Two Indian military aircraft visit Australia’s strategic Cocos Islands

The aircraft were at Cocos Island for close to a week, which can be an important base for refuelling and operational turnaround for the Indian military; India aims to increase its military-to-military engagement, deepening interoperability in the region.

July 30, 2023 11:20 pm | Updated July 31, 2023 09:30 am IST - NEW DELHI

India’s access to Cocos and Christian Islands would help the Navy monitor movements in the Indian Ocean. File photo.

India’s access to Cocos and Christian Islands would help the Navy monitor movements in the Indian Ocean. File photo. | Photo Credit: Twitter/@AusAirForce

Expanding the strategic reach of the Indian military and improving interoperability with Australia, an Indian Navy Dornier maritime patrol aircraft and an Indian Air Force (IAF) C-130 transport aircraft visited Australia’s Cocos (Keeling) Islands (CKI) in the Southern Indian Ocean, close to Indonesia and strategic maritime choke points earlier this month, diplomatic and official sources confirmed.

“Cocos can be an important base for refuelling and Operational Turnaround for the Indian military, especially once the runway there is expanded to accommodate large aircraft like the P-8 long range maritime patrol aircraft,” an official source said on condition of anonymity, while confirming the visit by the Dornier and C-130 aircraft. According to diplomatic sources, the aircraft were at Cocos for close to a week.

Neither the Indian Navy nor the IAF responded to questions from The Hindu on the subject.

In a July 7 article published by The Strategist,the commentary and analysis site of Canberra-based think tank, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, David Brewster and Samuel Bashfield wrote that this week, several aircraft from the Indian Navy and the IAF made a “ground-breaking visit” to Australia’s CKI.

“This week’s visit by Indian Navy Dornier maritime patrol aircraft and a C-130 Hercules from the IAF effectively elevates the Cocos Islands as a staging point for Australian and Indian air surveillance of the maritime choke points through Southeast Asia and the entire eastern Indian Ocean,” they wrote in the article titled ‘Indian aircraft visit Cocos Islands as Australia strengthens its maritime security network’. “The visit represents an important step in the bilateral relationship as the two countries increasingly give each other access to their military facilities in the Indian Ocean,” they added.

This is the latest in a series of India’s growing military to military engagements, deepening interoperability broadly in the region and especially with Australia. In February, in another first, an Indian Navy Kilo class conventional submarine, I.N.S. Sindhukesari, which was on operational deployment, travelled through the Sunda Strait and docked in Jakarta, Indonesia for Operational Turnaround.

Even before the Indian military reached there, Cocos Islands had been a point of cooperation between the space agencies of the two countries for India’s Gaganyaan human space flight mission. Australia’s active support in establishing a temporary ground station at CKI for the Gaganyaan missions, and potential opportunities for cooperation in earth observation, satellite navigation, space situational awareness, weather and climate studies using satellite data, were the highlights of the discussion, an Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) statement had said during the visit of Enrico Palermo, head of the Australian Space Agency (ASA) to the ISRO’s headquarters in September 2022.

According to reports in the Australian media, the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) plans to upgrade the runway for handling larger military aircraft to use as a forward operating base have been delayed by a significant escalation in the cost of the proposed plan.

According to the ADF, due to insufficient length and strength of the existing airfield pavement at CKI, large defence aircraft are unable to operate out of there. “Subject to Parliamentary approval, works are expected to commence in late 2023, with construction to commence in late 2024. All works are forecast to be complete by early 2026,” the ADF website states on the proposed expansion. The scope of the project has been increased to include a 150-metre runway extension and additional supporting infrastructure, according to a spokesperson of the ADF.

India’s access to CKI as well as Christmas Island, which is even closer to the strategic choke points, has been under discussion for a while. A turnaround from either of the islands would significantly enhance the on-station time of the Indian Navy’s P-8Is to monitor movements into the Indian Ocean, especially by China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, whose forays into the region have significantly gone up in recent years.

India and Australia have also been holding exercises focussed on anti-submarine warfare with P-8 aircraft being cross-deployed. The fourth such iteration was held in the first week of July with Australian Air Force P-8A deployed to I.N.S. Rajali Naval Air Station in Tamil Nadu. During these P-8 missions, naval personnel from each country has flown on P-8s of the other country, as reported earlier. The first such P-8 iteration was hosted by Australia at Darwin in April 2022.

This August, Australia is set to host the Malabar multilateral naval exercise for the first time this year, including India, Australia, Japan and the U.S., at Sydney.

India-Australia defence cooperation has been one of the fastest growing in recent years with a series of exchanges, high-level visits and exercises, both bilateral and multilateral. In addition, Maritime Domain Awareness, subsurface domain awareness, and anti-submarine warfare, have been major focus areas for the Quad group of countries comprising India, Australia, Japan and the U.S. in the backdrop of the rapid expansion of Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean Region.

CKI is an Australian external territory located in the Indian Ocean, approximately 3,000 km north-west of Perth in western Australia, and comprises two coral atolls made up of 27 smaller islands.

India and Australia signed a Mutual Logistics Support agreement in 2020, and the two Navies had signed the ‘Joint Guidance for the India – Australia Navy to Navy Relationship’ document in August 2021.

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