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India’s Lakshadweep Islands to Grow in Strategic Importance

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Highlights
  • The islands of the Lakshadweep archipelago will receive increased strategic attention as India expands its maritime horizons, in both the western and eastern theatres of the Indian Ocean.
  • The islands offer the same advantages for India’s naval diplomacy as do the Andaman Islands, to the east.
  • Along with the new naval base at Karwar on India’s west coast, they will be used to project India’s command of the sea in the western Indian Ocean.

As India expands its maritime outlook in both the western and eastern theatres of the Indian Ocean, the islands of Lakshadweep will receive increased strategic attention.

Located approximately 300 kilometres from the Indian west coast state of Kerala, the archipelago comprises 36 islands, with a total land area of only 32 square kilometres. The geographical spread of the islands, however, gives India around 20,000 km2 of territorial waters and an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of approximately 400,000 km2.

To start with, as a part of its maritime strategy, India plans to convert the present naval outpost in Lakshadweep into a fully-fledged operational base, able to project power and provide sea denial and command of the sea capabilities, especially in relation to Pakistan.

Analysis ::

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands offer India advantages vis-à-vis South-East Asia and well into the Indo-Pacific, as part of its Act East policy and naval diplomacy ventures. Lakshadweep offers almost the same package for India’s naval diplomacy efforts in the western Indian Ocean region.

Lakshadweep could also offer a secondary base for maritime co-operation with Mauritius, the Seychelles and the Maldives. It is a matter of record that during the Cold War, prior to the Southern Naval Command being established in Kochi, India planned to base a fleet in either the Maldives or Lakshadweep.

Although that endeavour did not materialise, because India was preoccupied with its coastal security rather than power projection, its thinking has changed over the past decade or so.

India’s maritime attention is predominately oriented towards the eastern Indian Ocean and the western Pacific Ocean. Lakshadweep, along with the Karwar naval base, will be used for the concept of Command of the Sea in the western Indian Ocean, without requiring major changes to the Indian Navy’s command structure.

The expectation is that Lakshadweep will work closely with the naval base in Karwar, which is primarily used for power-projection operations, although it falls geographically within the area controlled by Southern Naval Command in Kochi.

Phase I of the more than 50 billion-plus rupee (around $985 million) Karwar project was completed in 1995. Phase II is expected to be finished in 2022. The completed project will include the naval base at Port Karwar.

Further, to help achieve effective fleet operations and a sustainable command of the sea, India will acquire bases, or access to bases, in the western Indian Ocean, such as Duqm port in Oman. It will also need to convert its present naval outpost at Lakshadweep into a fully-fledged operational base, with the capacity for power projection, sea denial and command of the sea, especially in relation to Pakistan.

As a part of its expanding maritime strategy, India will also seek to consolidate its existing maritime co-operation with Sri Lanka. India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives presently have a trilateral maritime security co-operation agreement that might, in the future, be expanded into an informal strategic partnership.

The location of forward air bases on these islands, around 300 kilometres from the Indian mainland, would give aircraft an extended combat radius.

Further, electronic monitoring of the Indian Ocean Region could also be effectively carried out by establishing units with holistic capability on the islands.

The Indian Navy will use the Lakshadweep Islands to exercise sea denial as an offensive measure, to reduce an adversary’s freedom of action and to degrade its operations. On another level, the rising presence of extra-regional powers, particularly China, creates a need for greater vigilance and maritime surveillance off the country’s western coast.

Beijing’s advancing interests in the Indian Ocean Region, which are evident from its increasing naval presence and the establishment of its first overseas military base in Djibouti, lend added urgency to the need for a reconfiguration in India’s military approach to the Lakshadweep island of Kavaratti. The geographic position of that island offers the Indian Navy better outreach for patrolling and surveillance across the western Indian Ocean. Consequently, it can be used to great advantage to enhance the Navy’s power projection capabilities.

Lakshadweep Southern Naval Command and Operational Significance ::

The Indian Navy’s surveillance missions received a shot in the arm with the opening of a Naval Detachment (NAVDET) at Androth Island, situated in the Lakshadweep archipelago. The NAVDET would extend the Indian Navy’s presence at Androth by providing a communication network to connect with the mainland.

The Lakshadweep NAVDET is predominately a tactical, defensive arrangement, but it can also be improvised to operate as a strategically offensive base. The arrangement is predominately oriented towards balancing China’s growing influence in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Myanmar, Seychelles, Mauritius and the Maldives, which is a matter of concern for the Indian maritime security agencies.

