Monday, July 9, 2012

Countering China: India's Naval Air Station-Baaz, to spy the Malacca Strait

New Delhi: In about a fortnight from now, Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Nirmal Verma will kick start the process of turning a small and sparingly used Indian military outpost at the very southern-most tip of the Andaman Nicobar Islands into a full-fledged "forward operating base." The Naval Air Station (NAS) Campbell Bay overlooking the six degree Channel, one of the most crucial shipping lanes of the world, will soon become India's eye over the Malacca strait and the Bay of Bengal. The new air station will be rechristened the Naval Air Station (NAS) Baaz.

The six degree channel flows into the Malacca Strait which is one of the most crucial maritime choke points. The 900-kilometre long (550 miles) Malacca Strait connects Asia with the Middle East and Europe. About 40 per cent of the world's trade and more than 50,000 merchant ships sail through it every year. It has assumed even greater importance with the stupendous rise of China in the last decade. Nearly 80 per cent of China's crude oil imports from the Middle East and Africa pass through the Malacca strait. And, an estimated 15 million barrels per day of oil flow through the Malacca Strait from the Middle East Gulf and West.

Sources tell NDTV that in the next few years the Campbell air strip will be increased substantially from the present 3000 odd feet to over 6000 feet. Heavy transport aircraft like the C130J have already landed at Campbell Bay air strip early this year. "Our ability to monitor the Bay of Bengal, the Malacca Strait, will go up exponentially," a senior Naval officer told NDTV. The Campbell Bay air field as of now is very thinly used and doesn't have facility to either maintain or refuel aircrafts. But expansion will mean that INS Baaz will soon have full-fledged hangers that will enable India to maintain and repair aircraft. The manpower deployment too will increase manifold.
As of the now India has fully operational air bases at Diglipur, Port Blair and Carnic. However, the distance between Carnic Island and Campbell Bay is over 300 nautical miles - roughly the same between Delhi and Bhopal. The Carnic base is operated by the Indian Air Force. Now, instead of operating out of Carnic Island, Indian assets will be able to operate out of Campbell Bay which will substantially add to its reach in the region.

Naval Air Station Baaz becomes operational at a time when India anticipates an increase in military maritime traffic in the region. This follows United States enunciating its new strategy i.e., "Rebalancing of Military Strategy with focus on Asia-Pacific." It envisages major changes in deployment and proposes that at least 60 per cent of US Naval assets would be deployed in Asia-Pacific. India, however, refused, to accept the American line.

In the last few years, China has been become increasingly assertive in the Indian Ocean Region. Piracy along the horn of Africa and Arabian Sea has also, in a way, proved to be a bonanza for China - it has given China a valid reason to position its warships in the region. The development of the Campbell air base into a fully equipped forward operating base appears to be India's means of keep a hold over the area.

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