Sri Lanka: Maritime security in the Indian Ocean is a hot topic in every forum today. The need to build strategic maritime partnerships to develop collaborative approaches in the Indian Ocean, defence and security of the regional waters, and collective air power have become widely discussed solutions emphasised in many international forums.
The Colombo Air Symposium 2018 held last week similarly brought together scholars, academics, military leaders, diplomats and policymakers from Australia, Bangladesh, India, Japan, Nepal, Pakistan, USA and Sri Lanka to one platform to elaborate on the country’s air strategy of setting up a prospective ‘air task force hub’ in Sri Lanka – a viable option given the country’s geostrategic position in the Indian Ocean. The location proposed for this hub was Mattala Airport – an opportunity to turn around a famous white elephant.
According to Air Force Commander Air Marshal Kapila Jayampathy, Sri Lanka as a mid-size island is at the precise contiguity to coastal mainland Asia, becoming a gateway to ocean trade and sea lanes and global connectivity to the littorals and the hinterlands within the greater Indo-Pacific Region. “I believe that the geostrategic position of Sri Lanka is ever more significant in the contemporary context, in a changing strategic and security landscape, under the revival of power competitions and paradigm shifts in transitional threats to the Indian Ocean Region.”
“Furthermore, the region is arguably the most populated in the world and also rich with marine and seabed resources, hydrocarbon reserves, and unparalleled ocean connectivity, which are opportune factors for greater infrastructure and economic development of Sri Lanka and the region. As such, the strategic location of Sri Lanka places the country in an advantaged position with leverage over welcoming economic and development initiatives and safeguarding the regional status quo. However, the air and maritime domains which are major areas of concern in the Indo-Pacific are threatened by a multitude of security challenges, as we have collectively identified. The holistic defence architecture, preserving freedom of navigation, circumscribing criminal activities of non-state actors, and countering transnational threats to both domains are crucial underpinnings to protecting the state of security of the Indian Ocean Region,” he said.
Therefore, he said that the concept of air power is expected to be unpacked, analysed and revised to address these collective threats to the Indian Ocean Region and the role of its precepts of speed and reach executed through coordinated measures to provide an efficient and effective platform to counter these security concerns.
Despite Sri Lanka being an island nation confined to a land area of 65,610 square kilometres, the country claims close proximity to main sea lines of communication and marine transportation. The 200-nautical-mile-long Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) plus a 200-nautical-mile-long Exclusive Fishing Zone and the intensified economic activities in the Indian Ocean Region make the island a ‘Super Connector’ in Asia. The Indian Ocean is the third-largest ocean in the world that consists of 38 littoral states, 27 ocean territories and 17 interior countries providing sea passage for more than 50 percent of the world’s containerised cargo and two-thirds of the world’s hydrocarbon shipments.
Today, more than 60,000 ships ply the East-West route across the Indian Ocean annually, which is two-thirds of the world’s oil and half of all container shipments. Therefore, it is of vital importance to all countries in this region to come together in setting up a combined air task force hub and considering Sri Lanka’s strategic location, it is an ideal location to establish such a base.
‘Cannot do it alone’
Presenting his paper on, “Sri Lanka as an Air Task Force Hub” to secure the Indian Ocean region at Air Symposium 2018, Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) Air Operations Director Air Vice Marshal S.K. Pathirana said with the advancement of technology over the years, geographic and economic activity has progressed by leaps and bounds across the world. With increasing economic activities and goods transfer, state and non-state actors have gravitated towards this region. This has also attracted several non-traditional security threats to the region. Due to this situation, many global actors have focussed their attention individually to secure their respective sea lines of communication, resulting in huge effort and budget than what a collective effort would have demanded.
“Sri Lanka’s strategic location has a gamut of potential to set up a combined air hub with all state actors in securing the Indian Ocean Region. The Indian Ocean holds almost 20 percent of the world’s water and 40 percent of the world’s gas and oil reserves. The total area is around 68 million square kilometres connecting four continents – Africa, Asia, Australia and Antarctica. It is home to the world’s busiest waterways and choke points such as the Cape of Good Hope, Straits of Hormuz, Suez Canal, Babel-Mandeb, Malacca Straits, Sunda Strait and Lombok Strait and is extremely important. As it is one of the busiest waterways in the world, it is also vulnerable to many security threats such as piracy and drug trafficking,” said AVM Pathirana.
He said Sri Lanka’s position between the Golden Triangle and the Golden Crescent can be effectively utilised in terms of limiting the activities of these non-state actors. “Sri Lanka has been used by many human traffickers for their advantage. But it has also been used to counter human trafficking in the region. Four trillion sewage and an equal amount of industrial effluents enter the region’s coastal waters each year.”
The Hambantota Harbour was proposed as an ideal location, given its location and size, to establish a joint air operations hub in the region, where countries in the Indian Ocean could combine their efforts to fortify the region. “In Sri Lanka, 36,000 ships pass through its southern tip annually which includes 4,500 oil tankers. We possess an exclusive economic zone which is several times greater than the country. There are around 45,000 international aircraft flying above this region annually. Hence, protecting this economic zone is a mighty task for an island nation such as Sri Lanka and the country could benefit greatly by seeking the assistance and air power of other states in the region in establishing this joint hub which would benefit all without wasting too much time and resources.”
Meanwhile, Air Commodore Nagesh Kapoor of the Indian Air Force said Sri Lanka may be small in size, but is located in an enviable position. Sri Lanka commands an air space that is roughly 60 times its land size. “Sri Lanka and India have strong ties dating back centuries and these two countries together with other countries in the region can well provide the security in this region to ensure the security of global commerce. In this endeavour, establishment of an ‘aerial umbrella’ is of vital importance. Given the geographical location and being the fastest connectivity, Sri Lankan air space is critical for the safety of global trade and energy.”
He said in the recent past there has been a jump in non-traditional threats emanating from the sea. “There have been incidents in the neighbourhood where terror has struck from the sea. In fact, Sri Lanka has borne the brunt of many such attacks. Therefore, all countries in the region should come together to share intelligence and take collective action to ensure that each other’s security is not endangered by these non-state actors. This endeavour might require the use of each other’s maritime and air spaces.”
He also noted that with the effects of climate change, its ill effects are staring us in the face and it would be an advantage for all countries in the region to combine their air and maritime capabilities to respond to any such adverse climatic effect that may threaten the region.
Air Vice Marshal M.D.A.P Payoe said Sri Lanka needs to make use of its strategic position to become a front-runner in regional security
Taking into consideration the research papers that were presented at the Sri Lanka Air Force-organised Air Symposium 2018, it was evident that great emphasis was placed on Sri Lanka’s strategic position and the establishing of a joint air hub. While several airports in the country were identified, it was eventually determined that the Mattala airport was the most suited for this purpose. Some of the speakers also suggested convening a conference of Air Force Commanders in the region to come together and discuss the process of setting up a joint air task force hub in Sri Lanka.