October 30, 2011: Several years late, India has begun work on the second phase of construction for its new west coast naval base. Six years ago, India opened the first section of the new, 4,400 hectare (11,000 acre), naval base at Karwar. The base is about 500 kilometers south of India's main west coast naval at Mumbai (Bombay). The primary reason for building the new base is to relieve congestion at Mumbai, which is a major port, with rapidly growing commercial traffic. This was making it difficult for warships to quickly get in and out.
The Karwar base was first proposed in the 1970s, and was finally approved in 1985. But because of money shortages, work did not start until 1999. And that was partly because Karwar was outside the range of Pakistani ballistic missiles. But then enthusiasm for Karwar waned as China was recognized as the major threat, and attention, and base construction funding, shifted to the east coast.
Since the founding of modern India in 1947, the Indian Navy has placed most of its forces on the west coast, to deal with the threat from Pakistan. The east coast fleet was much smaller, and a much less desirable assignment for ambitious naval officers. That has changed. Now, China is the official “major threat” and Pakistan is rapidly declining as a challenge to Indian naval superiority off its west coast. This shift can be seen in the construction of new naval bases on the east coast.
Last year, India announced that it was building two new naval bases on its east coast, to cope with what it sees as a growing Chinese naval threat in the Bay of Bengal (between India and Burma) and the Indian Ocean. One base will be at Tuticorin, near the southern tip of India, while the other will be at Paradip, way to the north, near Bangladesh. Meanwhile, China is building a commercial port in Bangladesh, and already has some military facilities next door in Myanmar (Burma). There is currently only one major Indian naval base on the east coast, at Vizag, about halfway between the two new bases.
Three years ago, India announced the construction of a another new naval base, for all its submarines, on its east coast (near the port of Vishakaptanam in Andhra Pradesh state, midway between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.) The Rambilli naval base will be home for India's new nuclear subs, and will have the nuclear facilities necessary for maintaining these boats. The base will be completed in two years, and India's first nuclear sub is expected to be ready for service by then.
These new bases are needed just to handle the growing number of warships stationed on the east coast. Six years ago, there were 30 warships stationed on the east coast, now it’s 50 and that includes a disproportionate number of the new ships joining the fleet. China, meanwhile, has made no secret of its intention to establish a growing presence in the Indian Ocean, to guard its vital trade routes (exports going west and oil going east) there. These days, ambitious young Indian naval officers want to go east.