The Indian Air Force is in the middle of its largest pan-India combat-training exercise ever. And, this time, the focus is not just on the western front but also on the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), which has always been of immense strategic importance. This all-encompassing exercise by the Indian Air Force comes in the wake of the Chinese bid to assert its dominance in the South China Sea and its increasing forays into the IOR.
The Indian Ocean Region which is home to around 36 countries, is also immensely important for 15 other peripheral states in the region. IOR also provides these countries with deep sea minerals and fisheries. Apart from being a resource by itself, the IOR is an apex trade route for both the West and the East.
Today, 40 percent of the world’s oil supply and 64 percent of oil trade, passes through the IOR. David Michel and Russel Sticklor in their book Natural Resources in the Indian Ocean Region, state how there has been a 13-fold increase in fishing in the IOR and that it now accounts for almost 15 percent of world’s total fishing. The increasing free passage, choke points, new straits have made IOR a global quest for trade & commerce. So, today if there is a dominant discourse around IOR, it is that of trade, strategy and security.
The aim of this real-time Gaganshakti exercise by the Indian Air Force is to increase coordination and deployment of air power in a short & intense combat scenario. The combat-training exercise tries to validate the Air Force’s concept of war-waging capability, but, this exercise will prove to be much more than war preparedness. Experts believe that Gaganshakti will envisage new tactics and doctrinal principles to counter growing influence of the Chinese in the IOR.
The Chinese are frequenting the waters of Indian Ocean by deploying more warships and submarines. They are ducking the accusations of militarization by veiling their intentions behind anti-piracy patrolling. The String of Pearls, the Chinese maritime sobriquet is the most discussed matter today. Chinese have utilised their influence in Sri Lankan region by building the Hambantota port. This port is not just a maritime spectacle, it is a strategic gain for the Chinese presence in the region and it will also act as the Chinese harbinger of economic clout.
This exercise by IAF will act as a clear counter to the Chinese dominance in the region. By conducting network-centric operations and long-range missions with concentrated weapon releases, the Air Force will help the Navy maintain its hold over the Indian Ocean waters. “The Indian Air Force also has an important maritime role in securing India’s national interests. Gaganshakti 2018 is a pan India exercise and maritime air operations will certainly be part of the exercise”, Air Vice Marshal (Retd) Manmohan Bahadur, Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies tells FE Online.
The building of Gwadar port in Pakistan, establishing a submarine base at Marao in the Maldives, strategically using ports at Chittagong, Sittwe, Kyaukpyu and Kra Canal clearly shows that China’s expansion has not been merely for purposes of trade. It is indeed to exert their hegemony over the IOR.
As compared to the South China Sea, there have been no such extreme military activities in IOR. However, the threat of China’s ambition in IOR looms over India. China also tacitly supported Pakistan’s testing of nuclear-capable Submarine Launched Cruise Missile ‘Babur’ in IOR recently. In a nutshell, Beijing’s growing strategic interest in the IOR is clearly evident in its actions. It has massively deployed warships around Pakistan’s Gwadar port. It has developed its first overseas military base at Djibouti and is now trying to acquire a majority stake in Myanmar’s Kyaukpyu port.
Gaganshakti is an IAF centric exercise. But, it is being executed keeping in mind the “Joint Operational Doctrine”. The requirements of the other services are being met and the same has been considered while planning the agenda of the exercise. Joint operations, including CSFO, Airborne Ops, Air Landed Ops and Maritime Ops, have also been planned, a statement from the Air Force read.
The IAF has repeatedly insisted that the exercise is to only demonstrate its war preparedness and defence capabilities and that it is not against any particular country. However, the joint exercises and the deployment of force is particularly focusing on countering threats by Pakistan in the North and threats by China in the East and IOR.
Simulated combat search, joint maritime air operations with Navy, joint land operations with the Indian Army, rescue operations for effective extraction of downed aircrew behind enemy lines, special operations with Garudas and mass casualty evacuation are some of the exercises that are being undertaken.
The IOR has always attracted several global and regional powers to its waters. The United States was the first to establish its military base in the IOR. To counter the Soviets, the United States militarised Diego Gracia in the 1960s. Today, the United States maintains its 5th Fleet to mark its presence over this important region. It is also obvious that China seeks to influence the world waters as the United States has been doing. This is because more than 85 percent of China’s foreign trade is seaborne. China already has disputes over territorial waters in the South China Sea with Taiwan, Malaysia, Phillippines, Vietnam and Brunei. Nevertheless, it seeks to utilise its growing naval power over IOR as well.