Helicopter pilot training, new Coast Guard repair facilities and expanding Special Forces and Marines training—these are some of the issues discussed during the first official visit of the Maldives Defence Minister Mariya Didi and the new Defence Chief General Abdulla Shamaal to India.
Over a week, the delegation held meetings with India’s Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, the Military Chiefs, Ministry and Coast Guard officials and visited several facilities including the Naval Information Fusion Centre in Gurugram and the Army Training Centre in Shimla.
Speaking to SNI’s Associate Editor Amitabh P Revi, General Shamaal talked about the radar surveillance network project that has been revived after ex-President Yameen stalled it. He also spoke about common interests in protecting the Indian Ocean Region, why the Dornier gifted is not flying as yet and his reinstatement and appointment as Defence Forces’ Chief.
Maldives’ President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih appointed reinstated Major General Abdulla Shamaal as the Chief of Defence Force in December 2018, weeks after his swearing-in. Despite military service of over 25 years, General Shamaal was one of several senior officers sacked after former President Yameen assumed office in November 2013. He was accused of leaking a letter expressing concern over the delay in presidential polls. In December, 2018, the High Court ordered his reinstatement because of lack of evidence and as he was not allowed to defend himself. The court ruled his dismissal unfair and overturned a civil court ruling in favour of the previous regime. General Shamaal has been trained at top Indian, UK and U.S. military institutions and universities and has three master’s degrees.
Q: General Shamaal thanks for giving us time. You’ve had a long association with India.
A: Yes. In fact, I’ve had the pleasure of being the first Defence Attaché to be posted to our High Commission around 2002. Prior to that I have had the privilege of attending the Defence Service Staff College. So after graduating from the Staff College, I had 2-3 years in service and then I came back as the DA and some of my course mates were posted in the Integrated HQ, so I had a way of getting things done in a much faster way.
Q: On this trip, which has been considerably long, a week or so, give us some specifics of what was discussed and what has been reached in terms of conclusions.
A: First of all, I would like to extend our thanks for the excellent arrangements made for our trip. This visit at the outset has been extremely rewarding. The interactions we had at different areas were extremely fruitful. We met the service chiefs. We met the honourable Defence Minister, Defence Secretary. Then I had been co-chair in the DCD (Defence Cooperation Dialogue) co-chaired with honourable Defence Secretary. We had discussed a lot of important areas. In fact, to put it into context or perspective, looking into India-Maldives relations, as I have been saying is an important component or segment of relations of defence cooperation relationship. Then our main strategic focus is the Greater Indian Ocean region and the stability, peace and protection of the Indian Ocean region is of crucial importance to the two countries. So, we share the same interests as far as protection of the Indian Ocean region is concerned. Then, by and large, we have been talking of the menaces in the Indian Ocean region—be it IUU—which is Illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing, be it trafficking, piracy—all these menaces in the IOR. So, we are concerned and focused on the Greater IOR. On that note we have talked about the importance of having the coastal radar surveillance system. I must say the discussion started about 10-12 years back. We felt the importance of having these radars. Then phase I was partly completed. It was stalled for a while. Now, we talked about pursuing it much more vigorously. It’s quite important again. Need the surveillance of our EEZ.
Q: So many atolls.
A: So many atolls and then we need to develop this structure.
Q: Is there any timeline for it to be put in place?
A: The work of Phase II is going on. Initially we are thinking of having 10 radars, then network all these radars to develop a common operating picture within the network.
Q: Does that move to a next phase after that?
A: Yes, we would be moving into a next phase after that and then we would be having a much clearer picture of the region, the EEZ basically.
Q: From 10 it would move to…?
A: 10 radars is the targeted set-up for the time being. We’ve discussed these radars. We’ve discussed having structures that are much more robust as far as the EEZ surveillance is concerned.
Q: In terms of the larger picture, the Defence Minister also talked about it—the Naval Fusion Centre—collaboration there is also envisaged?
A: The fusioning of activities or sharing information has quite a civil component (Correct, the White List) White shipping. India is currently doing with many countries and we’ve been sharing the commercial information with all the neighbours. It’s more of a civil-civil undertaking.
Q: In terms of enlarging the Coast Guard footprint, either extending the jetties or harbours, has there been movement on that?
A: Well, we do have a dire need to have our own slipway and repairing facilities and we have a need to have an along-side pier for the Coast Guard vessels. At the moment we are using commercial or civil infrastructure. So we do have the need to have a Coast Guard indigenous repairing facility. As of yet, decisions have not been taken whether it would be in the UTF (Uthuru Thila Falhu) or in a civilian port. But the need remains. So, that is an area where we would require assistance.
Q: In terms of training, which you yourself have gained for is there any ramping up in terms of military training of your personnel, courses?
A: One of the areas of focus is special operations because we are concerned with the kind of threats emanating from non-state actors, threats that can be orchestrated from rogue elements. It’s quite unpredictable. In the contemporary era, it’s complex and quite unpredictable. On that note, we’ve talked about how to increase the capacity of our special forces and marine corps can be built. We’ve had a very useful visit to ARTRAC (Army Training Command). We talked about developing, constituting more practical structures where we can do joint exercises and perhaps exchange of instructors between the two countries. And exploring new avenue where we could perhaps look into expanding the capacity of special forces and the marines.
Q: We’ve talked about the Army, the Navy, the Coast Guard. In the air-the Dornier. Where has that moved? The helicopters— is there any more you need?
A: 99.7% of Maldives is water, 0.3% is land. The geography, the natural terrain is challenging for us and providing this important service is critical. For example, specifically looking into the ALH, from a humanitarian point of view, the helicopters have been doing extremely well. These aerial platforms are quite practical and useful when it comes to undertaking these medical evacuations. In fact, in rough weather, the situation may demand such that the landing of a helicopter may be required on a football ground or a difficult situation. So quite practical and we feel the most viable, versatile aerial platforms that can be used in medical evacuations. So, all in all since the renewal of the LoEs (Letters of Engagement), these helicopters have been extremely busy—almost every day we’ve been undertaking medical evacuations.
Q: If the figures are correct it’s upwards of 160 Maldivians who have been saved.
A: That’s the figure since the resumption of lease operations.
Q: Would you require more, considering the vast area?
A: The requirement is there. For us, there is a need to train the pilots. If we have civilian pilots, we need the completion of the flying hours and all. I’m confident, if we make the request we would be able to train pilots.
Q: That request hasn’t been made as yet?
A: We plan to request to train our pilots as well, but these are more technical people that are running these helicopters and are under the operational command of the MNDF Area Command so technically the helicopter moves from point A to point B with the command of the MNDF.
Q: The Dornier?
A: In case we would have a Dornier, it would..
Q: What’s holding it up?
A: It will take time because of the building of the hangar, situational. We’ve talked about the Dornier because it would enhance the search and rescue capabilities and med-evacs and other operational activities.
Q: I believe; Maldivian pilots are already trained on Dorniers. They can fly them?
A: Yes, that will be much easier when it comes to Dornier.
Q: Gen Shamaal, looking at your career. You were reinstated by the court. How difficult a fight was that?
A: I was fired in 2013. I was dismissed on what I would term false allegations and finally the court found the allegations baseless. So I had been reinstated. Now here I am.
Q: General Shamaal Thank You so much for the time.
Q: Pleasure has been ours. Thank you.
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