The largest ever naval exercise of its kind is underway between India's Andaman Islands and Sri Lanka. India is hosting four other navies for the Malabar exercise. The unprecedented scope of the at-sea training is raising questions about its strategic intent. VOA's Steve Herman reports from aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk in the Bay of Bengal.
Never before in peacetime have five navies come together to drill with so many assets and for so long.
The six-day exercise, which ends Monday, has filled the skies over the Bay of Bengal with 40 types of aircraft.
In the air operations center of the USS Kitty Hawk, traffic controllers choreograph landings of FA-18 fighter jets.
Controllers ask one of the incoming jets to quickly move out from and back into the formation to increase the critical spacing for landings one minute apart on the 300-meter long deck.
India is hosting the Malabar exercise nearly 350 kilometers southwest of the Andaman islands. The United States has sent two aircraft carriers, the Nimitz as well as the Kitty Hawk, and a fleet of missile cruisers and destroyers, a nuclear submarine and various aircraft.
Japan, Australia and Singapore have also dispatched ships.
The scale of the exercise has prompted protests by India's left, concerned by New Delhi's unprecedented cooperation with the United States. India has maintained a legacy of non-alignment since its independence 60 years ago from Britain.
Aboard India's only aircraft carrier, the Viraat, the commander-in-chief of India's Eastern Command, Vice Admiral R.P. Suthan, tells VOA News the exercises have more to do with preserving peaceful commerce and readiness for natural disasters than preparing for a future war.
"The maritime environment in the Indian Ocean is quite peaceful and tranquil. We're not preparing for any operations. We're preparing for cooperative engagement in cases of disaster relief, for activities by non-state actors, by terrorists. There are pirates operating in the area who are a de-stabilizing factor for the immense commercial activity that is taking place in the Indian Ocean," he said.
On the Kitty Hawk's flight deck during a brief news conference, the commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, Vice Admiral Doug Crowder repeatedly dismissed speculation that the massive exercise, involving 24 warships, is a war game with proxies for China or Iran as the opposing force. "There's no connection between this exercise and any other country. That's not part of the exercise," he said.
Military analysts note the Malabar exercise, in which 20,000 uniformed personnel are taking part, contains scenarios for air combat, interception of planes attacking from on shore and air defense of warships.
"Maneuvers of this size make it seem rather unlikely that it's just about piracy or proliferation or humanitarian issues," said Peter Brookes, who is at the Heritage Foundation in Washington and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.
The exercise comes at a time when some of the top military brass in the United States, Japan and India have expressed concern about China's recent war games, its rapid military buildup and lack of transparency about military spending.