PM Narendra Modi at the INS Kalvari commissioning ceremony in Mumbai

by Pravin Sawhney

MATCHING the US in words and deed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has positioned military diplomacy at the forefront of his Act East policy with ASEAN as its fulcrum. Reading this as India’s walk-back from the Wuhan understanding, China issued a terse warning. “If India really seeks military access to the strategic island of Sabang in Indonesia (which dominates the Malacca Strait), it might wrongfully entrap itself into a strategic (which includes military) competition with China and eventually burn its fingers,” the Global Times has cautioned.

No one told Modi that like the disputed land border with China, the Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) island chain is India’s maritime Achilles’ heel against the risen and militarily bold China. If the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could, with its successful military coercion, compel Modi to seek peace at Wuhan, it might not be long before the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) does a Kargil, or worse, in A&N.

The A&N islands are 800 km long. Only 38 of the 572 islands which comprise the archipelago are occupied. Given the defensive and surveillance mandate of India’s tri-service Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) which is located here, its limited firepower and air defence assets, the abysmal inter-island connectivity, insufficient infrastructure to support and sustain naval and air operations, frugal maintenance ecosystem to assist permanent berthing of heavy warships and submarines, and with the naval reinforcements on the mainland being 1,200 km away, there are reasons for PLAN to consider military coercion by temporary occupation of uninhibited islands.

Moreover, while the Malacca mission-deployment started by the Navy in 2016 to support the Act East policy is steered by the ANC, it is unable to support it even for its operational turn-round, which involves providing fuel, rations and servicing. So, instead of seeking help from the Eastern Naval Command (ENC), the ANC depends on friendly ties with the Indonesian and Singaporean (which are much closer) navies for this. Yet, the mission remains half done: ships on round-the-clock mission deployment have limited firepower, with little possibility of help from the ANC. The problem gets compounded since most ships do not have anti-submarine warfare helicopter; it cannot do much with its SONAR (sound navigation and ranging) to locate submarines.

A few more statistics would put the maritime threat in perspective. A&N is 163 km from Sabang and 770 km from the coast of Myanmar. The Kra canal, which China has proposed to build in Thailand as part of its OROB initiative, will open into the Andaman Sea, barely 600 km from Port Blair. Since 2008, when it started its regular anti-piracy voyages to the Gulf of Aden, China’s PLAN under the garb of innocuous sea forays, has gained a decade of valuable experience and intelligence to keep it in good stead in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Given the fast pace of China’s warship-building and the audacity with which China has moved in to reclaim islands and militarise the South China Sea, PLAN’s roadmap for the IOR should be obvious, especially to the ANC, which straddles the western side of the Malacca Strait, commercially the busiest sea lane in the world, connecting western Pacific with the Indian Ocean north through the Andaman Sea.

Appreciating the vulnerability of the A&N, the Indian Navy had in 2000 under its chief, Admiral Sushil Kumar, forwarded a paper to the Defence Ministry for consideration. It was proposed that the existing Fortress Andaman and Nicobar (FORTAN), which was set up by the Navy in the ’60s primarily for surveillance, be upgraded to Far Eastern Naval Command (FENC). This would have changed the mission, mindset and concomitant capability building here. From a defensive mission of FORTRAN, it would have changed to deterrence (with inbuilt offensive capabilities) for FENC to safeguard India’s strategic interests in Southeast Asia and the Malacca Strait by rapid deployment of military assets in the region. It would also have provided logistical and administrative support to naval ships which are sent on deployment to East Asia and the Pacific Ocean, without looking for operational, logistics and administrative help from the ENC in Visakhapatnam.

The government, however, refused to see what the naval headquarters had envisioned. It shelved the paper. The reason given was that while the forward-based naval command might not worry China, it was certain to scare friendly littoral neighbours like Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore. The unstated reason was that sanctioning a new command for the Indian Navy would not have gone down well with the other two defence services, the Army and the Air Force. They, too, would have sought an equal, if not more, compensation from the government, leading to internal bickering and an escalation in the annual defence allocation, something which is anathema to the Union Finance Ministry.

The government found an escape route in the 2001 Group of Ministers’ report which recommended the formation of a new tri-service — ANC — which, unfortunately, was and remains, nobody’s (Army, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard) baby. 

Considering that the Modi government has since 2016 upgraded the ANC to a strategic command, it should first set its own house in order before flexing muscle in the Indo-Pacific Region. Instead of giving the Commander-in-Chief, ANC, post permanently to the Navy, which is being contemplated, the need is to name the ANC under the Chiefs of Staff Committee into the Navy-led and-owned FENC. Nothing less than this would help in meeting the emerging Chinese threat.