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Military to expand strategic footprint
Rejig to guard India interests

New Delhi, Oct. 3: India’s armed forces are re-orienting their strategic reach from the ability to land in, take off from and deploy in countries around the Indian Ocean rim to “wherever India’s interests lie”.

“I expect that at least by 2022, we are capable of taking care of India’s interests not only at home, but also abroad,” Air Chief Marshal Norman Anil Kumar Browne said today, setting a 10-year time frame.

“So far, our interest was defined from the Gulf of Aden (in the west) to the Straits of Malacca (in the east) but, as experience in Libya and other countries have taught us, we have to be able to reach wherever we have our interests,” he said.

Reflecting the dichotomy in India’s economic growth story, the military is swinging between the aspirational and the actual: its strategic global “vision” contrasts sharply with its “tactical” domestic and frontier compulsions.

Despite that, the re-orientation of strategic perspective that the air chief disclosed today means the military “perspective plans” that are now being drawn up will focus on acquiring assets that can cover longer distances faster — such as the C17 Globemaster III heavy-lift aircraft — and deployable hardware.

The Indian Air Force maintains a low-profile presence in just one foreign base — at Farkhor/Ayni in Tajikistan where Indian military engineers have relaid a runway and built hangars — but the security establishment does not make that public.

But India’s military is not preparing to “fight other people’s wars”, the air chief marshal said. “There is a big difference between expanding ‘strategic reach’ and being ‘expeditionary’,” Air Chief Marshal Browne said.

The militaries of western developed countries, such as the US and the UK, are “expeditionary”, meaning that they engage in conflicts thousands of kilometres from their own territories. India’s focus will remain on airlifting, search and rescue and missions guarding Indian business assets overseas.

“First, obviously we have to see our security interest… that is defending the air space within our country, and thereafter look at where are our strategic interests lie. Earlier, we have been talking of our strategic interests starting from the Gulf of Aden to the Malacca Straits. But as the global footprint of India increases, certainly the IAF will be called upon to serve India’s interests based on our capabilities,” Browne said.

The modernisation plans will have to be tailored keeping in mind that “the strategic interests of the country will be serviced by the IAF irrespective of place, location and time, and we must achieve that capability”, he said.

The re-orientation of the Indian military’s strategic vision, policy-makers believe, is in keeping with the growth of Indian business interests and the presence of Indians in conflict-ridden countries. For example, Indian companies are prospecting for oil in the South China Sea, in collaboration with Vietnam, and around Sakhalin in Russia’s Pacific Coast.

But India’s security commitments at home demand a balance in acquisitions that the military is finding difficult to achieve. “This is something that will happen over the years and will be based on capabilities,” Air Chief Marshal Browne said, when asked if the new “strategic vision” was aspirational or whether the armed forces were actually working to a plan.

“It is clear that we have to be able to cover the distances in conjunction with, for example, the navy, as we did in Libya,” Browne said.

Among the domestic security demands that the military is currently trying to meet are mountain radars for the frontier with China, where air intrusions were reported as late as July. Browne said the IAF was currently dependent on the Indo Tibetan Border Police, a paramilitary force, to report such intrusions. The deployment of mountain radars would send out alerts in real time.

The Union home ministry, too, was likely to add to the list of multi-utility Mi-17 V5 helicopters that the IAF is now engaged in procuring. The IAF contracted 80 of the helicopters in 2008. It also told the home ministry that its resources were too stretched to deploy the number of helicopters it has asked for counter-Maoist operations. But this month the IAF has deployed two helicopters in Ranchi in addition to four in Jagdalpur and Raipur (Chhattisgarh).

Browne said the new helicopters were joining the fleet from this month and he expected to get 26 by March 2012.

The first squadron of the new Mi-17 V5s will be deployed at Bagdogra in north Bengal.

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