Space-stung navy eyes WWII airbase Plan to revive Bobbili in Andhra

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  • Published 27.08.14

Aug. 26: The Indian Navy is working to revive a World War II airbase that was the British Royal Air Force’s (RAF) largest after Lahore in South Asia.

Bobbili, just north of Visakhapatnam, is part of a larger expansion plan of the navy that includes opening a base for conventional and nuclear assets south of Vizag, the chief of the Eastern Naval Command, Vice Admiral Satish Soni, said in an interview.

“We are looking at Bobbili, where there is an old, disused airfield about 45 miles from here. We will have fighters flying from here so we will need an alternative base, to which flights can be diverted. Bobbili is north west of Vizag towards Vijaynagar,” Soni said.

Work to revive the Badangi air strip in Bobbili (Vizianagram district) that has two runways crossing each other has got a fillip after the navy received a “no-objection certificate” from the Andhra government.

The Eastern Naval Command was also last week sanctioned Rs 400 crore — Rs 200 crore each to build maintenance facilities at the naval air station INAS Dega in Vizag for its Advanced Jet Trainer Hawk and MiG29K fighter aircraft, Soni said.

The expansion of the eastern naval command and the establishment of new bases is driven not only by the “Look East Policy” — that for the navy translates into an ability to project power versus China in Asia — but also because the naval dockyards in the Eastern Naval Command headquarters have little or no space after the increase in the number of warships under it.

Soni explained that since INAS Dega was set to become a permanent second home for the naval fighter aircraft (after INAS Hansa in Goa), there was a need for diversionary airfields. The diversionary airfields that Dega has now are in Vijayawada (157 nautical miles or 290km), Bhubaneswar (212 nautical miles, or 392km), Shamshabad (near Hyderabad, 279 nautical miles or 516km).

“We are looking at something closer and Bobbili is about 45 nautical miles (around 83km). It would help us (if) God forbid there is a requirement to divert a fighter aircraft,” explained Soni.

Till it was closed in 1946, the Badangi airbase in Bobbili was equipped with underground armament depots and shelters for aircraft. The RAF used to fly Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters out of Bobbili during the War. The airbase was built in 1942-43.

Despite a no-objection certificate from the state government, however, the navy anticipates land acquisition issues because farmers have settled at the base (as encroachers). A Food Corporation of India facility and the farmers are reported to be using the runways, one measuring 6,000ft and the other 4,000ft for threshing grain.

The flag officer commanding the Eastern Naval Command outlined expansion projects that would necessitate the establishment of another base. The navy rarely admits officially the existence of Project Varsha, a base that is being built at Rambili, about 50km south of Vizag.

Admiral Soni too did not name Project Varsha but said a new facility to shelter not only strategic (nuclear) assets but conventional assets too “would take about seven to eight years”.

“We have 5.1km of jetty space (in the naval dockyards in Vizag). We are full up, it is not as if we have space to spare. We think we are short of docking. We are planning ship lifts, we have earmarked areas for it — there are going to be two ship lifts here in times to come... we have been managing well so far but we definitely need more space, more jetties, more harbours,” Soni said.

A ship-lift is a huge crane that lifts a ship out of the water and puts it into dry dock for maintenance and overhaul. The navy has just one in the country — at Karwar on the North Karnataka coast.

“We are going to have the IAC (indigenous aircraft carrier being built in Kochi) here. The LCAs (light combat aircraft) are coming in. There is a requirement of more aircraft to be based, with Dorniers, AJTs MiG-29Ks and LCAs. The requirements are going to increase and that is why we need another airfield,” Soni said, referring to Bobbili.

Project Varsha, which is coming up around the village of Rambili, too has land acquisition issues. On the drawing board, it will have facilities to harbour the INS Arihant-class nuclear submarines that are being built at the Ship Building Centre in Vizag.

Soni said network-centric operations of the navy have made creation of new bases and inter-operability between platforms over large areas of the Indian Ocean Region a necessity.