What it Takes to Lead

India needs to ensure maritime security through capacity building

Cmde Anil Jai SinghCmde Anil Jai Singh (retd)

When the NDA government came to power in 2014, national, and indeed maritime security was expected to figure prominently in its strategic calculus of making India a significant international power.

The Prime Minister’s personal interest in various maritime activities including a day on board the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, his presence at the commissioning of INS Kolkatta, the hosting of the International Fleet Review at Visakhapatnam in February 2016 and the Global Maritime Summit in Mumbai in April the same year reinforced this perception. The announcement of the Sagarmala Project focusing on port-led development of the country’s maritime infrastructure including inland navigation and the unveiling of the SAGAR (Security and Growth For All in the Region) initiative by the Prime Minister during a visit to Mauritius further underlined this perception.

In the last five years India’s foreign policy has taken on a new momentum with the country revitalising its engagement with the world through numerous bilateral and multilateral initiatives. The invitation to all seven heads of government of the SAARC countries to his swearing-in ceremony in May 2014 signalled the intention to focus on the neighbourhood in what is known as the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy.

The engagement with ASEAN was emphasised by recognising ASEAN’s centrality in the Indo-Pacific and the invitation to all 10 heads of government of the ASEAN states to attend the Republic Day Parade on 26 January 2018 marking 25 years of the India-ASEAN relationship was a diplomatic masterstroke. The ‘Look East’ policy of the previous government was transformed into the ‘Act East’ Policy as India pursued a very active multi-layered and multi-sectoral approach with the Indo-Pacific region.

Indian Navy’s stealth frigate Nilgiri

The Prime Minister paid visits to countries that no Indian prime minister had visited before. The ‘Look West’ policy recognised the critical importance of West Asia to India’s energy and economic security and led to the PM not only establishing a personal rapport with the leadership in these countries but shaping a favourable environment in the region. India also reaffirmed its commitment as the net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and was the first responder in offering Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) during the frequent natural and man-made calamities which are becoming a frequent occurrence in the region.

Besides these regional initiatives, India has also forged deep strategic relationships with like-minded nations towards addressing transnational threats and maritime aggression which threatens the existing rules-based international order at sea for the safe passage of global trade and energy. Nearer home, India is revitalising the BIMSTEC mechanism which had been languishing and required a fresh impetus. India’s new found confidence is clearly evident in its approach to foreign policy and the regional security scenario. This was also reflected in the bold tactical actions in Uri and Balakot which not only called our neighbour’s nuclear bluff but dispelled the long-held belief that India is a soft state and can be trifled with.

All these foreign policy initiatives are underpinned by a strong security dimension and in the distinctly maritime orientation of the Indo-Pacific, the underlying importance of the maritime domain becomes very evident. Hence, the maritime dimension of our national power is integral to India’s aspiration to become a regional power in a multi-polar world order and a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Alfred Thayer Mahan, the doyen of maritime strategists, in his seminal work on Sea Power had articulated six fundamental elements for a country to be a sea power. These were geographical position, physical conformation, extent of territory, size of population, character of the people, and character of government.

INS Vela, Indian Navy’s fourth Scorpene class submarine during launch

These have stood the test of time and formed the basis for Mahan’s conviction that the US will succeed the UK as the next big maritime power. In the last two decades, China has also embraced this Mahanian concept and reshaped its historical narrative to include these elements to convince itself, its people and the entire world of its rich maritime credentials. It is not only rapidly expanding its navy but is also ensuring its domination of global sea trade through the network of ports and connectivity initiatives being developed under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

India is blessed with all the six elements except perhaps the last — the character of the government. The pre-occupation with our continental neighbours since Independence and their continuous sniping at our heels has led to a continental mind-set on national security. Protecting our land borders against a perennial conventional and sub-conventional threat has shaped the formulation of our security policy. In the absence of a national security strategy or even a White Paper on Defence there is no comprehensive assessment on an all-of-government approach to the multi-layered and multi-dimensional facets of national security. Even though India is a nuclear weapon power, we have done little to leverage this strategic asset towards recalibrating our conventional capability.

This continental  mind-set is not only prevalent in the government  but is ingrained in us from the very beginning; even the study of Indian history in our schools is disproportionately biased towards the invasion of India across its ‘impregnable’ Himalayas with little being taught about India’s rich maritime heritage and the power of the Indian coastal kingdoms who ventured across the oceans and spread Indian culture far and wide; major elements of this influence are still part of the national consciousness of many nations in the Asia-Pacific. Most of us can recall the names of the rulers who plundered North India over the last 1000 years but would be hard pressed to name any of the kings of the Chola, Chalukya or Satavahana dynasties which dominated South India.  We perhaps need to take a lesson from China on re-orienting this narrative towards highlighting our maritime glory rather than our continental subjugation.

