By Commodore R. S. Vasan
The announcement by the Indian Navy that a new Naval Air Station (NAS) Baaz would be commissioned by end of this month in the southern most part of the country in Andaman and Nicobar Island groups is a long overdue initiative. This event is slated to happen before the incumbent Chief of Naval Staff Admiral N Verma retires in August 2012. The commissioning of this Naval Air Station in Bay of Bengal when seen along with the commissioning of INS Dweeprakshak on 30th April 2012 in the Arabian Sea, has great significance from the point of view of protecting India’s maritime strategic interests and Indian Ocean security.
Naval Air Station Baaz would provide the Indian Navy and the Tri Services Command a capability to launch air effort and monitor the strategically important and sensitive Malacca straits. The present capability of the air station with a runway length of just over 3000 feet (the plans are to extend this to 6000ft) would provide options that did not exist earlier. The Air Force has a full-fledged base in Car Nicobar and routinely carries out exercises along with the other two services. The maritime Jaguars, logistic support aircraft, Migs and helicopter have all dotted the skies around India’s eastern maritime flanks undertaking amphibious operations and other naval tasks.
The Navy and the Coast Guard operate from Port Blair and other out posts in the far flung Islands (on a north south axis) that serve as forward posts to monitor the eastern maritime boundaries of India. The importance of a sound Command, Control, Communications, Computer, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) architecture can hardly be overemphasized. As one of the major arteries of the world and choke points, the mouth of Malacca Straits is just a stone’s throw away from NAS Baaz. So the Tri Services command located at Port Blair will have another full fledged base from which to mount critical surveillance missions to monitor the exit and entry of both merchant and war ships to the Malacca Straits. This stretch of waters carries over a quarter of the world’s trade notably to China Japan and other countries in the east and south east. China is heavily dependent on the Malacca Straits for its EXIM trade. China imports around 80 percent of its energy products from around the world and a major portion of this need is met by energy products that pass through Straits of Hormuz and Gulf of Aden on the west of India and the Malacca Straits on the East of India.
China has deployed its warships off Somalia to protect its shipping from piracy attacks since end of 2008. Unlike India which carries a lot of its trade in foreign bottoms, China carries a major portion of its trade in Chinese flagged ships. This does bring in a factor of vulnerability of its ships not only to piracy attacks but also to increased surveillance and monitoring by countries including India. The commissioning of NAS Baaz therefore is a logical step to protect our flanks and also obtain a strategic leverage vis-à-vis China by using the geographic advantage in the Indian Ocean Region .
It needs to be noted that there was limited air operating capability in Campell Bay even before the commissioning of NAS Baaz which is planned by the end of this month. However, the full fledged facility and the sanctioned man power and dedicated infrastructure to operate a naval air base would provide greater flexibility to both naval and air force aircraft. The versatile C130 J may have already carried out trial landings and this is another factor that would provide timely logistic support in normal conditions and a quick deployment/evacuation capability in the case of a Tsunami. According to an official report by the PRO Defence, the C130 J did fly an un-fuelled sortie of 12 hours from the mainland to Campell Bay to simulate the drop of para Special Forces at Campell Bay in December last year. This successful sortie demonstrates that with an in flight refueling by the IAF tankers, the C 130 J would provide phenomenal capacity at extended reaches to complement missions in the Islands.
The proximity to Indonesia and the Islands that are prone to severe earthquake heighten the dangers to infrastructure and personnel who are located in the event of another Tsunami. The Service Headquarters and the Tri Services command would have factored Tsunami related issues during the planning processes. Readers would recollect the damage inflicted on service personnel and families during the Tsunami of 2004 where in many air force personnel located in Car Nicobar were killed. The impending induction of the Poseidon aircraft by the Indian Navy which are expected to be based in INS Rajali in Arakkonam would become another effective means for long range surveillance in the Indian Ocean. Establishing of a military facility in a Tsunami risk prone area brings in its own challenges of catering to the worst case scenario. From that point of view, it is expected that the Tri Services command would have looked at all contingencies and already worked out the Standard Operating Procedures for ensuring the security and safety of operations in the Andaman Seas.
This news of augmentation of the facilities in Andaman and Nicobar group of Islands needs to be read with the report that INS Dweeprakshak which was commissioned on 30th April 2012 in Kavaratti, the main Island in the group of Lakshadweep and Minicoy group of Island in the Arabian Sea. Though INS stands for Indian Naval Ship, Dweeprakshak is a shore station and named according to the naval tradition of naming even shore stations as Indian Naval Ships. According to the Commander-in-Chief, Southern Naval Command, Vice Admiral Sushil Kumar, “Lakshadweep islands form the maritime frontiers of our country on the western side”. Though Kavaratti has been home to both naval and Coast Guard detachments for the last three decades plus, the commissioning of a naval base heralds a new era in maritime security preparedness and strengthens the existing structures.
This forward base enhances the reach of both surface and air units operating in tandem in the extended areas around the Islands. The western Arabian sea has witnessed the expanding sphere of acts of piracy moving closer to the eco sensitive Indian Islands. This has caused anxiety both from the point of view of security and environmental safety of the fragile Coral Island chains of India. The heavy shipping along the sea lines of communication close to the Islands and fishing activity in the Exclusive Economic Zone demands credible surveillance and monitoring mechanisms to be in place. This can only be undertaken by extending the reach of the air and surface units which can be supported by the commissioned base. This ability would also provide for preparation of better contingency plans by taking in to account the locational advantage of Kavaratti.
Another important aspect is the deployment of UAVs from these extreme posts. The Indian Navy has gained considerable experience in operating the UAVs and has optimized the role and missions to complement its surveillance effort. Another squadron of UAVs operating from the Lakshadweep Islands with support from INS Dweeprakshak would help optimize the surveillance tasks and provide a robust link to providing Maritime Domain Awareness. Likewise even while the runway is being extended to 6000 feet in NAS Baaz, the existing runway length is more than adequate for operation of the UAV which would help build data base of all the movements through the Malacca Straits.
In conclusion, it is evident that India is leveraging the location of its Islands on both flanks to add to its ability to maintain effective C4ISR architecture and response mechanisms to cater to developing situations on both flanks- a logical step indeed. In terms of maritime security post Mumbai terror attacks, these forward outposts particularly on the western front will enhance the ability to detect emerging threats and respond to these threats. It must also be noted that the dedicated communication satellite for the navy and the Remote sensing satellites would provide the means to keep the vast ocean areas under effective surveillance.
From the point of view of countering the overtures of China in the Indian Ocean, the geographical advantage enjoyed by India would ensure that Chinese units of all descriptions will come under critical scrutiny by surface, subsurface and air units in the Arabian Sea and in the Bay of Bengal while engaged in both peace time and hostile conditions. Even the deployment of the Chinese units from Gwadar, or Hambanthotta or one of the ports in Myanmar or Bangladesh as and when it happens would not escape the effective surveillance umbrella provided by Indian platforms operating in all the three entities both from the main land and the Island territories.
(The author is presently the Head, Strategy and Security Studies at the Center for Asia Studies at Chennai and can be contacted at [email protected])