The US Navy Secretary (SECNAV), Kenneth Braithwaite, in a recent speech called for the establishment of a numbered fleet in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The SECNAV mentioned that the proposed 1st Fleet would be moved, “…across the Pacific until it is where our allies and partners see that it could best assist them as well as to assist us.”
Based on the SECNAV’s speech, some analysts have reportedly conjectured that this fleet could be based in western Australia, as opposed to Singapore. While New Delhi has not yet officially responded to the SECNAV’s call, this commentary will explain why a US numbered fleet based in Singapore under certain operational conditions, rather than western Australia, will help improve the current India-US posture in the Indo-Pacific Region (IPR).
US Presence in the IPR
The US Navy’s (USN) operational presence in the IPR is maintained by the 5th Fleet under US Central Command (CENTCOM), the 6th Fleet under US Africa Command (AFRICOM), and the 7th Fleet under US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM).
The 5th Fleet, based out of Bahrain, is tasked with strike, contingency, and expeditionary operations in the North Arabian Sea with a focus on the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. The 6th Fleet, or US Naval Forces Europe-Africa (NAVEUR-NAVAF), based out of Naples, Italy, is tasked with a similar host of operations. The 6th Fleet operates in a remarkably large arena, from the Arctic Ocean to the coast of Antarctica, with a current focus on North Africa, the Mediterranean and European waters.
In the IPR however, it is the 7th Fleet that is the US’ primary agent in deterring threats to itself, and its regional allies and partners. The 7th Fleet operates from the international date line to the India-Pakistan border. While the 6th Fleet oversees an area of 36 million sq.km, the 7th Fleet’s area of responsibility spans over 124 million sq.km.
As a result, the 7th Fleet based out of Yokosuka, Japan – the US’ largest “mixed” forward deployed fleet – maintains the highest operational tempo amongst USN vessels. Given the large area, and when deemed necessary, the 7th Fleet will be reinforced by additional carrier strike groups, like it did earlier this year; following the Galwan Valley clash in June, INDOPACOM deployed three carrier strike groups in the Pacific Ocean. In times of crisis, or medium-intensity conflict, the contingency is to integrate Arabian Sea forces with Pacific ones to build a larger fighting force.
The Focus of the IPR
India’s and the US’ current IPR posture is determined by shared and immediate interests in countering Chinese aggression in the South China Sea (SCS) and Southeast Asia, and building collective regional security measures in the region.
Beijing’s ‘nine-dash’ line claim on the SCS, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the ongoing militarisation of the water body, continues to threaten the territorial and economic sovereignty of Southeast Asian actors, and the US’ and India’s security umbrellas; essentially eroding the IPR’s inherent multilateralism and regional security.
New Delhi’s investment in strengthening multilateralism in the IPR is due to its constant confrontations with an aggressive China. The continued stand-off along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), is testament to this. And, as a strategic signalling measure after the Galwan Valley clash, New Delhi organised a number of joint naval exercises with its strategic partners in the IOR and has signed a number of logistics and exchanges agreements with the same.
Among these exercises, the 2020 Malabar Exercise was significant as it saw the participation of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group in the Arabian-Sea phase, reiterating the USN’ operational gap in maintaining a significant deterrence in the IPR.
A 1st Fleet: Singapore versus Australia
The establishment of a 1st Fleet in the IOR is the natural conclusion to this problem. Having said that, the fleet’s location and operational limits have to work to maintain, if not improve this current posture. As a critical IPR partner, India’s maritime security priorities and New Delhi’s geopolitical interests have to be considered before such a move.
A 1st Fleet Singapore (1FS) will see US effort in the region focused on countering Chinese aggression in the South China Sea (SCS), against Taiwan and Japan. This falls squarely within the current India-US posture in the IPR.
A 1st Fleet Australia (1FA), on the other hand, radically changes the current India-US IPR posture, by raising Washington’s presence within New Delhi’s primary interest area, and potentially into a region where their interests diverge – the western Indian Ocean Region (WIOR).
In the “theatre swapping” framework adopted by New Delhi vis-a-vis the Line of Actual Control (LAC), a permanent 1FS, limited to Small Scale Contingencies (SSC) and Operations Other Than War (OOTW), will significantly enhance India’s strategic advantages in the Bay of Bengal and across the Indo-Pacific straits. In the long run, engagement with 1FS will also aid in raising the Indian Navy’s (IN) presence in the SCS and western Pacific. An ambition displayed in response to the Galwan Valley clash, when an IN warship was deployed to the SCS, coincidentally during a US naval exercise in the area.
A 1FA will effectively increase the US’ operational presence towards what it has considered “India’s backyard”, based out of a region it has been generally absent from, and away from the IPR’s current geopolitical locus, the SCS.
The probable area of responsibility of a 1FA will extend at least 5000 km into the southeastern Indian Ocean (SEIO), increasing US military presence within India’s primary maritime security interest area.
The size of the IOR, 73 million sq.km, also raises doubts as to the nature of the fleet. A 1FA solely operating under SSC and OOTW conditions will not be an effective deterrent to threats in the region. The 1FA will have to be a full-fledged fighting force to effectively oversee the entire IOR. A medium-to-high intensity fighting force in the central and western IOR will significantly alter the current India-US posture in the IPR.
And, as this potential 1FA experiences the various stages of forward deployment, it would be fair to say that US presence will expand westward, towards the East African coast, eventually challenging India’s maritime security priorities, and New Delhi’s interests in WIOR.
Even though New Delhi has welcomed Washington’s increased political presence in the WIOR – for example, India backed the recent US-Maldives defence framework – US priorities in key geopolitical arenas, like West Asia and the North Arabian Sea, and with regard to Iran and Pakistan, diverge considerably from India’s own. These considerations have not yet been discussed within the India-US IPR partnership to know exactly what the political impact of a 1FA could be.
This isn’t to say that, as the US-China strategic competition deepens, and more like-minded partners such as Germany, France and now the UK, begin to actively participate in preserving a “free, fair, open and rules-based” order, these crucial divergences won’t eventually iron out.The recently held India-France-Australia trilateral, is an example of how theme-based, multilateral arrangements could not only include traditional and non-traditional IPR partners, but also in the medium term, help lay the foundations for further multilateral cooperation.
In this assessment however, it is a 1FS in a “contingency forward” format, and not a 1FA that best suits the current India-US geostrategic posture. With a focus on humanitarian aid/disaster relief (HA/DR), air-defence, logistics and sea-lift, marine, and sea-denial operations, a 1FS will better suit New Delhi’s interests in the IPR, and India’s maritime security priorities in the IOR.