A year ago, in May 2006, the Indian Navy issued its vision statement that underlined: ‘the Indian Navy is determined to create and sustain a three dimensional, technology enabled and networked force capable of safeguarding our maritime interests on the high seas and projecting power across the littoral.’ Regarding ‘maritime interests,’ the area has grown exponentially from the Cape of Good Hope to the Strait of Malacca and includes the Mediterranean Sea in the north. This expanse has choke points, strategic waterways and important sea-lanes of communications.
The 10 choke points that the navy considers within its area of interest are: Cape of Good Hope, Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, Suez Canal, Gulf of Oman, Strait of Hormuz, area around Karachi, Palk Strait, Strait of Malacca, Sunda Strait and Lombok Strait. Senior naval officers emphasise the growing importance of the Mediterranean Sea by proudly mentioning Operation Sakoon of July 2006 when Indian naval ships evacuated 2,280 people from Lebanon to nearby Cyprus. Just when the war between Israel and Hamas broke out in Lebanon, four Indian naval ships, namely INS Mumbai, Brahmaputra, Betwa and Shakti were already calling in the region. Therefore, it was possible for them to come to the rescue of Indians and even nationals from Nepal and Sri Lanka in quick time. In addition to the Red Sea, the navy is conscious of its responsibility in the highly destabilised Gulf region where over five million (50 lakh) Indians are working.
This is talked about openly.
What is not talked about is the increasing importance of southwest Indian Ocean. The United States, of course, has taken note of India stretching its sea legs in this area. Writing in the latest United States Naval Institute proceedings (Vol 133 Iss.3), Steven J Forsberg argues that India’s development of Mauritius’ islands of Agalega could substantially expand the reach of its navy. The author claims that Mauritius has offered these islands on lease to India and should New Delhi accept the offer it would be a stepping-stone on the path between India and the important shipping lanes of Mozambique Channel on the southeast coast of Africa. India already has a defence cooperation agreement with Mozambique that essentially envisages joint maritime patrolling of the Mozambique coast amongst other things. Moreover, given the friendly relations with Zimbabwe and South Africa (India’s largest African trading partner), and with Maldives, Mauritius and Madagascar, the Indian Navy would be in a position to ensure safety of trade routes across the Cape of Good Hope. Given the prevalent uncertainties in the Middle East trade routes and the geography of the Suez Canal, the sea-lanes around the Cape of Good Hope may serve as a better option for super-tankers. The article concludes that Indian naval facilities in Southwest Indian Ocean could rival those found in the east, notably the Andaman and Nicobar command. The scenario painted by the US writer is both credible and plausible in the near future. The least it requires is that the Indian Navy have better surveillance capabilities. The Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sureesh Mehta told FORCE (December 2006) that, ‘We want aircraft which can operate about 1,000 miles from the coast and fly for 10-12 hours.’ To appreciate this at the policy and operational levels, FORCE spoke with senior naval officers at Naval Headquarters as well as travelled to INS Hansa in Goa.