Will the Maldives ever become a military power?
Fishagri: With the United States overstretched, the former Soviet Union in tatters, and China still turned in one itself, I can’t help wondering: will the Maldives ever become a military power?
Dr Mike: Nope. It’s true this archipelago of 1,190 jewel-like coral islands, grouped into 26 atolls, occupies a strategic location astride the major sea lanes of the Indian Ocean - and the Maldives’ claims to territorial waters extending up to 310 miles offshore takes it into potential conflict with India. But according to the CIA World Factbook (a useful resource for this sort of query), there’s little evidence of any sort of military build-up. America’s spooks report that the Maldives has no army, no navy and no air force - just its National Security Service (a sort of paramilitary police force). There are no figures available showing any kind of military expenditure, so the country would have to depend on help from Sri Lanka and, potentially, the UK (it is a member of the Commonwealth) if it ever did get into a fight.
In theory the Maldives could - if sufficient money was poured into developing hardened runways and the like - be turned into a sort of ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ from which sorties against the only likely enemy, India, would be possible. But with an adult male population of just 37,000 untrained fishermen and bartenders to set against India’s standing army of 1.1 million warlike Sikhs and Pathans, any attempt to launch an invasion of the Subcontinent would be both short and messy.
Defending the Maldives from aggressors would also be tricky, as was shown in 1988 when an attempted coup was swiftly put down by Indian troops who flew into the capital, Malé. In fact the Maldivian defence portfolio is such a thankless one that even Napoleon, Nelson and Baron von Richtofen, were they to be reincarnated and installed as joint chiefs of staff, would be munching on cyanide pills in their bunker within days of war breaking out against Liechtenstein. With a coastline stretching for 400 miles, 85% of it unoccupied and the rest of it defended by elite battalions of honeymooning western couples, the Maldives are exceptionally vulnerable to enemy infiltration and counter-attack. You could forget about retreating to the hills to fight a guerrilla war, too - the maximum elevation of the country is only 2.5 metres above sea level.
In short, there are no mountains, rivers, or other defensible features in the entire archipelago, and though it’s conceivable a few rebels could hole up on an uninhabited island without being discovered, the near-total lack of fresh water would make sustained resistance to an occupying army impracticable.