The Narcondam Hornbill
New Delhi, May 20: The Narendra Modi government has granted the military permission to test missiles targeting four ecologically fragile islands in the Andaman and Nicobar group in the Bay of Bengal, junking a UPA policy derisively known as "birds-over-bombs".
The islands are uninhabited or largely uninhabited for most of the year, a source in the defence ministry claimed.
Environmental organisations such as the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, claim the islands are home to a variety of flora and fauna. Among wildlife seen on the islands are birds such as the Nicobarese Megapode, the Sparrowhawk, the Glossy Swiftlet, crocodiles and water monitors.
The islands are Tillanchong - which will host targets for Tube-Launched Land Attack Missiles (T-LAMs) from the navy's submarines and warships - Trinkat, Trek and the Isle of Man.
Narcondam Island in the northeast Andamans is also expected to be used for installation of more sensors to make it a high-powered "listening post". The island became the centre of a controversy after the navy put up a radar station there because it is home to what ornithologists call a rare species of bird named the "Narcondam Hornbill".
Ironically, to the dismay of environmentalists, the navy has two warships named after two of the islands that are in its crosshairs: the INS Tillanchang was part of the fleet till the government transferred (or gifted) it to the Maldives. The INS Trinkat continues to be part of the fleet.
The navy last tested its missiles in Tillanchong in 2008. When it asked for permission to use the island as a firing range and for target practice, the UPA government had rejected the request.
In October 2012, then environment minister, the Congress's Jayanthi Natarajan, said the rejection was a "very, very difficult decision because it involves national security, and a missile range is important".
The navy has a forward operating base at INS Kardip in Kamorta in the Nicobar group of islands.
Defence ministry sources said the navy, the army and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) will use Tillanchong to test Russian-origin T-LAMs called Klubs, the India-Russia joint-venture missile, Brahmos, and possibly the delivery vehicles for a secretive strategic missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads fired from submarines sometimes referred to in official literature as the Sagarika, the K-15 and the K-9.
Nuclear warheads are not used in tests. The army and the navy want to test conventional weapons with live warheads.
The army tested the Brahmos missile, which has a range of 290km, this month.
Military sources say they emphasise the importance of testing the missiles because "we have not been able to expend our annual practice allowance for many years". Each weapon in the arsenal comes with an "annual practice allowance" that is a small percentage - usually three to five per cent of the total number held - that has to be fired before the weapons are used in actual hostilities or before the end of their expiry date.
The Klub T-LAMs, the tube-missiles which can be fired to attack targets on land from under water, are imported from Russia. They are now standard in all modern warships of the navy but have not been fired in Indian conditions. They have been tested only in Russia.
This complicates matters because, first, the weapons could not be tested in conditions in which they are likely to be used. Second, the crew do not get enough practice.
"The business of war is expensive," explained one officer. "We have to keep firing to learn to shoot straight."
Environmentalists say increasing militarisation of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is leading to clashes between soldiers and traditional livelihood systems like the Nicobarese "tuhets". But military officials argue that not only are readiness and training important, it is also difficult to find uninhabited spaces within Indian territory.
The possibility of missiles missing the islands during practice also has to be taken into account in designating targets. Mercantile traffic in the Bay of Bengal around the Andamans is less than that around the Lakshadweep and Minicoy Islands on India's west coast. The bulk of the traffic through the Bay of Bengal passes south of Nicobar to the Straits of Malacca.