Recently 2 US Lancer (B-1B) bombers from Guam base conducted 10 hour long sorties over disputed islands of South China Sea; where China has aggressively built up artificial islands and constructed military bases hosting radars and fighter squadrons. Such US naval and aerial patrols in the vicinity of disputed islands were so far termed as Freedom-Of-Navigation (FoN) exercises, aimed at preventing China from claiming international waters as its own and to thwart any Chinese attempt to create hurdles in international freight carrier traffic passing by the region, by making it mandatory for every shipment to seek and get Chinese permission using this sea lane. This time use of Lancer bombers for such huge time span has frowned Chinese strategists and international observers familiar with the issue. It indicates something more serious than FoN exercise. Then what was the purpose of Bomber Fly Pass?
Just two days ago, India-US-Japan navies started biggest ever joint Naval Exercise in Northern Indian Ocean region, with a stunning combination of Aircraft Carriers one each from participant navies, Anti-Submarine Warfare- ASW aircraft and surveillance drones, with destroyers and submarines. Mighty US Aircraft Carrier USS Nimitz of the 7th fleet is the centre of attraction of the exercise. Does this Naval Exercise only meant for developing friendship among three navies or it has much louder, clear and aggressive message to deliver to someone else surfing around vicinity? Is this Pack to Wolves roaming in the Indian Ocean Region- IOR to warn and intimidate potential common enemy? Let’s find out meaningful answers to subtle questions.
US Bombers over the South China Sea to assess China’s Anti Access Area Denial A2/AD capability?
Since the South China Sea tensions assumed centre stage in US-China relations, it’s common to see US flotilla comprising versatile warships; including mighty Carrier Battle Group-CBG aggressively sailing through China’s artificial island chains in Sptratly’s and Paracel archipelago. China used to condemn such Freedom of Navigation- FoN exercises and deploys its own ships to track and collect vital intelligence about US warships sailing in the close vicinity of its assets on newly built islands. So FoN exercise by US Navy was not surprised element. But B-1B Lancer bombers fly pass for 10 hours over the South China Sea was certainly not part of Freedom of Navigation exercise as it was vocally claimed by US Defense establishment. Though China has declared many parts in the East China Sea and South China Sea air spaces as Air Defense Zones, it never aggressively pursued any airspace violation by the US or any other military aircraft. That means there was no actual meaning to assert FoN over disputed airspace that too with powerful B-1B Lancer bombers, which were earlier armed with nuclear missiles before its refitting for conventional bombing missions.
B-1B Lancer engineering profile suggests something different about its mission in the area. It has AN/ALQ-161 system which jams early warning ground radars and the fire control radars of enemy missiles and hostile anti-air guns. Apart from that Northrop Grumman jamming transmitters blinds any aircraft tracking system and tail warning pulse Doppler radar and Raytheon phased array antennas offers rear-facing hemispherical coverage. Lancer’s multi-mode offensive radar APQ-164 with an electronically scanned phased array antenna, which provides high-resolution terrain mapping, velocity data, beacon modes, terrain avoidance, terrain following, position data, weather detection, rendezvous and calibration modes. All these onboard Lancer systems augment its capacity to profile any airborne and ground surveillance systems which can be effectively targeted or neutralised by its own missiles or by another means by passing inputs to the command centre.
Though single sortie of two aerial platforms with known and unknown surveillance and intelligence gathering electronic and avionics won’t offer much information and data to thwart Chinese Naval preparation against US Navy, the trend if repeated in future with more intensity and professionalism can place China in real danger in both South China Sea and East China Sea, where Chinese are locking horn with Japan over Senkaku Islands.
Observer privy to the situation believes that it is the start of the new game with much more impact on China.
Dongfeng Carrier Killers and Anti-Access- Area Denial (A2/AD) Capabilities
Anti-Access Area Denial- A2/AD is set of multiple measures including surveillance through the land, air and satellite based equipment to detect hostile aircraft carrier, the weaponry to prevent, attack or neutralise the same before allowing it to enter in our vicinity.
Though China has a good network of spy satellites to monitor US Naval movement, it has no Carrier Battle Group to match 11 CBGs of USA. Also, China has a lone newly built Aircraft carrier and it lacks operational experience for the same. That means to execute effective A2/AD tactics; China must solely rely on its air and space assets to detect hostile ships in its waters.
Last year China inducted Dongfeng- D-21 Carrier Killer missiles in its force, which are aimed at targeting US carriers and super carriers. But its effectivity, precision and reliability are yet to be tested and verified by the world.
So there is a reason to believe that in the A2/AD domain there is a huge disparity between China and USA, in favour of later. Under such circumstances, if the USA continues to deploy its heavy bombers armed with clandestine intelligence gathering systems under the guise of Freedom of Navigation exercise, it would badly cripple and pre-empt Chinese Naval preparations. Also, it would deal a decisive blow to China’s infant A2/Ad capabilities.
