The Coast is Clear

As security is work in progress, it must be treated as a collective responsibility

Cdr Ranjan Bhattacharya (retd)Cdr Ranjan Bhattacharya (retd)

Historical experiences have shaped India’s continental mindset because invaders have mostly come over through the land borders. This mindset somehow dictated our approach to Maritime Security Strategy, until a very recent past. It was only in 2015, when the Indian Navy promulgated India’s Maritime Security Strategy, that we first had a guiding document on this issue. The fact that we have over 7,500km of coastline, with large uninhabited stretches must awaken necessary understanding of the complexity of the task at hand and the porosity of our borders.


Historical Perspective

Historically, we were not always a complete continental nation. Great empires of yore were maritime powers that used the sea not only for trade, but also for spreading cultural and ideological influences across south and east Asia. Spices, fine textiles, precious gemstones from India were legendary and her opulence was what compelled the European powers to seek out a seaborne trade route to India.

The world’s earliest dry docks discovered at Lothal dating back to 2200 BCE bears testimony to India’s early maritime heritage. Even as recent as the early 18th century, at the height of the colonial power, the Maratha Navy under the leadership of Kanhoji Angre managed to defeat the two foremost colonial powers of the day, the British and the Portuguese at the same time. The Zamorins of Calicut had a very powerful navy, which under the leadership of the Marakkars, never let the Portuguese fleet have any peace for over a century. Rani Abbaka Chowta of Ullal, who made the Portuguese Navy retreat from Mangalore, was also another legendary luminary in the maritime domain.


Existing Threats

The challenge to maintain a strict vigil and deter security breach is omnipresent and hence, even a slight lack of focus can prove catastrophic. There is a constant threat of infiltration through our coastline which could translate into illicit trade, trafficking, illegal migration, infiltration, illegal unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, arms smuggling and support for terrorist activities. With an aim of plugging these gaps, the Coast Guard was set up in 1977 and was tasked with surveillance duties which gradually extended to protection and assistance of fishermen, anti-smuggling operations (in conjunction with other enforcement agencies), and preservation of marine life and ensuring adherence to maritime laws.


The Awakening

The importance of coastal security gained prominence when former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991 by LTTE militants from Sri Lanka, who infiltrated into the country through the sea route. The Mumbai bomb blasts two years later further exposed the gaps in our coastal security when it was revealed that the explosives had been smuggled into the country through the Raigad coast of Maharashtra.

This brought a very limited focus towards our coastal security infrastructure and was led by the Indian Navy which set up coastal detachments on the Tamil Nadu coast under ‘Operation Tasha’ and on the Maharashtra coast under ‘Operation Swan’ beginning 1991 and 1993 respectively. These operations were a three-tier endeavour consisting of the Indian Navy, the Coast Guard and a joint patrol comprising personnel from the Indian Navy, the state police and the Customs.

However, in the absence of adequate infrastructure, equipment and resources committed to such operations engaged in joint patrolling, the exercise was at best a deterrence measure without much bite and effectiveness. The operations and were undertaken for over two decades and then progressively wound up as the current set up was put in place.

In 2005, the government instituted the Coastal Security Scheme (CSS) that envisaged setting up of coastal police stations, check posts, outposts and barracks, equipped with boats, jeeps and motorcycles. The costs of training the personnel and procuring the vehicles were borne by the state while the Centre provided funds for the other operations.

Even as these measures were being implemented, terrorists attacked multiple locations in Mumbai in November 2008 (as is well known today as 26/11) and exposed the underbelly of our porous coastal security. A Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) note was issued in 2009 to direct Central and state machinery to expedite measures for beefing up the coastal surveillance network. In 2011, under Phase 2 of the CSS, a budgetary allocation of about Rs 1,500 crore was made to the state governments for procuring boats and vessels, setting up jetties and berthing facilities, land transport, surveillance equipment, computer systems, etc.

