A U.S. Navy SH-60R Seahawk helicopter lands on the destroyer USS Pinckney in the Gulf of Thailand, during operations in the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. (Reuters Photo)
The possibility that the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 could have made it to the Andaman Sea, off the coast of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, could raise questions about the effectiveness of India's air defence systems.
If the flight did enter the Andaman Sea, on way to the Bay of Bengal, Indian air defence radars should have ideally detected it.
The possibility of the aircraft heading into this area came up on Saturday when Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak mentioned it as one of the two possible routes the missing plane took.
According to him, the joint investigation by Malaysian and global agencies indicated a distinct possibility that flight MH370 was near the Andaman Islands.
According to senior Indian Air Force (IAF) officials, India does maintain a radar north of Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. This radar is primarily directed at the Myanmar's Coco Islands, which is believed to serve as a base for Chinese military activity.
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However, with a range of about 200 nautical miles, it can detect air movement in the area.
"We use primary radars that can detect any movement in the air. The radar coverage in the Andamans is limited, but capable," a senior air force official told HT on the condition of anonymity since he is not authorised to speak to the media.
This handout photo shows a Royal Malaysian Navy Fennec helicopter preparing to depart to aid in the search and rescue efforts for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane (AFP photo)
Civilian radars used by Air Traffic Controllers across the globe use secondary radars that use data streaming in from transponders fitted on board the aircraft. These radars are programmed to avoid detecting other flying objects but can be picked up by the primary radars that the military uses.
"The radars that we have in the Andaman Islands have a range of about 200 NM, but our shore-based radars usually have limited coverage," former naval chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta told HT.
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Mehta, who is also a navy combat pilot, is familiar with the tri-service command capabilities that are present on the Andaman Islands.
"While the Andamans are designated as a Flight Information Region (global earmarked spaces to track aircraft), it is not on the air corridor taken by civilian aircrafts," he said.
"But if anything were to happen in this FIR, it will be our responsibility."
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The Boeing 777 is capable of flying non-stop between long distances such as New Delhi and New York and therefore Andamans and the east coast of India has emerged as one of the two possible routes that the aircraft took after leaving Kuala Lumpur.
Incidentally, the Malaysian PM Razak confirmed that the transponder and the communications on board the missing flight had been "deliberately" switched off. This raises concerns about a possible hijacking of MH 370.
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