The commissioning on July 31 of INS Baaz, India’s first naval air station at Campbell Bay, the southernmost island of the Andaman and Nicobar group of islands, is an important strategic move by India. The naval air station is very close to the Indonesian coast. However, friendly Indonesia need not worry, as it is a China-specific move by the Indian navy.
Campbell Bay is India’s most potent forward maritime military infrastructure, which would provide strategic leverage to the air force and navy if a crisis situation were to erupt. It would enable the Indian armed forces to launch a joint offensive in the area, covering right up to the South China Sea. It will also enable the Indians to take better care of their commercial and strategic interests in the Malacca Strait and beyond.
The primary responsibility of INS Baaz will be to provide information based on airborne maritime surveillance using aircraft and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. In this sense, the naval air station’s name is very apt, as baaz means “eagle” in Hindi. It will provide an eagle’s eye view for the Indian armed forces over the strategic sea lanes around Andaman and Nicobar islands, where the Indian navy has already been augmenting its strength under the Andaman and Nicobar Command at Port Blair with the latest warships, amphibious ships, naval offshore patrol vessels and fast-attack craft.
The strategic chain of islands has already emerged as a major launching pad for the Indian navy to conduct cooperative patrols with neighboring nations like Indonesia and Thailand, and slightly more distant Southeast Asian nations like Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore.
Interestingly, the latest Indian move hasn’t triggered adverse reactions from Southeast Asian nations — a far cry from the 1980s, when regional powers cried foul when the Indian navy first started expanding in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. This time Southeast Asian nations are looking rather benignly over the Indian initiative, considering China’s aggressive posture in the region that has rattled some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines.
Significantly, the commissioning of INS Baaz has coincided with the Obama administration’s declaration of a new deployment policy in the Asia-Pacific region, where the US military will be relocating 60 percent of its maritime power worldwide. The interpretation is ominous: The strengthening of India’s naval presence near the Malacca Strait puts the Indian maritime strategy in sync with that of the United States.
Obviously India’s Campbell Bay initiative has been forced by China upping its ante over the South China Sea issue. Moreover, the Indian navy has also put into operation two forward operating bases in Kamorta (Nicobar) and Diglipur (Andaman) as well. The idea of bolstering India’s military presence in the Andaman and Nicobar islands germinated more than two decades ago, but the Indians never took concrete steps to implement the plans. Now that Chinese pushes in the region have come to shoves, the Indians have been forced to operationalize the naval air station at Campbell Bay under the tri-service command.
What should be a matter of concern for China is the fact that the Indian defense ministry has also given permission to the navy to develop additional naval air stations on other islands similar to Campbell Bay. The navy is now engaged in setting up operational turnaround facilities for ships to be dispersed along the entire length of the island chain to maximize the reach of ships and aircraft on patrol.
The move, from the Indian point of view, shows its resolve to protect its maritime interests to the last corner of the Indian Ocean and even beyond into the Pacific Ocean. The Indian move also signals its intent to integrate the highly strategic Andaman and Nicobar islands in the national security mix like never before.
The new naval air station overlooks the Malacca Strait and also dominates the Six Degree Channel, the core thrust of the Chinese Navy (PLAN) these days, which lies between India’s Great Nicobar Island and Indonesia’s Sumatra, where China’s shipping is especially vulnerable to Indian and other forces.
Six Degree Channel is the third of the three-island-chain strategy of the Chinese, while the first island chain is centered on Taiwan and the second island chain extends from Japan to Indonesia. The strategy will enable the Chinese, in the long run, to project power capable of reaching America’s bases in Hawaii.
India recently based its tri-services command in Andaman and Nicobar islands, which enables the Indians to mount effective surveillance of the Lombok and Sunda straits as a non-lethal demonstration of Indian capabilities, not different from the way the US navy is building up Guam. The Campbell Bay naval air station at present is suitable only for transport aircraft, helicopter and maritime reconnaissance operations, with only 1,000 meters of runway. India’s navy is fast working on the plan to extend the runway to 3,000 meters, which would allow the IAF Sukhoi-30MKI aircraft to land and takeoff after refueling.
A massive plan to upgrade the Campbell Bay naval air station is already in the works. It involves creating infrastructure to facilitate the berthing of warships and enabling unrestricted operation of all categories of aircraft including heavy aircraft. Modern airfield instruments and navigational aids are going to be deployed at the base. The Indian navy’s near-term plans for the base also include deploying the Hercules C-130 aircraft there and enhancing Special Forces operations capabilities.
The Indian move to bolster its military presence in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, separated by 650 nautical miles from mainland India and closer to Indonesia than the Indian mainland, is aimed at milking the islands’ geo-strategic advantage to the hilt. These islands open up a window to East Asia and Southeast Asia, while beefing up Indian military reach for the Bay of Bengal region as well.
India’s Campbell Bay initiative is a befitting response to the Chinese flexing of its military muscles in the region. Neighboring powers like Indonesia should only feel reassured by the move, as the Campbell Bay naval air station is India’s extended arm in the Malacca Strait for the benefit of Southeast Asian nations.
Rajeev Sharma is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and strategic analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com.