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An Assessment of India’s Naval ISR Capabilities ; By Aishwarya R J

Updated: Jan 9

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Article 77/2021

The oceans have evolved into a multidimensional battlefield, with threats emanating from the air, the sea, and the surface of the water. India’s interest in maritime borders has shifted gradually. Despite having a 7516-kilometer coastline, with the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 2.02 million sq. km, the Indian water has gained its significance. India previously prioritised its land borders, where it faced border skirmishes with Pakistan and China, and placed less emphasis on its maritime borders. The Indian Army rose to prominence in dealing with issues arising in the north, north-western, and north-eastern regions, as well as domestic insurgency issues, whereas the Indian Navy was given less importance and was known as the “Cinderela of the Indian armed force”. Scholars have different interpretations of India’s maritime security strategy; some believe that, after the disintegration of the USSR, India realised the importance of the Indian Ocean and the potential threats that could arise from the Indian Ocean. When resulted in New Delhi developing policies for securing maritime borders. Few believe that the terrorist attack that occurred in the financial capital, where the terrorist entered through the Mumbai coast led to realise the importance of maritime borders. Whereas, some argue that it is the China’s presence and policies in the Indian Ocean, and some believe it is part of India’s great power ambition. Scholars have given out various interpretations, but the point here is that India’s maritime borders are vulnerable, and it must combat these threats. To counter these threats, India must strengthen its Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, which will allow it to monitor its maritime boundary and waters, through the collection of intelligence. This research paper attempts to understand the increasing traditional and non-traditional threats from the Indian Ocean Region as well as examine the need for ISR capabilities for the Indian Navy. Furthermore, the paper assesses the contours of these capabilities. This paper tries to shed light on the role of ISR capabilities in enhancing India’s maritime domain awareness.

The Need for ISR Capabilities for the Indian Navy

As technology advances, adversaries become more sophisticated, so technological advancement is critical for national security, and ISR capability is one of them. The need for ISR Capabilities can be better assessed by understanding what this acronym stands for. According to Sun Tzu, “if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the outcome of a hundred battles.” This refers to gathering information about the adversaries so that we can counter them before a conflict occurs, which is referred to as operational readiness. The primary function of ISR capabilities at sea is to detect data, integrate and interpret data (whether friendly or hostile), and track data. In literal sense, Surveillance refers to monitoring a particular area or activity for a deliberate cause for a prolonged time period. The term Reconnaissance refers to it a rapid and targeted on to retrieve a specific information. Whereas, Intelligence is the by-product of both surveillance and reconnaissance in which the accumulated information is fused with other data and used by the decision makers for achieving command and control. The main function of ISR is to “find, fix, and track” the threats. Before delving into the Indian Navy’s ISR capabilities, it is important to comprehend the need for such capabilities in the maritime boundary by assessing emerging threats or challenges emanating from the sea.

Threats emanating from the sea

The Indian Ocean has transformed into new theatre of competition and a region of economic importance. As the significances increases, so do the threats, the above given are some of the most important threats that emanates from sea.

Geostrategic Location: India is located between the Malacca Strait, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Bab-el-Mandeb, which are major sea lanes of communication where international trade, particularly energy, takes place, and any disruption would have global ramifications. This significance would attract other threats, as most great powers would want to show their presence in the ocean, whereas the non-traditional issue, and because these are busy routes that are difficult to regulate, is prone to piracy and other asymmetric challenges (Khurana G. S., 2016). The maritime supply chain is highly dependent on this Ocean.

Maritime Economy: The economy is regarded as a country’s backbone, and India’s economic and national development are inextricably linked to seas, as trade by volume (90 percent) and value (70 percent) is transacted by sea. Crude oil imports by sea meet India’s demand for crude oil. India’s EEZ, offshore energy source, provides 11% of crude oil (Khurana G. S., 2016).

Great power competition: Many great powers are attempting to control this water, which will gradually diminish India’s role in the Indian Ocean, potentially leading to a slew of crises. The Indian Ocean is widely regarded as a peaceful zone, but with the presence of China, America, and other countries and their Indo-Pacific strategies, it is becoming more of a zone of competition. As William McQuilkin describes,great power competition returns to the Indian Ocean, India will be best served by having a web of “places” and “bases” from which its commercial shipping, navy, and air forces can operate. As India seeks to increase access to key places and bases in the Indian Ocean a scalable, tailored approach to pursuing access could be taken based on the strategic value of the location and host nation willingness to grant access (McQuilkin, 2020).

