The state of maritime surveillance and security appears to be no better than it was when Pakistani terrorists came into Mumbai on 26 November 2008. The case in point is the appearance of MT Pavit on the seafront after drifting for about a month in the north Arabian Sea, still drifting from one beach to another endangering shipping in an already accident prone Mumbai harbour.
The Indian Navy which was made responsible for the total seaboard defence from the seafront to the other side of the Indian Ocean littoral was all at sea again and without a clue of what was happening in spite of the massive investment in maritime security apparatus over the past three years.
The MT Pavit affair is the latest in a long list of breaches of security from hijacking of a vessel by pirates while the INS Godavari was on patrol duty off the Somali coast near the Horn of Africa.
For example, it started with the bumping of an Indian naval vessel by a Pakistan Navy ship and then the failure to detect and arrest a ship that had been hijacked some months ago and was apparently being used by the pirates as a mother ship in the mid-Arabian Sea.
On the top of it, the operation of Somalian pirates close to the Indian Lakshadweep chain of islands (thousands of miles away from their home port whereas the Lakshadweep islands are only a few hundred miles from the Indian coastline) and the loudly announced decision by the Indian Navy that it would not arrest pirates because of difficulties in bringing them to trial and the pirates using Indian seamen as hostages to secure their release.
Two events in particular underscore the continuing danger to Indian harbours – the MT Pavit affair itself shows that an unidentified ship can loiter around without being detected so leave alone terrorists operating in dinghies and dhows like the way Ajmal Kasab and his gang of cutthroats descended on Mumbai.
The second was the sinking of a couple of ships, including the INS Vindhyagiri frigate after collisions in the channel approaches to Mumbai indicating to any terrorists who would have watched television how to do deliberate damage to Indian shipping in waters close to harbours.
The Indian security forces preferred to shoot the messenger during the Mumbai attack when the media showed helicopters hovering over Nariman House instead of evolving less noisy methods of arriving at the scene of a terrorist attack.
The increasing tendency to shoot from the mouth by top military brass has prompted the Government of India to publicly ask them to stop rushing comments and criticism to the media.
Yet the Pavit affair points to the failure to provide correct solutions to the dangers facing Indian national interests on the high seas. At his last press conference before Navy Day Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Nirmal Verma disclosed that the Indian Navy had advised all shippers to fasten the bridge area to prevent intruders from entering and taking over the ship as pirates usually do.
This solution could possibly be enforced by larger vessels that can carry repair and maintenance material on board to be able to weld and attach shields to the bridge area but smaller craft like trawlers would need to return to shore to get the job done.
The Navy ignored a suggestion that all shipping of every size be asked to install GPS connected SOS transmitters in areas known only to the crew so that an alarm can be raised indicating that a hijacking is in progress from any part of the vessel giving the location of the vessel and transmitting details of its passage to shore-based stations to give an idea where it is being taken.
This could have been a good stopgap arrangement in the period till the Navy acquires its new US built Poseidon maritime reconnaissance and strike aircraft to bolster its obviously insufficient current fleet of maritime surveillance aircraft.
To back up one large foreign order with another the Navy has also drawn up plans to acquire maritime unmanned drones for long-range and medium-range reconnaissance, surveillance and attack.
Yet it needs to be emphasised that without an uplink between vessels on the surface of the seas and airborne assets it is acquiring at such huge cost Indian maritime security will continue to disjointed and uncoupled.
There has to be an organic link that enables the airborne assets to identify friend or foe and ships like the MT Pavit can be identified and located as soon as trouble occurs on board instead of just drifting on the seas and pose a threat to both shipping and shore establishments.
In this network of surface and airborne connectivity the unlinked pirates-Islamic jihadis-smugglers will stand out as targets to be stopped and questioned and searched. If they throw their weapons and contraband overboard to avoid arrest what more does one want?
The Indian Navy is also advocating the case for a dedicated maritime satellite that will scan the seas for surface and submarine vessels and provide the communications pivot for what is known as “broad area maritime surveillance” of which the drones are to be an important adjunct to enhance the capabilities of the Poseidon.
Thus multiple layers of communications systems will be in place when all the platforms have been acquired and operationalised.
Nonetheless a wide gap will persist in the Indian Navy’s ability to intercept inimical elements operating beyond the longitudes that divide the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal in half.
This it needs to close by proper basing of its surface assets, particularly fast offshore patrol vessels, so that they can reach within hours rather than days the moment a suspicious ship is sighted and its location pinpointed.
As the case of the pirate mother ship shows the time-gap between the detection of the ship in mid-Arabian Sea and the arrival of an Indian Navy ship to reconnitre the area was too large and the pirates made their escape in the general direction of Somalia.
STRATEGIC AFFAIRS has long been advocating the acquisition of flying boats which can carry the Indian Navy Special Forces the MARCOs (maritime commandos) to areas within the radius of operation of the aircraft within a couples of hours at the outer limits and thus ensure that no inimical elements of any kind can operate anywhere in the Indian Ocean and along its huge littoral.
The flying boats have the advantage of providing flexible response over long distances and by a system of replenishments at sea through surface depot ships stay in a state of preparedness for significant periods of time. Their quick interventionist capabilities will sanitise large areas of the ocean especially the approaches to the strategic Mumbai harbour.
If the Indian Navy cares to enforce a convoy system in the waters under its command it will make its task that much easier by ensuring that while the convoys are safe any vessel loitering around could be identified and searched.
Hiterto the excuse has been that looking for ships and trawlers and dhows at sea is like looking for a needle in a haystack many of the difficulties can be eliminated by a proper fusion of satellite, airborne and surface assets of not just peninsular India but also international shipping using the sea lanes of communication in the vast wilderness of the Indian Ocean.