India’s Southern Naval Command, in Kochi, could potentially co-operate with three US Commands: the African, Indo-Pacific and Central Commands, at the operational level. Such co-operation, if it were to come about, could include limited joint operations with all three Commands and the Indian Navy’s facilities in Lakshadweep.

Furthermore, from Lakshadweep, India will work closely with the network of 26 radar emplacements deployed across the atolls of the Maldives, which will be linked to the Indian Southern Command.

New Delhi had planned to develop a naval base at Assumption Island in the Seychelles, to further aid India’s power projection in the western Indian Ocean. That is no longer looking so certain, but such a base, if it were ever to be developed, would also be expected to come under the control of Southern Command.

The Indian naval establishment based in Lakshadweep will also co-operate with the French Navy, as agreed by the Logistics Exchange Agreement, which is similar to the India-US Logistics Exchange Agreement. The India-France agreement envisages Indian access to French military bases in the western Indian Ocean.

Furthermore, given that India, the United States and Japan will soon start the installation of acoustic systems in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, it is reasonable to expect that a joint project to lay an undersea optical fibre communications cable from Chennai to Port Blair could eventuate. Once completed, the network is likely to be integrated with the existing US-Japan “Fish Hook” network, which was created specifically to monitor the Chinese Navy’s submarine activity in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean Rim. Australia should watch such developments with interest. On a similar note, India would welcome the extension of the Fish Hook network to the Lakshadweep Islands, to aid in monitoring Chinese submarine activities in the western Indian Ocean.

Further, as an extension to facilitate its grand strategic approach, India will create three integrated theatre commands, by rearranging its existing command structure. There is likely to be a northern command for the China border, a western command for the Pakistan border and a southern command for the maritime role. Since the borders with Pakistan and China are on land, if this restructuring goes ahead, army generals will inevitably head the northern and western commands, while an admiral will be responsible for the southern command.

The Southern Command would be responsible for littoral Africa and the Middle East. More theatre commands may also be created as the scale and scope of military activities expand.

Despite their strategic advantages, the Lakshadweep Islands lack the necessary logistical infrastructure, which is reflected in their current operational limitations.

The islands lack the radar installations and long-range airborne assets needed to continuously monitor the seas around them. The sole runway on Lakshadweep’s Agatti Island is restricted to operating the medium-range turboprop aircraft used by regional air transport. That means that the only military aircraft that can operate from the island is the short-haul Dornier 228. A proposal to extend Agatti’s runway to allow it to operate Boeing 737s has been stalled for environmental reasons.

An extended runway would allow the navy to deploy its P-8I Poseidon long-range maritime patrol/strike aircraft, which are presently based in Arakonam, Tamil Nadu. A P-8I (a military version of the Boeing 737 airliner), based in Agatti, could fly surveillance missions across the whole of the Indian Ocean, even as far as South Africa.

A joint brigade-sized force, with amphibious capability and Special Forces, needs to be permanently stationed at INS Dweeprakshak in the Lakshadweep Islands. Under the Modi Government, India is likely to heed the request made by Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen, for help in constructing a naval base near the main island of Malé, on the Uthuru Thila Falhu reef.

A similar approach is expected with Mauritius. India is very likely to favourably consider the Mauritian proposal to grant India a long-term lease to use the North and South Agaléga Islands as naval and air bases.

Such agreements would allow India to increase its forward maritime presence in the Indian Ocean. That would draw the western and southern reaches of the Indian Ocean into an Indian security grid, at the same time that India is also expanding its Western Fleet and building the base in Karwar. It would also help to keep India’s resources proportionate to the Chinese South Sea Fleet’s expanding presence in the Indian Ocean.

The Indian Army, Navy and Air Force are working closely together to fine-tune their new joint amphibious warfare doctrine, using various war games. This involves a major thrust towards practicing seaborne assaults on enemy territory. Meanwhile, the Navy’s strategic sealift capability received a boost with the induction of the 16,900-tonne INS Jalashwa. This vessel, previously known as USS Trenton, with its six UH-3H Sea King troop-carrying helicopters, was purchased from the United States in 2007, at a total cost of US$88 million.

In conclusion, the Lakshadweep archipelago will receive increased attention because of its strategic proximity to the energy-rich western Indian Ocean littoral. But that might also pose operational and managerial problems for the Indian Navy, such as the allocation of resources to its western and southern naval commands.

By: Future Directions

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