The Indian Navy created the Sagar Prahari Bal (SPB) as a special cadre with over 1,000 personnel and 95 Fast Interceptor Craft (FIC) for force protection and security of naval bases, vital areas and vital points. In 2014, four Joint Operations Centres (JOCs) were set up by the Indian Navy, one each at Mumbai, Kochi, Visakhapatnam and Port Blair. In addition, under the National Command Control Communication and Intelligence network initiative (NC3I), the Indian Navy set up an Information Management and Analysis centre in 2014 to provide a very comprehensive picture of the maritime environment in our immediate area of interest. The system aggregates data from the National AIS of the DGLL, the coastal radar chain of the Coast Guard, Vessel Traffic Management System (VTMS) information from Ports, the Long-Range Identification and Tracking data from DG Shipping, white shipping information shared by 17 partner nations, and space-based AIS information subscribed to by the Indian Navy.

Together, these initiatives generate a very comprehensive Maritime Domain Awareness and aid the security agencies to undertake surveillance and interdiction of suspicious vessels. Thus, we see that beginning 2009, in the aftermath of the 26/11 terror attacks, considerable efforts have been made to improve coastal security in India.

Defence minister Rajnath Singh at Indian Navy’s Information
Fusion Centre

Areas of Responsibility

The areas of responsibility for ensuring coastal security are as under:

  • Port Limits: Local Port Authorities.
  • Up to 5 nm from the Coast: Marine Police of the State.
  • Upto 12 Nm and EEZ: Indian Coast Guard.
  • Beyond 12 Nm and Overall Responsibility: Indian Navy


Major Challenges

Any organisation that is set up in India faces challenges from internecine power struggles or turf wars, impacting upon their smooth functioning. The problem is exacerbated when no clear responsibility or accountability is fixed, nor are government agencies and the bureaucracy ever censured or punished for their failure to deliver upon their responsibilities. Hence administrative challenges, particularly those of coordination, remain. The following are some of the challenges that the country faces with respect to its coastal security apparatus.

Geography: The remoteness of India’s vast coastline makes coastal areas susceptible to threats from infiltration as small water craft can easily slip in undetected. The creek areas of Gujarat and the Sunderbans are particularly vulnerable to clandestine activities as they are interconnected through small islands where mangroves and sandbars provide shelter.

Complex Structure: There are approximately 15 agencies involved in various facets of coastal security, and coordination between these agencies is of paramount importance to ensure effective performance. The presence of multiple stakeholders makes coordination and execution of coastal security measures a challenge, which is in no small measure helped by the limited focus from the Central and State governments.

Surveillance Technology: The vastness of our coastal areas makes it imperative that extensive use of technology is made to assist monitoring and surveillance of our coastal areas and their vulnerabilities. Coastal radar network comprising AIS and Electro Optical Cameras have been installed since 2009 to monitor the areas of interests. However, there are several gaps that need to be plugged in this domain.

Identification of Vessels: There are over 40 lakhs fishermen that live on our coast and fishing vessels in use number over 3.5 lakhs. Such a large fishing fleet needs to be monitored effectively to ensure inimical interests do not exploit our shortcomings. It is necessary that all fishing boats be equipped with Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) or similar measures so that we can detect breaches by outsiders. One hundred per cent compliance needs to be ensured which has not been achieved in the past 12 years since 26/11.

Infrastructure: The marine police of the states face challenges in maintenance of their boats as well as their berthing. It is important that suitable jetty and maintenance infrastructure are set up in the vicinity of marine police stations. This delay in creation of the necessary shore-based infrastructure impinges upon the effectiveness of the security network. The endurance of CG interceptor craft is about four to six hours with limited night patrolling capabilities, and these need enhancements.

Manpower and Training: There is apparently a shortage in approved manpower for coastal security duties. These shortages coupled with inadequate training adversely affects our coastal security apparatus. A realistic review of the sanctioned manpower needs to be undertaken and shortfalls, if any, must be made good.

