Over the last few years, a 10,000-foot runway, hangars, and a jetty have been constructed on the island, which is located over 1,100 kilometers north of the main island of Mauritius and according to unconfirmed reports is almost ready for operations.
India asserts that these new facilities are part of its Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) policy, which aims to increase maritime cooperation between countries in the region. Mauritius, for its part, has indicated that its coastguard personnel will use the new facilities.
But it is clear that the Indian investment of $250m in developing an airfield, port, and communications hub on this remote island is not aimed at helping Mauritius develop its capacity to police its territorial waters.
North and South Agaléga islands, which are home to approximately 300 ethnically Creole Agaléens, are located in the strategically important southwestern part of the Indian Ocean. The area is currently a blind spot for the Indian Navy and by building a military facility in it, New Delhi hopes to expand its maritime domain awareness.
The most important new infrastructure on the atoll is a 3,000-metre runway, and considerable apron for aircraft. Under construction also are sizable jetty facilities in deeper water, and what looks like barracks and fields which could be used by military personnel.
The outpost at Agaléga will be useful to support the operation of India’s fleet of Boeing P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft. The US-made P-8, based on the Boeing-737 passenger aircraft, is a cutting-edge maritime patrol aircraft, tasked with anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.
While these aircraft have an anti-shipping and submarine strike function, their peace-time utility is derived from the sophisticated sensors, command and control systems, radars, and intelligence-gathering equipment utilized on routine missions.
The vastness of the Indian Ocean means that P-8s and other maritime surveillance aircraft require airfields and refueling facilities at staging points, which is where facilities like those on North Agaléga island come in.
And Agaléga is not the only Indian Ocean island modified for P-8 use. For instance, military facilities on India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the northeastern Indian Ocean, at the junction of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, were also enhanced to better support India’s patrol aircraft missions.
Satellite imagery dated on 20 April 2022 showed hangars large enough to house the Indian Navy’s P-8I submarine-hunting aircraft under construction next to the newly-built runway.
The hangars “measure 180 feet long and 200 feet wide — big enough to house large military aircraft such as India’s P-8I Poseidon, which measures 123 in length and has a wingspan of 126 feet,” the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Washington DC-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies has reported.
This development confirms what maritime security experts have long suspected — India plans to deploy its P-8I long-range surveillance aircraft on the island.
China has been rapidly expanding its presence in the western Indian Ocean. Apart from building its first foreign military base in Djibouti, it has invested heavily in infrastructure in Africa, particularly ports. Many of these ports are located on the eastern coast of Africa, which lies in the western Indian Ocean and could turn into Chinese outposts in the future.
India In the Western Indian Ocean
In peacetime, effective maritime domain awareness helps establish international partnerships with like-minded militaries and also acts as a deterrent to both state and non-state adversaries, by signaling reach and an intention to safeguard interests in a selected area. By better understanding existing and incoming maritime threats, a government can better plan and respond.
In times of conflict, knowing the location of enemy ships and submarines, without being detected in the process, creates a significant advantage.
While India may publicly justify its effort and expense to build maritime domain awareness in the Indian Ocean by combatting piracy, developing search and rescue capabilities, or even providing small states with capacity-building assistance, China’s naval forays into this region are the true motivator for its expanding naval presence.
The Indian Ocean is now increasingly contested. Despite its Diego Garcia base, the United States no longer enjoys predominance in this increasingly multipolar region – in which no one power wields hegemonic influence.
In recent years, China has increased naval deployments into the Indian Ocean, developed what some analysts call a “string of pearls” – a network of military and commercial facilities along the Indian Ocean littorals, effectively encircling India – and even established its first overseas naval base in Djibouti.
Given China’s recent Indian Ocean deployments, its vast military modernization program, its recent conduct on the India-China Himalayan border, and its demonstration of coercive statecraft on the international stage in general, India is logically eager to inhibit Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean.
As a result, India – in coordination with the United States, Australia, and even France – is undertaking efforts to surveil the Indian Ocean to directly deter and limit China’s ability to operate in this region.
The southwestern part of the ocean, in particular, is of increasing strategic importance due to economically vital shipping routes passing through the Mozambique Channel and around southern Africa, which China also uses for its energy imports.
In this sense, the facilities at Agaléga would enable India to keep an eye on this part of the ocean and will constitute a key staging post in the Indian maritime domain awareness network. It is important insofar as it will enable Indian eyes in the sky across the southwest Indian Ocean, which policymakers in Delhi hope will restrain Chinese encroachment.
Time will tell exactly how India will make use of these facilities on Agaléga once completed later this year. Project specifics are still being tightly held by both the Indian and Mauritian governments.
Whether or not China is deterred by India’s surveillance efforts, Agaléga is now a pawn in this new era of major power competition across the Indian Ocean and indeed the wider Indo-Pacific region.