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India Increased Air Assets at Port Blair Prior to 2016

May 7, 2016

By Chris Biggers

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.

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

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 350 km 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.

Chris Biggers

Chris Biggers is a public and private sector consultant based in Washington, D.C.

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  1. S13

    Actually the plan to counter the Chinese off from the Malacca strait. Since few nm away from Andaman Chiba had a naval outpost in Coco Islans .

    India also deployed few MiG29 K fighters to Andaman and repeatedly sending number of warships to Andaman.

    Earlier Andaman command ( the only tri services command in India ) openly said India is short on legs to confront the Chinese Sub’s

  2. John Zenwirt

    As the Indian foreign policy w/regard to China becomes more bellicose, the Indian Navy needs a huge budgetary increase to cope with Chinese subs., and surface vessels…

  3. Dr Neeraj Tripathi

    Yes,John India must urgently take action regarding massive change in china’s policy towards India.The huge presence of chinese millatary around India iz a big problom.Indian navy is short of latest millatary hardware.India needs atleast five Aircraft Carriers and 10 nuclear submarine with ICBM to counter.aggrissive chinese navy.To balance the world India urgently requires high tech millatary assistance neither The Mafia chinese army will destroy whole world————.

    • stranger

      India is one of the few worlds nuclear powers with the delivery missiles of all ranges from tactical to strategical. Isn’t it enough to defend from China? Because with hypothetical China threat you cannot have enough regular weapon to defend and the only way is the nucle.r deterrence. Isn’t it.
      Also correct me if I’m wrong I believe China has never pursued aggressive external policy. India has had much more real threat from Pakistan and a long history of confrontation with Pakistan.
      May be it is again a political campaign against intractable China in the proposed Pacific Union, and attempts to clash China with its neighbors, at least virtually in the media. No, I’m I wrong?

      • Sam



        China has been pursuing aggressive external policy against India in their mountainous borders.

        China has aggressive external Policy against Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, etc..

        Do you only read Russian propaganda?

      • John Zenwirt

        Stranger: “…and attempts to clash China with its neighbors, at least virtually in the media”

        But China is “weaponizing” the Spratly Islands chain, pouring rock to make a new landing fields… China’s Navy going, “blue seas” with a huge budget increase…none of this happens “in media” China is moving out into….reality…

      • Sam

        The India and Pakistan issue is complex, just like the India and China issue.

        Most of the Indian vs Pakistan fighting surrounds a mountainous region with no significant economic value. That region is also shared with China.

        China is building islands on a reef to expand their economic exclusivity zone, which is not recognized by the UN, and I don’t think Russia has taken a stance yet?

        What would you say if the US built man-made islands off the coast of Russia and reduce Russia’s economic exclusivity sea zones. What if the US charged a tax to every ship going to and from Russia in that area?

        You would oppose it I hope.

        Then you should oppose China doing the same thing to South Korea, Vietnam, Japan etc.

        China and India are going to major economic competitors in the future.

        One country is the world largest democracy (though not perfect) and the other is the largest country (authoritarian) by population in the world.

        Who knows how it will turn out…

        stranger, the problem Russia has, is that it is the Wild West still.

        It’s safer to do business in China, India and Pakistan, than in Russia. I do business in all but Russia . My business insurance is quadrupled for doing business in Russia.

        An authoritarian planned economy in China is safer to do business with Russia.

        That should concern you.

      • Sam


        What is the difference between tactical nukes and strategic nukes? Big and small?

        Putin keeps saying he can use small tactical nukes, well that is still using nukes.

        • stranger

          I meant the max delivery distance. Not every nucle r country possesses missiles capable to reach 8000 km and more, India does. According to wiki, Canada and USA helped India to develop the first reactor suitable to produce weapon plutonium in 1955.
          Small or big nukes nobody is going to use anyway. But terr0rists will, sooner or later, and that is the real threat.
          China has raised due to it’s very cheap working force and hard working people. May be with the raise of China and their standards of living, India would look as a more attractive alternative for cheap paid manufacturing. That is not exactly the scenario which can work in Russia. Investors mainly came to Russia with the speculative capitals playing the blue chips in oil and resources. The ‘Wild West’ gave the huge opportunities to earn if they knew when to flee at the right time.

          • Sam

            stranger, your third paragraph. This is something we should discuss.

            Where does Russia fit in the world?

            What does Russia want to do/be besides a source of natural resources?

          • Sammy

            Russia is a second world country with Nukes.

            The Russian economy is oil, gas, and weapons.

            Russia has no rule of law, only Oligharchs, so the only investments in Russia are in the raw materials.

            China and India are the places that microchips, smartphones, etc are manufactured.

            What does Russia actually manufacture that I can buy in a store in the EU and North America besides Vodka?

            The Russian economy has been mismanaged.

    • John Zenwirt

      “Yes,John India must urgently take action regarding massive change in china’s policy towards India.”

      I’m glad we agree on the need for India to step up, and stand firm against China….

  4. indranil dutta

    India is an expert in handling Israeli uav’s. Going unmanned is far optimal of resources. India needs eyes to detect sub’s through uav’s.India’s paramilitary is more than capable to deal internal challenges navy and air force needs to commit more on such strategic western and eastern assets


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