By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 27th Aug 14
The navy has lifted the shroud of secrecy over a major new sea base being built on India’s eastern coast, which will be home to the first indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, and an armada of warships under the Eastern Naval Command.
The new base, on the Bay of Bengal, will also house India’s nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) force. Current plans involve building six SSBNs, to form the underwater leg of the country’s nuclear triad. The first, INS Arihant, will soon be operational; the second and the third are currently being built.
For years, the ministry of defence (MoD) has refused to even acknowledge the existence of the secret new base, which will come up around the coastal hamlet of Rambilli, 50 kilometres south-west of Visakhapatnam. The plan is code named “Project Varsha”.
Divulging that the new base will house conventional as well as nuclear warships, Vice Admiral Satish Soni, the head of Eastern Naval Command, told Business Standard, “We don’t talk about it much for obvious reasons. There are plans for a new base, and we hope to see one in a matter of 7-8 years.”
India’s eastern seaboard on the Bay of Bengal, with deep water and harbours with over 10 metres depth of water, is far better suited as a nuclear submarine and aircraft carrier base than the western seaboard, where the shallower Arabian Sea is barely 4 metres deep along the coast.
Like China’s massive nuclear submarine base at Hainan Island, the depth of water at Rambilli will allow submarines to enter and leave the base without being detected by satellites. This secrecy is crucial for SSBNs, which must remain undetected when they leave for months-long patrols, carrying nuclear tipped ballistic missiles.
China’s rapid naval build-up, and its belligerent handling of maritime disputes with smaller neighbours in the South China Sea and East China Sea, has caused New Delhi to focus keenly on enhancing the operational posture of the eastern fleet, which must counter any threat from China.
The same concerns had, in 2001, led to the creation of the tri-service Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC), 1,225 kilometres from Visakhapatnam in the Bay of Bengal. The ANC dominates the Malacca Strait, and the shipping routes between West Asia and South-East Asia.
Visakhapatnam is home to the eastern fleet, India’s biggest, with 50 warships. The new base at Rambilli will decongest Visakhapatnam --- also a major commercial hub --- and provide a secure base that is removed from population centres.
Western Naval Command already has such a base, INS Kadamba, built in 2005 to decongest Mumbai. Located at Karwar, near Goa, it is home to the aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, and much of the western fleet. Being built in several phases, that project is code named “Project Seabird”.
With INS Vikrant harboured in Rambilli after the aircraft carrier is commissioned in 2018, the naval air base at Visakhapatnam --- INS Dega --- is being expanded to house the Vikrant’s MiG-29K and Tejas fighters and its helicopters, when the aircraft carrier is not at sea.
Soni says the government has approved Rs 200 crore for infrastructure at INS Dega for the Vikrant’s MiG-29K fighters; and another Rs 200 crore for the navy’s Hawk trainers that will be based at Visakhapatnam.
Visakhapatnam’s importance as a naval aviation centre has been boosted by the recent identification of a secondary airfield, to which aircraft can be diverted in case of emergencies or bad weather at Visakhapatnam. Soni says land acquisition has begun, and the state government has provided an NOC to the navy.
“We are looking at Bobilli, a disused, World War II airfield about 45 nautical miles from here (Visakhapatnam). We will have fighters flying from here so we will need an alternative base, to which flights can be diverted. Bobilli is north west of Visakhapatnam towards Vijaywada”, said Soni.
Currently, the diversionary airfields around Visakhapatnam are: Vijaywada (157 nautical miles); Bhubaneshwar (212 nautical miles); and Shamshabad (279 nautical miles).