The importance of the maritime domain has been highlighted on many occasions since Independence. K.M. Pannikar, India’s pre-eminent naval historian and distinguished diplomat wrote at length on the importance of sea power for India. Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first Prime Minister, while on a board INS Mysore in 1958 had said, “We cannot afford to be weak at sea. History has shown that whoever controls the Indian Ocean has, in the first instance, India’s seaborne trade at its mercy and, in the second, India’s very independence itself.”

More than five decades later, these words were reiterated by Nirupama Rao, then India’s foreign secretary when addressing the National Maritime Foundation in 2011. She went on to add, “We forget this lesson of history at our own risk.” India’s vulnerability from the sea has been cruelly exposed time and again ever since Vasco da Gama landed at Calicut in 1498 and as recently as the Mumbai terror attacks on 26 November 2008.

India is at the cusp of becoming a major power and must focus its attention on becoming a major maritime power. It has to develop its maritime capability, both military and non-military so as to be able to shape the regional environment in the Indo-Pacific, a strategic construct with a distinct maritime orientation as its very name suggests.

Unlike land borders, which are sacrosanct and any transgression constitutes hostile intent, the nature of the maritime domain transcends national boundaries drawn on maps. The oceans are the common heritage of mankind and global trade transits freely and safely over the oceans on what are commonly referred to as international shipping lanes, many of which pass through the Exclusive Economic Zones of individual coastal nations without any threat of a hostile reaction. Even in territorial waters which extend 12 nautical miles from the coastline, ships flying different flags, including warships, can transit on innocent passage. This freedom of navigation exemplifies the universality of the maritime domain and needs to be protected. However, this freedom also makes regulation difficult because of the lack of capacity to patrol and secure a large oceanic space, jurisdictional and sovereignty issues etc. Hence, the range of threats in the maritime domain has made it essential for countries to look beyond their traditional borders towards a collective and cooperative security architecture aimed at securing an entire region from maritime threat instead of individual spaces.

India has mandated itself as ‘a net security provider’ in the IOR, the credibility of which rests on India’s ability to lead a response to any emerging security or economic threat, whether traditional or non-traditional and secure the maritime interests of the region.

The post-Cold War shift from an open ocean conflict paradigm towards a littoral warfare one has enlarged the spectrum of the maritime threat. It now transcends the traditional state-on-state conflict scenario and encompasses not only threats to a nation’s territorial integrity and maritime boundaries but also across a transnational spectrum where collective security of the maritime domain is also threatened. The scourge of piracy off Somalia in the last decade highlighted the asymmetry of this kind of threat. A rag-tag bunch of gun-toting youth masquerading as pirates were able to threaten the safe movement of global trade to an extent where it took a disproportionately large effort by the world’s navies to contain it.

Challenges to national sovereignty and global stability have begun to emerge from such non-traditional low intensity asymmetric threats and the effects of climate change amongst many others. This has enlarged the scope of a navy’s operational envelope with the constabulary and benign role getting greater prominence than before and has led to navies focussing more effort in containing the transnational sub-conventional threat and in some cases to even re-orienting their force structure development and maritime strategy to address these.

The Indian Navy has long recognised this changing nature of the maritime threat and has initiated various kinetic and non-kinetic approaches towards containing this. Central to this has been the effort at regional capacity building through various measures aimed at establishing an effective response mechanism.

In the maritime domain a threat could be developing well away from a country’s shores but with the easy accessibility to speedy communications over social media etc, this can be at our doorstep very rapidly and can easily spiral out of control. The tragic events that unfolded in Mumbai on 26 November 2008 are illustrative of this. Hence an awareness of one’s maritime area of responsibility, referred to as Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) is essential. An effective MDA capability by a single country would be very resource-intensive and is best achieved through a cooperative engagement mechanism which could be both bilateral and multi-lateral. Technology can be harnessed very effectively towards building an effective regional MDA construct.

In recent years India has systematically sought to enhance its MDA through a multi-dimensional cooperative capacity building approach. Our maritime neighbours have been provided technology, physical assets etc., to enhance their own surveillance capability; they have been networked into a regional information sharing mechanism; regular exercises have enabled the formulation of SOPs and other operating protocols which have greatly enhanced interoperability and a host of other measures, some of which merit  mention.

The terror attack on Mumbai in 2008 triggered the setting up of a multi-agency coastal security network with a clearly defined command and control structure and planned security architecture. To plug the existing gaps which were many at that time, the decade since has seen considerable progress; most of the hardware is in place, seamless radar coverage of the coastline through a coastal security radar network is more-or-less complete, Joint Operational Centres are functional and the AMACS established by the navy at Gurugram is providing the desired outputs. However, there are still issues with inter-agency coordination, prioritisation of the threat, lack of application etc., which remain and can be addressed by creating a single point empowered authority for coastal security but attempts at establishing that has yet to find traction with the political leadership and remains one of the weaknesses of the system.