Weather: The weather and sea conditions during the monsoon pose a major challenge to effective patrolling because the small craft are unsafe to undertake routine patrolling. Only large vessels are used for patrolling during monsoon, but their numbers are very limited, thus leaving gaps in surveillance which could be exploited by vested interests.

Airbus Defence and Space’s SPEXER 2000 coastal radar

The Way Ahead

The issues that plague coastal security organisation primarily involves sub-optimal coordination between multiple stakeholders, and a lack of synergy in their individual priorities. While the Indian Navy is overall responsible for the coastal security, the support extended by the state and central agencies to ensure their part of the security apparatus is often found less than optimal.

In the absence of a single point responsibility and resolution mechanism for continued lapses and failures, the overall edifice is shaky and does not deliver the envisaged value to our coastal security organisation. The following are a few issues that merit attention:

Policy and Guidelines: Policy guidelines on coastal security clearly laying out the organisational structure and responsibilities of stakeholders, would go a long way in addressing the information gaps. While the Indian Navy did bring out a draft Maritime Security Strategy document, it is a service specific document. Therefore, a comprehensive National Maritime Strategy document is a long-standing need towards attaining coherence in this direction. Such a document, that caters to not only our present security challenges but also looks at future security needs, is essential to shape our doctrines and force structure for challenges that lie ahead.

Responsibilities: While decentralisation of duties and responsibilities is a very good idea to allow for greater freedom to local authorities in effectively meeting their individual challenges and diverse needs, in the Indian context, it seems to be failing in achieving the desired results. In line with the US department of homeland security, we need a central body that will be able to exercise jurisdiction and control over all agencies involved in the business of ensuring coastal security. Such a central body must be able to ensure availability of necessary expertise to ideate and develop plans and strategies, and be able to position the necessary budgetary allocation expeditiously for setting up critical capabilities and infrastructure. Hence, setting up of a multi-disciplinary National Maritime Authority (NMA) under National Security Advisor (NSA) would be a welcome step in this direction. A case in point is that even after 12 years of the CCS note directing measures for enhancing coastal security, the National Maritime Domain Awareness (NMDA) project is yet to fructify.

Manpower and Training: In the Indian context, resources will always be a cause of concern owing to budgetary crunch. This impacts availability of necessary manpower, equipment, infrastructure and information sources. The problems are exacerbated when different states handle their coastal security issues differentially. The first casualty in this approach has been the commonality of training, equipping, and deployment philosophy of the marine police forces. A very pertinent issue that stands out glaringly is that the recruitment process for marine police force must first look to hire retired personnel from the Indian Navy and Coast Guard, owing to their training and experience in this domain. This would also result in substantial savings to the public exchequer as the government is already incurring a sizeable expense on their training and healthcare. The present force structure of the SPB also needs a realistic review as a force of only 1,000 personnel seems grossly inadequate given the enormity of their tasking. The setting up of the National Marine Police Training Institute in Dwarka (Gujarat) has resulted in ensuring some commonality of training, arming and outfitting of the force as well as adherence to standard operating procedures.

Port Security and Infrastructure: Following the 9/11 attacks, the US took lead in setting up necessary security protocols for port and container security to deter threats to US soil emanating from a third country. The International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS code) was implemented by IMO on 1 July 2004 as a comprehensive set of measurements for international security by prescribing responsibilities to a government authority, port authority, shipping companies and seafarers. The US customs further brought in the Container Security Initiative (CSI) with partner countries to aid in identifying potential threats. While the major ports in India are ISPS compliant, the minor ports have little or no adherence to such international regulations. It is important that every port in the country, major or minor, as well as the ship breaking yards comply with the security guidelines that are recognised globally. In addition, the setting up of Vessel Traffic Management System for all ports in the country needs to be expedited.

