(This was originally posted in Hindustan Times by Shishir Gupta)
Indian Navy warships will join the French flagship Charles de Gaulle carrier aircraft carrier along with United Arab Emirates (UAE) Navy for the three-day Varuna trilateral exercise to jointly test combat skills and war game in the Persian Gulf area starting April 25, people familiar with the matter said.
This is the first time that the UAE is participating in the Varuna maritime exercise. India and France have been holding the exercise since 1993; it was christened Varuna in 2001.
Officials said the Indian Navy’s sole aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya would not join the exercise since it is under maintenance. But the Indian Navy’s participation will seek to make up for INS Vikramaditya’s absence by sending two to three destroyers (possibly led by INS Kolkata, the lead ship of the navy’s Kolkata-class stealth guided-missile destroyers) and frigates, an attack submarine, a P-8I maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft. The Charles de Gaulle carrier strike force comprises two frigates and a replenishment tanker.
The French aircraft carrier and its strike group have been in the neighbourhood for weeks; Charles de Gaulle arrived in the Arabian Sea in mid-March for operations relating to Afghanistan and has held dual operations with the United States aircraft supercarrier Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group. According to the two navies, the two strike groups, which are conducting dual operations, are cooperating at levels of integration that has been “rarely achieved in the past”.
USS Eisenhower carrier strike group is part of the fifth fleet, whose area of operations extends from the Red Sea to parts of the Indian Ocean. The US carrier-based squadrons of F-18 Super Hornet aircraft and E-2c Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft tested war skills with French Rafale M fighters in the Arabian Sea on April 13.
While the fledgling UAE Navy will be part of the Varuna war games, Indian and French naval warships will be involved in complex manoeuvres in the north Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf by testing interoperability skills in sub-surface, surface and aerial dimensions.
Just as France is considered the oldest US ally, India and France have very deep defence cooperation and converge on the Indo-Pacific doctrine to ensure that no power unilaterally blocks the freedom of navigation from the Gulf of Aden to the western shores of the United States. Both India and France have very close ties with UAE.
Like the four-nation Quad grouping, India-France and Australia have overlapping security objectives in the Indo-Pacific even though the level of war gaming between major maritime powers such as the US, France and India takes a bigger dimension with advanced skill testing and intelligence sharing.