In this second part of a three-part series exploring Indian Ocean air power, Peter Layton turns his attention to the extra-regional players: The United States, United Kingdom, and France. These powers maintain an interest in the Indian Ocean; any effort to understand the military dynamics in the region must, therefore, include an examination of their capacity to operate in the region.
Indian Ocean air power involves more than just the littoral states discussed in the first post of this series. The most impressive of the extra-regional air power states, the United States (US), has been deeply engaged in the northwest Indian Ocean for several decades. There are major US bases in Bahrain, Diego Garcia, Djibouti, Kuwait and Qatar, complemented by bilateral arrangements with several other Indian Ocean littoral states. The US can readily deploy significant air power across the Indian Ocean.
American air power can be sea- or land-based. Three to four carrier battle groups are generally available for global deployment at short notice: in 2001-2002 three operated in the northern Indian Ocean supporting air operations into Afghanistan. Each carrier can operate between 70-90 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. On land, the United States Air Force (USAF) can rapidly deploy large numbers of combat aircraft into the Gulf region; some 400-500 were deployed there in 2001—although placing similar numbers elsewhere in the Indian Ocean region would be problematic. Few large air bases are available, and there are considerable access constraints imposed by many Indian Ocean countries. However, small numbers of unmanned MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft have operated from bare bases and civilian airfields in northeast Africa and adjacent islands to surveil and attack terrorist groups in Somalia and Yemen.
The central Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago has long been important for US regional and global air operations. The United Kingdom (UK) purchased the archipelago from Mauritius in 1965, and over time resettled the local plantation workers elsewhere allowing the US airbase and port facilities to be established. The UK-US agreement on basing expired in 2016, but the 20-year extension option was exercised. There is an ongoing dispute over the plantation workers displacement, and in 2019 the International Court of Justice advised the islands should be returned to Mauritius.
In contrast to the United States, China faces some significant geographical challenges. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) must transit through the Malacca, Lombok or Sunda Straits to access the Indian Ocean. These natural chokepoints might be made impassable in a time of crisis, especially the Malacca Straits that is bordered by Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, and India’s Andaman and the Nicobar Islands. In recent years, China has moved military forces into the Indian Ocean for extended periods to be available at short notice if required.
China has established a small naval base at Djibouti alongside facilities of the United States and France and is now developing Gwadar in Pakistan into a major port and airfield complex. According to the Indian-owned Economic Times, in the next decade, some 500 000 Chinese citizens might live in Gwadar protected by PLAN marines. Gwadar forms an important part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in providing an Indian Ocean port connected to China by road through Pakistan.
A 2019 article in Gulf News Asia, indicated that Gwadar’s airfield will grow to be the largest in Pakistan, well able to support People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) deployments. This airfield would permit Chinese air power to move into the northwest Indian Ocean quickly and easily. Highlighting this potential, in 2019 the PLAAF sent J-16 and J-10C fighters, JH-7 strike aircraft and K-500 airborne early warning aircraft to Pakistan to train with the Pakistan Air Force in the latest annual Shaheen exercise.
Gwadar’s development takes on extra importance as China develops its medium-sized aircraft carrier forces. Gwadar will offer a safe port to retire to in time of conflict, avoiding being trapped if the Malacca, Lombok or Sunda Straits are blocked. The combination of PLAAF and PLAN forces operating from and through Gwadar would noticeably change the local balance of military power. Given China’s considerable dependence on Gulf oil and gas, being able to dampen any future instability in the northwest Indian Ocean may increasingly be considered essential.
The UK retains useful air power access across the Gulf region and some parts of the Indian Ocean. The recent deployments to counter the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) suggest what the UK could offer in times of crisis. In Operation Shader, 30 combat aircraft were deployed, supported by another 12 AEW, tanker, electronic surveillance and transport aircraft. Each of the new Royal Navy’s new carriers could provide additional air assets including, from 2023, up to 24 F-35B fighters. While the UK owns Diego Garcia, as it is a distance from the Indian Ocean littoral, it is mainly a transit air base for Royal Air Force (RAF) forces moving eastwards.
France is a long-term Indian Ocean resident with bases in the French territories of Réunion and Mayotte islands and through access agreements in Djibouti and Abu Dhabi. While mainly naval oriented, these facilities allow France to introduce air power deep into the region when necessary. Using its new A330 Multi Role Tanker Transports the French Air Force could deploy a squadron of Rafale fighters to Réunion Island within 24 hours. Moreover, given adequate warning, France could also send a small carrier-battle-group able to operate some 18 Rafales in US-led coalitions or conduct small, independent actions. In 2001 an earlier French aircraft carrier did just that, operating some 16 Super Étendards and 2 Rafales in airstrikes into Afghanistan. In the more recent air war against ISIS, the French Air Force deployed a comparable land-based force to the RAF’s, operating from airbases in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.
In noting naval air power, India has also made significant investments in naval aviation. The counry plans to have three medium-sized carriers in service in the 2030s, ensuring one is always available for short-notice tasks. Equipped with about 20 MiG-29K aircraft, the carriers would be useful for sea control purposes across the broader Indian Ocean and in air operations in permissive environments.
Concerning sea power more broadly, several Indian Ocean countries are developing submarine forces. Most seem intended for short-duration coastal operations against near neighbours, but some could potentially interdict major international sea lines of communications. In the three choke points mentioned earlier (the Malacca, Lombok and Sunda Straits), offensive anti-submarine warfare operations would be viable, but given the Indian Ocean’s size, air power might otherwise be best employed protecting convoys transiting contested zones. Defensive assets, however, are scarce. Only Australia and India operate P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, although US Navy P-8s could supplement these.
The major air force remaining is the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). The implications for the RAAF of the changes in the balance of air power in the Indian Ocean will be discussed in the third and last post.
Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, a Senior Correspondent with WA DEFENCE REVIEW, and the author of the book Grand Strategy. This article was originally commissioned for, and published in, the WA Defence Review 2019 Annual Publication.