In the 21st century it will be possible to find, fix, or track and target anything that moves on the surface of the earth. This emerging reality will change the conduct of warfare….” US Air Force Doctrine
Mid-August 2006 saw the container ship MV OEL Vision lying dead in the water with machinery failure, and being steadily pushed by furious monsoon winds towards an oil rig in the Bombay High complex. With memories of the previous July’s catastrophic oil rig fire (triggered by a colliding vessel) still fresh in everyone’s minds, there was palpable tension in the Navy, Coast Guard and ONGC Operations Centres. As the ship drifted steadily towards the oil rig, drastic measures appeared imminent, and preparations were commenced for scuttling of the ship by MARCOS. Fortunately, MV OEL Vision sank while just a little over one km clear of the rig.
This close shave was the result of an accident, but such a scenario could easily take birth in the mind of a terrorist, and result in incalculable damage to Bombay High, and the nation’s economy. An even worse nightmare could involve a liquefied natural gas (LNG) carrier; either being itself targeted by suicide bombers (a la USS Cole), or hijacked and sailed into a busy port city as a floating bomb. LNG has a very low flash point, and an air-LNG aerosol mixture could be made to explode with the punch of a small tactical nuclear weapon.
The seven tons of RDX and small arms that were landed on the coast of Maharashtra in 1993, also came by sea, but an LNG holocaust, would make the Mumbai blasts look like a picnic. So who keeps track of ships plying in Indian waters, and how do we know whether they are innocent traders or disguised terrorists?
The short answer is, that the Indian Navy and Coast Guard are engaged in a continuous endeavour to monitor traffic. But with nearly 100,000 merchantmen transiting the Indian Ocean annually, warships of littoral (and extra-regional) navies sortieing out to sea with increasing frequency, and intense coastal and fishing traffic, it is a formidable challenge. However, it has now become a vital requirement of a nation’s maritime security, to have, at all times, a comprehensive picture of the traffic in coastal waters, choke points and ocean areas of interest to it. Such knowledge of traffic, activities and events at sea provides early warning of threats to maritime safety and security, and aids timely decision making.
In naval parlance, this factor has come to be known as Maritime Domain awareness or MDA, and takes into its ambit, activity in all three dimensions: surface, underwater and airspace. An effective organization for MDA encompasses the ability to keep our oceanic areas under sustained surveillance, and serves a number of distinct purposes:
In peacetime, continuous surveillance is maintained on shipping, fishing and other traffic, as well as the deployment and operations of maritime forces.
Such surveillance helps to establish traffic patterns prevailing at choke points, in our coastal waters, and at focal areas leading to major ports, and any deviation from the normal state provides early warning of an impending crisis.
In peacetime, the routine and regular visibility of our units conveys a message of reassurance to our friends, and a subtle warning to our adversaries, in particular areas of our interest.
At the commencement of hostilities, a coherent picture of the maritime traffic helps cut down initial confusion, and facilitates discrimination between merchantman, friend, foe and neutral.
The USA, in order to obviate the possibility of a WMD threat being posed by a merchant ship, has tried to push its maritime borders as far out as possible. Any approaching merchant ship within 96 hours sailing time from the coast of the USA is required to pass certain details and establish its bona fides with the US Coast Guard. Similarly, other nations like Japan and Australia, have tried to establish a maritime cordon sanitaire around themselves at various distances defined by the level of MDA attainable by them, and their ability to enforce traffic control regimes.
The inputs that go into the compilation of a maritime picture are received from many sources: satellites, reconnaissance aircraft, merchant ship reporting systems, shore radars, direction finding stations and accoustic sensors. However, neither India’s peninsular configuration, nor the assets currently available, permit us to contemplate the creation or enforcement of cordons or barriers at sea. That is all the more reason for us to focus on a comprehensive MDA capability.
