Amid emerging concerns over suspicious infrastructure developments on Myanmar’s Coco Islands, an MQ-9 drone, leased by the Indian Navy from the US, has been observed conducting surveillance operations in the vicinity of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The Coco Islands have recently captured significant attention after satellite imagery revealed ongoing construction activities.
These developments have sparked worries that China, with whom Myanmar has developed closer ties following the February 2021 coup, could utilize the area for intelligence gathering on Indian military activities through espionage or intelligence collaboration.
The latest report from IndiaToday suggests that India is actively monitoring suspicious activities in the Coco Islands.
The report, citing open-source data, indicated that a drone, possibly the ‘MQ-9B Sea Guardian,’ conducted an approximately four-hour survey of the Coco Islands on April 12.
This activity coincided with a recent visit by Myanmar’s top military leader to the neighboring Coco Islands.
Furthermore, aviation data supports the claim that a Fokker-70 aircraft from the Myanmar Air Force landed on the Coco Islands on April 9. Local media reports have speculated that the aircraft was carrying General Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of the military coup in 2021.
During his visit, the General was quoted by local media, emphasizing the need for officials to take proactive measures against illegal fishing, urging them to enforce relevant laws in the waters of Myanmar.
The visit by the top General to one of the country’s remote areas was reported as a routine meeting with local villagers and government officials. The visit involved the unveiling of a modest victory monument as well.
Amelia Smith, an Open-Source Intelligence expert, suggested that the potential range of the MQ-9 drone’s sensors would have also encompassed the Coco Islands. This implies that the drone could have effectively gathered surveillance data in that area.
However, there seems to be a discrepancy in the drone identification. Flightradar24, an aviation data aggregator, identified the drone as the ‘Reaper’ version rather than the ‘SeaGuardian’ version.
India does not currently operate the ‘Reaper’ version of MQ-9 drones. The aircraft was believed to be using a generic registration associated with the manufacturer. Therefore, it is possible that the actual model of the drone could be different from what was initially displayed on the flight tracking platform.
In the face of the rising Chinese naval activity over the past few years, the Indian Navy leased two unarmed reconnaissance versions of the General Atomics drone in 2020. Their lease is expected to expire in 2024.
These two SeaGuardian drones are stationed at the Rajali Naval base in Tamil Nadu and have provided valuable data and maritime domain awareness from Aden off Africa to the Lombok Straits in Indonesia.
Myanmar’s Coco Island
Myanmar’s Coco Island has been shrouded in mystery since the early 1990s. There have been speculations that the island served as a Chinese intelligence facility, but no concrete evidence has supported these claims.
However, concerns about the island and its potential uses have resurfaced recently. International affairs think tank Chatham House report reveals that satellite images captured in January 2023 depict notable indications of military modernization on the Great Coco Island.
The images reveal the presence of a newly extended 2,300-meter runway, a radar station, two recently constructed hangars, an apparent accommodation block, and a newly constructed causeway connecting to a smaller neighboring island.
Additionally, evidence of land clearing at the island’s tip suggests further construction activities may be underway or planned for the future.
Situated approximately 55 kilometers away from India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Myanmar’s Coco Island is in close proximity to Indian Navy and air force bases.
This geographical proximity raises concerns regarding the potential implications for Indian security and military operations in the region.
The report by Chatham House, which analyzed satellite images provided by Maxar Technologies, suggests that with the recent developments on Coco Island, “India may soon face a new airbase close by in a country increasingly tied to Beijing.”
India is reportedly monitoring developments closely. India’s foreign ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi had told reporters, “India keeps a constant watch on all developments bearing India’s security and takes all necessary measures to safeguard the same.”
Recent reports suggest that India has confronted Myanmar with compelling intelligence, revealing Beijing’s alleged involvement in constructing a surveillance post on the island.
This revelation has sparked a high-stakes diplomatic exchange between the involved parties, with China dismissing the claims outright.