Graphic courtesy: The New York Times
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 14th Feb 14
The Indian Navy is poised to join the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared off radar screens without a trace on Saturday. The aircraft’s fate, and that of 239 persons on board, is now washing up in India after the Malaysian military belatedly revealed on Wednesday that it had detected an unidentified aircraft --- possibly Flight 370 --- heading for the Andaman Sea.
This is regarded as India’s maritime stamping ground, and the Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC), based in Port Blair, has swung into action. Two navy warships, a coast guard patrol vessel and several search and rescue aircraft are ready to join the multi-national search underway.
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), the lead agency in such situations, has cleared India’s participation, and is in touch with the Malaysian foreign ministry to find out what they need.
“Obviously we are fully on board. (Indian military) assets are already being deployed. We are in touch with Malaysia, coordinating the requirements and our assistance,” MEA spokesperson, Syed Akbaruddin, told Business Standard.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has appointed the navy the lead service in the search for Flight 370. Two warships --- an offshore patrol vessel, INS Sarayu; and a landing ship, INS Kumbhir --- and the coast guard vessel, ICGS Kanak Lata Barua are on standby, along with Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft. One of India’s newly-acqured P-8I multi-mission maritime aircraft is en route to Port Blair from Arakonam naval base in Tamil Nadu.
These assets will operate under the Commander-in-Chief Andaman & Nicobar (CINCAN), Air Marshal SK Roy. The ANC is the country’s only tri-service command, which has army, navy and air force units under a single commander.
“We are ready to move, and whatever Malaysia requires will be made available immediately,” said a senior MoD official.
Naval officers tell Business Standard that an area of 130 x 130 nautical miles, i.e. some 17,000 square nautical miles in the Andaman Sea and Malacca Strait, needs to be searched. The Malaysian navy has divided this stretch of ocean, which is about 5,000 feet deep and with strong currents, into several sub-sectors. Responsibility for searching these has been distributed between various agencies.
Already, 8-10 countries are operating ships and aircraft in waters that are just 300 nautical miles from Port Blair, and a mere 100 nautical miles from the Campbell Bay naval base at the southern tip of the Andaman and Nicobar island chain.
“These are waters in which the Indian Navy operates frequently. But there is no concern, just because other countries are searching here,” said the MoD official.
Flight 370, a Boeing 777 airliner, took off from Kuala Lumpur soon after midnight on Saturday, heading north on a six-hour flight to Beijing. Forty minutes into its flight, at about 1.30 a.m., it lost communication with air traffic control. Minutes earlier, its radar transponder had ceased to function. Initial search efforts were focused at that point.
But then, on Wednesday, Malaysia’s air force chief, Sir Rodzali Daud, told reporters that military radar had detected an unidentified aircraft at several points that day, heading westwards towards the Indian Ocean. Since then, the search has expanded towards the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.