State of coastal security

The effectiveness of the coastal radar network and security of peninsular India was demonstrated at its worst during the recent crash of the Coast Guard Dornier aircraft. It took 33 days and nearly a dozen institutions that have anything to do with the sea to cooperate and find the wreckage of the Dornier, some human remains and a watch that could finally confirm the death of its owner.

Neither the radar at Thiruchirapally (Trichy) about 153 km from the Tamil Nadu coastline nor the Air Traffic Control radar at Chennai were able to give a clear fix in terms of longitude and latitude of the location where the INMARSAT  beacon on board went dead indicating a disaster on board the aircraft. As a consequence it took  (as per the official statement) “700 hours of surface effort and nearly 200 hours of air effort by the Coast Guard, Navy, other specialized agencies of the centre and Reliance Industries Limited” before the Indian Navy submarine INS Sindhudhwaj could pinpoint the Sonar Locator Beacon of the missing aircraft. The Multi-Service Vessel Olympic Canyon borrowed from Reliance Industries Ltd offshore drilling venture finally salvaged large portions of the stricken aircraft and the watch from a depth of 990 meters.

Dornier incident

The Indian Navy which has over-all control over maritime security from the coastline to the outer edge of the Indian Ocean rim needs to review its standard operating procedures (SOP). Swift pinpointing of location of disaster is one of them.    

The Directorate of Public Relations of the Ministry of Defence reported the incident thus: “The ill-fated ICG Dornier CG-791 while on its routine night surveillance on 08 June 2015 at 20:15 hours the aircraft suddenly disappeared from the radar located at Trichy when it was 32 miles north-east of Karaikal. At 21:24 hours, the International Maritime Satellite (INMARSAT) terminal on board also suddenly powered off.” This was on the basis of a briefing by the Indian Coast Guard Organisation or the Indian Navy. “The 32 miles north-east of Karaikal” when transposed on the map of the coastline of India shows that anyone looking for the missing aircraft would have to look at a wide expanse of sea from the coastline almost midway between Karaikal and Cuddalore to a significant chunk of the  Bay of Bengal on the eastern stretch of the 32-km radius (in case the aircraft had veered off course).

As it turned out the submarine INS Sindhudhwaj was relocated and it soon picked up what is described as a “barrage of transmissions” from the  Sonar Locator Beacon on the seabed at a depth of 990 ft. The location given was 17 nautical miles (approx 30 km) south east of Cuddalore. At least one thing is clear that the aircraft disappeared from the Trichy radar screen but it was nine minutes later that the INMARSAT connection was cut. It means that the aircraft did not explode from any cause and the INMARSAT connection was cut when it  hit the water. The riddle of the elapsed time of nine minutes without an SOS from the crew will be clarified by the recovered cockpit voice recorder.

That the recorder and much else was salvaged goes entirely to the credit of the Reliance  Multi-Service Vessel and its remotely operated vehicle that picked up the aircraft pieces from the ocean floor. That the debris was not strewn over several square kilometers also reconfirms that there was no explosion on board. The Indian Navy which has the responsibility of maintaining and ensuring the security of maritime military platforms should have been the one that has at least two Multi-Service Vessels to be able to deal more effectively with search and rescue (SAR) operations on a peninsular scale extending 7000-plus kilometers.

Radar network

This brings into question the state of the radar network that reportedly has been set up along the Indian coastline after the terrorist attack on Mumbai by Pakistanis. It needs to be ascertained whether the Dornier aircraft of the Indian Coast Guard lost contact with the Trichy radar because of onboard technical failures or was the result of a geographical contour that interfered with the radar transmission. The latter would have been noticed well before the Dornier tragedy occurred.

The episode should galvanize the Indian Navy to acquire capabilities that can be utilized to prevent the kind of delay that took place in locating the wreckage of the Dornier. With an ageing submarine fleet it needs to assure the nation that it can, soon enough, be able to acquire improved versions of the Multi-Service Vessel of the RIL to be able to locate the submarine, rescue its crew and eventually retrieve the wreckage.

India is dependent on an arrangement with the US for use of its Deep Submergence Recovery Vehicle for submarine emergencies. The catch is that it will take at least 72 hours before the Americans can deploy the DSRV anywhere within the Indian Navy’s area of operation. This is done by delivering it at an airport closest to the site of the wreckage and then using barges to deploy it at sea. Something faster needs to be available.

India has long been afflicted by surveillance and search and rescue disabilities. The most recent being its inability to detect and track the flight path of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. On its way to Beijing the flight backtracked  and flew over Malaysia to reach the Andaman Sea where India has strategic interests. The Malaysian aircraft  was tracked by civil and military radar up to a point about 100 km from the southern tip of the Car Nicobar group. In that position the Indian military radar required for operation of its island airbase should have normally have picked up the image of the Malaysian Airlines plane if for no other reason than it was a flight  that was not expected in that airspace at that time.            

It is possible that the Andaman and Nicobar Island tri-Service Command comprising the Indian Air Force, the Indian Army and the Indian Navy is in the practice of shutting down the radar during periods when its own flights are not operating so as to prevent inimical elements from recording the transmission bandwidth and misusing it for jamming our own. Clearly there will have to be some better way to ensure that no aircraft traverses our airspace and those adjacent to ours at any time of the day or night for failsafe surveillance and interception of intruding aircraft.

We have also not covered ourself with glory in the case of the deaths in air accidents of two Chief Ministers of the country. The first was that of Mr Dorjee Khandu of Arunachal Pradesh. His helicopter crashed in mountainous terrain in 2011 and it took the better part of five days before the wreckage was discovered by local residents and reported to the authorities. This, after ISRO failed to find the missing plane in an area as sensitive as Arunachal Pradesh where the Chinese troops have been persistently intruding.

The other case was in 2009 when YSR Reddy’s helicopter developed a technical snag during bad weather and crashed in the Nallamala forest area of Andhra Pradesh. In what was then described as the largest search and rescue operation in the history of the country, the Home Ministry sent 5,000 CRPF jawans and the IAF deployed its state of the art Sukhoi-30MKI fighter bombers and their thermal imaging system to try and find the metallic wreckage of the helicopter. The ISRO  RISAT-2 satellite  was redirected at Andhra Pradesh but its high-resolution photos did not find the downed helicopter. An IAF Mi-8 helicopter eventually found the wreckage after nearly a 24 hour search. These are unacceptable events. We need to set our house in order.