Secure A&N Islands to secure India

Secure A&N Islands to secure India

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) Islands in December to mark the 75th anniversary of freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose’s announcement of the formation of Azad Hind government in 1943.

The PM renamed three islands — Ross Island, Neil Island and Havelock Island as Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Island, Shaheed Dweep Island and Swaraj Dweep Island, respectively. Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman went on a two-day to A&N Islands on January 13-14 and witnessed joint exercises of the armed forces and inaugurated a housing project for military personnel there.

The A&N Islands dominate the entry/exit to the Malacca Straits, one of the most important Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) and maritime choke points in the Indian Ocean, through which at least 60,000 ships sail annually. About 60% of China’s crude oil import and 55% of India’s trade passes through these straits.

The islands are much closer to the South East Asian countries than to mainland India, with Chennai and Kolkata both being more than 1,200 km away. The northern tip of the A&N Islands is just 22 nautical miles (nm), or about 40 km, from Myanmar and the southernmost tip of the islands — Indira Point — 90 nm from Aceh in Sumatra, Indonesia. Indonesia has recently agreed to give India access to Sabang in Aceh for a strategic base. Thus, India dominates both sides of the Malacca Straits.

The islands host some of the most pristine remaining rainforests in the world. Only 37 of the 572 islands are inhabited and some are home to the threatened and dwindling indigenous tribes such as the Sentinelese, Onge, Jarawa, Shompen, etc. The strategic salience of these islands has increased tremendously since the Chinese surge into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) began over a decade ago through the so-called ‘String of Pearls’ strategy, anti-piracy patrols, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the increasing Chinese submarine deployments into the IOR in recent years.

Asymmetric threats pose a great challenge to the islands. Illegal poaching, specially of Sea Cucumber by Myanmar’s poachers, and illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing by foreign vessels are a cause for concern. Besides, drug and arms smuggling are also rampant in the North Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Also, Rohingya boat-refugees fleeing Myanmar to escape the genocide there, too, pose a significant danger to the islands.

New Delhi is well aware that India’s economy and security are both linked to the seas. India’s ‘Act East’ policy metaphorically meets the Chinese surge into the IOR in the Andaman Sea, which could be the stage for a possible confrontation in the future. Not surprisingly, Prime Minister Modi recently announced the ‘Indo- Pacific Strategy’ with an eye on China. The ‘Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’, consisting of the US, India, Japan and Australia, has also been revived after a decade.

Boosting military assets

With the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea emerging as an important strategic space, it is clear that the Vishakapatnam-based Eastern Naval Command (ENC) and India’s only tri-service command, the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) established in 2001 and headquartered at Port Blair, require further augmentation of military assets.

The creation of a third fleet at A&N Islands for the navy, upgrading the amphibious capability from the current army brigade of 3,500 troops to one division strength, around 10,000 troops, besides deployment of at least one battalion of Special Forces would be necessary in the islands.

Moreover, facilities for submarine operations and maintenance, too, need to be created in the ANC so as to permit greater submarine operating radius. The Air Force element of fighters and anti-ship strike aircraft such as the Su-30 MKI and Jaguar need to be based there permanently. The navy has also recently upgraded and commissioned its air station at Diglipur in North A&N as INS Kohasa, and sooner than later surveillance aircraft such as the Boeing P8I Poseidon would need to be stationed permanently on the islands.

Additionally, there is also a need to create a civil port, bunkering and ship repair facilities on the islands, possibly at Campbell bay. Such a ‘shipping hub’ could undercut the importance of the China- leased port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka.

The government has been guilty of not building adequate infrastructure and defences along the land boundary in the north. It cannot afford to repeat the mistake when it comes to the security of its outlying islands. The A&N Islands are like an “unsinkable aircraft carrier”, which acts as a shield against any Chinese misadventure and could be a springboard into the South China Sea and beyond. The more the government secures these islands, the better it would strengthen national security.

(The writer is a former Principal Director, Naval Intelligence, and has been a Director in the Cabinet Secretariat)