Tsunami and India’s blue-water navy

Anand K Sahay:

Since the Andaman and Nicobar islands are home to the unified tri-services command Fortress Andaman and Nicobar, a crucial element in India’s defence architecture, the question has naturally arisen if the frightful December earthquake that shook the sea-floor and the killer tsunami waves it unleashed, may have impacted adversely India’s vision of possessing a blue-water navy.

Traditionally, India’s naval perception has remained confined to its coastal waters and its maritime economic zone. But a host of considerations in the contemporary world have obliged policy-makers for some years to think in terms of naval capabilities that will permit ships to cruise the high seas and adopt defensive or offensive postures. Some of the concerns guiding the quest for a blue-water capability are the country’s place in the geo-strategic map of the world, the complex matrices that guide its threat perceptions, the need to tackle sea-based obstacles to its international trade, the requirement to cooperate with navies of friendly countries, the need to rush aid, and the call of diplomacy which may need force projection as a component.

The island-chain peers over the Malacca Straits in southeast Asia and also the western Indian Ocean. Both take in a crucial stretch of the world’s sea-lanes that have a bearing on India’s security and its access to resources from the rest of the world. The islands are geographically nearer to several neighbouring countries than to the Indian mainland.

Since the union territory of Andaman and Nicobar has suffered considerable damage to its infrastructure, besides an alteration to its physical features caused by the jolt given to the earth’s axis by the earthquake preceding the tsunamis, speculation has surfaced that India’s ocean-going capability, and therefore its quest for a blue-water navy, may have been affected. Authoritative sources in the Andaman and Nicobar Command believe there are no grounds for fear on this count. The basic justification for the optimism is the fact that hardware capabilities of neither the air force nor the navy have been degraded by the recent devastation.

As for ships on the seas, they are not affected by earthquakes. The tsunamis too did not impact the sea-vessels as these were merely lifted up by the waves though “wave action” was reported as high as 90 feet on average. No vessel was lost in the storm that was unleashed, post-26 December.

The air force was distinctly lucky. Though it has an air base in Car Nicobar, the waves that tore in did not reach the planes. With the aircraft safe, pilots could begin rescue operations even as the waves were striking. The IAF was able to airlift about 400 persons on the spot though it lost some of its personnel and their families who were caught unawares. The infrastructure is, however, another story. The landing strip in Carnic has been damaged and the airbase may have to be rebuilt.

It is to the credit of the officers and men that even in heavily curtailed circumstances, and now possessing just the basics with which they are having to make do, they have been landing Ilyushins and AN-32s that bring in emergency relief materials and ferry people around. Since the naval base and infrastructure lies essentially in the Port Blair area in the Andamans, the northerly part of the union territory, rather than the southerly Nicobar group where the tsunami really hit and where the air base is located, the navy got away with relatively light damage.

Sahay, a journalist, writes for THT from New Delhi