Operations Maitri and Rahat: How Indian military proved efficiency in disaster response

In keeping with our strategic interests and growing regional responsibilities, we may need to intervene militarily in our neighbourhood when national interests are threatened.

 |  5-minute read |   07-05-2015
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Within the space of a few hours after the devastating Himalayan earthquake on April 25, the government of India sprung to the aid of the people of Nepal with Operation Maitri (friendship), a large-scale rescue and relief operation. Several C-130J Hercules and C-17 Globemaster aircraft and ten Mi-17V5 helicopters of the Indian Air Force (IAF) transported doctors, mobile hospitals, personnel of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and ferried water, food, medicines and tents. During return flights they evacuated almost 5,000 stranded Indian and foreign nationals.

In early April, 2015, India had evacuated 5,600 displaced persons from Yemen under Operation Rahat (relief). Of these, 4,640 were from India and 960 from 41 friendly countries, including citizens of Britain, France and the United States (US). They were evacuated by air on C-17 aircraft of the IAF flying from Djibouti, Ethiopia; by Air India aircraft flying from Sana'a; and by sea on board ships of the Indian Navy from Aden, Al Hudaydah and Al Mukalla ports in Yemen.

Both these operations were meticulously planned and efficiently executed. These were not merely humanitarian relief operations, but operations that showcased India's military intervention capabilities. It is not the first time that India has undertaken such operations. Starting with the war in Iraq in 2003, through the conflicts in Lebanon (2006), Egypt, Libya and Yemen (2011), and Ukraine and Syria-Iraq (2014), the Indian armed forces and civil aviation personnel have been evacuating beleaguered Indian citizens from war zones.

In keeping with its strategic interests and growing regional responsibilities, India may need to intervene militarily in its neighbourhood when national interests are threatened. While India would prefer to do so with a clear mandate from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and under the UN flag, it may not be averse to joining 'coalitions of the willing' when national interests that are threatened are 'vital' in nature and consensus in the UNSC proves hard to achieve.

The aim of such operations will be to further India's national security and foreign policy objectives, join strategic partners to ensure security of the global commons (sea lanes, cyber, space), support international non-proliferation efforts, and help the international community to act decisively against banned insurgent outfits like the Al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) or even rogue regimes like the one in Yemen.

International non-proliferation initiatives, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and the Container Security Initiative (CSI) particularly cannot succeed in the South Asian and Indian Ocean regions without Indian participation as a member, or as a partner providing outside support. As an aspiring regional power, India may also undertake humanitarian military interventions when these are morally justified.

"Air assault" and rapid reaction capability are significant force multipliers in conventional conflict as well as intervention and humanitarian operations. The present requirement is of at least one air assault brigade as part of a Rapid Reaction Division (RRD).The brigade should have integral heli-lift capability for speedy deployment to India's periphery. Comprising three specially trained air assault battalions, the brigade should be based on Chinook CH-47 and MI-17 transport helicopters. It should have integral firepower and combat and logistics support units. It should be supported by two to three flights of attack and reconnaissance helicopters and one flight of armed drones or unmanned aerial combat vehicles (UCAVs).

The second brigade of the RRD should have amphibious capability with the necessary transportation assets being acquired and held by the Indian Navy, including landing and logistics ships. One brigade in the Southern Command has been recently designated as an amphibious brigade, and this brigade group could be suitably upgraded. The third brigade of the RRD should be equipped for offensive and defensive operations in the plains and the mountains as well as forest and desert terrains. All the brigades and their ancillary support elements should be capable of transportation by land, sea and air. The first RRD should be raised by the end of the 13th Defence Plan (2017-22).

Another RRD should be raised over the 14th and 15th Defence Plans by around 2032, when India's regional responsibilities would have grown considerably. A permanent tri-service headquarters (HQ) equivalent to a Corps HQ should also be raised under the HQ Integrated Defence Staff for continuous threat-assessment and operational planning, and to provide command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, information, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4I2SR) support to the RRDs. The HQ should also be suitably staffed with a civilian component comprising diplomats, civic affairs personnel and disaster relief staff.

Unless planning for the capabilities necessary begins now, these potent fighting echelons will not be available when they are likely to be required. The commissioning of INS Jalashwa (formerly USS Trenton) has given the armed forces the capability to transport one infantry battalion by sea. Other ships for transporting troops are available and some are in the acquisition pipeline. Also, the IAF has acquired strategic airlift capability.

It must be emphasised that rapid reaction-cum-air assault capabilities will provide immense strategic reach and flexibility to the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) and multiple options to the military planners in the prevailing era of strategic uncertainty. As government sanction may take some time to obtain, the nucleus of such a force should be established immediately by the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) by pooling together the resources currently available with the three services. The nominated echelons must train together at least once a year so that the armed forces can respond suitably to emerging threats.

It is also necessary to work with strategic partners and other friendly countries in India's extended neighbourhood and with organisations like the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and, when possible, even the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), to establish consultative mechanisms through diplomatic channels for the exchange of ideas, coordination for the utilisation of scarce resources and joint training and reconnaissance.

India cannot aspire to achieve a great power status without simultaneously getting politically and militarily ready to bear the responsibilities that go with such a status. The need to intervene militarily in support of its national interests and to ensure the security of the global commons necessitates the creation of the required capabilities. Unless India becomes the undisputed master of its own backyard in South Asia, including the northern Indian Ocean region, it will not be recognised even as a regional power.


Gurmeet Kanwal Gurmeet Kanwal @gurmeetkanwal

The writer is former director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi

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