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INS Jatayu: The Strategic Signalling of India’s New Naval Base in Lakshadweep

The IOR is becoming an arena for major power competition, and specific to India – the Chinese footprint is growing.

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The Indian Navy (IN) commissioned a new naval base INS Jatayu on the Minicoy island in the Lakshadweep chain in the Arabian Sea on 6 March which would enhance the surveillance capability of the IN in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). On the same day, the IN deployed the guided missile destroyer INS Kolkata to provide swift assistance to a bulk carrier (MV True Confidence) that caught fire after being hit by a drone/missile, and the hapless crew were forced to abandon the stricken ship.

In an unintended manner, both these events and other geo-political developments in the IOR draw attention to the immediate and long-term challenges for India in the maritime domain.

These were aptly summarized by the Naval Chief Admiral Hari Kumar at the commissioning of INS Jatayu. He noted that while "the IOR is witnessing an upsurge in maritime terror, crime and piracy" and current events such as the attack on MV True Confidence are illustrative – the Admiral added that "the Navy's growing strength is not just to cater for these short-term ongoing crises, but more importantly to ensure the future balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region."

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Why Lakshadweep As the Site Matters?

India’s major island territories are located both in the Bay of Bengal (Andaman and Nicobar) and the Arabian Sea (Lakshadweep) and their size and geographical features are very different.

The A&N islands, by the nature of their size and topography, can house major infrastructural facilities and hence, India has created a tri-service command in Port Blair and over the decades – a modest but credible military presence has been nurtured in the Bay of Bengal.
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However, this was not possible in the much smaller Lakshadweep group given their tiny size and coral structure that did not allow for any major infrastructure to be created.

Currently, India has a small naval base INS Dweeprakshak on the Kavaratti Island, and INS Jatayu in Minicoy will be the second such base in Lakshadweep.

It is expected that Jatayu will become a larger base with appropriate infrastructural upgrades, including an airfield for civil and military use, jetties, and housing for personnel stationed there.

However, this is a work in progress and the outcome will be determined by the quantum of material resources that can be made available and the environmental cost-benefit assessment.

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Indo-Pacific: A Strategic Zone for Indian Navy

Surveillance is a key component of holistic MDA (Maritime Domain Awareness) and India has a proven capability index in this regard and INS Jatayu will add to this basket.

Criminal activities including piracy, gun-running, narcotics, and drug trafficking are a tenacious menace in the IOR and the IN has been performing a commendable constabulary role in being the first responder in many such exigencies.

Over the last two months, the IN has been very nimble in providing assistance to merchant shipping affected by the turbulence in West Asia and this has burnished India’s credibility as a security provider but this is not the primary function of the Navy.

At the end of the day, the strategic imperative for the Navy is to ensure a favourable balance of power in the maritime domain that is critical to the national interest – and in the Indian context, it is the Indo-Pacific as highlighted by Admiral Hari Kumar.
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New Base Instituted Amid India-Maldives Tensions

Currently, the IOR is becoming an arena for major power competition, and specific to India – the Chinese footprint is growing. Apart from a military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, Beijing has also made an important breakthrough in the Maldives.

Much to Delhi’s discomfiture, the new government in Male has chosen China to be its preferred security partner and India which has had a historical special relationship with the island nation has been asked to exit.

Earlier this week, on 4 March, China and Maldives signed an agreement, whereby gratis military assistance would be provided by Beijing to Male and this is within the framework of a "comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” that was signed by the two nations in January this year.

This development is a setback to the SAGAR (Security And Growth for All in the Region) vision unveiled by Prime Minister Modi in 2015 and points to the complexity of the balance of power dynamic in the IOR. It is instructive that China has made significant inroads into the Indian neighborhood and both Sri Lanka and Nepal are cases in point.
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The perennial Indian challenge in ensuring a credible balance of power in the maritime domain is the lack of adequate resources. Traditionally, the Navy receives the lowest budgetary allocation and the 2023-24 defence budget distribution was as follows: Army 57 percent; Air Force 19 and Navy 17 percent respectively. This has to be reviewed and rearranged – and this will not be an easy task for the higher defence apex.

PM Modi seemed determined to redress India’s traditional sea-blindness syndrome and some initiatives were welcome. But the implementation of the Modi vision has been uneven and SAGAR is one such example.

While the concept was packaged in a persuasive manner – the details remained fuzzy and neither was there any allocation of dedicated resources nor a road map with sectoral responsibilities.
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Perhaps, there is a renewed political vigour towards the end of Modi 2.0 to prioritise the maritime domain and this was suggested in remarks made by the Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in Goa on 5 March. Speaking at the inauguration of a new complex for the Naval War College, Singh asserted: “We were once known as a ‘landlocked country with sea shores’, but now we can be seen as an 'island country with land borders’ ”.

This is an import-laden statement and acknowledges the distinctive political geography that constrains India along its land borders (two of which remain unresolved) and the opportunities at sea. But with the slim budgetary allocation that the silent service receives – it will be hard-pressed to ensure a balance of power in the IOR that would be commensurate with the challenges that have to be addressed.

(The writer is a leading expert on strategic affairs. He is currently Director, Society for Policy Studies. This is an opinion piece. All views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Indian Ocean   Maldives   PM Modi 

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