The IAF commenced operations at Car Nicobar in 1956 with the establishment of a Staging Post essentially for refuelling of aircraft flying logistics support missions from the mainland across the Bay of Bengal. Such missions continue on a regular basis even today to support not only the IAF establishment but those of the Indian Navy, the Indian Army, the Indian Coast Guard as also other establishments of the central government. The IAF extended the runway at Car Nicobar to nearly 9,000 feet in 1967. The first helicopter of the IAF, a Mi-8, was inducted at Car Nicobar in 1982 and was built up to a Flight strength by April 01, 1985. This was followed by a few Dornier twin engine light transport aircraft essentially for communication duties such as inter-island courier flights.
The IAF commenced operations at Car Nicobar in 1956 with the establishment of a Staging Post essentially for refuelling of aircraft…
The IAF inducted an Air Defence unit as well. With the increase in the level of forces deployed, the air base was upgraded to a Forward Base Support Unit (FBSU) on August 23, 1986. The FBSU was subsequently replaced by No 37 Wing that was established on September 15, 1993. Tragically, in the tsunami that hit the island in December 2004, the Air Force Station at Car Nicobar was devastated with extensive damage to infrastructure and heavy loss of life. It took the IAF a little over three months to restore its operational status. Unfortunately, on account of this natural disaster, the IAF placed its plans to deploy combat aircraft on the island on hold.
The evolution of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as a base with strategic capability went through a paradigm shift in 2001 with the establishment of the first tri-service theatre command. Designated as the Andaman and Nicobar Command, its headquarters was located at Port Blair. This integrated Command was created to eventually build up a credible force as well as the capability to deploy these forces rapidly to safeguard India’s strategic interests in South East Asia with particular focus on the Strait of Malacca. The Andaman and Nicobar Command has under it 15 ships of the Indian Navy, two Naval sea bases, one IAF airbase, three Naval Air Stations and a Brigade of the Indian Army. What was and continues to be conspicuous by its absence is its combat air arm. This is perhaps because the IAF, the recently finalised order for 36 Rafale combat jets notwithstanding, is currently afflicted with serious erosion in the strength of its fleet of fighter aircraft. Given the volatile situation along the Western and Northern borders of the country and faced with the prospects of further reduction in the size of fleet of combat aircraft, the IAF is unlikely to be in a position at least another five to seven years to spare frontline fighters for deployment in the Andaman and Nicobar Island. However, the Su-30s of the IAF have been occasionally operating from the IAF base Car Nicobar while participating in joint air exercises.
Combat Air Power on the Archipelago
The Andaman and Nicobar Command is the nation’s first and currently the only theatre command with three-star Commanders-in-Chief from the Army, Navy and Air Force taking over in turn and reporting directly to the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. Although it has been in existence for a decade and a half, there has not been any significant progress so far in the development of both military capability and the required infrastructure to undertake tasks towards the fulfillment of strategic objectives. The Andaman and Nicobar Command is expected to be the cornerstone of India’s military strategy as well as a platform for the projection of military power in the Asia-Pacific region. What is most conspicuous by its absence is aerial combat power by way of long range fighter aircraft of the IAF such as the Su-30 MKI. Development of substantial military capability under the Andaman and Nicobar Command will also provide strategic content to India’s Look East Policy.
The Andaman and Nicobar Command is the nation’s first and currently the only theatre command with three-star Commanders-in-Chief from the Army, Navy and Air Force taking over in turn…
In view of the fact that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are regarded by some analysts as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier”, it will only be appropriate that the Air Wing of the Indian Navy and the IAF join hands to develop the required infrastructure to accommodate, operate and maintain the assets that will literally provide wings to the military capability of the nation in the Asia-Pacific region. Currently, between the IAF and the Indian Navy, there are only four airfields that are operational. These are as under:
Naval Air Station Shibpur. Established in 2001 as a Forward Operating Air Base (FOAB) for enhanced surveillance in North Andaman, in 2009, the Government of India accorded sanction to develop Shibpur as a full-fledged airbase for round-the-clock operation with a 12,000-foot long runway.
Port Blair. A Naval Airbase (INS Utkrosh), the airfield has a runway that is 10,794 feet long which is long enough to operate combat aircraft. The airfield has a civil enclave as well for regular operation of domestic civil flights connecting with the mainland.
Car Nicobar. Operated by the IAF, the 8,914-foot runway is long enough to handle combat aircraft. However, the airfield needs to develop the infrastructure and facilities required for regular and high intensity operation of at least three squadrons of the latest generation combat aircraft.
Campbell Bay. This the Southernmost Naval Air Station in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands that houses the Naval Air Station known as INS Baaz. The 3,000-foot long runway is to be extended to 6,000 feet by the end of the year and then to 10,000 feet. Currently, the airfield does not have a facility to either maintain or refuel aircraft. However, the Indian Navy plans to upgrade the air base to enable operation by heavier military aircraft such as the C-130J and the C-17 Globemaster III of the IAF. As this base will be the closest to the Strait of Malacca, it has the potential to play a major role in monitoring and securing of maritime traffic passing through it. INS Baaz will be a highly suitable airbase to house high performance combat aircraft.
While the Tri-Service Andaman and Nicobar Command is currently weighted heavily in favour of Naval forces, there is a need to beef up both the Indian Army and the IAF components…
The Way Forward
While the Tri-Service Andaman and Nicobar Command is currently weighted heavily in favour of Naval forces and rightly so as, there is certainly a need to beef up both the Indian Army and the IAF components, especially, the offensive capability of the latter. This has acquired a degree of urgency in view of the increasing activities by China not only in the South China Sea but also in the Indian Ocean Region. Reports in the past have suggested that the PLA Navy has been operating close to the Coco Islands off the West coast of Myanmar.
Currently, the Su-30 squadron based at Air Force Station, Kalaikunda in West Bengal has been assigned the responsibility of providing combat air support required by the Andaman and Nicobar Command. This arrangement is neither practical nor expedient from the point of view of the need from swift response and other operational imperatives such as the need to ensure air superiority in the region. It also militates against the concept of the Andaman and Nicobar Island being an unsinkable aircraft carrier.
There is clearly a need to create the necessary infrastructure for operations as also for first and second line maintenance as well as develop the airfield at Air Force Station Car Nicobar into a full-fledged fighter base that can house at least two to three Su-30 MKI squadrons. It would also be necessary to nominate and suitably upgrade one or two other airfields on the Andaman and Nicobar islands for fighter aircraft to divert and land there in the event of an emergency or blockage of the primary runway. What will however remain a lurking anxiety is the possibility of another devastating tsunami. I suppose the IAF must take the risk in the interest of national security.