‘The Government has Already Approved Extension of Runways at Shibpur in the North and at Campbell Bay in the South’
Given the tasks this command has — from defence of the Andaman and Nicobar island chain to keeping a watch on what moves around in this area — what assets would you ideally want, in terms of amphibious vessels, surveillance systems etc?
When the Andaman and Nicobar Command was created in 2001, it was planned to induct a range of assets into the OrBat of the newly raised Command. However, the build-up of force levels is still work in progress. You may have seen it in the media that the defence minister had recently reviewed the capabilities of Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC). There is a blueprint under consideration, it has gone through several iterations and the planned assets could be expected to materialise over the next two Plan periods.
What are these assets?
You would be aware of the Long Term Perspective Plan (LTPP) of the services, determine the force generation. For instance as far as the surface component of navy is concerned, more and larger amphibious ships, more weapon carrying platforms, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capable and missile carrying platforms are planned. Currently, the assets that we have are suited for surveillance. Recently, some more platforms including a weapon platform have been added.
As far as the army is concerned, right now we have two infantry battalions and one Territorial Army battalion. In addition, sanction of a new TA battalion has been obtained and the recruitment for the same is going on. The induction of a third army battalion is part of the long term plan.
Also, in due course, 108 Mountain Brigade at ANC will become comprehensively independent; which will result in certain additional assets such as integral air defence.
Does it mean the brigade headquarter will shift here and take charge of these battalions?
The Brigade Headquarters is already in place. However, it is expected to be made more robust and comprehensive. As far as the Indian Air Force (IAF) is concerned, surveillance remains our constant challenge. A fair amount of air traffic exists over the A&N islands. The air traffic that comes from the West towards our neighbouring countries to the East, begin to descend in my area of responsibility. Air traffic in this convergence zone is substantial. While we have a limited air surveillance capability presently, we are expecting to add substantial assets both for enhanced surveillance as well as air defence, again over the next two Plan periods.
As I said earlier, as per the long term plans, we will attain the requisite surveillance. At the same time, the government has already approved extension of runways at Shibpur in the north and at Campbell Bay in the south. The important aspect here is that the local administration is equally keen that these runways come up early as they will help in development of the islands and boost tourism, which has a lot of potential. This is also the focus of the Island Development Plan and Niti Aayog.
The CNS has been speaking about the mission-based deployments. How are you supporting them? What assets have been deployed for that?
The mission-based deployment in the Straits of Malacca is steered by ANC. We, at ANC and the Eastern Naval Command, jointly deploy assets to maintain a constant presence there. The assets with long sea legs, helicopter carrying capability and good sensors are being deployed in the mouth of Malacca straits. This deployment has yielded good results and enables the Indian Navy to show presence.
Normally, do you deploy one warship or more than that? And do they come to you for operational turnaround (OTR)?
Typically, we deploy one warship. Yes, the ships do visit our ports for OTR. At times, they also visit our nearby foreign ports.
Do you have agreements with Singapore and others for this?
The OTR at foreign ports requires certain political and diplomatic clearances. However, over a period of time, the procedures have been streamlined and well-established. In addition, we have a good understanding with other like-minded navies, who are forthcoming for such mutual visits.
What facilities do you essentially get? What if any servicing is required?
We mainly get fuel and ration. Even if some defect has to be rectified, we can get that done at these ports.
You recently conducted MILAN-2018. How does an exercise like MILAN help you in doing your tasks?
If you just see around, we have a large number of littorals operating maritime forces in these waters. Several of them are operating or will operate submarines, which will make even the sub-surface environment quite dense. India has maintained close maritime bonds with all these countries in some form or the other. In addition we conduct coordinated patrols, known as CORPATs with Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia. These are the established patrols that we do along the maritime boundaries together. All these interactions take place at the working level and the most important takeaway of such mechanisms is that we improve our communication and understanding of each other’s operating procedures. We have developed very good bonds and working level relations with our maritime neighbours. The procedures here have evolved in a unique manner with emphasis on working level interactions.
