New Delhi: The Indian Navy, the world's sixth largest naval force, which is slowly building up capabilities to operate for prolonged periods at sea, is planning to open an operations base in the Lakshadweep islands to spruce up coastal security to prevent 26/11-type terror strikes and stop piracy in the Arabian Sea.
This will be the navy's second base in India's island territories after the one in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal and its sixth base overall.
As part of its long-term plans, the navy will initially open a detachment in the Lakshadweep chain and base a couple of warships there, apart from an air element for aerial patrols in the region, a senior navy officer said.
In the near future, the detachment will be converted into a full-fledged base with a larger number of warships, aircraft and helicopters operating from there.
India had last month commissioned a Coast Guard district headquarters in Kavaratti and a station in Minicoy, both in the Lakshadweep islands, as part of its plans to restructure and strengthen the coastal security set-up there.
"All these are part of the coastal security plans worked out following the Mumbai terror attack. There is a greater emphasis on having a robust security for the island territories and their surrounding areas," the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media, said.
The waters around Lakshadweep have in recent months witnessed heightened activity by pirates, who were successful in hijacking a Bangladeshi-flaged merchant vessel about 90 nautical miles off Kochi and 80 nautical miles off Minicoy Dec 5 last year.
Increased presence of the sea brigands in the central and eastern Arabian Sea is being witnessed since November, perceived as a fallout of the multinational anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden close to the Somali coast.
India had joined the multinational anti-piracy efforts in October 2008 and since then has had a continued presence there by positioning a warship in the Gulf of Aden.
In the earlier months too, pirates had ventured into the Arabian Sea, increasing the fear of attacks and hijackings of merchant vessels.
This had led to the navy deciding to permanently deploy two warships in the central and eastern Arabian Sea , but in a flexible formation for redeployment on an 'as required' basis.
These efforts are meant for securing the focal points along the sea lanes of communication, which witness heavy commercial shipping activity all year long, the officer said.
The terror and piracy threats apart, the navy's presence around the Lakshadweep islands would also deter poachers and smugglers from venturing into the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone and territorial waters, thereby preventing illegal activities in the region.
In the 26/11 attack, 10 terrorists had sneaked into Mumbai through the sea route, taking the Arabian Sea route from Pakistan.
The Indian Navy currently operates about 140 warships, including a lone aircraft carrier, INS Viraat, from its five bases at Mumbai, Karwar in Karnataka, Kochi in Kerala - all on the west coast - Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh on the east coast and at Port Blair in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The navy also has an air wing comprising 40 aircraft, including 10 British-origin Sea Harriers and 16 Russian-made MiG-29K fighter jets.
The latter will be deployed on the Admiral Gorshkov carrier that is currrently refitted at the Sevmash shipyard in Russia and is expected to join the fleet in 2012-13. The MiG-29 will also be deployed on the indigenous aircraft carrier being constructed in a Kochi shipyard and which is expected to be inducted by 2015.
Once the Gorshkov, rechristened INS Vikramaditya, joins the fleet, the Indian Navy will be operating two Carrier Battle Groups - potent combat formations - on both the western and eastern seaboards.
The Indian Navy's deep striking warfare and strategic capabilities got a major boost Friday with the induction by Defence Minister A.K. Antony of the third fleet tanker, the state-of-the-art INS Deepak, which will be followed by a similar one in nine months.
The Italian-built tanker will enable warships operate for prolonged periods on the high seas without returning to harbour for replenishment or refuelling.
A fleet tanker is as much useful to warships as mid-air refuellers are for fighter jets for extending their operational range.
(N.C. Bipindra can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)