India has also initiated Coastal Security mechanisms with its maritime neighbours. During the Bangladesh Prime Minister’s recent visit to India, a decision to extend this coastal surveillance radar network along the Bangladeshi coastline was taken. The sub-continent has a very porous coastline and despite seamless coverage, gaps will always remain but the Indo-Bangladeshi effort will go a long way in mitigating this weakness and should be a model for regional issues transcending sovereign concerns. Similarly, India has engaged with its other maritime neighbours including the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Seychelles, Mauritius to name just a few to assist them in enhancing their own capabilities through capacity building efforts including training, exercises, sharing best practices and providing hardware including ships, helicopters, fixed wing aircraft, surveillance equipment etc.

In its own efforts at enhancing its MDA capability, the induction of the P8I Long Range Maritime Patrol (LRMP) aircraft with its long range and endurance and an effective anti-submarine and anti-surface weapon and sensor suite has enabled effective monitoring of the surface and sub-surface dimension over large swaths of the Indian Ocean and neighbouring waters to detect any maritime threat. There is a plan to add another 10 P8I aircraft to the existing fleet of 12 (though only six have been approved at the recent DAC meeting due to budgetary constraints). A fleet of 22 would have enabled very effective coverage of the Indian Ocean and the waters in our extended neighbourhood. The government is also in the process of equipping the Indian Navy with Guardian drones, also of US manufacture, which will provide additional ‘eyes in the sky’ for longer durations and further improve the quality of MDA. The Indian Navy has embarked on a multi-mission deployment pattern wherein over a dozen warships are positioned in different parts of the ocean and these provide valuable inputs on developments in the region. The Indian Navy’s dedicated satellite Rukmini further facilitates this effort in this networked environment besides doing its other tasks.

India has recently established an Indian Ocean Region Information Fusion Centre (IFC-IOR) in Gurugram near Delhi which is co-located with the AMACS. This is not a military construct but is meant to monitor the movement of maritime traffic at sea. India has already signed white shipping agreements on information sharing with 21 countries and one multilateral organisation; discussions are in progress with another 15 or so countries and two multi-lateral organisations who are also expected to come on board. Some of the countries including the US, France, UK and Japan have expressed their intention to position Liaison officers at the IOR-IFC. Similar Information Fusion Centres exist in Singapore and Madagascar. Information sharing between these on the movements at sea would greatly enhance the quality and extent of MDA in the region where the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts.

Personnel from Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard during exercise DANX-19

A contemporary maritime threat perception cannot exclude the trafficking of contraband including narcotics, arms, or NBC agents being delivered at relatively less secure ports. India 190-odd non major ports are still not fully ISPS compliant with some even lacking the most rudimentary levels of security. This may even be true of many ports in India’s maritime neighbourhood. Therefore, strengthening port security through a cooperative tracking and networked mechanism becomes important to monitor and foil the movement of any suspicious cargo. How effectively this can be managed is debatable but any deficiency should not be for want of trying.

Climate change is a reality, the effects of which are already being felt by coastal communities and small island states. Rise in sea levels will not only destroy the marine biodiversity that is so essential for maintaining an ecological balance but threaten the very existence and livelihood of millions of people and could ultimately lead to large scale inundation which threatens the very existence of some of the small island states in our neighbourhood. Since most of these are too small to be heard on the world stage and are becoming victims to the unprincipled plundering of marine resources the likes of China, this existential threat to them must be highlighted by India. It must take up the cause of these nations at international and multilateral forums and use its influence to safeguard their interests and their future.

Maritime capacity building includes strengthening existing institutional arrangements, creating an enabling and inclusive environment and finding common ground to address the economic and security challenges affecting the region. For this to be possible, mutual trust and confidence and respect for each others’ sensitivities is essential. This can only be achieved through frequent result-oriented interaction in formal and informal fora. The navy is, therefore, working closely with other navies in the region both at sea and through various information sharing mechanisms towards capacity building in achieving effective MDA.

Maritime strength is a pre-requisite to becoming a great power. The European domination of the world from the 15th to the 20th century was due to maritime power. The erstwhile Soviet Union staked a claim as one of the two global superpowers on the strength of its navy. The United States Navy constitutes a powerful element of US power projection. China is focussing not only on strengthening its navy but also shedding its continental mind-set and reclaiming its maritime heritage by invoking the legendary voyages of its eunuch Admiral Zheng He, a person of whom not much was heard till recently. India too must bring its 5000-year old civilisational maritime heritage into the national consciousness. The Indian Navy’s current capabilities should be adequately enhanced and augmented to be commensurate with India’s current and aspiring status as an emerging regional power. Comprehensive maritime power and the ability to secure our considerable maritime interests and shape the maritime environment must get its due attention if India is to fulfil its manifest destiny as a great power.

(The writer is vice president Indian Maritime Foundation)


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