Coming to Milan, it was a grand event, much bigger and larger than all its previous editions. 16 countries and 11 foreign ships participated in MILAN-2018. For the first time, a multilateral exercise was conducted during MILAN. Prior to the exercise, as part of MILAN, an international seminar was also held in Port Blair. I have been very closely associated with the International Fleet Review held at Visakhapatnam in 2016 as also the earlier Presidential Fleet Reviews. All these involved participation at the apex level; however, the engagement during MILAN is focussed at the working level. There is substantial social interaction with the officers and men of the visiting ships. They interact extensively with their counterparts from various navies during the seminar, table top exercise, evening gatherings, ships visit and sports. This allows for greater bonding and better understanding amongst them.
What were the lessons learnt in Defence of Andaman and Nicobar Islands Exercise (DANX) conducted last year which also got a bit of a traction in the Chinese press?
All services conduct annual major exercises, be it TROPEX by the Navy or Gagan Shakti of the IAF. While each service participates in some form or the other in these exercises, including forces from ANC; these exercises are conceived by the respective service headquarters. What sets DANX apart is that the exercise was conceived by us at ANC for the defence of A&N islands. Besides all our assets, we got certain force accretion from the three services in the mainland which included the Special Forces too.
What were the lessons learnt from DANX?
As far as these islands are concerned, out of 572 odd islands, only about 37 are inhabited. It is a huge challenge to keep every inch of the islands under surveillance. It finally comes down to the eyes and ears of the very aware citizenry, from the fishing community to the merchant shipping. It must also be remembered that a lot of these islands have very hostile conditions, such as dense forests and unfavourable landing sites and don’t offer anything for sustenance. Now, with better air and surface assets, of IAF, IN and CG, and an alert fishing community incidents of poaching are absolutely minimal.
Don’t you have any UAVs doing surveillance?
We carry out surveillance mainly through Dornier aircraft. In addition, we have the P8I surveillance aircraft of the navy operating from Port Blair on a regular basis. Similarly, while UAVs are not based here, we do operate the naval UAVs from Port Blair regularly. In future, we intend to operate them from other airfields in the islands too. While the phase 1 of Coast Guard’s Coastal Surveillance System (CSS) is already in place, phase 2 of CSS will further improve the surveillance in the islands.
So, you play a dual role then?
Since this is a joint command, I am directly in operational control of all the assets of army, navy, air force and the coast guard.
In exercise Gagan Shakti, what was your role?
Exercise Gagan Shakti was conducted by IAF in accordance with their operational plans. We provided them with whatever support was sought such as turnaround of the aircraft, refuelling etc. The IAF practiced maritime strikes and air defence in our area of responsibility.
Today you have amphibious capability for about two battalions. What is it that ideally you should be looking for in your area of responsibility?
The ANC has a defensive role and I think for that the brigade-level is adequate for the time being.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
This is the only joint operational command in the country. It is an experiment which was started some 17 years ago and we have come a long way. I have all the operational assets of the armed forces directly under me and we operate seamlessly. That, according to me, is the biggest measure of our achievement. I am a naval officer, but here I don the camouflage uniform of our sister service. I would say that the last two-three years have been quite productive for us. We had a wish list and we been allotted several assets by services. While the army has given some of its assets from its existing kitty; the IAF has increased the number of Mi-17 helicopters in the islands. And the navy has provided weapon carrying platforms. Considering our role in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations, our request for a Combat Engineering company has also been met.
Another achievement is that earlier CINCAN (Commander-in-Chief, Andaman Nicobar Command) did not have disciplinary powers over all the three services. As a naval officer, I had the power to take disciplinary action against naval personnel, but now I also have the warrant to operate the Army Act and the Air force Act as well. Similarly, all land holdings of the defence forces have been directly placed under ANC. This will result in optimum utilisation.