USS Nimitz, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier of the US Navy, is to visit Chennai from July 1 to 5. Its visit coincides with the celebration of American Independence Day on July 4. It also coincides with the visit of two ships of the Indian Navy to US ports. INS Tarangini and the newly acquired amphibious vessel INS Jalashwa will be in Boston and Norfolk around the same time.
The announced visit has been viewed with satisfaction by US military circles. They see it as one more landmark in the developing bilateral strategic partnership between India and the US.
They interpret it as a welcome indicator that India has forgotten painful memories of the unsuccessful attempt of the then president Richard Nixon to intimidate Indira Gandhi, the then Indian prime minister, at the height of the 1971 war with Pakistan by sending the US aircraft-carrier USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal on the advice of Henry Kissinger, his secretary of state.
Unwarranted concerns have been raised by critics of the visit over the dangers of nuclear radiation affecting the health of the population of Chennai. There is hardly any such danger. The aircraft carrier is almost a mini city and the Americans take all necessary and possible precautions to prevent dangers from radiation to their own personnel. Their assurances that there would be no such danger to the Indian population should be accepted.
However, there ought to be some concerns over the impact of the visit on the feelings of the Muslim community all over the world, including India, due to the active role played by US aircraft-carriers, including USS Nimitz, in counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Of equal concern should be its impact on the jihadi terrorism, which we have been facing in India since 1989.
Aircraft-carriers were meant for use against an adversary in a conventional war. Since 9/11, the Americans have been using their aircraft-carriers extensively in counter-terrorism operations -- initially in Afghanistan and subsequently in Iraq and Somalia.
It is admitted by independent analysts that the counter-terrorist operations as carried out by the US in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia have resulted in a large number of civilian casualties due to disproportionate use of carrier-based aircraft to bomb suspected terrorist hide-outs in these countries.
Due to the uncontrolled activities of the terrorists, the US has been avoiding basing its aircraft on land in these countries. Instead, it has been using carrier-based aircraft for the airstrikes in support of the ground-based counter-terrorism operations.
Even President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has repeatedly expressed his concern over the large number of civilian casualties by the US airstrikes. Most of these strikes were carried out by carrier-based aircraft.
Previously, USS Eisenhower, another aircraft-carrier, was based in the Persian Gulf area to participate in the counter-terrorism operations. USS Nimitz sailed from North Island in San Diego on April 2, 2007, for a six-month deployment in the Arabian Sea, relieving the USS Eisenhower.
After reaching the Gulf area, the Public Affairs spokesperson of USS Nimitz issued the following statement on May 8: 'The USS Nimitz (CVN 68) Carrier Strike Group entered the US 5th Fleet area of operations today to conduct Maritime Security Operations in regional waters, and provide air support to ground forces operating in Afghanistan and Iraq.
'The Nimitz CSG relieved the USS Dwight D Eisenhower CSG. Their arrival continues the current two-carrier presence in the AOO, demonstrating the United States' resolve to enhance security and support long-term stability in the region.
'Commanded by Rear Adm Terry Blake, Commander, Carrier Strike Group 11, Nimitz CSG includes the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz with its embarked air wing, Carrier Air Wing 11, and embarked Destroyer Squadron 23; guided-missile cruiser USS Princeton; guided-missile destroyers USS John Paul Jones, USS Higgins, USS Chafee, and USS Pinckney; Helicopter Anti-submarine Squadron Light 49 Scorpions, HSL-37 Easy Riders, and Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit 11, Detachment 15.
'The squadrons of the CVW-11 include Strike Fighter Squadron 14 Tophatters, VFA 41 Black Aces, VFA 81 Sunliners, Airborne Early Warning Squadron 117 Wallbangers, Electronic Warfare Squadron 135 Black Ravens, Carrier Logistics Support Squadron 30 Providers, and Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 6 Indians. MSO help set the conditions for security and stability in the maritime environment, as well as complement the counter-terrorism and security efforts of regional nations.
'These operations deny international terrorists the use of the maritime environment as a venue for attack or to transport personnel, weapons or other materials. US 5th Fleet, headquartered in Manama, Bahrain, is responsible for an area encompassing approximately 2.5 million square miles of water including the Arabian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman and parts of the Indian Ocean.'
Another statement issued on May 11 said: 'The USS Nimitz (CVN 68) and embarked Carrier Air Wing 11 began conducting missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom May 11.
'CVW-11 will provide close airpower support and reconnaissance to International Security Assistance Force troops on the ground in Afghanistan. ISAF comprises more than 35,000 troops, with contributions from 37 nations. Carrier-based aircraft provide close airpower support and deliver ordnance on enemy positions designated by ground forces.
'While in the US 5th Fleet AOO, the ships of the Nimitz CSG will also conduct Maritime Security Operations.'
A third statement on June 5 said: 'USS Nimitz and embarked Carrier Air Wing 11 began conducting missions in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom June 3 following the ship's first port visit in the Middle East.
'CVW-11 aircraft will provide close air-power support, shows of force, armed and tactical reconnaissance and electronic warfare missions for ground forces operating in Iraq. We are supporting 150,000 troops on the ground,' said Capt David B Woods, commander, Carrier Air Wing 11.
'We use armed reconnaissance to give troops on the ground an eye in the sky. The Nimitz Carrier Strike Group entered the Arabian Gulf May 23 along with the John C Stennis CSG and the USS Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group. Upon arrival in the Gulf, the Nimitz CSG participated in Expeditionary Strike Force training with the other carrier and expeditionary strike groups before making its first Middle East port visit May 28, June 2.
'The ESF training was designed to demonstrate the importance of the strike group's ability to plan and to conduct multiple task-force operations as part of the United States long-standing commitment to maintaining security and stability in the region.'
There have been no further statements on its operations in the area. Since its tour of duty in support of counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan and Iraq ends only in October, it is expected that after its visit to Chennai it will return to the Gulf.
It is estimated that about 20 per cent of the personnel on board USS Nimitz are from the US National Security Agency, which is responsible for the collection of technical intelligence.
They perform two roles -- collection of intelligence from all land-based communication set-ups and electronic neutralisation of remote-controlled explosive devices planted by the terrorists.
For the neutralisation, they use specially equipped aircraft called Prowlers. However, USS Nimitz has so far been of little use against suicide terrorists.
In view of the active role played by US aircraft-carriers in the counter-terrorism operations against Al Qaeda and pro-Al Qaeda groups since 9/11, they are top on the hit list of the al Qaeda.
Since the al Qaeda attacked US naval ship USS Cole off Aden in October 2000, it has not been able to carry out another successful strike against a US naval vessel, but it has been trying to do so.
Some members of the pro-al Qaeda Jemmah Islamiyah arrested by the Singapore authorities in 2002 were reportedly planning to attack a US naval ship during its visit to Singapore.
In order to avoid another USS Cole type attack in which a terrorist dashed a boat filled with explosives against the ship in the harbour, US aircraft-carriers no longer berth in the port of the visiting city.
Instead, they lie anchored a safe distance away and move their personnel and foreign guests visiting the ship by helicopters. When USS Nimitz visited Karachi two years ago, it was anchored nearly 100 km from the port and visiting Pakistani dignitaries were ferried by helicopters.
The visit of USS Nimitz to Chennai has two security implications which need to be guarded against -- the possibility of jihadi terrorist strikes on either the US personnel coming on shore or on Indian personalities visiting the ship, and possibility of aggravated jihadi terrorism against Indian targets after the visit is over.
The visit comes a few days before the first anniversary of the terrorist strikes in suburban trains of Mumbai on July 11 when 184 civilians were killed.
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi)