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    South Asia
     Oct 17, 2006
India navy drops another anchor
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - The Indian Navy is getting a new base on the country's east coast. It is 50 kilometers south of Visakhapatnam, where the navy's eastern command is headquartered. This is India's second east-coast naval base, and it is designed to help protect the country's trade with Southeast Asia and to keep a wary eye on China's naval posture in the Bay of Bengal.

The new base - it doesn't have a name yet since it is still at a concept and design stage - is expected to berth two aircraft

carriers, support ships and submarines. India's first indigenously built aircraft carrier, which is capable of operating a fleet of 30 aircraft, including naval light combat aircraft, MiG 29K and Sea Harrier aircraft, is likely to be berthed there.

Visakhapatnam houses a naval base and a commercial port, the latter India's leading port in terms of tonnage for the sixth year in a row. Since expansion of the port is not feasible and with maritime traffic expected to increase in the coming years, the need for a complementary port has been felt for a while now. That culminated in the decision to set up a commercial port at Gangavaram.

Just as Gangavaram will help ease the pressure of commercial traffic at Visakhapatnam, the new naval base is expected to decongest the Visakhapatnam naval base. Lawrence Prabhakar, research fellow in the Maritime Security program at the Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, points out that the new base "will provide better anchorage facilities than the crowded Visakhapatnam base".

At Visakhapatnam, the Indian Navy has had to share space with commercial vessels. For several years the navy has been seeking a naval base on the east coast that is under its exclusive control. A similar demand with regard to the west coast resulted in the commissioning of Indian Naval Ship (port) Kadamba at Karwar last year. Kadamba is exclusively under the control of the navy and was set up to ease congestion at Mumbai, which like Visakhapatnam houses a naval base and a commercial port.

There is a need for diversification of naval platforms and another base on the eastern seaboard will meet that need, Prabhakar told Asia Times Online. Besides, there is a need to accommodate newer ships with specialized berthing and service facilities, and appropriate infrastructure for newer ships such as the new air-defense ships and submarines. "The new eastern naval base, along with INS Kadamba would thus emerge as second-tier defense in depth at sea for the Indian Navy," Prabhakar points out.
The proposed base on India's east coast is the latest addition to its rapidly growing naval and maritime profile. India's navy is the fifth-largest in the world. It has ambitions of becoming a blue-water navy, and another naval base will contribute to realizing this ambition.

India describes the waters extending from the Strait of Hormuz to the Strait of Malacca, from Africa's east coast to the western shores of Australia as part of its "rightful domain". An overwhelming proportion of India's imports, especially its oil imports, come by sea. Control over sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) is therefore vital for realization of its dreams of becoming a global economic powerhouse. All this requires a naval and maritime fleet that can protect the SLOCs.

India's "Look-East" policy has resulted in increased economic, strategic and other engagement with Southeast Asia. Over 50% of India's trade passes through the Malacca Strait, making security of this waterway, particularly in the context of piracy there and the lurking threat of maritime terrorism, a crucial security concern for India.

An enhanced naval presence in the Bay of Bengal is therefore vital for India. It was this that prompted India to set up a naval command on the Andaman and Nicobar islands. The new base on India's east coast will further bolster the Andaman and Nicobar naval command, Prabhakar observes, adding that since the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are vulnerable to seismic and tsunami threats, "another base on the Eastern mainland of India is quite essential".

"The political-strategic intent of the new base is to build sinews for India's "Look-East" policy not only in trade terms but also in the context of the evolving maritime balance of power in the Asia-Pacific," says Prabhakar. China is the dominant concern. "The proposed base would have comprehensive anti-air, anti-submarine and amphibious capability, meaning a greater allocation of priority to the emergent Chinese naval force posture in the Myanmar region."

A second naval base on the east coast, which will contribute to increasing India's naval presence in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, is intended to balance China's influence there and to facilitate ongoing Indian naval exercises in the South China Sea with the navies of China-wary countries.

The location of the new base is said to be ideal. It is tucked away from the heart of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean; yet these are easily accessible from the base, as is the Malacca Strait. It is not too near to Bangladesh or Myanmar - where the Chinese naval presence poses a threat to India - as Kolkata is; yet it is close enough to "watch and listen" to Chinese naval activity here.

While the location of the new base is being described as excellent, it appears that the Indian Navy's first choice for the site was Gangavaram, where the new commercial port is being constructed. The navy apparently had identified Gangavaram as best suited for building berthing facilities for its Advanced Technology Vessel (or nuclear submarine) project. It had apparently put in a request some years ago for Gangavaram to be developed as a naval facility but the government turned it down.

Not only did the Indian government sideline the navy for development of the Gangavaram port but worse, it awarded the development of the port project to a private consortium consisting of DV Raju and Dubai Ports World. The latter, the world's third largest port operator, was caught in a political storm in the United States early this year, with questions being raised over the security implications of a United Arab Emirates-owned (UAE)company taking over the running of six American ports.

In April this year, when Dubai Ports World's role as developer of the Gangavaram port drew media attention, an official in India's Defense Ministry told Asia Times Online that the Indian Navy had written to the government four to five years ago expressing its concerns with Dubai Ports World developing Gangavaram.

Unlike the American objection to a UAE-based company running its ports, the Indian Navy's objection was that a foreign operator was being allowed to manage a port so close to the eastern naval command's headquarters, he said. Dubai Ports World subsequently pulled out of the consortium that is developing Gangavaram port.

The new base is being described as the Kadamba of the east. There is little doubt that like Kadamba it will boost India's naval ambitions. But will it - like Kadamba - take decades to become a reality?

"Project Seabird" of which Kadamba is a part was conceived decades ago. It received government sanction in August 1985, and construction was to begin in January 1986 and finish in seven years. In October 1986, then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi even laid the foundation stone for the project. But it was shelved thanks to a resource crunch. Work on the project began only in late 1999 and after enormous time and cost overruns, Kadamba was finally commissioned last year.

Government officials are quick to dismiss fears that the new base will take time to become a reality. Of the 5,000 acres sought by the Defense Ministry, the government of Andhra Pradesh - the state where the base will be located - has already allotted 500 acres. According to reports, the remaining land is to be assigned shortly. The project seems to have started off well. But political and bureaucratic meddling will have to stop for the new naval base project to go full steam ahead.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

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