Even if China has Dongfeng Carrier Killer missiles in its arsenal, relying on a single platform, which is yet to be tested in a real war; China can’t afford to rely on it, especially against US Naval forces with back up of the web of versatile military satellites, drones and other potent weaponry.
China needs to do much more in this field if it wants to keep US Navy at bay.
Malabar Tripartite Naval Exercise & Anti-Submarine Warfare Preparations
India is hosting Malabar Naval exercise with the US and other navies. This year’s Malabar-17 exercise is significant as India-US- Japan, all three participants have sent carriers to participate in it. USS Nimitz Super Carrier from US 7th fleet; India’s INS Vikramaditya and Japan’s JS Izumo helicopter destroyer. Though Izumo is helicopter carrier, it can handle short-take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) versions of fighter jets on it.
Apart from there three giant ships, 15 warships of three Navies also taking part in Malabar-17, focusing Anti-Submarine Warfare. Indian Navy has deployed Submarine hunting specialist P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft and US Navy has deployed P-8A Poseidon aircraft in the exercise.
According to statement from US Navy, "Carrier Strike Group Operations are discussed in the exercise during ashore meetings with experts and professionals along with maritime patrol and reconnaissance operations, surface and anti-submarine warfare"
As far as A2/AD capabilities are concerned, submarines with minimal electromagnetic footprint are a vital arm to enforce A2/AD counter measures. Submarines can prove potent and lethal means to seek and bump off powerful aircraft carriers as detecting underwater platform on vast ocean Theatre is next to impossible.
Malabar-17 stress on the anti-submarine warfare- ASW have greater meaning and importance in the backdrop of successive and regular operation of Chinese navy submarines in the Indian Ocean, under the guise of friendly visits or anti-piracy operations or for one reason or another. Within last two years, Chinese Song class and Shang-class submarines have been seen moving in the Indian Ocean, increasing tension for India.
Three years ago Chinese submarine had docked in Colombo port prompting India to strongly protest its presence. Learning from the past, Sri Lankan government denied permission to Chinese submarine to dock at Colombo again in May this year. Chinese nuclear-powered submarine has been seen at Pakistani port in January 2017. With such tremendous submarine activities around in Indian Ocean region, Anti-Submarine Warfare exercise between three naval forces has assumed unique significance.
Other Measures that irked China
India added few more P8I maritime patrol aircraft, specialised in under water detection capacity adding to its already purchased eight aircraft. With this addition Indian Navy can keep a vigilant eye in vital Malacca Strait; which is a jugular vein of Chinese crude oil supply and a major naval choke point for the Chinese economy. Also, these aircraft will extend Indian surveillance reach from the horn of Africa to Seychelles.
The Recent visit of Indian PM Modi to the US has paved the way for the purchase of 22 Sea Guardian drones, enhancing India's capacity to keep watch on a vast swathe of Indian Ocean and hostile movements of Chinese Navy. With an enhanced capacity of nonstop patrolling for 40 hours, these drones would be a valuable asset for Indian Navy in monitoring Chinese movement in Indian Ocean Region and its Exclusive Economic Zone along east and west coast.
The building of listening post on the northern tip of Andaman and Nicobar islands for Myanmar's Cocoa Islands, which host Chinese naval station, India is ramping up its sting of radar stations from Mauritius to Seychelles.
One unconfirmed report published on famous news portal also indicates at Indo- Japan joint project which is going to lay an underwater chain of microphones dubbed as hydrophones to keep watch on submarine movement, the report not confirmed by any of the party involved though.
Chinese Reactions to Malabar Exercise
Chinese Foreign Ministry played down the fears and maintained that it has no objection to Malabar Tri Nation Naval Exercise, but it vocal and jingoistic state media lashed out at Malabar-17 terming it as a threat to China’s national security.
All three nations participating in Malabar Exercise are experiencing various degrees of conflict with China at the moment. Indian and Chinese troops are in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with each other at Doklam in Sikkim. Also, India’s forceful opposition to Balochistan to Kashgar CPEC project and Indian opposition and conspicuous absence from One-Belt-One-Road OBOR conference recently held in China has added to the tensions in bilateral relations.
Japan is in direct conflict with China over claims and ownership of resource rich Senkaku islands in the East China Sea. And USA and China are fighting for supremacy in the hegemonic world order.
Thus, China’s top 3 enemies joining their naval hands in aggressive and ostentatious Naval Exercise, Chinese concerns are obvious to see its exclusive and illegitimate claims over South East Asian seas are effectively challenged and Indians showing no signs of bullying to its aggressive rhetoric over the current Bhutan-Sikkim impasse.
With Malabar Exercise and the firm US resolve to defend its allies in the East China Sea and the South China Sea against Chinses expansionism and neocolonialism, future might not be as peaceful as today! And waters may experience soaring temperature in Indian Ocean Region!