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Sea Power & Exercise MILAN 2024

The Indian Ocean, comprising 19.5 per cent of the global ocean area and surrounded by 38 littorals, is becoming a focal point of conflict, particularly with increasing Chinese focus

December 27, 2023 By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd) Photo(s): By X / Indian Navy,
The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army


The periodicity of naval exercises on the high seas, including joint, regional and multilateral, is increasing globally, signaling power projection. Their complexity is also increasing, as seen in the case of Chinese naval maneouvers with live firing surrounding Taiwan from all sides, which keeps the defenders on tenterhooks. Naval exercises-cum-maneouvres in live situations prove that regional or multilateral cooperation is essential to cope with threats in the vast arena of the ocean, At the same time, it also demonstrates the willingness or otherwise of a nation to participate in live operations in a multilateral setting.

Take the live situation in the area of Red Sea where the Houthi are resorting to targeting ships heading towards Israel or vice versa. The US has announced a multi-nation force under Operation 'Prosperity Guardian' against the Houthis. But knowing the Houthi arsenal, the US apparently wants other participants to do the firing-cum-fighting; which is becoming the hallmark of America. In fact, the US itself has not deployed enough warships to commence this operation.

The periodicity of naval exercises on the high seas, including joint, regional, and multilateral, is increasing globally, signaling power projection and the need for regional cooperation

According to John Konrad, maritime journalist and founder of the maritime blog gCaptain, the US has built 24 littoral combat ships to be used for combat in coastal areas, but the US has refused to deploy them in the Red Sea area. Australia and France have already withdrawn from the group that was supposed to protect Israeli ships from the Houthis. Now Spain and Italy are also withdrawing from the US-led operation. The latest is that the world's largest shipping company, Maersk, announced it will resume shipping in the Red Sea because Houthis have said all ships can move freely, except for those with Israeli connections or heading towards Israel. If the US dares to attack Houthis, they can retaliate immediately because they have torpedoes, drones, missiles.

The Indian Ocean is also becoming the centre of gravity of conflict with increasing Chinese focus. With an area of 75,560,000 km2 (19.5 per cent of global ocean area) the Indian Ocean is surrounded by 38 littorals that include some of the poorest countries in the world, with population exceeding 2.6 billion (39 per cent of world). Its sea connect with other oceans is limited to seven choke points – the keys to the Indian Ocean; two connect to the Atlantic Ocean and the rest to the Pacific. The 805-km long Straits of Malacca links the Indian Ocean to South China Sea and Pacific. It is the shortest sea route between energy supplies from the Middle East / Africa and consumers in China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.

The week-long China-Pakistan naval exercise in November 2023, termed 'first joint patrol,' raised concerns about the China-Pakistan anti-India nexus, emphasising the geopolitical significance of the region

Rear Admiral R.T. Mahan had famously said, "Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia. This ocean is the key to the seven seas. In the 21st century, the destiny of the world will be decided on its waters." Bab El Mandeb (at the southern exit of Red Sea) links the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal.

The week long China-Pakistan naval exercise held in the Arabian Sea during November 2023 was termed "first joint patrol" by the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The exercise was conducted in two parts; shore based exchanges, followed by joint maritime operations. This was the largest China-Pakistan naval exercise held so far. Participating troops from the Chinese PLA Navy (PLAN) consisted of six vessels, including the guided-missile destroyer 'Zibo', guided-missile frigates 'Jingzhou' and 'Linyi', and the comprehensive supply ship 'Qiandaohu', along with two shipborne helicopters and dozens of Chinese Marines.

Chinese and Pakistani warships participating in the China-Pakistan Sea Guardian 2023 joint maritime exercise sail to the designated sea area on November 14, 2023.

The stated aim of the China-Pakistan naval exercise was to improve the interoperability of the two navies. However, this needs to be seen in context of the China-Pakistan anti-India nexus, entire Pakistani coastline (Gwadar included) available to China, Sri Lanka's Hambantota Port with China, and Chinese efforts to establish a port in Maldives. Moreover, the significance of the exercise needs to be viewed in the backdrop of the continuing India-China standoff and most of India's neighbours having joined China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

India is gearing up to host MILAN 2024, the 12th edition of the Multilateral Naval Exercise, with an anticipated largest-ever participation of over 50 countries and nearly 20 ships, showcasing evolving naval capabilities and cooperation

India is now gearing up to host the upcoming 12th edition of the Multilateral Naval Exercise – MILAN 2024, to be held at Visakhapatnam from February 19 to 27, 2024. MILAN is a biennial multilateral naval exercise incepted by Indian Navy in 1995 at Andaman and Nicobar Command with participation of four countries viz Indonesia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Since inception, the event has been held biennially except for 2001, 2005, 2016 and 2020. While the 2001 and 2016 editions were not held due to International Fleet Reviews, the 2005 editions was rescheduled to 2006 due to the 2004 Tsunami. 2020 edition of MILAN was postponed to 2022 due to COVID-19. MILAN 2022 was conducted at/off Visakhapatnam from February 25 to March 4, 2022 and witnessed participation from 39 countries.

Final Planning Conference of the 12th Edition of the Multinational Naval Exercise - MILAN 2024, held at Visakhapatnam in hybrid mode (VC + in-person) chaired by CSO (Ops), Eastern Naval Command & attended by participating nations.

MILAN 2024 is likely to witness the largest-ever participation by over 50 countries and nearly 20 ships from friendly nations. Naval exercise MILAN has evolved over the years featuring harbour activities, including seminars and exhibitions, along with sea manoeuvres involving submarines, aircraft carriers, and advanced warfare operations.

The harbour phase of MILAN 24 will comprise of International Maritime Seminar, City Parade at RK Beach, Swavlamban Exhibition, Subject Matter Expert Exchange and Milan of Young Officers. Ships, Maritime patrol aircraft and submarines of Friendly Foreign Countries would participate in the sea phase along with Indian Navy units. The Indian Navy is likely to deploy both its aircraft carriers -- INS 'Vikramaditya' and INS 'Vikrant' -- at the Eastern seaboard in Visakhapatnam during the exercise. They will involve large-force manoeuvres, advanced air defence operations, Anti-submarine warfare and Anti-surface warfare operations.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) issued a statement on October 20, 2023 saying that the Mid Planning Conference (MPC) of MILAN 24 was conducted by the Eastern Naval Command (ENC) with participating friendly foreign Navies over video conference on October 17, 2023. During the MPC, representatives of invited countries were briefed on events planned during the harbour phase and sea phase.