The Indian Ocean is emerging as a focus area for defence cooperation between India and the UK, with the two sides planning sophisticated naval exercises and London deploying an officer to a key Indian surveillance facility.
The aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, the largest warship built for the Royal Navy and capable of carrying 70 aircraft, will operate in the Indian Ocean region on her maiden voyage after entering service in 2020. The move reflects the importance attached to security and freedom of navigation in the region.
“HMS Defender, a Royal Navy destroyer, visited Goa this week and the 2021 version of the bilateral naval exercise Konkan 21 could be the most complex and sophisticated so far,” British high commissioner Dominic Asquith said on Friday.
The UK is also placing a liaison officer at the Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Centre in Gurugram, a facility for friendly nations to exchange non-sensitive information on merchant shipping in the region. The centre integrates India’s coastal radar systems to generate a real-time picture of waters around the 7,500-km coastline, and France too has deployed an officer at the facility.
Besides, the UK is helping with the planning of the next edition of Milan, a multilateral biennial naval exercise held in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Asquith said.
Sixteen countries, including Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and Tanzania, had participated in the last edition of Milan in 2018. The Konkan exercise, hosted in rotation by the two countries, was institutionalised in 2004 and has helped enhance inter-operability between the two navies.
Cooperation in the Indian Ocean had figured in interactions during a visit to India last month by Admiral Tim Fraser, the UK’s vice chief of defence staff. This month, the civil service head of the UK’s defence ministry and a homeland security trade mission led by the director of the UK’s Defence and Security Organisation will visit India to discuss security cooperation and defence procurements.
In December, the India-UK defence equipment sub-group will meet to discuss cooperation, especially in areas such as the transition in development of military hardware from state-run entities to the private sector. It is understood the UK has also highlighted to the Indian side its willingness to cooperate on systems to be used in the next generation of combat aircraft.
Cooperation in the Indian Ocean also fits the interests of the two sides in protecting merchant shipping and fishery resources and ensuring freedom of navigation, people familiar with developments said. The people said no single country could cover the vast region and it was more practical to work out separate tasks and roles that could be assigned to different countries.