Military & Aerospace

Evolving Maritime Challenges
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Issue Vol 24.3 Jul-Sep 2009 | Date : 25 Jul , 2011

The naval strategy of the Western powers led by the USA during the Cold War was centred on the location and tracking of Soviet ballistic missile-firing nuclear submarines (SSBNs). When the Cold War ended and the USSR collapsed, this strategy underwent a major revision. As the two superpowers backed off militarily from each other, the new order gave room for the eruption of long pent-up hostility and resentment engendered by historical injustices of the post World War and Cold War era.

The lone superpower may have subdued its major rival, but it was soon kept busy fighting an unending succession of bush fires scattered around the globe. The era of mighty fleets ranging the ocean expanses in search of the enemy was over, and naval warfare seemed much more likely to focus on specific coastal regions. Technology enabled a degree of integration between sea, air and land forces to a degree never possible before, and it was inevitable that naval strategy would be closely integrated with the land battle.

When the Second World War ended and India became independent, we inherited a proportionate share of the combined military resources of British India, including naval resources that had been built up to serve the interests of the Empire. As far as India was concerned, the Navy inherited a collection of ships which lacked coherence as a fighting force, and in the prevailing situation its composition was not based on planned roles or strategic objectives. Further sale of ships and equipment, too, were predicated on the role envisaged for India by Britain. The major challenge before the naval leadership in the early years was therefore to visualize and create a force that would meet the strategic demands of the country in the next decades. This task was made complex by two factors.

“¦the threat is not from enemy warship formations, or what Gorshkov termed “Fleet on Fleet.” The threat emanates from the coastal area or transits through it, and the target, too, is situated in the coastal area. Thus the focus has shifted from the open ocean to the littoral.

Firstly, the military strategy of a country stems from its national security strategy, which is formulated based on its perceived vital interests. The identification of these vital interests enables the government to issue directives regarding national objectives in the fields of economic, foreign and military policy. Naval strategy as a part of military strategy flows as a logical outcome of this process of defining national objectives. While there is no formal document which contains national objectives in the areas mentioned above, the Indian armed forces have based their strategy on a set of axiomatic national interests. The Navy has the following principle roles in pursuance of its maritime strategy:

  • Defence against threats or aggression against our territories and national maritime assets.
  • To make the Navy an active instrument of diplomacy to further the foreign policy and economic objectives of the Government in our maritime areas of interest.
  • Maintenance of maritime order and prevention of acts of piracy and terrorism in our maritime areas of interest.
  • Humanitarian missions and disaster relief operations to protect and assist our countrymen and citizens of other countries as ordered by the Government.
  • Provide a strategic deterrent.

Secondly, naval planning is made more complex because of three features unique to ships:

  • The invariably long periods of debate and delay before the Government approves the building or acquisition of a warship.
  • The long gestation period from the government’s approval to the design of a warship and then to its construction and induction as a battle-worthy fleet unit.
  • And finally, all warships have a long life-span of at least twenty years.

INS_Viraat_3These three factors imply that when the conceptual requirements of a warship are drawn up and projected by the naval staff, they must be able to assure the Government that the ship will still be relevant thirty years hence! This is a tall order indeed if one takes into account the rate of technological advancement and the volatility of international relations and the global economy.In the decades following independence, India has built a modern Navy capable of the spectrum of roles that it had derived for itself based on its strategic objectives. Along with its fleet of surface combatants it has developed both an aviation and a submarine arm, and is among a few countries in the world with this three-dimensional capability. But the planning, like that of the military of all countries, was naturally based on circumstances that were foreseen or foreseeable at the time of planning.

The challenges that have been visualized and upon which the long term plans for the development of the Navy were based have been described at some length to show that the Navy has a very clear understanding of its role in peace and in war. In peace, the role is to maintain order at sea, project and promote interests, and to carry out humanitarian tasks when required. The wartime role is to combat the enemy when hostilities have been declared by the Government.

Also read: India’s Sea Blindness

The post–Cold War scene has been characterized by ethnic and sub-national tensions and conflicts. One need not go into the details or merits of these conflicts here – what is relevant is that they have generated a whole new genre of sea warfare in which small groups of desperate fanatics cause destruction out of all proportion to their resources, and in the process tie national resources down in a prolonged asymmetric conflict.

