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INTERVIEW
 
‘While the Navy’s Role has not Changed, One has to Prioritise According to the Threats Faced by the Nation’
-Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Nirmal Verma PVSM, AVSM, VSM, ADC   


Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Nirmal Verma PVSM, AVSM, VSM, ADC
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Since 26/11 when the Indian Navy was made the lead agency for coastal defence, what is the status of structures that were supposed to have been created? What progress has been made and what still remains to be done?

Traditionally, the number of agencies that utilise the maritime domain is very large with hardly any coordination or communication among them. This was the reason that the Indian Navy has been pursuing the creation of National Maritime Commission. When that did not fall in place, we pushed for a Maritime Security Advisor. Unfortunately, even that did not get instituted. This is one of the reasons why each one of us was operating in isolation that could be one of the factors that led to the November 26 attacks in Mumbai.

After having realised these weaknesses, the issue of bringing these agencies together came up. sSince the maritime domain is largely our responsibility, the Indian Navy took upon this task. It is a huge coordination effort involving both central as well as state agencies, over which even the Centre does not have the jurisdiction.

Finally, the defence minister took the initiative and a National Committee for Coastal and Maritime Security under the chairmanship of cabinet secretary was formed. I have seen this committee function for the last two years and the progress made in bringing together various agencies.
All its meeting are attended by the secretaries of different government of India departments involved in coastal security in addition to chief secretaries, director generals of police and special police officers responsible for coastalsecurity from all the coastal states and Union territories. Each time - the given targets are taken stock off. It is true that certain things have not moved at the pace one would have wanted, sometimes procedural issues come in the way, but one must realise the enormity of the task which calls for identification and registration of 18 lakh fishermen. Similarly, census of India has been tasked with the collection of data from the coastal belt.

Eventually, all this information will have to translate into smart cards for the fishermen. We will also need card readers to access these cards for the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard. At least, in the area of technical processes, I believe things are in control. Even though a lot more is still left to be done, the process has started. Apart from the multi-secretaries meetings chaired by the cabinet secretary, the defence minister also holds periodic meetings with the ministry of defence agencies as well as others. For example, today the coastal belt is very well covered by the mobile operators, so much so that even 10 to 15 miles out at sea — one can actually use the mobile phone. Recently, I saw in a show on one of the news channels a pilot landing his aircraft in grave emergency following the failure of all systems on board. Before attempting to land he spoke with the ATC on his mobile phone. Given this mobile connectivity, it was decided that we must have a toll free number on which the fishermen can call whenever they need to report something. While this number became operational in a few states, at the subsequent meeting of the National Committee for Coastal and Maritime Security, it was found that the number was yet to be made operational in some states. Since telecom secretary also sits in these meeting, the directive was issued right away.

Today, the toll free number for coastal security is working virtually along the entire coast. Once all these technical features are put into place, we will have something like an electronic screen which will ensure that if there is ingress, it gets known at the earliest. We are also working on fitting transponders and identification aids on fishing craft which will further facilitate detection. But one of the important things is to share information coming from one source among all the other agencies involved in coastal security. For this, purpose the NC3I (national command control communications and intelligence) network is in process. In the meantime, one must not think that since these structures are still not in place we are vulnerable. We have made interim solutions wherever possible. For instance, 48 hotlines have been created between the navy and the coast guard. Though some of these were operational even earlier, we have more redundancies now. We have nodal points and communication with the state governments. Similarly, since we still do not have an electronic screen in place, which would be the equivalent of the air defence network of the Indian Air Force, we have increased our patrolling substantially. Given the enormity of the task, we have to see how best to deploy our forces to plug the gaps. To help us plug the gaps, we have been conducting a series of exercises for the last two years between the blue force (which represent the Indian military) and the red team which try to carry out the ingress. A very detailed debrief is held immediately after the exercise which all participants attend. The navy also issues a written note after the exercise with the idea that the gaps which are found during the exercise are plugged.

I would say that with each exercise helping plug gaps, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the red team to find innovative ways of ingression. It has been said that fishermen are the eyes and ears for coastal security. I would say that they are indeed an important element of the coastal security matrix. The Indian Navy along with the coast guard and the state police has been carrying out extensive awareness campaigns along the Indian coast with the idea that over a year not only should we be able to visit each coastal village but all the possible landing sites along the coastline and make the people conscious about these things. In fact, when this awareness campaign started, I was in Vishakhapatnam in my earlier job. We realised that in many villages people barely knew what had happened in Mumbai on November 26. All they knew was that there was some bomb blast, but they had no clue that terrorists had come via sea. Today, we have come a long way from there. Firstly, the fishermen are not only giving information, but very accurate information. They now carry a GPS with them which enables them to give the exact location of the suspect vessel.

They are also able to give a detailed description of what they suspect. It is very easy to deploy your force when you get such comprehensive inputs. For instance, sometime back, a few Kerala fishermen reported that they had come across a suspicious boat where the inmates were talking in Urdu or some other language. Since the information was accurate, the boat was intercepted and brought in. It turned out that it was an Oriyan boat purchased at Ratnagiri and was being taken to Orissa. Similarly, IG coastal security, Tamil Nadu police told me a few months ago that during their exercise they reprised al Kabeer incident, but instead of force they tried inducement by giving money to the fisherman. While the fisherman accepted the money and brought them to the point they wanted to come to, somewhere along the way he managed to get a call through to the toll free number. Sure enough, a police party was waiting for them when they reached the landing area. In addition to all this, our rate of patrolling, through ships and aircraft, has gone up 100 per cent. Every time we become aware of the gap, we try to plug it immediately.

Does it mean that coastal security has now become navy’s primary role or do you envisage Indian Coast Guard taking this over at some point?

I believe that once the Coast Guard grows to the level that it is able to take up this responsibility, then navy’s role can be reviewed. But till then the navy is going to put in substantial effort to ensure that our coast is not vulnerable. While the navy’s role has not changed, and I am conscious of that, one has to prioritise according to the threats faced by the nation. To counter any threat, we have to bring in the best possible resources. It is true that we have had to deploy a lot of our assets for this role, but there has been no compromise on our primary role, which is conventional war-fighting.

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