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India, Maldives explore deploying civilian operators for platforms

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New Delhi: India is looking at options to replace the 77 military personnel that are at the centre of a controversy with the Maldives and the next month’s core group meeting scheduled here would discuss the topics threadbare.

The personnel are currently deployed in the Maldives to operate two advanced light helicopters and one Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft, which are involved in search and rescue missions, EEZ surveillance and joint hydrography missions.

The assets are directly under control of the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) but are operated by an Indian crew that also imparts training to the Maldivian forces.

Sources said that both sides are exploring workable solutions and the meeting between external affairs minister S Jaishankar and his Maldivian counterpart in Kampala was considerably focused on this issue.

India has always maintained that it did not deploy any troops on the ground in the Maldives as claimed by the current ruling dispensation. The entire ‘India Out’ campaign focused on withdrawal of ‘troops’ from the Maldives. The Maldives government has announced a deadline of March 15 for withdrawal of the Indian crew.

Sources said that the issue at hand is not complete removal of the Indian crew—both technical and flying—but to replace them with non-uniformed civilians. The current crew consists of mostly navy and coast guard uniformed personnel.Options to deal with the Maldivian request is to replace them with civilian personnel, an idea which is currently being explored, sources hinted. This could mean either retired military personnel or crew from the other central organisations can be considered to help operate the platforms. Civilians with knowledge and expertise of the platforms could be part of the team, sources hinted. As the platforms are of military nature, the technical expertise required to operate them is limited in terms of human resource.The importance of India’s strategic role in the Maldives is well-recognised, with India as a net security provider to the development of socio-economic infrastructure

Since 1988, defence and security has been a major area of cooperation between India and the Maldives. India has adopted a very flexible and accommodating approach in meeting the Maldivian requirements of defence training and equipment. A comprehensive Action Plan for Defence was also signed in April 2016 to consolidate defence partnership. From 2019 onwards, the defence ties reached a new level of dynamism, covering aspects such as training the Maldivian forces, supplying defence equipment and enhancing defence infrastructure.

India provides the largest number of training opportunities for MNDF, meeting around 70% of their defence training requirements. India’s defence cooperation also extends to areas of joint exercises, maritime domain awareness, gifting of hardware and infrastructure development, etc. Key projects in the defence sector include Composite Training Centre (CTC) for MNDF, Coastal Radar System (CRS) and construction of a new ministry of defence headquarters.

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