#DefenseDiaries: Why are the Andaman & Nicobar Islands strategically important?
The Indian military conducted a major exercise in the Andaman & Nicobar (A&N) Islands from November 20 to 24. The "Defence of A&N Islands Exercise" (DANX) saw the Indian Air Force (IAF), Army and Navy warplanes, warships, special forces and regular troops fine-tune joint operations. The exercise highlights the growing strategic importance of the A&N Islands for India amid China's increasing regional presence.
The A&N Islands is a cluster of 572 islands located in the Bay of Bengal. Nearly 30% of India's Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) lie around the A&N Islands. The islands also strategically overlook the maritime chokepoint at the Strait of Malacca. The strait is a narrow, 850-km stretch of sea that links the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean.
The Strait of Malacca is the world's busiest shipping lane. Both the Indian and Chinese economies depend heavily on trade along this Sea Line of Communication (SLOC). The narrow strait acts as a chokepoint. In case of conflict, if either India or China manage to gain control of the strait, they can bring the other's oil and cargo trade to a standstill.
In 2001, the A&N Command (ANC) was set up. It's India's only theatre command in which all personnel and assets of the IAF, Army, Coast Guard, and Navy are placed under the control of one commander.
The ANC has at least 20 small Indian Navy warships, two Naval sea bases, one IAF airbase and three naval airbases under its command. It commands one Indian Army brigade (3,000 soldiers). It operates a small number of Mi-17 helicopters and Dornier-228 patrol aircraft. The IAF occasionally deploys its front-line Sukhoi-30MKI fighter jets and the Navy, its P-8I Poseidon aircraft out of Port Blair.
India is planning to extend runways at naval airbases in Shibpur and Campbell Bay, so they may accommodate fighter jets and larger planes like the IAF's C-130J and Navy's P-8I. India eventually plans to deploy an Army division (15,000 troops), an IAF jet squadron (18-20 aircraft) and major warships to the islands. It's also planning to add ammunition depots, jetties and revamp naval bases.
The latest DANX exercise and India's attempts at boosting the military infrastructure in the A&N Islands come amid the Chinese navy's growing forays into the Indian Ocean. At least one Chinese nuclear submarine and 13 warships have been spotted in the region in 2017. This is the highest ever deployment of the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean.