India Increased Air Assets at Port Blair Prior to 2016

India bolstered its air assets deployed to the Andaman and Nicobar island chain in 2015, recently obtained commercial satellite imagery confirms.

DigitalGlobe satellite imagery acquired on 10JAN2016 shows a Dornier 228 (left) and a P-8I Neptune (right) at Port Blair.

DigitalGlobe satellite imagery acquired on 10JAN2016 shows a Dornier 228 (left) and a P-8I Neptune (right) at Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

With Chinese conventional and nuclear submarines expanding patrols near the subcontinent—a common headline since 2009—India has stepped up the deployment of manned and unmanned assets to India’s strategic outpost in the Bay of Bengal, or so the story goes.

In January, New Delhi officially announced that it would be sending two of its Indian Navy P-8I Neptune to complete a two-week deployment at the Andaman and Nicobar Command. The article, first published in the Times of India, quoted defence ministry sources.

Of course, what many don’t know is that satellite imagery of Port Blair has already shown the advanced aerial sub hunters touching down with regularity. Two were even observed at the station by December 2015. [1]

The US-built platform, expected to replace India’s ageing fleet of Soviet-era Tupolev Tu-142 turboprops, are based at Tamil Nadu’s INS Rajali. Both aircraft are subordinate to India’s Eastern Naval Command.

Sources in the country say the Naval Arm has received the 8th and final Neptune late last year fulfilling the original 2009 order. India also has plans to acquire four more which the Defence Ministry’s Defence Acquisition Council approved last July.

India became the first international customer of the aircraft with the initial order estimated at USD 2.1 billion. The orders are said to help strengthen US-India ties, though the South Asian giant has yet to sign several foundational agreements that would lead to greater interoperability.

DigitalGlobe satellite imagery acquired on 10JAN2016 shows an IAI Heron (left) parked on the apron at Port Blair.

DigitalGlobe satellite imagery acquired on 10JAN2016 shows an IAI Heron (left) parked on the apron at Port Blair.

Beyond the Neptune, other surveillance aircraft previously unreported were identified. A review of space snapshots from 2015 showed an IAI Heron parked on the apron throughout the year. It’s currently unknown how many are deployed.

The Heron, a long sought-after UAV for the island command, is a medium altitude, long endurance drone with a 350km range. India is one of the largest operators of the Israeli-built platform and the world’s largest importer of UAVs.

January’s announcement also noted that the Indian Navy Searcher-II platform was dispatched to the archipelago. To date, available satellite imagery hasn’t captured the smaller UAV operating from the airbase. Though that’s not to say it’s not deployed: both Israeli-built platforms have been observed operating at other naval stations like INS Garuda in Kochi.

What’s particularly interesting is the timing of the January announcement which followed closely on the heels of the Pathankot air force station attacks. On 02JAN16, Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistani-backed group, launched a pre-dawn attack on the Punjab-based airbase killing 7 Indian security personnel and wounding another 22. It took Indian forces over 4 days to resolve the situation leaving many analysts critical of India’s handling of the situation.

Given what we know, there are a couple of conclusions that could be drawn. Firstly, we could take the January announcement at face value and say that telegraphing the deployment activity suggests that India is slowing pushing to operationalize a larger role for the neglected Andaman and Nicobar Command. While certainly a long term goal as India puts greater emphasis on “Looking East”, construction activity that would support a larger military presence has not been observed at this time.

Which leads to greater emphasis on our second conclusion. Given previous imagery observations, the existing deployments provided a strategic communication opportunity after the Pathankot episode. In this light, India chose to save face and bolster confidence that it can mitigate perceived threats whether from India’s east or west. While difficult to confirm, this isn’t a hard stretch. Pakistan and China remain all-weather allies and India’s security strategy focuses on a two front war.

Bottom Line
Regardless of conclusions, India needs to do more to bolster its capability in its immediate neighborhood. However, satellite imagery  suggests India isn’t pushing toward that goal in the Andamans with any speed.

[1] Prior to India’s induction of the P-8I platform, the older IL-38 ASW platform were noted at the airfield in 2012.

This entry was posted in English, India, Intelligence, International, Sea Powers, Security Policy.

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