December 2, 2020

The Indian Air Force in the Indian Ocean Region

The New age IAF has the potential to be an important tool for SAGAR which is the basis of national maritime policy.
Keywords: Indian ocean | IAF | IOR | Security | Maritime | SAGAR | Strategic Flux | Air Power | HADR | Evacuation | Stability | China
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Today, the Indian Ocean hosts one of the busiest and most critical maritime transportation corridors in the world. Almost a hundred thousand ships a year pass through these waters, carrying about half of the world’s container shipments, one-third of the world’s bulk cargo traffic and two-thirds of the oil shipments. The fact that three quarters of this traffic is headed for destinations beyond the region underlines the vital importance of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). While the attention of other countries on IOR is fairly recent, India has maintained trade and civilisational links with other coastal countries for centuries. 

India’s location at the very centre of the Indian Ocean has linked it with other cultures, shaped its maritime trade routes, and influenced its strategic thought.  Due to its location, potential of economic growth, trade capacity by sea and blue water navy, India has been undoubtedly considered as the lynchpin of the region. India’s role as the key player in the Indian Ocean region for stability, security, peace and mutual growth is imperative.

India’s location at the very centre of the Indian Ocean has linked it with other cultures, shaped its maritime trade routes, and influenced its strategic thought.  

Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) vision is an unambiguous expression of India’s ideas for the IOR which was introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015. This vision can be the basis of national maritime policy and a bonding factor with IOR nations for overall mutual development in a safe and secure environment.

India has always promoted platforms for mutual progress and development of the IOR through politico-diplomatic ties while upholding the security of the region by maintaining peace with the help of adequate defence forces. While the Indian Navy plays the role of flag-bearer in the IOR, the Indian Air Force (IAF) and Indian Army have done their best as and when required.

The IAF has evolved over the years to gain the capabilities of a global air force and is being used as a preferable medium to project soft as well as hard power. Air power projection by the IAF has fulfilled the need of guarding India’s land and maritime borders, deterring non-state actors as well as helping friendly neighbours in times of crisis, be it man-made or natural. 

The active role of air power in the IOR needs to be discussed in detail because, according to ever-evolving doctrines of defence forces across the globe, airpower is and will remain the key to security on the high seas. With this reason, a research project was undertaken by me and this article is a brief summary of that research which will come out in the form of a book in the next few weeks. The objective of this research is to bring out the importance of air power in the maritime domain by highlighting the role of the IAF in the IOR. The research has been elaborative enough to highlight the role of the IAF in enhancing India’s strategic footprint in the IOR under vision SAGAR. Salient topics that will be covered comprehensively in my upcoming book are mentioned below in brief:

India and The Indian Ocean:  A Venerable Bond 

The established historical evidence for the inter-dependence of India and the Indian Ocean has been mentioned in a chronological sequence. The ocean was a major conduit of trade, commerce, religions and cultures much earlier than the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It connected the Indian sub-continent with many countries that were dependent on trade winds, established India as the strongest economy of the world in pre-colonial times and carried India’s culture, religions and ideas far and wide. Recent history and the present scenario for power projection demands India’s active role in the IOR.

SAGAR- India’s Vision for the IOR

India has always promoted platforms for mutual progress and development of the IOR through politico-diplomatic ties while upholding the security of the region by maintaining peace

India has appreciated the importance of the IOR and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made it clear that India sees the IOR as a hub for development of all its neighbours. The integrated approach towards the Indian Ocean, SAGAR, is intended to safeguard its organic unity while advancing cooperation. Key elements of this vision which are focussed on deepening economic and security cooperation with the IOR neighbours of India while assuring mutual growth have been discussed thoroughly. 

Strategic Flux in the IOR

The IOR is home to most of the global hotspots. The current security order in the IOR is underpinned mainly by the USA. The Indian Navy is able to safeguard Indian interests in India’s Area Of Responsibility (AOR), but China too is emerging as a major naval and, indeed, as a maritime power. 

There are problems in Gulf countries and there are suspicious elements of collaboration taking place between China, Iran and Pakistan. China’s string of pearls strategy is also a matter of concern. The developments of harbours in many IOR countries by China as dual use ports points to their probable military use in the future. The situation in the South China Sea (SCS) is also turbulent and troubles can be felt in the eastern IOR. The overall strategic flux in present day IOR has been put forward.

Indian Defence Forces in the IOR

The IAF has evolved over the years to gain the capabilities of a global air force and is being used as a preferable medium to project soft as well as hard power.

In order to have a protected Indian Ocean, an understanding followed by a system to have security as priority is needed for the IOR. Security forces of all the nations have to be exposed to think beyond their local AOR and realise the importance of a secure Indian Ocean. The Indian Defence Forces have been responding to situations threatening the stability of the region and will continue to do so. 

To highlight the role of Indian forces in providing both security to IOR countries from any threat (conventional or non-conventional) and, succour in case of natural or man-made disasters, I have collated past examples of contribution by Indian forces in furthering peace, trust and stability in the region and beyond. The statistical analysis through graphs in the book will make the level of engagement between defence forces of the IOR clearer and will point to the path ahead.

Air Power for SAGAR

There have been many occasions where Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) and evacuation capabilities of the IAF have saved many lives and strengthened international relations.

There are other examples in history when the IAF undertook combat missions to support another nation and successfully played the role of a reliable friend. In order to further India’s military diplomacy, the IAF has been a consistent contributor to peacekeeping forces in several countries. There have been many occasions where Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) and evacuation capabilities of the IAF have saved many lives and strengthened international relations. All those examples and capabilities of soft and hard (air) power have been brought out, highlighting that the new age IAF has the experience and potential to be an important tool for SAGAR. There are few suggestions given at the end which point out ways to enhance air power capabilities in order to make India a regional security provider. 

The book would not be complete if it did not mention the changing geo-politics of IOR at the time of Covid-19 pandemic and in the context of China’s aggressive behaviour on all fronts. This has put India’s diplomacy as well as defence preparedness to a test. The upcoming book will bring out opportunities and ways to strengthen air power operations to enhance ‘security and stability while ensuring mutual growth in the IOR’ which is at the core of vision SAGAR.

This Article is a brief summary of an upcoming book and will be published for the readers of Geo-politics, IR and defence and strategic studies. 

1 comment

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  • Presently Research and Study in the field of
    Defence of the Country is of paramount importance, considering the increase presence of China in the Indian Ocean Region.
    The Vision statement of Prime Minister Narinder Modi on SAGAR ( Security and Growth for All in the Region ) is a guiding
    lighthouse for such venture.
    Congratulations to Vikas Kalyani for undertaking study and research on the theme.
    I look forward to the publication of this book.
    May God grant him further success.

Vikas Kalyani

Vikas Kalyani

Wg Cdr Vikas Kalyani is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at India Foundation

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