A major difficulty being experienced by even the most powerful countries in the modern context is the emergence of extra-national militant groups or non-state actors as they are often called. The countries from which the groups operate are not in formal control of them, and can conveniently deny complicity or even knowledge of their activities when confronted. And as in the case of the November 2008 attack on Mumbai, they may well support the militant groups to further their own covert strategy while feigning action against them. Our neighboring country has for several years successfully hunted with the hounds in the international arena while holding with the hares closer home.

In this changed setting for naval warfare that is confronting us today, the threat is not from enemy warship formations, or what Gorshkov termed “Fleet on Fleet.” The threat emanates from the coastal area or transits through it, and the target, too, is situated in the coastal area. Thus the focus has shifted from the open ocean to the littoral. While something akin to this was first articulated by the United States, India received a painful affirmation of this reality when in March 1993 several coordinated bombs were exploded in Mumbai by attackers who infiltrated the unguarded western coast and transported explosives from the sea undetected by any coastal security agency. No remedial action was taken, and it is the recent attack on Mumbai in November that has raised the awareness to a sufficiently high level for this issue to receive serious attention.

Navy-Ship_2The difficulties of conducting an operation in such asymmetric warfare cannot be under-estimated. A structured, large fleet with highly trained, professional crews and armed with long-range weapons is ineffective against small groups of infiltrators who carry out sneak attacks in small open rubber dinghies. The lessons of the Second World War need to be relearned: saboteurs and commando attacks are best tackled at the point of entry, and not in the open sea.This would then point to the importance of effective and modernized maritime border management. The current management of maritime borders and seaward entry is premised on the cooperation of the subject who reports at the designated arrival points for examination and permission. The difficulty of detection and prevention of intruders from seaward is not readily appreciated by the landsman. Intrusion across land borders occurs despite hundreds of kilometers of fencing and roving patrols. In the vast expanses of the sea, small craft are distinguishable only at very small distances, depending on the time of the day and the visibility conditions.

The lessons of the Second World War need to be relearned: saboteurs and commando attacks are best tackled at the point of entry, and not in the open sea.

The average Indian knows little about the sea and does not know, for example that a country with such huge resources as the USA employs over forty thousand personnel in its Customs and Border Protection Force, and yet unofficial figures for illegal immigration, including from seaward, vary from figures of 70,000 to 100,000 annually! This is only to emphasize the difficulty of sealing maritime borders, which is not something that is understood by the decision-making levels of the government.

After the November 2008 attack on Mumbai there was an outcry of criticism of the maritime security forces for their perceived lapses in allowing a boatload of infiltrators to make their way into Mumbai harbor. The criticism needs to be heeded: but it also needs to be understood that there are multiple agencies, each with its own zone of responsibility and none of them are accountable to the other, nor is there any coordination among them. This organization, or lack of it, is outdated by many years and is obviously in need of re-structuring. An organization must be created that makes more use of the coastal villages, of the police along the coastal roads, and of traffic and excise outposts on these roads that will keep track of unusual movements of people. The variety and diversity of our country, in which the local dialect changes every two hundred kilometers can be taken advantage of to detect strangers in the area and create the basis of a reporting organization.

Operating in high-speed vessels close to the shore is a hazardous business, and requires special training and special craft. The Indian Coast Guard is well equipped in terms of the kinds of vessels it has for this role, but the number of vessels and helicopters is woefully inadequate for the task. The USA has a separate organization, the Customs and Border Protection under the Department of Homeland Security , which is responsible to prevent illegal entry into the country. In addition, the US Coast Guard, the state police and other organizations cooperate in this mammoth task of guarding the nation’s frontiers. In contrast the situation in India is confused, with no agency comparable to the CBP, and without a clear allocation of responsibility between existing organizations.

Arun-6Apart from bringing about organizational clarity, there is a need to equip the forces with the kind of ships, helicopters and hovercraft that are needed to operate in the unique littoral environment. The Coast Guard, as has been mentioned, does have the right mix of vessels and aircraft, but its present force structure does not permit it to focus on the specific task of preventing illegal entry from the sea. Today terrorist organizations are targeting India because there is a perception of immunity from retaliation. This is an impression that needs to be disabused, erased by decisive action at the appropriate time. It is clear that the sea route has become an optional mode of ingress for terrorist attacks. To counter this, a number of measures need to be taken to make the maritime boundary security apparatus more effective.

