75 Indian military personnel stationed in Maldives to operate aircraft

Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) has said 75 Indian military personnel stay in the Maldives to operate the Dornier aircraft and two helicopters gifted to the Maldives by the Indian government.

The information was disclosed by MNDF when Defense Minister Mariya Ahmed Didi, Chief of Defense Force Major General Abdulla Shamal and other senior officers of MNDF were summoned to the Parliament committee on Security Services to inquire regarding the UTF agreement between MNDF and the Indian military to develop a dockyard and port in Uthuru Thilafalhu last February. Political parties have expressed concern, stating that the deal allows foreign military personnel to remain in the Maldives for long periods.

Answering questions posed by committee members, the officials disclosed that 25 Indian military personnel had been tasked with flying the Dornier aircraft and 25 pilots each for the two helicopters gifted by India. This adds up to a total of 75 foreign military personnel.

Sharing a presentation on the UTF agreement at the parliament committee, MNDF's Lieutenant Colonel Hassan Amir said the exclusive economic zone of the Maldives is vast and that Maldivian waters are used for international drug trade. The Dornier aircraft is therefore essential to survey and monitor the area, he said. The plane is helpful for anti-terrorist activities and foil drug trafficking operations as well as stopping pirates.

As per the UTF agreement, the Indian military personnel in the Maldives will get diplomatic immunity and other leniencies. Despite this, to operate the Dornier aircraft even for rescue missions, authorization from the Chief of Defence Force and a Tasking Order from the Coast Guard Command will be necessary, Amir said. The Indian officers and technical team are required to seek authorization from the Maldives government if any equipment on the aircraft is changed, he added.

The UTF agreement states that the Dornier aircraft will be operated jointly by Indian and Maldivian officers. The Indian government will cover the cost of food and accommodation for the Indian military personnel and logistic, repair works, and fuel for the aircraft. The Indian High Commission in the Maldives will be responsible for the Indian military personnel stationed in the Maldives.

The Maldives first requested for a Dornier aircraft during former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom's administration. Then Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon made the request to her Indian counterpart, Sushma Swaraj, at the 5th Maldives-India Joint Commission Conference in 2015. However, the discussions at that time did not include training Maldivian pilots. Training local pilots were discussed and added to the agreement last year by the current administration. Three officers received training in India to fly the aircraft, out of which two have received the badge. The third officer left the service.

When Maduvvary MP and former Defense Minister Adam Shareef asked whether the Indian pilots would continue to remain in the Maldives after local pilots are trained, the Chief of Defense did not give a clear answer. Shamaal said while the defense force already has several technical officers, there are challenges in providing high salaries to only local pilots.

The Dornier aircraft will survey the Maldives' sea area, rescue operations, and other operations as agreed by both India and Maldives. While it was previously perceived that the aircraft was gifted to the Maldives by the Indian government, Shamaal said the plane was not a gift. He further said the aircraft would be operated under the complete control of MNDF.

'[The agreement] gives the Maldives National Defense Force full command and control, especially in tasking. No operation will be carried out without a tasking order from MNDF or without MNDF's command and control,' Shamaal assured.

Speaking at the committee, both the Defense Minister Mariya and Chief of Defense Force said MNDF needed their own aircraft for aerial operations. However, there are budget constraints to procure them, they noted.

Villimale MP and Vice President of Maldives National Party (MNP) Ahmed Usham asked at the committee why the government was concealing the UTF agreement while it does not have any clause subjecting the agreement to secrecy. In response, Mariya said the deal does have a clause that allows for confidentiality. Usham said while the clause specifies that the information collected via operations carried out using the aircraft may be concealed, it does not mean the entire UTF agreement must be kept confidential, he said.