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Exercise Malabar: Local Indian-Australian connections

Held across Australia’s east-coast in August, the 27th iteration of this military exercise allowed Indian-Australian defence personnel to showcase their unique cross-cultural understanding.

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Concluding last week, Exercise Malabar saw the Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Brisbane, HMAS Choules and an Australian submarine joined by Indian Navy Ships Kolkata and Sahyadri for 11 days of military training.   

Amongst the 2000 personnel gathered in Sydney were many Indian-Australian migrants serving in the Australian Defence Force, who were proud to combine their Indian and Australian heritage whilst working on the event.  

Born in Ludhiana, Punjab, Flight Lieutenant Inderbir Singh moved with his family to Adelaide at the age of 12. His friend, Flight Lieutenant Darpan Dhawan, was born in Delhi, moving to Adelaide aged 10.  

The two attended school together, both joining the Royal Australian Air Force in 2014 whilst studying engineering at university. They were even together at RAAF Base Edinburgh in South Australia followed by RAAF Base Amberley in Queensland, albeit at different Wings. 

Flight Lieutenants Singh and Dhawan now work as Country Liaison Officers (CLO) during engagements such as these, facilitating cultural understanding and effective collaboration between the Australian Defence Force and the Indian Armed Forces. 

four defence personel stand in front of an indian aircraft
RAAF Country Liaison Officers, Flight Lieutenants Inderbir Singh and Darpan Dhawan chat with Indian Navy Naval Air Operations Officer INAS 312, Lieutenant Sanjana Kamat and Qualified Navigation Instructor INAS 316 Lieutenant Commander Lokesh Kumar. (Source: Supplied)

“A CLO plays a vital role in a joint military exercise that is much more than just language interpretation,” Flight Lieutenant Inderbir Singh said.  

“We help build bilateral relationships to contribute to the overall success of joint exercises and lead to greater regional stability, security, and long-term cooperation.” 

Exercise Malabar ran during the 76th anniversary of Indian Independence, and Singh was delighted to be part of cross-cultural celebrations.   

“At the opening of Exercise Malabar’s air component, Australia shared a traditional Aboriginal Welcome to Country ceremony followed by a special cake and gifts to celebrate India’s 76 years of Independence,” Flight Lieutenant Singh said. 

The exercise also provided a vital opportunity for personnel from the Indian Army to visit Australia and exchange ideas with their Australian counterparts. 

Lieutenant Commander Lokesh Kumar joined the Indian Navy in 2013 to honour his family’s three-generation legacy of serving in the Armed Forces. Based at INS Hansa naval aviation base in the southwest city of Goa, Exercise Malabar was Lieutenant Commander Kumar’s first ever visit to Australia. 

Sailors from Indian Navy Ship Kolkata observe a mob of kangaroos at HMAS Creswell during a sports day as part of Exercise Malabar 2023. (Source: Supplied)

“I chose to join the Navy for its crucial role in shaping our nation’s geopolitical landscape,” Lieutenant Commander Kumar said.  

“Participating in multilateral exercises like Malabar allows us to learn from partner countries, exchange tactical knowledge, and refine operational capabilities. They provide an important opportunity for cross-cultural interactions in diverse settings, improve global awareness, broaden perspectives and build camaraderie.” 

Now in its 27th iteration, Exercise Malabar is a key military interoperability exchange between India, Australia, Japan and the United States.  

Alongside maritime training activities on land, sea and air, personnel from the participating nations took part in numerous cultural and sporting activities, to build professional and personal capabilities.

Last Tuesday, an Indian Chetak helicopter ‘Angel’ landed on the deck of HMAS Choules, delivering baked goods and a personalised card to the ship’s commanding officer. 

A helicopter lands on a ship in the middle of the sea, guided by defence personel.
Indian Chetak helicopter ‘Angel’ lands on the deck of HMAS Choules, delivering sweet treats and a personalised card to the ship’s commanding officer. (Source: Supplied)

INS Kolkata Commanding Officer Captain Sharad Sinsunwal says the exercise has successfully deepened relations between the two nations. 

“Exercise Malabar has surpassed previous iterations in complexity of exercises and flexibility to change. Australia has outdone itself in organising a fun-filled, yet professional harbour phase, followed by a thoroughly engaging sea phase,” he said. 

Read also: Quad nations’ Malabar naval exercise begins in Sydney 

Lakshmi Ganapathy
Lakshmi Ganapathy
Lakshmi Ganapathy is an emerging journalist and theatre-maker based in Melbourne.

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