India's strategic space lies at sea

Last Updated: Mon, Oct 01, 2012 22:19 hrs

Unlike Pakistan that claims its "strategic depth" lies in Afghanistan, whatever this might mean, India has no need to seek sanctuary in another country. Its security strategies and military capabilities are designed to ensure that its territorial integrity remains untouched without recourse to such gimmickry.

On the other hand, what India has is access to open seas, to the east, to the west and to the south. This strategic space, conferred on it by geography, is supplemented by two island territories, the Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) Islands in the Bay of Bengal lying some 750 miles to the east and the Lakshwadeep group, lying about 200 miles westward, in the Arabian Sea. The role played by these two outlying territories in safeguarding the country's security interests should not be underestimated.

The A&N group, Andamans in the north and Nicobars in the south, comprises about 540 islands, big and small, stretched north to south over 500 miles. At the northern extremity, Coco Islands of Myanmar lie just about 20 miles away, while at the southern tip, the Indonesian coast is a mere 90 miles off. Less than 40 islands are inhabited; four tribal groups in very small numbers live in some of them.

The A&N Islands have some of the most luxurious and abundant rain forests in the world, possibly second only to the Amazon region. Also present are very rare species of fauna, especially in the southernmost Great Nicobar Island (GNI), the better known ones being salt water crocodiles and the Hornbill birds. Hundreds of Leatherback turtles cross oceans every year to nest on the beaches of GNI.

The largest habitation is in the capital, Port Blair; other pockets are spread across about a dozen townships half of them in the Andamans and the rest in the Nicobars; Campbell Bay in the GNI is the southernmost of them. As can be expected, surveillance over this large space is not easy and there are frequent seizures of fishermen, mainly from Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia, poaching for fish and other sea and land resources. Sometimes, activities are more sinister.

In 1997, a hundred odd rebels from the Myanmar mainland were apprehended on one of the uninhabited islands. Vessels carrying arms for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eellam, or LTTE, terrorists travelled to the east coast of Sri Lanka from the Thai coast passing through the A&N Islands; some were apprehended and neutralised but many must have transited undetected. Some 90,000 ships, many of them oil and gas tankers, pass through the narrow east-west channel south of the GNI every year to and from the South China Sea and beyond, transiting through the Malacca Strait.

Recognising the exposed location of these islands as also the pivotal position that they occupy, India's defence strategy has required a reasonable military presence. The two major airfields at Port Blair and Car Nicobar, managed by the navy and air force respectively, can operate every kind of aircraft in our inventory, including those under acquisition.

There are two shorter air strips at Diglipur and Campbell Bay from which smaller Dornier-type planes can operate but larger aircraft should also be able to use them if the situation so dictates. The first is managed by the Coast Guard, while the complex in the south is run by the navy. It is this facility that has recently been commissioned as a full-fledged naval base. These assets, along with those on the mainland, enable us to keep the entire Bay of Bengal under surveillance, if needed. Additionally, the A&N group is blessed with four well-protected and deep water harbours at Port Cornwallis, Port Blair, Nancowry and Campbell Bay, running north to south where a fairly large number of ships can anchor. The army maintains a brigade headquartered at Port Blair and the air force runs a station at Car Nicobar.

All three services and the Coast Guard function under unified command. In the west, the Lakshwadeep group, of which Kavaratty, Agatti and Minicoy are the main islands, is much smaller and with limited carrying capacity. There is a Dornier-capable airstrip at Kavaratty. Despite their limitations, these islands also enhance our capability and act as forward sentinels.

The facilities available in the two island groups enable us to station appropriate forces that can not only safeguard the security of these territories but also assist littoral countries in disasters – Tsunami 2004 being one example – rescue operations at sea and ensuring safety of shipping across the important Indian Ocean sea routes. Supplemented by a chain of major air stations in the south – Arkonam, Chennai, Thanjavur, Coimbatore, Madurai, Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi – which can operate the largest aircraft, they give India a potential Indian Ocean capability that hardly any country can match.

The term "potential" is used advisedly because it is necessary to match the facilities with required assets, especially at sea and in the air. Even as the decision to formally commission the existing operating facility at Campbell Bay as a naval establishment is to be welcomed, it is essential to lengthen the runway that has been stymied so far on environmental grounds. The topography of GNI is such that the flora and fauna and, indeed, the less than hundred Shompen tribals who reside in the western part of that island, can easily be safeguarded. Given its very strategic location, Campbell Bay needs to become a more effective naval facility than it currently is.

It is becoming increasingly clear that in the emerging global security environment, which is focused on the Asia-Pacific, concerns at sea will predominate. India's geography offers it the strategic space to optimise its maritime security interests in the Indian Ocean. But for this to happen, recognition of our inherent strengths at sea and then translating these into appropriate capabilities is necessary. The two island territories, the A&N group in particular, have to be very important players in this process.

The writer has held command of military forces in the A&N Islands and has been Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command

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