The Indian Navy is broadening its patrol areas in the Indian Ocean Region to cover all choke points in the face of increasing maritime threats, its chief Sunil Lanba told The Hindu .
“Last year, we had a relook at our deployment pattern and we reached a consensus within the Navy to have a mission-based deployment so that our areas of interest can be kept under permanent surveillance. So the ingress and egress routes of the Indian Ocean Region are being kept under surveillance so that we have better awareness and know what is happening,” Admiral Lanba said on the sidelines of the first Goa Maritime Conclave (GMC), which saw the participation of 10 Indian Ocean littoral states.
Under the mission-based deployment, 12 to 15 ships are now permanently deployed at the choke points and crucial sea lanes of communication.
Reference to China
Addressing the GMC, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had expressed concern that “extra-regional nations maintain near permanent presence” in the region, in an oblique reference to China. The Chinese have been sending ships to the northern Indian Ocean in the name of anti-piracy operations and over the last two to three years on average about 8-10 ships have been deployed. This August, the number shot up to 14.
Apart from getting access to several ports and facilities in the Indian Ocean, China recently opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, giving it the ability to monitor across the Gulf of Aden and the Persian Gulf. “Now”, former Navy Chief Admiral Arun Prakash told The Hindu , “it is imperative that our Navy should be more visible in our own waters.”
“Visibility is an important part of peacetime signalising,” he explained.
Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, former Western Naval Commander, said China, a huge importer of energy, has been trying to get past the Malacca dilemma, a critical choke point, from which most of its supplies pass through. He named three choke points for the Chinese — Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Hormuz and the Malacca straits — and added that they now have Djibouti at the Gulf of Aden and the Gwadar port and Chinese companies have acquired stakes in Kuantan port in Malaysia, close to the Malacca Straits. “Then all three choke points will be under the surveillance of the Chinese. That will slightly restrict the Indian Navy and the U.S. Navy,” he noted.
Speaking on the conclave, Admiral Lanba said the key takeaways were the identification of common security threats across all countries and a broader agreement for greater coordination and information sharing. The threats, essentially non-traditional in nature, include maritime terrorism, unregulated fishing, illegal fishing in the global commons, pollution, sea piracy, drug and human trafficking.
While India is looking at cooperative frameworks to deal with common threats, Adm. Lanba clarified that efforts like coordinated patrols and joint patrols will be done only with maritime neighbours. “We only do coordinated patrols and joint patrols with nations who are our maritime neighbours. We are not looking at joint patrols with the U.S. Navy at this moment,” he added.
Over the last year, the Navy, to test the waters, stepped up its presence and maintained round the clock surveillance on India’s vital areas of interest across the length and breadth of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). This allows India to position itself as a net security provider in the region. “Earlier, there were flag showing missions in terms of overseas deployments for exercises and visits. The need of the hour is to change the nature of deployments. All choke points (meaning straits which connect seas or narrow water channels where ships and submarines of adversaries can be choked off) and sea lanes are now under 24/7 surveillance. They are now institutionalised deployments,” a senior Navy officer said.
The new mission-based deployment concept, which was unveiled in the Naval Commander’s Conference in May, has mission-ready ships and aircraft being deployed along critical sea lanes of communications and choke points from Malacca straits to the Persian Gulf. The biannual Naval Commander’s Conference, which recently reviewed its effectiveness, has formalised it.
The cycle of 12-15 ships in effect means a turnaround of 36-45 ships, with one set deployed, one set in transit, and one set in maintenance.
“These ships are deployed always ready to meet any eventuality across the spectrum of operations ranging from acts of maritime terrorism and piracy to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) missions,” the officer stated.
Adm. Arun Prakash said the new maritime strategy had listed “naval presence” as a mission. "This is, firstly, to reassure our friends that you are there, second to send a message to your adversaries and third, it is a measure of maritime domain awareness."
In this backdrop, he said Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea can be effectively monitored if India were to sit at the three choke points.
Another aspect is that India is positioning itself as the net security provider in the region and the first responder in the case of natural disasters.
For instance, in May, the Indian Navy was the first to respond to heavy rain and flooding in Sri Lanka as also to the requirements post Cyclone Mora in Bangladesh and Myanmar.