Satellite imagery shows that India could have extended the runway at its southernmost Naval Air Station by around 900 feet

India could be extending the 3,000-feet strip at INS Baaz, the Naval Air Station located at Campbell Bay on the Great Nicobar Island, satellite images show.

Commissioned in 2012 by the then Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Nirmal Verma, INS Baaz is the southernmost air station of the Indian armed forces.

The base, overlooking the six-degree channel, one of the busiest shipping lanes of the world, is only around 130 nautical miles (240 km) away from the mouth of the Malacca Straits, the maritime chokepoint that links the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Almost 80 percent of China’s oil imports pass through the South China Sea via the Strait of Malacca.

The base is located at a distance of about 300 nautical miles (556 km) from Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Posted on Twitter by open-source intelligence handle @detrasfa_, satellite imagery shows that India could have extended the runway at the Naval Air Station by around 900 feet, taking the total length to around 4,300 feet.
Suspected runway expansion activity. (@detresfa_/Twitter)

When it was opened in 2012 with a runway of 3,500 feet (1,060 metres), the Indian Navy said that the runway will be “progressively lengthened to enable unrestricted operation of all categories of aircraft including heavy aircraft”.

“The base [INS Baaz] will also be bolstered with modern airfield instruments and navigation aids,” the Indian Navy said back then.

The plan was to extend the runway to 6,000 feet over the next year, and then to 10,000 feet. However, in the years after the base was commissioned, the runway was not extended. As a result, the Naval Air Station was only equipped to operate light aircraft capable of short field operations.

The expansion of the runway was reportedly delayed due to issues related to land acquisition issues and environmental clearances. In 2019, over six years after it was commissioned, reports said work was on to extend the length of the runway at the Naval Air Station by around 1,000-feet, and that another 6,000-feet were to be added to the runway at a later stage.

Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Karambir Singh visited INS Baaz in October 2019 and again in November 2020. The Indian Navy did not mention any plan to extend the runway at the Naval Air Station in statements released after these visits.

Once the runway at INS Baaz is expanded to 6,000 feet, the Indian Navy will be able to operate its P-8I maritime surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft from the Naval Air Station. Flying from INS Baaz, these submarine-hunting aircraft of the Indian Navy can keep an eye over the multiple maritime chokepoints in the region that Chinese submarines could use to enter the Indian Ocean.

“The Navy plans to locate at least some of its P-8I surveillance planes at the Campbell Bay once the runway extension work is over,” a report said in 2017.

Indian fighters, if deployed at the base, can reach the Malacca Strait in minutes.

The expansion of the runway at INS Baaz comes at a time when the Narendra Modi government is working on a plan to develop the Greater Nicobar Island as a regional hub with a transhipment terminal, a greenfield international airport, township and area development and a 450 megavolt amperes gas and solar based power plant.

The plan for a transhipment terminal and other infrastructure projects on the island cleared the first major hurdle in its way earlier this year as the Expert Appraisal Committee of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change “recommended” it “for grant of terms of reference”.