The Indian Navy’s hunt for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea now spreads over a total area of more than 2.5 lakh sq km, roughly the size of the United Kingdom.
Barely a year after it was inducted into the navy, the Boeing P-8I ‘submarine-hunter’ has been assigned to carry out one of the biggest search operations to be undertaken by the force, which has been functioning without a chief since Admiral DK Joshi resigned on February 26, accepting responsibility for a rash of recent accidents.
The navy on Saturday deployed two P-8I long-range maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare planes to scour the Bay of Bengal on a day Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak asserted that the missing Boeing 777-200 jet was deliberately flown across the Malay Peninsula towards the Indian Ocean.
Other planes taking part in the search operations include the air force’s newly-acquired C-130J special operations aircraft, Dornier reconnaissance planes and helicopters. Six warships are scanning the Andaman Sea and Strait of Malacca for clues.
Kuala Lumpur had on Friday requested New Delhi to deploy assets in the Bay of Bengal to expand the scope of the search operations beyond the Andaman Sea.
“So far, no sighting has been reported by any of the units,” a navy officer said.
The new area marked for search is more than 900 km west of Andaman and Nicobar Islands capital city of Port Blair, barely 300 km from the Chennai coast. The hunt for the missing plane has entered India's exclusive economic zone, which extends up to 370 km from the east coast.
Last May, the navy had inducted the first of its eight P-8I planes ordered from the United States at a cost of $2.1 billion in 2009. It has so far inducted three P-8Is, which are based at naval air station Rajali in Tamil Nadu. Three more planes are likely to join the navy’s air wing this year, followed by the remaining two in 2015.
The Indian Navy is the first international customer for the P-8, a variant of the P-8A Poseidon developed for the US Navy. The P-8I is capable of carrying out a raft of roles such as anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance.
The planes --- four more are to be bought --- are expected to shape the navy's air power beyond 2050. The P-8I is a military derivative of Boeing's 737-800 commercial aircraft.
P-8I ‘SUBMARINE HUNTERS’ fact file
Length: 39.47 m
Wing Span: 37.64 m
Height: 12.83 m
Max takeoff weight: 85,139 kgs
Top speed: 789 km/h
Range: 2,222 km