The Indian Navy is set to partially commission a secretive new strategic base on its east coast next year that will be the home port for its warships that sail to South East Asia, the South China Sea and the Pacific.
The Visakhapatnam-headquartered Eastern Naval Command, the hub for the navy’s “Look East” policy, is adding warships and submarines to its fleet in numbers greater than berths available in which to dock them.
Yesterday, navy chief Admiral Devendra Kumar Joshi had said his force was also practising to deploy in waters that China claims in the South China Sea to protect India’s oil interests off the coast of Vietnam. Reuters reported today that Vietnam, which allotted two blocks to India’s ONGC Videsh Limited, has stepped up patrolling its waters in the South China Sea.
Ramkonda or Rambilli, a quiet suburban settlement on Andhra’s craggy coastline about 50km south of the Eastern Naval Command headquartered in Visakhapatnam, is set to become the navy’s largest infrastructure base when it is finally completed.
Spread over 20sqkm, it is called “Project Varsha”. It is on the scale of “Project Seabird” at Karwar on the west coast (in north Karnataka). Like “Seabird” was designed to accommodate an aircraft carrier and de-congest Mumbai harbour, “Varsha” is said to have been conceived to unclog Vizag.
Work on the project began in 2005 to de-congest Vizag port, where the naval dockyards and the submarine base have run out of space. “Varsha” would also be located close to a large facility of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC).
When work on Project Varsha began, the Eastern Naval Command had 15 major warships. Now it has 46, including the nuclear-powered INS Chakra leased from Russia. India’s homebuilt nuclear submarine, the INS Arihant, is also based in Vizag and is scheduled to go into trials early next year.
Three more Arihant-class submarines were being built at the Shipbuilding Centre (SBC) in Vizag’s naval dockyards.
Project Varsha has been designed to contain within it berthing facilities for warships and submarines in a dockyard among hills. The location was chosen because the depth of the water would allow for the vessels to berth easily.
Varsha is easily the largest but by no means the only major naval project on the Bay of Bengal coast. This year, the navy commissioned INS Baaz, a naval air station at the southern tip of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands from where surveillance aircraft can fly over the Straits of Malacca.
The navy is also working on a naval air station in Calcutta that will have a squadron of unmanned aircraft. It is preparing to station its Boeing-made P8i maritime surveillance aircraft at INAS Rajoli in Tamil Nadu’s Arakonnam. The site was chosen because the aircraft could fly from there over both India’s eastern and western seaboards.
The number of warships, submarines and aircraft with the navy under its eastern command is marginally less than that under its western command. So far, the western command was the “sword arm” of the navy because of the threat perception from Pakistan.
The eastern command is now nearly there: it has 46 vessels compared to the west’s 48. The assets in the Bay of Bengal are more “amphibious”, meaning they are capable of operating on sea as well as on land.
Last month, the defence ministry authorised the Vizag-based Hindustan Shipyard to make two special operations vessels, a classified project.