A Global Collective

Maritime safety and security demand multinational cooperation

Cmde G. Prakash (retd)Cmde G. Prakash (retd)

That the topic chosen for the first ever UNSC meeting chaired by an Indian Prime Minister under the agenda item ‘Maintenance of International Peace and Security’ was ‘Enhancing Maritime Security: A Case for International Cooperation’, clearly indicates the importance this topic holds for the world’s peace and security.

The ‘high-level participation from many countries, substantive discussions and adoption by consensus of the first ever outcome document on the topic’ was further proof of the importance of the topic. Maritime security can be endangered by a wide variety of entities, with refusal of countries to obey international law, maritime terrorism, hijacking, piracy, illegal trafficking of humans, narcotics, weapons, explosives, illegal fishing, illegal mining, armed robbery, smuggling, environmental disasters, and climate change being salient.

As the oceans connect this world like nothing else, events in one place could affect even places far away. The extensive linkages and inter dependencies of today’s globalised world can lead to isolated incidents affecting the economic wellbeing of several countries or the peaceful lives of large numbers of people spread across a wide region. The global nature of the fallouts of events makes their methods for mitigation too equally global.

Consequently, critical imperatives for maritime security and safety are numerous. Therefore, I will deal with only a few issues that are critical for India, viz, the progress we have made towards maritime security and its subset coastal security, our efforts at gaining maritime domain awareness (MDA) and possibilities for international cooperation.

Exercise DANX being held in 2017 at the Andaman & Nicobar Islands


India’s Inexplicable Sea Blindness

For a country with a coastline exceeding 7,500 km, an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 2.03 million sqkm and almost 1,400 islands, India’s sea blindness is astounding. That the colonial powers who exploited India for 450 years had come and gone by the sea and that they had transported their loot by the sea appear to have scarred India’s consciousness. Even today, with over 90 per cent of our trade by volume and over 70 per cent by value being seaborne, India embraces the oceans with reluctance.

Policy makers understand little of the sea and maritime affairs hardly figure in the general narrative. The extent of our land-centric thinking defies logic. But there is hope. Heavily maritime oriented themes like SAGAR, Sagarmala, Blue Economy, Look/ Act East are emanating from the highest levels. But much more transformation is needed at the lower levels for such vision to translate into action on ground. With events on our land borders getting ever more difficult, calls for India to ‘forget Afghanistan, Pakistan etc and shift strategic gaze to the seas’ are beginning to appear in public discourse. After pressing home the view that ‘the current century and possibly the next one too, are very likely to be maritime-centric ones’, the DG National Maritime Foundation—probably packaging a fond wish as a possible governmental policy position—avers that ‘India’s polity appears to be finally coming around to the fact that over the foreseeable future, India will be either be a ‘maritime’ power, or it will not be a power at all’. Bold words those. However, he has a point. India, like several entities in the Indian Ocean region, is at crossroads, and one way for a safe and secure future is to increase the centrality of our oceans to our policymaking. And at the core of this lies the ability to protect India’s maritime interests. Not an easy task.

A Timeless Paradigm

The immense potential for national prosperity and wellbeing offered by India’s location and geography cannot be realised without mitigating the equally immense vulnerabilities, also presented by the same location and geography. What a paradox. Even a cursory look at the six principal conditions that AT Mahan considered as what affects a nation’s sea power, viz, geographical position, physical conformation, extent of territory, size of the population, character of the people, and character of the government, reveal what India can be, and how it can be what it can be if it wants to be what it can be. India also particularly fits in as a perfect example for Mahan’s formulation of ‘Physical Conformation’, which he elaborates thus. ‘The seaboard of a country is a frontier. Easier the access to it, greater is the interaction with the world. Deep harbours are a source of strength and wealth, and navigable streams help concentrate the country’s internal trade at these harbours.’ It is exactly these attributes that kept colonial powers in our land, causing us immense harm. There is a danger that this Mahanian exposition of the ‘seaboard’ being a ‘frontier’ is misunderstood as the ‘coastline’ being a ‘border’. Nothing can be more wrong. Security of the coast is not security of the maritime space. They are different.


Maritime Security vs Coastal Security

Maritime Security is an all-encompassing term that subsumes all activities in the oceans or waters contiguous to the oceans that can threaten national security, marine environment, economic wellbeing, human security etc. Coastal security, a subset of maritime security, is a more limited entity that concerns only coastal waters. It entails protection, preservation and promotion of peace and stability in coastal waters against various threats.

It enables pursuit of legitimate activities in the coastal waters and also in the adjacent coastal land. Coastal security encompasses a range of interconnected activities in interconnected maritime spaces and includes maritime border management, security of island territories, maintenance of peace and stability in coastal areas, security of ports, coastal installations and structures including Vital Areas and Vital Points. When coastal security is breached, the fallout is mostly local. But when maritime security is breached, the impact is national.  Most often, what happens along the coast originates farther away as there are no borders at sea and the sea permits free movement. Policy makers must therefore focus on maritime security for its wholesome benefits. How much progress have we made in our handling of maritime and coastal security after Independence?

