The Telegraph
Tuesday , July 10 , 2012
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Hawk eye on Malacca strait

New Delhi, July 9: India is set to commission its latest military post named Baaz (hawk) on its south-eastern fringe in the Bay of Bengal to oversee a sea lane through which a quarter of the world’s trade passes, an Indian Navy source told The Telegraph on Monday.

In April this year, the navy had upgraded its detachment in the Lakshadweep Islands in the Arabian Sea to the level of a full-fledged base. Named the INS Dweeprakshak, the base is in the island of Kavaratti.

Together, the INS Dweeprakshak and the naval air station, Baaz, are set to be India’s western and eastern-most sentinels.

But it is the Baaz that is of greater significance to the world because its location gives it a hawk eye over the Straits of Malacca after US defence secretary Leon Panetta said in Delhi last month that its military was “re-balancing” to the Asia-Pacific.

Campbell Bay, where Baaz has come up, is closer to Indonesia than to the Indian mainland.

To be opened this month-end by the outgoing navy chief, Admiral Nirmal Verma, whose mission it has been, naval air station (NAS) Baaz will be based in Campbell Bay at the southern tip of Great Nicobar island. Spread over nearly 70 hectares, Baaz will eventually be capable of turning around all kind of fighter and transport-troop carrier aircraft.

NAS Baaz sits astride the Six-Degree Channel between Nicobar and the coast of Aceh that is known to sailors around the world as the mouth of the Straits of Malacca. The strait connects the Indian and Pacific Oceans and the economies of China, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are largely dependent on it.

Last month, a Hercules C-130 aircraft, newly acquired by the Indian Air Force, flew non-stop for 10 hours from the base at Hindon, east of Delhi, to Campbell Bay. That was a trial sortie that indicated that operations were about to begin at NAS Baaz.

Battered by the tsunami of 2004, Campbell Bay, with its fragile ecosystem, is now set to become one of India’s most strategic forward operating air bases. It now has a 3,000ft runway that is likely to be extended and will eventually be able to handle airlifters like the IL-76 and the larger Globemaster III that the IAF has contracted.

Fighter aircraft can operate from the base even now but, with its commissioning as a full-fledged station, it extends their reach. Indian air surveillance in and around the Bay of Bengal, apart from the coastline, has depended on sorties from Port Blair — about 550 nautical miles north of Campbell Bay, roughly the distance from Delhi to Bhopal — that made it difficult to sustain the watch over longer periods of time.

With the commissioning of Baaz, Indian military aircraft would now be able to spend more time in surveillance of not only the Straits of Malacca but also the Straits of Sunda and Lombok. China’s Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) rates its strategic interest in the Straits of Malacca on a par with the importance it gives to Taiwan.

The commissioning of NAS Baaz on the southern tip of Great Nicobar island will be followed by an upgrade of NAS Shibpur at Diglipur on the northern tip of the Andamans.