India Beefs Up for Great Game (Page 2 of 2)

In his last interview before retirement, he outlined a roadmap for the next five years. ‘We are in the final stages of acquiring 126 Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft. Over 200 fifth-generation fighter aircraft (jointly developed with Russia at a projected cost of over $30 billion) will be coming around 2017,’ he said. He added that there were also plans for more than 40 new Su-30s to be manufactured in India, as well deals for 149 medium-lift helicopters, 22 attack helicopters and 12 VVIP helicopters, all of which he said had been cleared.

‘The process of change started 7 or 8 years back but it’s materializing now,’ Naik said. ‘It’s a very exciting thought. Over the next 3 to 4 years, I expect the IAF to become one of the most modern air forces in the world.’

India will need to meet such expectations if it is to face its biggest challenge – an increasingly assertive China, which India’s strategic planners believe will increasingly venture into India’s neighbourhood and the Indian Ocean, which has until now been regarded as India’s backyard.  

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The signs that it plans to do so are already evident. This month, Indian broadcaster NDTV reported on increasing Chinese efforts to map and obtain crucial Bathymetric data around India’s Andaman island territories. A Chinese spy ship apparently camouflaged as a fishing trawler was detected by the Navy in the area about four months ago. An Indian Navy warship tailed the spy ship (which is said to have had 22 laboratories on board) until it docked in Colombo, but couldn’t take any action against the Chinese ship because it wasn’t in Indian territorial waters.

Indian intelligence agencies have also picked up traces of a growing Chinese footprint in the Bay of Bengal, close to Wheeler Island, which is the site of India’s missile testing facilities. The presence of Chinese ships has frequently been noted around the time India has been issuing no-fly zone warnings when testing conventional and strategic missiles from the facility on Wheeler Island. The Chinese ships, NDTV claims, were picking up data when missiles were launched.

It’s with these kinds of developments in mind that Indian defence planners have been busy sketching out an ambitious plan for India’s Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) – one of two tri-services facility, the other being the Strategic Forces Command, which handles India’s nuclear assets.

Formed in 2001, the ANC is poised to expand rapidly following a renewed assessment of rising conventional and sub-conventional threats emanating from the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal regions. This group of islands, which lay off the southeast of India, has suddenly become central to India’s strategic and security planning in countering China’s increasing forays into the neighbourhood. Since the archipelago is located at the confluence of vital sea lanes of communication, it has significant geo-strategic relevance.

An internal assessment by  India’s Defence Ministry concluded: ‘The location of these islands, their rich resources of marine wealth and potential for natural oil and gas and their proximity to littorals coupled with the possibility of extra regional players extending their influence in the region, make them vulnerable to both conventional as well as sub-conventional threats. The importance of A&N Islands in the security matrix of the country is thus growing exponentially. It is therefore prudent to have a strong and deterrent military capability at these islands.’

As a result of this assessment, ANC is being given more maritime and air assets, and there are also plans to base the Air Forces’ frontline fighters – the Sukhoi-30s, at Car Nicobar Island – not far from the Malacca Strait. As India’s first and truly operational tri-services command, the ANC is headed in turn by three star officers from all three armed forces. In addition, since 2010, the commander-in-chief of the ANC has been designated as the Commander-in-Chief Coastal Security Command for the A & N region.

Analysts from across the globe are declaring the Indian Ocean Region as the setting for this century’s version of the Great Game. It’s hardly surprising, then, that India has decided to bolster its Navy and Air Force to make sure it can hold its own.

Nitin Gokhale is Defence & Strategic Affairs Editor with Indian broadcaster, NDTV 24×7

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