We are within a handshake’s distance of many littoral states,” is the unanimous reply given by almost all the defence personnel serving at the picturesque Andaman and Nicobar islands when asked about the strategic importance of the archipelago to India.
The reply stands good considering that the archipelago is separated from the mainland by almost 1,200 km of sea and its southernmost point is just 150 km from Indonesia’s Sumatra island while its northernmost point is less than 40 km away from the Coco islands which are controlled by Myanmar.
However, the islands’ strategic importance is much more than merely being close to the littoral states. The 572-island cluster houses the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), the country’s first and only tri-command with the Army, Navy and Air Force components all serving under one military commander.
Raised in 2001, following the recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee, the ANC’s key role was to enhance India’s ‘Look East Policy’ to reach out to the defence of its maritime neighbours in the region.
Now, 10 years after its inception, the ANC’s role has evolved from merely being a military base for the country’s ‘Look East Policy’, as it has several tasks up its sleeve with the primary and the most important one being to counter China’s ‘String of Pearls’ strategy around India.
China’s ‘String of Pearls
India’s largest and most potent neighbour, through its ‘String of Pearls’ strategy, wants to raise its geopolitical influence in the region by developing ports and airstrips.
Beijing has by and large been achieved this and is in a dominant position as it has already developed Hambantota and Gwadar ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan respectively.
Further on the cards, is a plan to develop a deep sea port for Bangladesh at Sonadia island and also
establish a direct rail link between Dhaka and Kunmin, the capital of China’s Yunnan province.
This apart, Beijing’s interest in the region can be attributed to the fact that the Malacca Straits (where the Indian Ocean joins the Pacific Ocean) is the key to China’s energy supplies. The Malacca Straits serve as the channel for 80 per cent of China’s imported oil.
What is India doing?
With such high stakes in the region, given its past, Beijing is unlikely to be a sitting duck with India having an upper hand. It is in this context that the ANC today is not just India’s last military outpost in the eastern region, but as strategically important as any of the other disputed Sino-Indian regions.
Though the military commanders deny that if something goes awry, the region would be witnessing the first Sino-Indian naval clash, the ANC is gearing up to meet the challenges.
The ANC is already in the process of building unidirectional all-weather airstrips, warships, fast attackships and combat aircraft to check China’s adventurism.
“Being a frontier command and located at a strategic position we are looking at developing assets along the islands in the next five years which include developing of four unidirectional all weather airstrips which can operate all types of aircraft apart from having coastal radar chains, warships and fast patrol crafts,” says Commander-in-Chief of the Andaman and Nicobar Command (CINCAN) Vice Admiral Devendra Kumar Joshi.
The ANC which has the distinction of housing the only Floating Dock Navy facility, which is known as (FDN-1) to repair and
refit war ships at sea will be adding one more FDN which is expected to be commissioned in
another three years.
Apart from developing the airstrips, on the air side too, a slew of initiatives are being
undertaken. The Car Nicobar air base of the Indian Air Force which was reduced to rubble following the devastating tsunami in 2004, plans are on to house a fighter detachment which would secure the sea lines in the region.
The Car Nicobar air force base which has a 8,790-feet runway today can operate any combat aircraft also boasts of Mi8 helicopter unit, Air Defence squadron along with a array of radars.
Located about 1,500 km from the mainland the air base is India’s last outpost in the region.
“It is a strategic point considering that the shipping lanes of six countries and the a majority of China’s energy flow passes through these lines. In order to have an upper hand in the region a number of initiatives have been taken with a few more on the cards,” said Wing Commander MS Sridhar, Officiating Officer, 37 Wing, Indian Air Force.
Among the initiatives being taken are the operating of fighter aircraft including the Su-30 Mki and the Jaguars once or twice in a year, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles operations and the induction of the Rohini radar in May earlier this year.
“On the cards are also the induction of Power radars by 2012 and the upgrading of the runway in order to be able to operate fighter aircraft anytime on a short notice,” Wing Commander Sridhar added.
Other challenges Apart from China, the region has to tackle a number of adversaries in the form of poachers, drug, human and arms-traffickers, pirates and also terrorists along the coastline of the islands which account for 30 per cent of India’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
The 572-island cluster, of which many are uninhabited, has become a hot spot for poachers. The region has also become a hot spot for human traffickers from Bangladesh, Thailand and Myanmar. A few months ago, the Indian Coast Guard rescued 412 persons from a small boat stranded in high seas after they had been abandoned by the traffickers.
This apart, according to Coast Guard officials after the civil war in Sri Lanka ended many Tamils from the island’s northern regions are planning to escape from the war-torn country to Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Poaching of marine species is another cause for concern, especially the sea cucumbers, a prohibited species, widely in demand in China for its cooking and medicinal values. In September alone, over 150 Myanmarese poachers were apprehended by the Coast Guard, say officials.
Economic & Tourist potential
The archipelago’s rich economic and tourist potential also dictate a sound security presence. The pristine beaches offer various watersport facilities like water-skiing, sail boats, windsurfing, speed boats apart from snorkelling and scuba diving.
Jolly Buoy Cinque Island, Red Skin Island, Havelock Island and Barren Island are amongst the notable tourist spots on the island. The Taj Group has already proposed a resort that will come up at Havelock Island. It is in this context that the islands will get all-weather airfields which will be able to handle commercial airlines every 100 miles.
On the economic front a container trans-shipment hub at Campbell Bay is on the avail and the New Exploration Licensing Policy (NELP) licence for oil exploration in the region is also on cards which officials say is bound to increase economic development stakes in the near future.
The ANC’s Floating Dock Navy
facility will be able to repair and refit war ships at sea while another FDN is expected to be commissioned in the next three years.
Andamans’ best kept secret
The picturesque Andaman and Nicobar islands also has a secretive element surrounding it. It said that India is stocking its nuclear arsenal at an Strategic Nuclear Forces Command in one of the 572 islands. Being highly classified, its existence is dismissed by almost all at the ANC.
Future of ANC
Being the only Tri-Service Command in the country, the ANC has come a long way since its inception in 2001 — it has had its share of ups and downs considering its uniqueness with the Army, Navy and the Airforce working together.
“There were a few initial hiccups but we have been able to iron out all the differences and now have a seamless working environment,” says Vice Admiral Joshi.