Also read: India’s quest for Indigenous Aircraft Carrier

Organizationally, it must be appreciated that the only two maritime agencies in the country were designed and have been developed to fulfill different roles. The prevention of illegal entry into the country involves immigration authorities, who are a branch of the police, the Customs, and the agency which has the authority to apprehend violators of the law. It has been the experience that a large number of offenders apprehended by the Coast Guard have got away scot-free because of the lack of involvement of statutory agencies. Such statutory powers need to be built into the structure of the force tasked to apprehend such wrong-doers so that the legal support is integral to it and apprehensions result in sentencing and punishment.

It needs to be recognized that the near coastal belt, including the tidal zone and the immediate foreshore is at present a kind of no-man’s land, where neither sea-going nor land-based forces operate. This is unfamiliar terrain for all and it would be logical to have a Coastal Protection Force that would plug this jurisdictional gap. The Force would be able to integrate the surveillance and operations in the near-shore zone from sea by its coastal craft, and from the landward coastal strip by coastal patrols.

Indian_Navy_AircraftThe separation of the responsibility for prevention of illegal entry through landings on the coast from the existing omnibus tasks of the Navy and the Coast Guard would have the advantage of not only removing vagueness in accountability, but also allow a task force entrusted with this mission to develop the special knowledge and skills, to train its personnel and to establish Standard Operating Procedures so that it can rapidly become proficient in this specialized role. Such a Task Force must be able to operate in the coastal sea-land interface, and operate coastal patrols, both on land and on the sea. This would provide the continuity in surveillance, coordinated pursuit and seizure.

The zones of responsibility of various agencies should be reviewed keeping in mind the ability of each agency to fulfill its assigned responsibility. At present port authorities have wide-ranging responsibilities, but lack the ability to discharge them. There have been instances of ships illegally breaking out of port, and the port authority concerned being powerless to prevent it till a Coast Guard vessel apprehended the ship at sea.

“¦the USA employs over forty thousand personnel in its Customs and Border Protection Force, and yet unofficial figures for illegal immigration, including from seaward, vary from figures of 70,000 to 100,000

According to a recent decision by the government the local Naval Command Headquarters has been given the responsibility of coordination and control of any operation involving violation of coastal security. This welcome measure will go a long way to clear the organizational uncertainty that is invariably the bane of any multi-agency activity.

In addition to such organizational measures the new coastal security strategy must include the establishment of a reporting network making extensive use of local governments down to the village level. As mentioned before, experience in the Second World War has shown that even with the countries actively engaged in war, commandos have succeeded in penetrating coastal patrols to reach their targets. Solitary small boats carrying commando-type militants cannot be detected and intercepted at sea with any degree of surety; it follows that a system of intensive surveillance at appropriate places along the coast must be maintained.

In recent times India has shown remarkable decisiveness while acting in defence of her maritime interests in the Western Arabian Sea. Similar boldness needs to be displayed in taking administrative and legislative action to advise and require all ships heading for Indian ports and passing through Indian waters to declare themselves and their cargo and passenger at specified distances from Indian reporting stations. This has long been the practice in American waters and the practice needs to be internationalized. All mechanized small craft should compulsorily be fitted with transponders for identification by coastal patrols.


The operational roles demanded of the maritime security forces of the country have changed in the recent past, calling for a careful review of existing maritime security structures and their capability to meet the changed requirements. Large ships with modern weapons and sensors are designed to prosecute war on the high seas and are unsuitable for deployment in the coastal zones where clandestine militants are likely to operate.

INS_Viraat_1The Navy has a clear and permanent task – of national defence, and in the years ahead it will have to shoulder bigger responsibilities. It cannot afford to reduce its capability by restructuring to meet lesser threats, lest it lose its effectiveness in meeting the challenge of war. The Coast Guard, too has the clear role of maritime law enforcement in peacetime, and this is a task which it is hard put to cope with because of force level limitations.

A Coastal Protection Force needs to be created that is charged with the responsibility of detecting and preventing illegal entry through the coastal route. This belt of the sea-land interface is a separate and distinct operational zone which is presently a gap inaccessible to sea-based forces. The gap needs to be plugged by this force by a combination of coastal patrols on and off-shore, pursuit and seizure and surveillance and dissemination of intelligence.

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