NEW DELHI: India is keeping a watchful eye on the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) amid reports that China has now also taken to deploying underwater drones apart from hydrographic survey and oceanic research ships in the region. The concern in the Indian security establishment is that while such surveys are undertaken for deep-sea mining and other commercial activities, they are also critical for submarine and anti-submarine warfare operations.
International business magazine Forbes on Sunday reported China had deployed adozen “Sea Wing” underwater drones from specialist research vessel Xiangyanghong 06 in the IOR in mid-December before recovering them last month. These long-range Sea Wing gliders, which can operate for months on end, made “more than 3,400 observations” for the winter survey of the “joint ocean and ecology research project” run by the Chinese ministry of natural resources.
The Forbes report said though the Chinese underwater drones were ostensibly gathering oceanographic data, transmitting information back to their mother ship via tail aerials, such data is commonly gathered for naval intelligence and submarine warfare operations. Indian Navy sources on Monday said they “could not vouch for the authenticity” of the Forbes report. But the Navy continues to “constantly track” the presence of Chinese research vessels in the IOR through “multiple platforms” ranging from the P-8I long-range maritime patrol aircraft to warships on mission-based deployments.
“At any given time, there are four to five Chinese research vessels mapping different parts of the IOR. They regularly collect oceanographic data about the physical operating environment like seawater temperatures, salinity and chlorophyll levels, which are very useful for general navigation and submarine operations. They work out the best routes for their submarines,” said a source.
If any such Chinese research vessel enters India’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which stretches to 200 nautical miles from its coast, and engages in any “suspicious military activity”, it is chased away after a suitable warning. Navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh in December had confirmed his force drove away Chinese oceanic research vessel Shi Yan-1 after it was found indulging in suspicious activity near the strategically-located Andaman and Nicobar archipelago. “Since that incident in September, no Chinese vessel has entered our EEZ so far,” said another source.
China, of course, has been rapidly expanding its naval footprint in the IOR and is hunting for more logistical bases after establishing its first overseas base at Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and naval turnaround facilities at Karachi. Apart from deploying warships in the IOR for over a decade now, China has also been regularly sending both nuclear as well as conventional submarines to the region under the guise of anti-piracy patrols.
With two aircraft carriers (two more are being built), 33 destroyers, 54 frigates, 42 corvettes, 50 diesel-electric and 10 nuclear submarines, among other warships, the Chinese Navy is now posing a challenge to even the US Navy.