Helicopters are critical for coastal security


From Independence to Kargil

Our oceans failed to get their due attention for over 50 years after Independence. With recurring trouble from Pakistan and China, our focus was land-centric till 1971. With smuggling through the sea increasing in the 1960s and 70s, the Indian Navy (IN) was often tasked in the constabulary role. This also led to the creation of the Customs Marine Organisation (CMO) in 1974 and the Coast Guard (CG) in 1977. In 1982, CMO was merged with CG.

The war of 1971 presented a great opportunity to recognise the immense possibilities the sea offered. It took just two raids on the West coast to bottle up the Pakistan Navy inside Karachi harbour to wait out the war with their ships de-ammunitioned. The sea control established on the East Coast forced 93,000 Pakistan Army personnel to become prisoners of war. While the lessons of the war led to a surge of naval capabilities from the mid-1980s, many elements required for the larger maritime security were missed.

More experience was to come our way soon. Illegal immigration and trafficking of ammunition, fuel, drugs and other contraband across the Indo-Sri Lankan maritime border from 1990 led to IN and CG launching Operation Tasha. In 1993, when RDX smuggled in through the Maharashtra coast was used for serial blasts in Mumbai, IN, CG, Customs and police launched Operation Swan on the Maharashtra and Gujarat coasts. However, the involvement of the local fishermen in the illegal activities, inadequate police presence, lack of intelligence and shortage of manpower and equipment degraded the operations to some extent. This was a lot of experience in coastal security. Nothing much changed till the Kargil conflict of 1999.


From Kargil to Mumbai

The Kargil conflict brought new focus to our security mechanisms. The Kargil Review Committee (KRC), formed to relook national security, was also mandated to recommend measures to prevent armed intrusions from the coast. The Group of Ministers (GoM) which subsequently reviewed the KRC report included ‘coastal security’ as a broad security element and also advocated better coordination among the multitude of maritime agencies. Though the government created a Coastal Security Scheme (CSS) in 2005 aimed at ‘strengthening the infrastructure for patrolling and surveillance’ and to ‘address the critical gaps in the policing of our coasts and coastal waters’, nothing much happened. The GoM report also caused the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) to define and demarcate areas and zones of responsibility of the various stakeholders. This was a lot of activity, almost entirely in the domain of coastal security, without commensurate achievement. A rude wakeup call was to come soon.


From 26/11 to Now

The shocking Mumbai attack of 2008 caused the government to focus on improving interagency coordination among maritime entities. It was not easy. With more than a dozen military, paramilitary and civilian agencies that come under the jurisdiction of different ministries at the national and state levels, with functional reach down to the district level, coordination was tough.

In 2009, CCS made IN responsible for overall maritime security including coastal and offshore security. CG was to support IN in this. Further, avoidable confusion was created with the DGCG being designated ‘Commander Coastal Command’, responsible for ‘overall coordination between central and state agencies in all matters relating to Coastal Security’.

A layered surveillance formula too emerged. The coastal police was responsible from the coastline up to 12 nautical miles (NM), CG was responsible from 12 to 200 NM and IN was responsible beyond 200 NM. Further, the marine wing of the Customs had to patrol up to 24 NM from the coast and also undertake surveillance of sensitive areas on the coast like landing points, jetties and port limits. The water wing of the Border Security Force (BSF) was tasked to protect the coastline in the Sir Creek and Sundarbans areas. The marine wing of CISF was to provide security to all major ports, public sector industries and other government undertakings on the coast. Sadly, the focus was again almost entirely on the limited realm of coastal security.


Slow Consolidation

Considering the difficulty of coordinating various agencies, in 2009, a National Committee for Strengthening Maritime and Coastal Security (NCSMCS) was set up, chaired by the Cabinet Secretary and with all stakeholders represented. This had corresponding downstream structures in states and districts. Further, State Maritime Boards were mandated in coastal states and Union Territories to coordinate coastal security and to protect minor ports, fisheries and the marine environment. This is still work in progress, with only Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu setting up full time Boards.

At the operational level, Joint Operation Centres (JOCs) were set up at Mumbai, Visakhapatnam, Kochi and Port Blair as the Ops Centre for each Commander in Chief Coastal Defence. Manned primarily by IN, and CG and augmented by personnel from marine police, fisheries, customs, state intelligence department when required, JOCs collate information from various sources, including real time data on merchant traffic proceeding in and out of ports from the Vessel Traffic Management Systems (VTMS) from some ports in the country.


Capability Development

While capability development for the IN progressed based on the funding available, IN also raised a 1,000 men strong Sagar Prahari Bal with 95 fast interceptor craft for the protection of its bases, harbour approaches and other strategic installations. CG too acquired more surface and air assets along with supporting organisations. The marine police force was also strengthened with 204 coastal police stations and 204 interceptor boats.

