China makes no bones about her ‘Malacca Dilemma’ and ensures aggressive presence in Indian Ocean Region (IOR). She has listening posts in Coco Islands, has made strategic investments in Kyaukpu port of Myanmar and has coaxed Thailand to re-examine the Kra Canal Project. China is also acutely aware of the strategic importance of India’s Andaman & Nicobar Islands (ANI) located bang in the centre of western opening of the Malacca Straits. Little wonder then that during a presentation on China’s claim to the South China Sea (SCS) at the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi on April 19, 2016, the officiating Chinese ambassador, in typical putrid style of most Chinese officials, stated, “Someone in future may dispute the ownership of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.” The wily Chinese are quite capable of producing an ancient unverifiable document some day to stake claims to the ANI. Significantly, in 2014, two Chinese vessels entered Andamans’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) under pretext of searching for the missing Malaysian airliner MH 370 even after India had denied permission to Beijing. They were intercepted and ordered to leave, but PLAN vessels continue to keep attempting to get close to ANI ever since.
China is going full steam in establishing and fortifying naval bases in the IOR and its nuclear submarines are periodically docking in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. As per reports of January 2018, she has developed a new underwater surveillance network to assist submarines get a stronger lock on targets, which includes deployment in the Indian Ocean. PLA Navy (PLAN) forays in the IOR are on the increase and Chinese marines are already stationed at Gwadar and Djibouti. PLAN has deployed SRBMs, underwater drones and has successfully mounted electromagnetic rail-gun on warships. From her naval bases in Djibouti and SCS, China has also been firing lasers at US pilots. In comparison, India’s fortification of the ANI is very slow despite the Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC) having been established in 2001 in accordance recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) and the follow up Group of Ministers (GoM) reports, which devoid of adequate muscle, continues to look over its shoulder at mainland India.
The ANI stretches 467 km from its northern tip to the southern tip covering some 572 islands. ANI is also proximate to the Straits of Sunda, Lumbok and Ombai Wetar Straits (Indonesia). Malacca Straits are strategically most important due to shorter sea journey and because Sunda Straits, though wider than Malacca, are shallower along the eastern end with sandbanks, strong tidal flow and offshore oil platforms off Java making navigation difficult. As for Lombok, it has least width of about 20 Km but depth of 250 m suitable for big ships, even though the travel time is longer. India’s hesitation in optimizing the defence potential of ANI is perhaps a combination of lack of strategic sense and the fear of annoying the dragon – an euphuism but with which successive Indian governments have been afflicted.
China has already commenced building its third aircraft carrier (displacement of about 80,000 tons) and plans to have four carrier battle groups (CBGs) in service by 2030. Some reports also suggest that China’s fourth aircraft carrier will be nuclear with displacement of 110,000 tons, making 30 knots and accommodating over 70 next generation fighter aircraft and drones – matching super-carriers of the US. ANI is God’s gift to India of a natural aircraft carrier, hundreds of times bigger than INS ‘Vishal’ which is still in planning stage that maybe operationalised in 10-15 years after placement of order; 2025-2030 or beyond. Night flights to Port Blair began only in 2015. In April 2016, a guided-missile corvette, INS ‘Karmuk’, was stationed at ANI.
After years of wrangling, construction of a new missile test facility on Rutland Island was approved by the government in mid 2017. Located 20 km south of Port Blair, Rutland Island falls in the South Andaman administrative district. Presently, long-range missile tests are conducted off the Odisha coast and are tracked by naval vessels on a trajectory into the Bay of Bengal. Most of the long-range tests for missiles like Agni IV and V have to be tracked over sea, with specialized vessels noting the ‘hit zone’ into the water. The missile test facility on Rutland Island will assist in confirming accuracy of the long-range missile hits. In June 2018, government took a decision to permanently station fighter jets in the ANI, something that should have happened years back. News reports said deployment of frontline fighter jets is under consideration for deployment at two bases in ANI – one each at Car Nicobar and at Campbell Bay. IAF already has a base at Car Nicobar but ANI has only one Mi-17V5 unit and two Dornier aircraft permanently stationed.
In October 2018, MHA relaxed the entry norms for foreign tourists visiting ANI, doing away with the rule mandating foreigners visiting the islands to register themselves with the Foreigners Registration Officer within 24 hours of arrival. But the organization and facilities in ANI for tourism are a very far cry from what a country like Maldives offers. On December 30, 2018, Prime Minister visiting ANI announced a Rs 7,000 cr package for development of fisheries in Car Nicobar. However as mentioned, development of tourism in ANI needs much more attention. Now news reports of January 6, 2019 reveal that ANI is getting a new airbase in the Indian Naval Air Station, INS ‘Kohasa’ near Diglipur (largest town of North Andaman Island with population of 7,44,202 (2001 census) located 298 km north of Port Blair). The facility was earlier known as INS ‘Shivpur’ and has been renamed as INS ‘Kohasa’ after the extension of facilities at the base. This new facility is slated to be inaugurated by the C-in-C ANC on January 24.
The infrastructure development package (2015-2025) approved for ANI costing $1.5 billion includes plans to double the number of naval patrol craft to 32 and army personnel to 6,000 but how mach has it progressed is not known. There are plans to expand the 3,500 metre runway of the Campbell Bay military base on the southernmost island of Great Nicobar to 6000 metre. The ANC importantly also provides security cover to India’s 5.95 lakh sq km exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the region. Significantly, India has no maritime boundary disputes with any county of Southeast Asia. Taking cue from China’s militarization of the SCS and feverish activities in the IOR, we should have taken steps to optimize the strategic advantage of ANI much before.
While Chinese marines are already deployed in the IOR, our Navy’s case for a Marine Brigade is stagnating in MoD past two decades. The ‘Naval Infantry’ of the Chola Empire could well be classified as the Marine Corps of that period. Historical records actually mention of Chola Navy having a core of Marines including trained saboteurs who were trained pearl-fishermen employed for diving and disabling enemy vessels by destroying / damaging the rudder. The Imperial navy of medieval Cholas was composed of a multitude of forces in its command. In addition to the regular navy, there were many auxiliary forces that could be used in naval combat. Chola Navy had the capacity to establish beachheads and or reinforce the Army when required. Expeditionary voyages of the Chola Navy were accompanied with other naval arms of ancient India. Chola Navy played a vital role in the conquest of then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Bengal and present day Indonesia. The array of Hindu temples built in South East Asia stand witness to exploits of the Chola Navy. Indian Naval Marines would also relieve some of the pressure on the Army’s Infantry facing problems of turnover especially in counter insurgency areas, particularly by infantry regiments responsible for contributing manpower to Rashtriya Rifles units.
We need to go full hog to not only beef up the defence potential of ANI but operationalise it as a ‘springboard’ for operations to nullify threat to our national interests. If the political will is there, finding the finances should not be any problem. There is plenty in India but for endemic corruption, even as gigantic corruption in Public Sector Banks is getting exposed. Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) with market capitalization of Rs 14,76,55,830 continue crass under-performance, guzzling public money year after year. If these PSUs can give a return of 30-50% which should be in the realm of possibility, how fast and where will India move up? This is just one example where large amounts of money can be tapped. The ANI needs to transformed into a major international transshipment hub with the ANC having adequate muscle; replete with adequate number of frontline fighters and surveillance aircraft, ships, nuclear submarines, amphibious aircraft, marines, underwater defences and the like.