Imaging or reconnaissance satellites are, in theory, the best source of information for MDA, but the reality is otherwise. Long revisit periods, inadequate resolution, and footprints which are largely confined to land, are only some of the constraints that inhibit performance in the maritime context. The main drawback is that even if a satellite’s synthetic aperture radar (SAR) detects a ship at sea, the resulting picture will show it merely as a tiny black speck, from which it is difficult to extract information. However, work is in hand, and technologies like multi-spectral imaging, and wake analysis are expected to produce satellite data usable in the maritime domain. Till satellites come into their own, warships, submarines, seabed sensors, and above all, maritime reconnaissance (MR) aircraft will continue to remain the mainstay of MDA.
Our Fleet Air Arm first used the carrier borne Alize’ anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft in the tactical reconnaissance role because of its excellent search radar and ESM suite. The French Alize was joined in 1975, by about a dozen British B-N-2 Islanders with a forward looking radar. Maritime reconnaissance (MR) received a long overdue impetus, when this role was transferred from the IAF to the IN in 1976, and the navy first acquired a squadron of five radar equipped L-1049 Super Constellations, ex-airforce. These were soon supplemented by a squadron of Ilyushin-38s, dual tasked for MR and ASW, and equipped with weapons and sensors. About a decade later, our MRASW capabilities received a further boost with the induction of a squadron of long range Tupolev-142 (M) aircraft.
During the early 1990s, the Navy started inducting a navalised version of the Dornier-228 medium range turbo-prop aircraft, modified for the MR and Information Warfare (IW) roles. With this addition, aerial reconnaissance could now be mounted by the IN in two tiers: in the oceanic areas, by the Tu-142 and Il-38 force, and in coastal waters, by the Do-228 and Islander component. A third and important tier was added with the commissioning of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) squadron in 2005. The technologies involved in the miniaturised radar, electro-optical and ESM payloads as well as the data-linking of Heron and Searcher unmanned aircraft, have brought a silent revolution with them.
With the wealth of electronic inputs provided by such platforms, identification of contacts has become a major challenge for conduct of maritime operations. Apart from SAR technology and use of identification friend or foe (IFF), there are commercial devices like the automatic identification system (AIS), and long range identification and tracking system (LRITS) carried by merchant ships, which help in resolving some of the ambiguities that crop up at sea.
Today, the IN is in an unusual situation where the ranges of its missile arsenal exceed those of its sensors. In operational situations, MDA must therefore, become a sub-set of the Commander’s overall objective which is to search, locate, identify and destroy the enemy. In such a scenario, the ability of units to network closely and obtain targeting information from each other, assumes crucial significance. In its final form, MDA should lead to the fusion of data from diverse sources, and its availability in an ambiguity-free and secure format; and this is the essence of ‘networking’.
Network centric operations (NCO) entail the pooling of information available to widely dispersed platforms, and making it available, in real time, to any unit which needs it for any purpose, including targeting. The development of such over-arching networks at sea will require the marrying of information systems of individual units (ships, submarines, aircraft, UAVs and shore operations centres) into a joint information network, fed by inputs from sensors (radars, sonars, ESM, acoustic arrays) of every participating platform. Inter-connected by secure high-speed communication links, this network would provide a common peacetime/battle-space picture, with an embedded remote targeting capability.
In practical terms, this implies, for example:
That a Fleet Commander on his flagship near the Horn of Africa should be able to view what is on the radar of a helicopter flying off Mumbai.
Or that the data relating to a ship painting on the radar of an Il-38 flying at 10,000 feet should be available in real time, to a submarine, which should then be able to fire her Klub missile based on these inputs.
For a navy such as ours, equipped with systems from diverse foreign and indigenous sources and often lacking software source-codes, this is going to be a daunting task. The secure, high speed link for such a network can come only from a dedicated geo-stationary communication satellite whose footprint covers the Indian Navy’s complete area of interest, from Africa to the Malacca Straits. Since a foreign satellite would neither be affordable, nor meet our security requirements, the Indian maritime communication satellite will have to be an ISRO product.
In an era of growing threats at sea and rapidly escalating maritime technologies, the navy with the better MDA and more sophisticated networking, will not only be able to see better through the ‘fog of war’, but also have a shorter decision-making loop; both crucial advantages in war.