Further, in June 2016, MHA notified one coastal police station for every coastal state/ UT for handling crimes in international waters. The marine wing of the customs acquired 109 interceptor boats, and along with the Water Wing of BSF were deployed with eight floating Border Outposts. All this was again entirely for coastal security.


National MDA (NMDA)

In order to monitor the vast areas of our interest for maritime security, IN took the lead in working towards reaching the grand goals of a true NMDA project. A National Command, Control & Communication and Intelligence network (NC3I) was set up as the backbone of the project for communication between IN and CG. Inputs came from a chain of radars, Automatic Identification Systems (AIS), day/ night cameras and meteorological sensors placed along the coast on the mainland and islands. Data on ships away from the coast came from space based AIS and information about air traffic came from Vessel Air Traffic Management System (VATMS). This was also augmented by the contacts picked up by our ships and aircraft.

To process all this, an Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC) was set up by the IN in Gurugram in 2014. After collation and Artificial Intelligence enabled analysis of all data, IMAC provides a Common Operating Picture to nodes at 51 IN and CG stations, including the four JOCs. All this is only a tiny fraction of what a true NMDA project should be. The project sorely needs un upgrade wherein all national maritime agencies are integrated for collation of a multitude of interlinked inter agency data, its analysis and dissemination. The NMDA must become a multiagency centre with representation from all stakeholders, which involve at least seven ministries and 15 national agencies. Early appointment of a fully empowered National Maritime Security Coordinator is a dire need in this regard.


Other Measures

It is now mandatory for all vessels to report their position at fixed intervals and to make pre-arrival notification when destined for Indian ports. A concerted effort is being made to educate the members of the fishing community to be the eyes and ears of the country and to sensitise them about the perils of unidentified craft being allowed to be around. This is not difficult, as they can identify with the misfortune that befell the crew of the Indian fishing boat Kuber highjacked by the perpetrators of the 26/11 attack. Biometric identity cards to fisherman, state-wise colour coding of boats, stringent checks while registering boats and issuing fishing licenses, training of marine police and regular coastal security exercises are some other measures.

L&T-built Offshore Patrol Vessel


Serving the Indo Pacific

While all the above pertain to how India manages her internal matters, there is also the need to step up to serve the needs of the Indo-Pacific, which today dominates the global geostrategic narrative. It is also important to have a robust MDA to avoid being taken by surprise.

Listing facts such as six out of the seven continents being on the shores of the Indo Pacific, the region being home to 61 per cent of the world’s population, the source of 62 per cent of the world’s GDP and abode to 63 per cent of the world’s island nations, to where the centre of gravity of the current great power struggle has shifted, the CNS has elevated the Indo Pacific from a ‘very large space’, to ‘an idea whose time has come’.

The importance of the Indo Pacific to India, and her central location in this prime geostrategic space present India with huge challenges and opportunities. At the same time, it also places huge responsibilities. The oceans being too vast a space for any one country, however strong, to manage, India has rightly stepped up to ‘cooperate and collaborate’ with likeminded countries in the region. Taking on responsibility commensurate with her size and location, India keeps an eye on the vast Indian Ocean Region (IOR) with long range Maritime Patrol Aircraft, long range unmanned aircraft and IN ships perennially ‘mission deployed’ in key locations far and wide. All information received is collated at an Information Fusion Centre for IOR (IFC-IOR) set up by the IN in Gurugram in 2018.

Inputs received from White Shipping Information Exchange (WSIE) agreements entered into with various countries are also collated and analysed here. IN has also set up coastal chains with radar, electro-optic and AIS sensors in Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka for their use. The same are also expected in Maldives, Myanmar and Bangladesh soon.


Taking the World Along

In the words of the CNS, India’s endeavour is to ensure a ‘well knit’ neighbourhood, that develops ‘collective maritime competence’, to guard against fissures which could be exploited by interested elements. For this, whatever unique attribute each nation can offer will be put to good use for the collective good. Aware of her strengths in the region, India aims to be a ‘Preferred Security Partner’ to anyone interested. The IFC-IOR has steadily found increasing acceptance and today it has links with 21 countries and 24 maritime security centres. With six international liaison officers already manning this facility, and more expected to join, the IFC-IOR is a true reflection of India’s willingness to contribute to the region’s greater good.


Towards a Sure Future

Ensuring maritime security and safety is as critical a task for national security as it is tough. The effort required to overcome the effects of long-term sea blindness will be huge. Equally important will be the task of weaning the country away from excessive focus on events on land within and across the land borders and getting the oceans increasingly into the national narrative.

Breaking the tendency of maritime agencies to work in silos, increasing the awareness of policy makers on matters maritime and finding methods to provide sustained funding at adequate levels to build maritime capacities will be key elements for success. Above all, is the need for a National Maritime Security Coordinator along with a fully integrated National MDA Centre.



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