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“India’s Quest for Security of Maritime Energy Lifelines: Need for a Regional Maritime Security Construct”, Interview with Cmde. R. S. Vasan

, dated January 31, 2017

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C3S Article no: 0006/2017

 

The following is the text of the responses to interview questions posed by a research scholar working on the topic above to Commodore RS Vasan IN( Retd), Director-Chennai Centre for China Studies and Regional Director-National Maritime Foundation, Chennai Chapter.

Q: In your long-standing experience in matters maritime, in your views, what are the major problems that exist for India in the realm of Maritime Security especially the safety of energy SLOCs. What is your vision and expectations for India’s Maritime Security?

SLOC security is uppermost in the minds of most maritime nations particularly for energy security in addition to trade initiatives.  The challenges are related to large tracts of oceans, an EEZ of 2 million square kilometres, the presence of VNSAs, an adversarial neighbour to our west, increased interest of China in the Indian Ocean to protect its trade and commercial interests as well as to obtain leverages in the region to further its long-term strategic interests. The challenges are related to lack of numbers, technology and tools for C4ISR.

While the Maritime Security Agencies(MSA’s) are carrying out surveillance in our waters to promote security and stability, particularly post the Mumbai terror attack. There are still gaps in monitoring small vessels/dhows who can merge with the fishing traffic. It is of particular interest that it was a commandeered Indian fishing vessel in the North Arabian Sea that was used for transporting the terrorists to Mumbai.  An effective mechanism to know all that moves in the waters of interest and a proactive mechanism to respond to emergent threats in time is the need of the hour.

Q: In your understanding, does the existing Maritime Security forums/mechanisms provide effective safety cover, surveillance and are capable of a credible response? What do you expect to see as credible measures of effectiveness in a Regional Maritime Security Construct?

India as a dominant and effective regional maritime power has the wherewithal to provide a credible mechanism notwithstanding the fact that there is always scope for tweaking the apparatus based on real time exercises and feedback to remain ahead of the challenges. While the challenges are huge due to the long coastline of 7516 kms, more than 1200 Islands at the considerable distance from mainland, heavy traffic around the peninsula, presence of Extra-Regional Powers(ERPs), issues of fishing in contested waters and a difficult neighbourhood, India has managed challenges in the maritime domain fairly well.

The initiatives to rope in Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Oman and other neighbours augurs well for building a regional capacity and capability in the IOR. In a scenario post-Mumbai terror attacks, there has been a paradigm change leading to sea changes in the way that maritime security is handled in areas of interest. The placing of the Navy at the apex of the maritime security of the nation, the creation of the additional coast guard regions in North East and North West, Sagar Praharibal, integration of maritime information management systems and many such initiatives has ramped up the maritime security architecture. A well-coordinated effort by all the stakeholders in the maritime domain in India is a prerequisite to promote and integrate a  regional architecture.

Q: In your opinion, do you feel the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) is organised, structured and arrayed to deal with matters such as Maritime Terrorism and security of offshore oil assets considering limited surveillance assets at their disposal and lack of integration with intelligence agencies? Do you recommend some solutions that would enhance the capabilities of ICG in safeguarding the offshore oil assets?

This has always been tricky as there is a duplication of effort and dilution of responsibility. It is the DG Coast Guard who is in the lead for Off Shore Security Coordination(OSCC). However, while there is a lot of coordination institutionally there are challenges for the Coast Guard to harness the potential of the Navy and the Air Force who have the requisite resources that can be marshalled depending on their priorities. The Coast Guard as the nodal agency for marine pollution is authorised to enlist the support of the Indian Navy and the DG Shipping assets. The Navy and the Airforce do have their own plans to provide offshore security, but there are still grey areas in terms of command and control more so during peacetime.  There are multiple agencies and the participation of private industry in offshore activities in addition to PSUs such as ONGC has challenged the structure.

There are also ground realities of the fishermen not respecting the sterile zones around the off-shore assets. This also has political overtones and can ruffle feathers in the maritime state when very harsh measures which are required and applied by the central agencies are resisted due to livelihood issues.

The politicisation of the fisheries dispute in Palk Bay is a living example of the challenges that confront the state and central agencies. The post-Mumbai terror attack has sensitised the fishers also about the dangers of not conforming to the security regulations in the areas. Yet, there are violations and the Centre and the State have not been able to harness their structures, organisations and structures to provide foolproof methods.

Since the Navy has been made the nodal point of control for maritime security an ideal solution would be to totally delegate the off-shore security to the Coast Guard and earmark naval OPVs and air effort to complement the Coast Guard tasks. The JORS should have the designated representative of all the stakeholders under one roof for better coordination of this effort.

The Coast Guard has been designated as the Lead Intelligence Agency(LIA). However, there is a need to assess the efficacy of this initiative based on the feedback and to see what more needs to be done to ensure that the Coast Guard delivers as an LIA. The Coast Guard is building strong relations with the fishing community who look up to the CG for rescuing them and to protect them from poachers and anti-nationals. This bonding should be leveraged to prepare the fishers as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the Coast Guard and the Navy.

Q: The importance of energy SLOCs need a strategic outlook and must be more inclined towards diplomatic and political discourse while negotiating the threats in IOR. In your views are the existing regional maritime cooperative mechanisms working towards strategic solutions while engaging in various forums and symposiums?

Strictly speaking, there is no regional maritime cooperative structure that results in the physical presence of a joint force in the region. Even the trilateral defence treaty between India, Sri Lanka and Maldives succeeds in bringing the maritime commanders together and leads to a few joint exercises.  Milan is another example that is often quoted as an example of cooperation but this is a biennial meeting of the navies and the coast guards and cannot be called as a regional maritime structure to face the threats in the region. Milan does provide opportunities for the naval leaders to present their views during the conferences with a view to achieving strategic convergence which should pave the way for working together on the ground. There is not much to suggest that forums such as the Milan have gone beyond the “meeting of the minds” at Port Blair.

There are forums of all descriptions but these do not necessarily mean that nation are assigning forces for working together to tackle the maritime threat jointly.  IORA is one example which while having a maritime agenda, does not have a prescription for shared responsibility through collaborative ventures. It can be safely assumed that a collective response would be case specific. Even the Malabar exercise which has been held for many years does not lead to any formal assigning of units under some rotational command for discharging regional duties. There is a scope for optimising the resource allocation and utilisation based on geographic location and presence of units at any time in the year.

Except during the anti-piracy patrols, there was no coordinated effort even in the waters off Somalia. The united front of warships was put up by CMF led by the USA and the forces from the EU. Most of the other navies who participated were not necessarily part of any grouping/coalition though they were also in the area providing the numbers and the effort to ward off this threat. India and China notably were operating independently.

The Coast Guard and the Navy carry out many bilateral and multilateral exercises aimed at honing the efficiency and interoperability. However, there are no formal structures that specifically address this issue of presenting a regional front. Each nation, for example, provides the effort required for meeting the requirement of Search and Rescue Region (SRR) obligations. The Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres of the neighbouring countries do interact on a regular basis sharing information about fishers in distress and other disasters.

Q: In your views, what are the steep challenges that a Regional Maritime Security Construct are likely to face before realisation to include political and military realms?

The main challenge for a Regional Maritime Security Construct (RMSC) comes from the lack of commonality of purpose, geo-strategic/geopolitical considerations and more than anything a will to work together.  The RMSC does not drive the political and military goals but is driven by political, geo-strategic compulsions and the convergence of views ( or lack of it) amongst maritime nations.  In an answer to an earlier question, the factor of how existing organisations such as the IORA, ASEAN, Malabar etc., can be an instrument of bringing about such alliance for the protection of the global commons has been covered. It is important for the likeminded nations to seek forums through which the RMSC is actualised. This must be on a long-term basis and used for building the necessary joint architecture by earmarking assets based on the theatre of operation both in peace and in times of contingency. There is perhaps no need for this to be driven by politics once it is cleared by the elected party in power.  Thereafter it should essentially be a means to work together under all anticipated conditions of maritime security and stability, maintenance of law and order in the areas of interest.

Q: What are your recommendations towards the security of India’s energy SLOCs and how best can we as a nation employ our relations with other IOR littorals to establish a peaceful maritime environment in the region?

Since it is the unhindered supply of energy goods that would contribute to a sustained GDP growth in any country, it is extremely important that energy security is promoted by various measures. In addition to establishing and maintaining the Strategic Petroleum Reserve(SPR), it is important to ensure that there is no disruption due to hostile acts such as piracy or maritime terrorist acts.  It has been established that ensuring of proactive Maritime Domain Awareness(MDA) would help in thwarting the developing threats at extended ranges from the coast. Proactive patrols along the SLOCS and use of technology including space-based technology to be ahead of the VNSAs would go a long way in protecting the large number of ships transporting energy products along the SLOCs. Most of the nations who have faced the challenges of piracy off Africa and in the South China Sea would have no hesitation in working together to contain this scourge.

The National Maritime Domain Awareness(NMDA) initiative will provide a big boost to SLOC security. The National Command Control Communication and Intelligence (NC3I) scheme was commissioned in Gurgaon by the Navy by end 2014 and will enhance MDA potential.

The plans to bring some twenty-four nations on board for sharing of information along the SLOCS from Africa to Australia will augment the existing measures to provide proactive responses to developing situations.

 

(Commodore RS Vasan IN (Retd) is the Regional Director NMF at Chennai and the Director C3S. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, the Indian Navy or the Government of India. He can be reached at rsvasan2010@gmail.com.)

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