Bridging gap

Coastal patrolling and unmanned surveillance

After the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai and the feverish efforts launched to close the gaps in the maritime security infrastructure, India has come a long way in ensuring that another such attack from the sea will be more difficult to execute.

How synergetic will be the effort will only be known when the next crisis occurs and we have another round of blame game and accusations as happened after the recent Chinese intrusion in the Depsang area of south-eastern fringe of Jammu and Kashmir below the Daulat Beg Oldi outpost.

Defence Minister AK Antony is doing well to see that whatever is planned by way of equipment, sensors and fast interceptor boats and radars is implemented as per schedule. The first phase is completed and the second should create the seamless inter linkages between the Indian Navy led maritime assets and the facilities created by the States with maritime boundaries along the 7500 km coastline.

Since the time the new security arrangement has been set in place there have been glaring lapses like the failure to intercept pirates using a hijacked commercial vessel as a mothership for terrorist activities in the mid-Arabian Sea; Somalian pirates operating close to the Lakshadweep group of islands off the western coast of the Indian peninsula; the derelict ship floating unnoticed across the north Arabian Sea all the way from the Gulf and spilling oil in Mumbai; and the legal complications that arose from the court proceedings of captured pirates whose accomplices used Indian sailors employed in foreign ships to demand the release of their comrades in a Mumbai prison.

Each of these events shows up a certain weakness in the system of security which needs to be addressed.

Security infrastructure

That there is rapid growth in the marine security infrastructure can be seen from an almost monthly supply of one or another of fast attack craft, air-cushion vehicles (hovercraft) and aircraft to the Indian Coast Guard organization which operates under the overall command of the Indian Navy within the 12-mile territorial waters and the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.

As part of Phase I the installation of 46 Coastal Static Radars (36 on the mainland and ten in island territories on both the eastern and western seaboards) has been executed and it is expected that it will help in identification and monitoring of maritime traffic. Nonetheless the manner in which intelligence is shared between various government departments in the Centre and the States is showing up loopholes that terrorists and militants can exploit as happened with the attack on the Congress rally in the jungles of Bastar in May when clear indications were available of the congregation of a large number of Maoists in and around the attack site.

That mindset prevails in both land and maritime security forces using jurisdiction and turf to disrupt smooth flow of information that can prevent a major security lapse.

Given the vastness of the seas and the possibility of inimical elements using subterfuge to gain access to Indian shore-based assets, how much is enough will only be known at a moment of crisis.

What is being inducted already shows up a disjoint between the discovery of an intrusion (be it by pirates in rubber dinghies or ships adrift in the oceans) and the means of interception.

While the new fast attack craft can travel the equivalent of 40 kmph on land, rushing to intercept an intruder on the outer edge of the Exclusive Economic Zone will take nearly eight hours travelling at top speed from bases along the coastline. Posting the surface vessels on the 12-mile territorial boundary will help only marginally unless there is a synergetic link between vessels posted in a manner where detection and interception can be assured within three hours at the most. Otherwise the culprits can escape out of the EEZ depriving the Indian Navy of being able to stop and check their vessel and gather intelligence about their activities.

Accurate interception

On the face of it, the establishment of 46 coastal static radars on the mainland and in the island territories is a quantum jump in surveillance capabilities.

Along with 18 Nishant unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) these must have hopefully been laid out in a manner that there is overlap of reception of scanned radar emissions so that all segments of the seas along the peninsula are covered. Much depends on the range of the radar. They should be able to cover the entire length and width of the 200 nautical mile EEZ-a distance that gives enough time for surface security elements to react and be able to effect an interception.

The range of the Nishant is only about 160 km which leaves a large stretch of the EEZ outside the realm of its surveillance. Its cruise speed suggests that it will take about one hour for it to reach the limits of its range. The main problem is that so far only about twenty Nishants have been manufactured and the first preferred user is the Indian Army. By the time the turn of the Indian Coast Guard comes it could take some time.

To enhance surveillance and to ensure effective ‘maritime domain awareness’, the Coast Guard has established the Coastal Service Network in the mainland and on the island territories. “The aim of setting up the network is to create real-time surveillance system which can be monitored even from remote locations,” a top official said recently.

The Coast Guard organizational structure has five Regional Headquarters, 12 District Headquarters, 42 Stations and 15 Air Units functioning all along the coast.  It now has 80 vessels and 56 aircraft. The force is poised to grow to over 150 vessels and 100 aircraft by 2018.

Going by the numbers of surface craft and the length of the coastline it shows that if 150 fast attack craft are to be inducted to defend 7500 km of the mainland it means that every ship will have to be responsible for up to 50 km length of the coastline.

This distribution leaves out the several thousand square kilometers over which the island territories are strewn on both sides of the mainland. Large as the expansion of the fleet and shore based static facilities, the current assets will remain inadequate for interception unless the pattern of patrolling is such that it is dense across the approaches from the Pakistan side and thinned out all along the rest of the coastline.

Actionable intelligence as generated by the network of static radars and electro-magnetic sensors will only be able to be followed up with precise intervention when there is adequate number of surface vessels to make a quick interception in the open sea.

It is not easy to find small targets like dinghies and rubberized boats in the open sea, more particularly in the extremely crowded sea lanes around India’s commercial capital Mumbai (something that was illustrated with ghastly effect in the raid from the sea route by the terrorists from Pakistan on 26/11). Intelligence agencies had given coordinates of a likely threat from the sea but nothing was actually found.

The Indian Navy as the nodal agency for maritime security will have to create the numbers of surface vessels that will act as first responders to whatever threat that the radar surveillance network provides.