Tackling Terrorism On High Seas

Updated: Nov 5 2003, 05:30am hrs
India and China conducting joint naval exercises Something unthinkable is happening in the waters around the sub-continent. Major trading nations are coming together to combat high seas terrorism and nowhere is this cooperation more visible than in the Indian Ocean. For a country that viewed with suspicion any foreign vessel entering the ocean named after it, India is today engaging almost every major power through joint exercises in and around the Indian Ocean.

Both the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard are thinking big, blue and brown. Joint naval exercises are being conducted with the US, Russia, Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Britain, France, Iran, Oman and many others and theres more to come. Perhaps South Korea and South Africa will come next. Israel may not be far off nor could Myanmar.

The senior service is policing virtually the entire Indian Ocean, exercising with half a dozen navies while the Coast Guard is planning to set up 13 more stations thus virtually sealing the maritime border. The setting up of the Andamans and Nicobar command of the Indian Navy was a turning point, and the growth of high seas terrorism in the Indian Ocean the context.

With India likely to get 50,000 to 90,000 square kilometres of the continental shelf for economic exploitation, there is a growing realisation that the countrys future economic and military strength could be in the sea. At present the territorial waters are up to just 12 nautical miles and exclusive economic zone up to 200. With new acquisitions like the stealth ship INS Talwar, the Navy is gearing up for a bigger role.

Both the Navy and the Coast Guard are equipping themselves not only to protect the larger maritime zone, but also to police the entire waters from Madagascar, Mozambique and the Gulf of Oman in the west to the Malacca Straits, and probably South China Sea in the east.

Commodore Uday C Bhaskar, deputy director, IDSA, warns that terrorists could use containers on ships to transport weapons and dangerous materials, or could use the containers themselves as weapons of mass destruction to trigger more attacks. Coast Guard too needs to be better equipped and prepared to deal with such attacks, he said.

According to a report issued by a US based think tank The Rand, the potential threat of terrorists using containers poses a large risk to our economies and to our societies. Since 11 September 2001, the awareness of terrorists actions has clearly risen. This increase, however, has not been as substantial in all fields as it has been in the air transport sector.

According to JS Bedi, chief of staff at the western naval command, more hardware will be needed for protecting the continental shelf.

The Coast Guard has put up a proposal to set up 13 more stations, seven of them on the west coast, three on the east and the remaining on the island territories.

Policing requests are already pouring. After patrolling the eastern waters with the Indonesian navy last year, Indian naval ships escorted US ships in the Malacca Straits for three months, provided seaward security during the African Union summit in Mozambique, and patrolled the Mauritian waters twice. INS Mumbai is exercising with the Indonesian navy on its voyage past the Malacca Straits into South China Sea.

Policing ports is another issue, as ownership of the ports is often vague. Most ports are not owned and operated by national governments, which makes the imposition of legislation difficult, points out the Rand report. Our strategy towards the littoral will perforce have to be a combination of diplomatic, economic and naval moves, say defence analysts.

The Navy is fast making up for what Admiral Madhavendra Singh calls the lost decade of 1985-1995 when it bought next to nothing from abroad or Indias own shipyards. One pays for this two decades later; so we have to order more now and extend the life of the ships in service, said Admiral Singh after receiving the Russian-built stealth ship INS Talwar in Mumbai in August. Even if you give orders to all the shipyards, they cant deliver all that we want. So we have to get a few from abroad.

With ships like Talwar having a cruising range of 4,500 nautical miles, with the three supply ships (Aditya, Jyoti and Shakti) allowing the fleets to operate away from shore for more than three months anywhere in the Indian Ocean, and with HDW submarines having 45 to 50 days endurance, the Indian Navy is already in blue waters.

In fact, with a little more hardware and manpower, the Navy believes it can tackle both China and Pakistan at the same time, a claim which neither of the other two services can make.

Ensuring that the maritime domain particularly the sea lines of communication remain safe, the presence of Indian Navy is very important, Commodore Bhaskar said.

Indeed, the threats are also growing. Apart from Chinese activity on the Myanmar front, Pakistan is offering berthing facilities to Chinese warships at the new Gwadar port west of Karachi. The Coast Guard has had a taste of success in handling the Alondra Rainbow piracy in November 1999 by arresting the pirates and the hijacked ship. Last year it exercised with coastal forces of Japan, the Maldives, Mauritius and the Seychelles. Emerging as the most capable agency in South Asia that can fight sea pollution, the Coast Guard was willing even to clean up the spillage off Karachi caused by a sinking tanker. It was war in the ocean that guided the thinking process in maritime security, said Inspector-General Prabhakaran Paleri, deputy director-general of the Coast Guard. The concept is changing. There are other conflict situations too. A stealth attack by a terrorist group on a harbour, hijack, fights between fishermen - all these are security situations where armed intervention may be called for.

The challenge for Indian Navy is to maximize options and to engage with everyone in the littoral on our own terms, opine experts. Island territories too are now perceived as much more sensitive than before.

We have 598 islands near shore, 572 in the Andaman-Nicobar group and 27 in Lakshadweep, pointed out Inspector General Paleri. We already have seven maritime neighbours. When the legal continental shelf regime comes, Oman would be an eighth maritime neighbour. India has MoUs with Singapore, Indonesia and Sri Lanka on a variety of security subjects linked with cooperation, bilateral exercises and maritime security.

India has been at the receiving end of terrorism for over a decade. And is being looked up to as a mature state committed to fight terrorism and piracy. Today many regional nations and even US and Japan are looking to India to de facto become more and more responsible for maritime security in the Indian Ocean as it has a large and capable navy and efficient coast guard which even rescued a Japanese ship, pointed out Commodore (retd) Ranjit B Rai.

It is no wonder most nations are keen to forge closer maritime links with India to ensure the dense sea lanes of the Indian Ocean are kept under surveillance and trade can flow with out disruption at all times. Concurrently, discussions are going on for security measures to be introduced on board merchant ships short of permitting merchantmen to carry small arms, Commodore Rai added.

In fact, Singapore is reported to have given notice to the shipping community that any vessel that is not adequately protected against possible terrorist attacks will be barred from entering Singapore from July next year. Ships will at that time have to comply with the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code. Singapore authorities have said that they will begin testing vessels starting in January and will conduct drills in April to ascertain whether ships are meeting the code.

The security measures firstly entail that all ships and ports have automatic identification systems to track ships while at sea. Secondly, ships must have a security alert system as well as a security plan designating who will carry out certain functions. Finally, ships must also conduct drills to test their security measures.

For the Indian Coast guards, more than hardware, concern is about manpower. Operating with just 60 per cent of sanctioned strength, it today has five out of every seven persons at sea. As Vice Admiral Suresh Mehta, director-general of Coast Guard, pointed out a few months ago, setting up a station is easy, especially with state governments willing to give land. But we have a shortage of manpower.