2017 with the primary objective of augmenting synergies and enhancing interoperability among the frontline combatants of the Indian Army, Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force. TROPEX has over the years grown in significance and upped the scales of operational doctrines among the three services and the Coast Guard to launch a unified campaign at the theatre level.

Beginning from 2018 the Indian Navy has reviewed its operational readiness philosophy to provide cutting edge to its combat capability. Accordingly as a sequel to TROPEX, additional two variants have been added. The exercises conducted on the Eastern Seaboard have been designated as Eastern Naval Command Theatre Level Operational Readiness Exercises, called ENCORE. The first edition of ENCORE was conducted under the aegis of Eastern Naval Command. ENCORE 2018 which culminated in early February 2018 comprised more than 40 ships and submarines from the Eastern Fleet, Western Fleet and the units from Andaman & Nicobar Command.

The counterpart of ENCORE on the western seaboard has been designated as Exercise Paschim Lehar (XPL). The first edition of the three-week long Paschim Lehar, theatre level operational readiness exercises were conducted from February 12, 2018 as tri-Service Maritime Exercise. XPL included participation of a large number of ships, submarines and aircraft from the Western Naval Command, Eastern Naval Command, Indian Army, Indian Air Force and the Indian Coast Guard to augment interoperability. Over 40 ships and submarines, similar number of maritime surveillance, fighter aircraft, helicopters and UAVs of the Indian Navy and the IAF were deployed. The amphibious capabilities of the armed forces, along with the elements of Army Amphibious Brigade was also deployed and tested for operational philosophy.

The exercise included a number of weapon firings, including missile, gun and torpedo firings during the initial phase. The second phase was structured to validate and refine the operational plans of the Western Naval Command and was conducted under the overall control of the Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Western Naval Command and tested the operational readiness of the Command and the execution of operational plans. Over 40 naval assets including the aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, frontline ships of the Western Fleet and Eastern Fleet, including the newly commissioned Kolkata class, submarines, potent missile vessels of the 22nd Killer Squadron, Offshore Patrol Vessels and craft of the local flotilla and the Coast Guard participated in the exercise.

XPL witnessed intense flying activities by carrier-borne Mig29K, P-8I, IL-38SDs, Dorniers and UAVs and saw enhanced participation by the deep penetration fighters of the Indian Air Force, in coordinated flying missions with Indian Navy’s frontline aviation assets. Maritime role Jaguars, Su-30MKI, AWACS and flight refuellers participated in large numbers from different airfields in Gujarat, Maharashtra and North India. An amphibious landing was also conducted, which included the participation of the 91 Infantry Brigade of the Indian Army. Recently concluded Exercise Paschim Lehar extensively tested and revalidated the operational plans and manoeuvres in a hostile maritime scenario on India’s Western seaboard. The defence of offshore assets namely; oil rigs, escort operations of merchant ships and coastal defence were carried out.

People’s Liberation Army (Navy) in the Backyard

The presence of People’s Liberation Army (Navy), PLAN task force in the Eastern Indian Ocean around the time of Paschim Lehar was certainly not by any coincidence. It was indeed a well thought out and orchestrated plan to lend tacit support to India’s closest neighbour and a long standing ally, Maldives embroiled in a worst ever political crisis. An official Chinese website has linked the deployment of the warships, including an amphibious vessel that can transfer troops from sea to land, to the evolving situation in the Maldives.

The Indian Navy has robust maritime domain awareness and is maintaining constant vigil in the Indian Ocean amid political turmoil in Maldives and the reports about PLAN flexing its maritime muscle in the region

“At present, the Indian Ocean region is not peaceful and the political situation in the Maldives continues to be turbulent,” said the post. The article pointed out that the Chinese Navy’s ‘Blue 2018A’ fleet has been training in the East Indian Ocean for a “week or so”. The People’s Liberation Army (Navy) task force comprised two 052D Destroyers, a 054A Frigate, a 071 Dock Landing Ship and a supply ship.

China had earlier warned against external intervention in the Maldives after the country’s exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed called for New Delhi’s intervention to release political prisoners. Chinese Foreign Ministry had warned that other countries should not interfere in the internal affairs of the Maldives.

An Australian website, news.com.au, underscored that the entry of Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean marks a significant shift in regional power. “They’re there to keep India away from Beijing’s interests in the strife-torn Maldives Islands.”

“Sending warships to operate off the Maldives is a new and concerning development, because it shows that China is trying to exercise influence over a small state more usually within India’s strategic view. New Delhi will read this as a worrying move. It will intensify strategic competition and increase mistrust between China and India,” it quoted Peter Jennings of the Australian Policy Institute.

Ground Reality

The Indian Navy has robust maritime domain awareness and is maintaining constant vigil in the Indian Ocean amid political turmoil in Maldives and the reports about PLAN flexing its maritime muscle in the region. At least eight Indian warships backed by long- and medium-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft are deployed in the strategically important Indian Ocean region (IOR). This mission-based deployment of warships in the critically important region helped the Indian Navy to enhance its monitoring capabilities. Indian Navy has a robust surveillance system and a realtime picture of the happenings in IOR as a result the warships deployed near East Indian Ocean region are detected soon after entering Sunda strait in international waters closer to Australian waters. The movements are also picked up by the regular P-8I long range maritime reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft of the Indian Navy.

Indian Navy has two Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) deployed in Maldives for surveillance and rescue missions. These helicopters are flown jointly by the Maldives and Indian pilots. In addition, one medium range reconnaissance Dornier of Coast Guard is also stationed there for keeping an eye on Maldives territorial waters and exclusive economic zone. Two radar stations, part of India’s coastal surveillance, are also installed there to enable Maldives and India to get real time picture of any movement there. These radars are linked with the coastal radar surveillance network.

As per recent reports, Maldives wishes Indian government to take back one ALH and replace it with Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft.