The unique geography of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands offered the ideal setting for the Andaman and Nicobar Command, the first tri-Services command, where the dependency of the land, air and sea forces upon one another is imperative to achieve the optimal security objectives. ANC's primary role is the safety and security of the Andaman Sea region. The Commander-in-Chief of the ANC has also been designated as the Commander-in-Chief of the Coastal Security Command for the A&N region. Additionally, the ANC is responsible for the protection of the vast Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of about six lakh square kms around the archipelago, making up roughly 30 per cent of India's total EEZ.
“Besides defending the sovereignty of the islands, our mandate and charter includes ensuring that the eastern approaches to the Indian Ocean comprising the three straits - Malacca, Lombok and Sunda - remain free from threats for shipping and patrolling the EEZ, particularly, since the northern islands are prone to rampant poaching besides providing humanitarian assistance and conducting relief operations during disasters,” says Lt Gen Naresh C Marwah, the present CINCAN. The Strait of Malacca is the busiest shipping lane in the world, with over one lakh ships passing through it every year. The command also monitors ships passing through the Six Degree and Ten Degree Channels, responds to distress calls and marks their footprints to foreign Naval flotilla in their area of responsibility. “Maritime surveillance of the 572 islands in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, spread over a distance of 720 kms, is our primary task. Two Indian Navy warships are deployed throughout the year - one each patrolling the northern and southern islands,” says Rear Admiral Karambir Singh, Chief of Staff (COS) and the Second-in-Command at the ANC. The command's activities include aerial surveys, beaching operations, anti-poaching operations, 'Tat Suraksha' coastal security exercise and 'Jaan Pehchan' patrols to far-flung and even the uninhabited islands. “Coordinated patrols with Navies of countries sharing maritime boundaries and bilateral and multilateral Naval exercises make a major chunk of our activities,” adds Air Cmde NN Reddy, Chief Staff Officer (Operations).
Long before the ANC came into being, the Indian Navy was the first of the Indian Armed Forces to set footprints here. When the islands became a Union Territory in 1957, the Indian Navy carried out a hydrographic survey and navigation charting of certain islands in 1957-58. The Naval Laboratory in Cochin carried out further detailed studies during 1962-63 and the Indian Navy was again a major participant in the international Indian Ocean expedition organised by the Indian Committee on Oceanic Research. A year later, the resident Naval officers organisation and Naval Garrison came up at Port Blair. INS Jarawa, the first Navy establishment, was finally commissioned on February 15, 1964. In 1970-71, sometime before the Indo-Pak war, the A&N Naval establishments came under the Eastern Naval Command. INS Kardip was commissioned in Kamorta on April 20, 1978 as a forward Naval base, renamed Fortress A&N (FORTAN) in 1981 with a Rear Admiral as the Fortress Commander.
The Navy's A&N Flotilla (ANFLOT) today comprises of 15 ships, 10 amphibious ships and five fast attack craft. The amphibious Landing Ship Tank (LST) comprise one LST (large), INS Kesari, three LST (medium) - INS Mahish, Cheetah and Guldar - each of which can carry upto eight tanks/BMPs and berth a helicopter and six smaller Landing Craft Utility (LCU). “Our fleet is projected to go upto 32 ships by 2022,” says Cmde BC Sethi, the Naval Component Commander (NCC) who commands all naval assets under the ANC. The Sagar Prahari Bal, established in early 2009 for Naval ports, in Port Blair is being provided with 12 fast interception boats and 100 personnel.
The Naval component conducts coordinated patrols separately with the Navies of Indonesia and Thailand twice a year, namely Ind-Indo Corpat and Indo-Thai Corpat. Naval component has also been pivotal to the conduct of the annual Singapore-India Maritime Bilateral Exercise (SIMBEX) since 2007 and the biennial naval conglomeration Milan that began with the participation of four nations in 1995. More than 12 Navies are expected to join hands in Milan-2012 scheduled for February next year.
INS Utkrosh nicknamed 'Angels', the first Naval Air Station in A&N Islands, was commissioned on May 11, 1985. Two squadrons are based at INS Utkrosh, namely INAS 318 with three Dornier aircraft and 321 Flight equipped with three Chetak helicopters. Commanded by Capt RR Ayyar, the Naval Air Station also handles air traffic control over Port Blair. It handles six civilian flights daily that can go upto 10-12 including chartereds during peak season, besides operations of three Pawan Hans helicopters and a Reliance Industries chopper engaged in offshore oil exploration. Then there is the seaplane, a nine-seater plane acquired from Norway is being operated by expatriate pilots for the A&N Tourism. INS Utkrosh, named after a bird of the eagle family, is manned by 500 personnel and 65 officers It has been classified as an international airport for civil aviation. Except for the civil terminus functioning under the IAAI, all other airport operations are undertaken by INS Utkrosh.
The 10,000-feet long runway is among the ten most difficult airfields as a hillock at one end means that planes can land or take off only in one direction. Winds change here every six months, so pilots have to either take off or land in tail wind. “French Rafale, Swedish Grippen and a Swedisn Air Force C-130J Hercules have all landed here”, boasts Cdr C Chakraborti.
The Air Force Component (AFC), that came into being on December 12, 2001, has just a token presence on Andaman Islands. “Car Nicobar is the major base for our operations in the A&N islands,” says Air Officer Commanding, Air Cmde Amar Babu.
The 37 Wing Air Force Station at Car Nicobar is spread over an area of 504 acres. The 3,000-feet bitumen runway, built by the Japanese during their occupation of these islands between 1942-45, was extended to 8,886 feet in 1967 and is now 10,000 feet long. The first Mi-8 helicopter arrived here in 1982. Besides a squadron of helicopters, they have the Dorniers and an Air Defence unit here. “Getting to station helicopters anywhere in A&N Islands is a bit tardy process. Either you dismantle the wings and transport them by IL-76 or naval ships, or they have to be transported from the mainland all the way to Myanmar and then flown across hopping from one point to the other from the nearest approach,” says Wg Cdr AG Sreenivasan, the Chief Operations Officer.
The HQs of the 108 Mountain Brigade is located at Birchgunj military station, about 14 kms away from HQs, ANC. The Amphibians, as they are fondly called, consist of three infantry battalions - presently a Sikh Regiment, Kumaon and the Territorial Army's 154 Infantry Battalion. The Birchgunj military station has a 200 mtr long firing range and a one mile-long obstacle course.
Troops inducted into the brigade are trained in beaching operations and slithering exercises. The armoured personnel carriers, BMPs and trucks here have been slightly modified to make them operate in 5-8 feet deep waters. Mostly the exhaust pipe is extended to make it release fumes from a greater height, so that water does not choke the engine while anti-corrosive paints and plastic coating is provided to the underbelly. “Such vehicles require frequent maintenance since wear-and-tear is more as the sand particles enter every nook and corner while driving undersea conditions,” says Col Tejinder Jaggi, Chief Technical Officer (Land System). The Army plans to increase its strength in Andaman from a brigade to a division comprising about 8,000 soldiers.
A unique feature of the unified command in A&N islands is that the Coast Guard (CG) is also under the operational command of the CINCAN though it is administratively autonomous. The Coast Guard Regional HQs (Andaman and Nicobar), based in Port Blair, has a fleet of eight ships based at Port Blair and Diglipur and has its own jetty in Port Blair while all its air assets are based in Port Blair. It has two District HQs - one each in the Northern Group and Southern Group of islands. Besides, two stations are located at Port Blair and Hut Bay. Two new stations at Mayabunder and Kamorta have also been approved. “Our jetty in Port Blair will be extended by 150 mtrs. Besides, there is a proposal to construct four more jetties,” says Inspector General KC Pande, CG Component Commander.
A contract was signed with the BEL in August for installation of four radar systems, part of the Coastal Surveillance Radar Project sanctioned in 2002. The Coastal Surveillance Radars along with day-and-night and infra-red cameras being installed in lighthouses will transmit feed to Remote Operating Centres (ROC) manned by CG personnel. “By next year we will also have dedicated Pollution Response Ship in place,” adds IG K C Pande.
Search and Rescue (SAR) is the other major charter of the Coast Guard. The CG ships and aircraft saved 234 lives from the sea during the last 18 months and a cumulative of more than 2,400 undertaking SAR operations in extreme weather conditions. Operation Bachaav was launched in March this year when 121 Myanmarese nationals, out of a total of 134 who had drifted in dinghies, were rescued. Another 150 illegal Bangladeshi nationals, stranded on Tilangchang island, were rescued by a joint team of the Naval Base at Kardip and local police from Nancowrie early this year. Despite being the smallest Coast Guard regional station, the CG personnel have been awarded three gallantry medals in the last one year.
The CG Regional HQs (A&N) has distributed 135 Distress Alert Transmitters (DATs) to the fishermen in the A&N islands. The DATs, each costing Rs 14,000, have been developed by ISRO. Equipped with an inbuilt Global Positioning System (GPS), the DATs, mounted on fishing boats, can transmit alert signals to CG Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) through the INSAT satellite. They also conduct community interaction programmes with the fishermen every month – thirtyfour have been conducted this year to date and 47 were conducted last year.