The list of invitees to Exercise MILAN 2022 reflects the global reach and influence of the Indian Navy and also demonstrates the geo-political heft of India and clearly brings out our excellent diplomatic relations across the globe
Exercise MILAN 2022 was held in, the ‘City of Destiny’, Vishakhapatnam, from February 25 to March 4, 2022, in two phases – the harbour phase from February 25-28 and the sea phase from March 1-4, 2022. Held every two years, the earlier exercise scheduled in 2020 was cancelled because of the onset of the Covid pandemic. The latest MILAN is significant as it is the first major multilateral maritime gathering since the onset of the Covid pandemic and signals a resumption of normality to the global maritime community. Navies from 46 countries across the globe had been invited to this version of MILAN, which is the largest number invited thus far.
The countries invited include - all IOR littorals and the Gulf countries; all QUAD navies, with the US and Japan invited for the first time; all countries from Southeast Asia; the United Kingdom, France, Russia, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Egypt, New Zealand, Fiji and Israel. While the actual participation of ships/delegations was from about 31 countries (with the other countries being represented by their diplomatic representatives in India), the invitation list truly reflects the global reach and influence of the Indian Navy. The invitee list also reflects the geo-political heft of India and clearly brings out our excellent diplomatic relations across the globe, because of our democratic credentials and adherence to the rule of law. The list of countries attending will surely send a clear message to our adversaries about the capability of both India and the Indian Navy to bring together a rainbow of nations. Coming at a time when tensions in various hot spots across the world are at a high pitch, such gatherings signal to the world at large, that what unites us is much larger than what divides us.
The theme for the latest Exercise MILAN was ‘Camaraderie, Cohesion, Collaboration’, and reflects our willingness to learn from the professional experience of other navies, share expertise, and build trust and inter-operability. The event saw exercises at sea, professional discussions ashore, cultural tours, sports events, social interactions and exchanges of each country’s traditions and culture. The Indian Navy also demonstrated its Deep Submergence Rescue Vessel (DSRV), which is meant to rescue submarines in distress, and is a capability that offers scope for international collaboration in the region with all submarine operating navies. The event was held immediately after the Presidential Fleet Review in Visakhapatnam on February 21, 2022, where the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, reviewed a gathering of more than 60 ships from the Indian Navy, Coast Guard, the Shipping Corporation of India and the National Institute of Ocean Technology. A number of submarines and over 50 naval aircraft also participated in the review.
It is interesting to explore the genesis of the MILAN series of exercises. During the Cold War years, despite India’s non-aligned foreign policy, the Indian Navy’s international engagements were limited due to the fact that the world was frozen into two blocs. The end of the Cold War in 1990 coincided with the opening up of India’s economy in 1991, as also a concerted diplomatic outreach to Southeast Asian countries and the United States. Due to the inherent attributes of flexibility, versatility and unobtrusiveness of naval power, India enlisted the Indian Navy to support its major foreign policy objectives. The initiation of the Malabar Exercises with the US Navy in 1992, and the MILAN Exercises with Southeast Asian navies in 1995, were not merely military interactions but also contained powerful political messages. The fact that the US elevated Indo-US relations to the strategic plane and India become a sectoral dialogue partner of ASEAN in 1992, a full dialogue partner in 1995 (elevated to ASEAN+1 in 2003), as also a member of the ARF in 1996, could be attributed to the successful integration of India’s diplomatic, economic and military (mainly maritime) strategies in the region. Our economic diplomacy initiated with the ‘Look East’ policy specifically re-invigorated our military ties with key Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore. It is not surprising that the economic relationship between India and ASEAN, which began in earnest in 1992, resulted in a Free Trade Agreement being signed in 2009. This increased bilateral trade from $420 million in 1995 to $96.79 billion in 2019-20, amply demonstrating the synergy between trade and maritime security.
Literally meaning ‘meeting’ in Hindi, the first MILAN was held in 1995, and saw the participation of four littoral navies, Indonesia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Held at Port Blair, located strategically at the gateway of Malacca Strait, the first exercise was aimed to promote cooperation in maritime security and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). At the time that it was held, it was a landmark exercise, as all the participating countries had never exercised as one group before that. The scope of the multilateral gathering has grown steadily over the years, with this year’s version being the most complex and advanced in terms of maritime exercises. Ten versions of the exercise have been held at Port Blair between 1995 and 2018, and the latest MILAN is the first one to be held at Visakhapatnam.
The MILAN series of exercises have been the precursor for several other multilateral initiatives taken by the Indian Navy over the past three decades, including the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), the Goa Maritime Conclave (GMC) and Goa Maritime Symposium (GMS). There has also been a tremendous increase in the Indian Navy’s bilateral interactions with navies from friendly foreign countries over the past three decades since the MILAN exercises began. India today has signed defence agreements/MoUs with almost all regional and most major global navies. In the recent past, India has graduated to concluding logistics support agreements and white shipping information agreements with several key countries, thereby increasing the operational range of the Indian Navy’s ships and aircraft and also increasing the transparency of the maritime domain. The Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Centre (IFC) located at Gurugram also hosts several observers from friendly navies. In addition, the Indian Navy has always been an important training centre for the world’s navies and today trains almost 1,000 officers and sailors in a range of disciplines every year. The Indian Navy’s hydrographic organisation has also undertaken several surveys for IOR littorals. All these activities indicate the trust and confidence that other countries repose in the Indian Navy’s professional capabilities.
There have been several other spin-offs from these interactions – for example the ease with which the Indian Navy could conduct the post-tsunami HADR operations in 2004 was largely because of the inter-operability and personal bonds built up with the tsunami-affected countries during interactions such as MILAN. These exercises also bring together small and larger (and more advanced navies) on the same platform, thereby allowing mutual learning, particularly for smaller navies. Such interactions also break down artificial barriers and increase transparency between countries through direct communication and interaction, not only at sea, but even more importantly during exchanges ashore, thereby engendering mutual understanding and respect. The bonds built between personnel of different navies are very important in helping to build better relations between their countries. As Oliver Cromwell remarked astutely in the 17th century, “A man of war is the best ambassador”.
As we head into the second quarter of the 21st century, it is evident that the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean will continue to grow due to the locus of the global economy shifting from the Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific. With the oceans playing a crucial role in global energy security, and the growth in economic dependence of countries on ‘blue economy’, the need to ensure the freedom of safe transit for all mariners and the unhindered sustainable exploitation of the oceans is more important than ever before. However, a multitude of issues threaten this freedom. These include the emergence of a belligerent and expansionist China as a global maritime power, unresolved ongoing regional conflicts, piracy, terrorism, drug smuggling, etc.
India’s pivotal geographical position in the Indian Ocean requires it to play a central role in combating these threats for the greater good of all countries. The Indian Navy has emerged as a key security partner in the IOR to both regional and extra-regional navies due to the consistent democratic values of the Indian Republic; its respect for the rule of law; its excellent international diplomatic rapport; and the professional capability of the Indian Navy. The MILAN exercises illustrate the Indian Navy’s leadership in engendering a safer and more stable IOR for the benefit of all maritime countries. I am sure that the latest version of MILAN will be another ‘meeting’ of minds and hearts, which will contribute to strengthening goodwill and friendship between participating countries for mutual benefit.