An aerial shot of Defence of Andaman & Nicobar Islands Exercise 2017

Audit of Ports by IB: Security audit of all major as well as minor ports, shipyards and ship breaking yards by IB needs to be undertaken on priority to identify shortcomings and address the same. The observations and recommendations brought out during audit needs to be implemented in time bound manner by each authority responsible for the same.

Surveillance and Tracking: The present surveillance layers need to be augmented with additional resources including satellites, long range Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) and Autonomous Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (AUUVs), seamless coastal radar chains and electro-optical devices that can track all potential threats. The leasing of Predator drones from an American firm in November 2020 was a welcome measure and it is hoped that before the expiry of the lease period, we shall see some force augmentation in this direction.

Identification: The biggest challenge to security continues to be from unregulated fishing and water craft that do not comply with directives regarding electronic identification. The department of fishery and the marine police have to undertake all necessary measures including punitive actions to ensure strict compliance with identification guidelines for vessels as well as personnel. Fishery departments often cite inadequate staff and infrastructure to regulate fishing activities. Use of modern data handling devices which can provide instant information on fishing boats, such as AIS, transponders, RFID devices and biometric identity cards for personnel need to be mandatorily ensured for all vessels prior to being put to sea.

Automated Data Analysis and Tracking: The availability of data and contact information needs real time analysis for threat determination and tracking. This process cannot be achieved optimally by human intervention. To improve its maritime defence, the Royal Navy is planning to step up its use of artificial intelligence (AI) with STARTLE—an AI software that can spot potential threats. This software works by using a neural network and machine learning to process information and flag warning signs. We need to invest in something similar.

Creation of the National Coastal Security Corps (NCSC) of National Cadet Corp (NCC) would ensure that a larger number of youths are involved in the coastal security organisation so that we can have a manpower pool to dip into when necessary.

Co-operative Engagements: We need to have increased interaction with other countries so as to adopt and customise the best practices being followed by them. The Indian government is in talks with at least 24 countries for exchanging information on shipping and has placed maritime security high on the agenda through active participation in the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), the East Asia Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM).

Additionally, it is in talks with other countries to institutionalize intelligence exchange among the respective security agencies. In June 2020, European Union (EU) Critical Maritime Routes in the Indian Ocean II (CRIMARIO II) initiative was launched. The project has been developed to support partner countries and organisations to secure sea lines of communication that are vital for international trade and prosperity. CRIMARIO II is a follow-on project of the CRIMARIO I initiative that was put in place between 2015–2019, and is aimed at enhancing regional Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) between partner states through information sharing, training and capacity building in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO) region.

As part of this initiative the European Commission’s Directorate General for International Cooperation and Development tasked CRIMARIO team to develop IORIS, an information-exchange platform in six languages. This platform is envisaged to facilitate information-sharing in the Indian Ocean region, and India could do well to participate in such an initiative.

Indian Coast Guard is responsible for coastal security up to 12 nm as well as the EEZ

High-Level Reviews and Accountability: Every year multiple alerted as well as unalerted coastal security exercises are undertaken by the Indian Navy and Coast Guard along with other stakeholders. The shortcomings observed from such exercises need to be addressed on priority before the next edition of such exercise. In this regard, setting up of a multi-disciplinary National Maritime Authority (NMA) under National Security Advisor (NSA) would be a good step towards ensuring expeditious resolution of all shortcomings observed by concerned agencies.

Strategic Communication: Periodic communication needs to be undertaken to appraise internal as well as external audiences about the steps that have been taken in the domain of coastal security. The deterrent value that accrues out of such communication cannot be overstated.


Security is everyone’s business. Hence, a multi-agency cooperative structure would continue to be the best way forward. However, the responsibilities need to be clearly defined and accountability needs to be ensured. Since 2008, we have come a long way in building a robust security organisation, but we still have a considerable journey ahead. Ensuring credible coastal security will remain a constant work in progress and we all need to pull together towards a common objective. The next attack, whenever that comes, may not mirror any previous ones and hence we have to maintain strict vigil so as to not be found wanting.




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