Coastal security

It is a measure of how secure has been the Indian peninsula  since the attack by Pakistani terrorists on Mumbai on 26 November 2008 that as recently as in June this year Home Minister Rajnath Singh chaired a meeting of stakeholders where it was decided that the current 46 coastal surveillance radars need to be augmented by an additional 38.

How wide are the gaps in coastal security can be calculated by a division of the length of 7,516 km of Indian coastline from the Sir Creek on the border with Pakistan in Gujarat in the west to the Sundarbans boundary with Bangladesh in the east inclusive of nine maritime states and the island territories of Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar Islands by 46 (the number of coastal surveillance radars).

It is not as if the radars are placed equidistant from each other. Depending on the perception of threats there can be a denser array of radars at such vulnerable points so that the surveillance beam of one overlaps with that of neighbor nets on either side.

The coastline is subdivided into the  5,422 km of the mainland and 2,094 km of widely dispersed island territories on the eastern and western seaboards. It is noticeable that nearly half of Indian maritime assets are in the islands; the Andaman and Nicobar Island long being the venue of foreign poaching, regional gunrunning and other anti-national activities. The Lakshadweep group is under the shadow of jihadi groups that appear to have made a beachhead in neighbouring Maldives.  After being stymied by international patrols at the point where the sea lanes of communications debouch from the Red Sea into the Arabian Sea, pirates have been noticed operating close to Indian waters in the Lakhsadweep and Minicoy group on the western seaboard.

Radar network

The ability to monitor these vast stretches of oceans and detect and track suspicious vessels is a job that requires coordination of all static onshore radar nets as well as those on floating platforms and airborne helicopters and maritime strike aircraft. More and more important too is the synergy that has been developed between the fisherfolk and the security agencies through automatic identification systems (identification friend or foe) on board fishing vessels.

Nonetheless the network set up after the 26/11 attack on Mumbai did not evoke confidence given several events that tended to show up gaping holes in the surveillance system. One was the amazingly undetected voyage of an abandoned cargo vessel from the seas around Oman on the other side of the north Arabian Sea till it ran aground near the Mumbai coastline. The passage was an illustration of how ocean currents operate in this portion of the north Arabian Sea and can be used by the perennially hostile Pakistan Army Inter-Services Intelligence which had masterminded the Mumbai attack.

Using free floating platforms laden with explosives that can detonate on crashing against another vessel (a la LTTE trademark)  can have cascading effect on international commercial shippers’ confidence in the ability of Indian security agencies to ensure security on the high seas close to peninsular India. It could lead Llyods insurance agency to hike its premium on this route leading to a consequent rise in freight rates and other undesirable consequences-a war by other means.

While automatic identification systems (AIS) play an important role in segregating Indian fishing and commercial vessels from a clutter of ships on a busy maritime highway or fishing field, the problem remains of finding and identifying motorized inflatable dinghies that would not be carrying the AIS equipment. They are the real menace. Radio silence, marine camouflage etc make it extremely difficult to detect and identify such vessels. The attackers of Mumbai did use an inflatable dinghy with rowing oars to silently enter a space previously reconnoitered by Pak-American national David Coleman Headley to make a landing. The consequences were there for all to see.

To detect such boats or even fishing trawlers shore based radar systems are not always effective. For one,  much depends on the height at which the radar is standing. The general rule of thumb is that a surveillance equipment or a six-feet tall man standing on the seashore would be able to view the horizon at a distance of about 5 km because of the curvature of the earth’s surface. On the other hand if the surveillance equipment is placed on a 100 ft tower the horizon would be at about 20 km which is just a little less than the internationally recognized ambiance of the national territorial waters. Being able to see either with binoculars or surveillance equipment is insufficient given the possibility of sea clutter caused by sunlight bouncing off the waves or the shimmer caused by wave action.

Effective surveillance

Technically, it is possible to sift the sea clutter and isolate the object under observation but the effectiveness is debatable. India has acquired the Israeli long range reconnaissance and observation system (LORROS) which can be used for both daytime and night-time surveillance but it is unclear how effective it is in the sea environment.  In any event if a vessel of any size is detected by the radar/surveillance systems the immediate counter-measures have to be effected by helicopter borne marine commandos or by the fast attack craft  that are being supplied almost every month to the Indian Coast Guard Organisation that is responsible for the defence of the territorial waters, the contiguous sea as well as the 200 nautical mile (370 plus kilometers) Exclusive Economic Zone. The time taken for such interceptions is too long and requires what is known as a “wolf pack” deployment of fast attack craft in vulnerable areas of the seas around India.  Beyond that up to the Indian Ocean rim is the operational responsibility of the Indian Navy. However the Indian Navy has, as the nodal agency,  the overall charge of maritime security from the apparatus for marine patrols on land within the nine maritime States and two Union Territories  of India  to defence and security of offshore islands and showing the flag exercises anywhere on the globe.

In recent times the media has reported, with visuals, of the decrepit state of onshore facilities intended to be used for Intelligence gathering and policing of the seashores in the respective States. Given that there are implicitly acknowledged gaps in the radar coverage of peninsular India, the totally disorganized state of onshore marine police facilities and the inherent difficulty in first detecting intrusions into the EEZ and the territorial waters then recognizing the threat (friend or foe) and finally location and interception, maritime security leaves much to be desired.

The malaise exists not only in the absence or disrepair of technical equipment but also in the organizational setup under the Indian Navy. It presented itself in its most despicable manner when an Indian Coast Guard commander contradicted the manner in which a suspected Pakistani vessel found within the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone was dealt with.