China’s grand economic policy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and its ocean strategy, the String of Pearls Project, which is part of the BRI, would encircle India’s maritime border by building ports in its neighbours, posing a new threat to India. India’s vulnerability has grown as a result of China’s rapid naval modernization. In terms of India’s growing great power ambitions, China and Pakistan are potential adversaries. With China’s construction of the Port City project in Colombo, China will eventually become our maritime neighbour rather than just a land neighbour. Following the completion of this project, China will be just 290 kilometres away from India. Where China can keep India in check. In some cases, an asymmetric threat led to a symmetrical threat. China used the growing presence of pirates in the Indian Ocean as an excuse to increase its surveillance of the region. The Chinese maintain a rotating naval presence in the Gulf of Aden, with task forces consisting of two warships and one supply vessel, with the warships staffed by Chinese Special Forces capable of protecting commercial vessels.

China has seventeen anti-piracy task forces stationed in the Gulf of Aden. The Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean has grown significantly because of this. This could be perceived as a threat to Indian national security. With this Chinese expansionism on thing that Robert Kaplan states, it is best for India to ‘project power at sea’ (McQuilkin, 2020).

Domestic instability in the maritime neighbourhood: Most of the nations that surround India have domestic instability and unstable governments. India’s coast’s proximity to Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and other gulf and African nations adds to India’s vulnerability. As a result, India has been dealing with cross-border terrorism from these countries. The serious trend of piracy on the Somali coast was caused primarily due to lack of political stability and it will have an adverse impact on the Indian borders too. India is also vulnerable to non-state violent actors, which resulted in the 26/11 incident, in which terror groups entered India via the Mumbai coast. Maritime terrorism is a problem that India must address, but it is less visible because most terrorists lack maritime capabilities. However, the International Community regards the Sea Tigers, insurgents from Sri Lanka, as a terrorist group because they have extensive maritime experience. Another area of focus is piracy, and India has conducted anti-piracy operations in both the western and eastern borders. There are also growing issues such as small arms and light weapon trafficking, narco-terrorism, illegal immigration, and so on. One of the biggest terrorist attacks on the financial capital of India known as the 26/11 attack is considered to be as a maritime terrorism, where the sea was used as a medium by the terror groups to enter the coast. This shows the lack of safety and security of the Indian coastline (Khurana C. G., 2013).

Climate Change: With increasing global warming and rising sea levels, the predicted climatic conditions have changed dramatically. With these changes, the eastern part of the Arabian Sea has also turned violent, and India has been conducting several Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations. According to the IPCC report, sea level rise will have a relatively negative impact on South, South East, and South East Asia, which could be more or less the Indian Ocean, and most of the people living on the island will relocate to India, which could lead to an immigration which would affect national security.

Apart from these sea threats, the construction of ports, naval bases, satellite and nuclear power plants, and missile launching ranges along the coast is concerning. As a result, India must protect its coastline and monitor its waters. Indian government has taken several steps in order to secure its coast and increase its maritime domain awareness. India, has shifted its continental mindset to maritime off late. These are major threats that are emanating from the sea, can Indian Navy force and Coastal guard man power, counter these threats, no its not quite possible apart from the force what is extremely important is the capability, not just that of the man power, but also in terms of technological capabilities. In the maritime domain, technological capabilities include aircraft carriers, submarines, destroyers, frigates, support vessels, anti-submarine warfare shallow watercraft, torpedoes, and so on. These are the capabilities that we generally regard as only being used when we are at war with one country, but we should be prepared for an attack by another state or a non-state actor’s attack. However, the question is how can we prepare, and the answer is through ISR capabilities. India is interested in developing indigenous ISR capabilities and has already signed several defence contracts to do so. ISR capabilities are frequently defined as “being prepared during peacetime for wartime operations,” which is often referred to as the state’s operational readiness, which includes “command, control, and communication.”

The Contours of India’s Naval ISR Capabilities

The main difference between other capabilities and ISR capabilities is that it helps to keep an eye on the adversary and helps to build the security architecture; the array of this includes surface, undersea, space and aerial capabilities.

Space sensors: Most modern navies have acquired space-borne sensors for water surveillance. India has its water surveillance under the new established institution of the Defence Space Agency (DSA), which works collaboratively with all armed forces for space-based sensors. The space sensor constellation includes the Synthetic Aperture Radar-based RISAT (ISRO, PSLV-C48/RISAT-2BRI, 2019), a radar imaging satellite, and the Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System (IRNSS), also known as the Navigation Indian Constellation (NAVIC), which contains a total of 7 satellites that are open for civilian and military use and provide regional satellite navigation that aids in time positioning and services. Hyperspectral imaging (HysIS) (ISRO, PSLV-C43/HysIS Mission, 2018), which can distinguish objects in space. To some extent, these satellites aid in understanding the weather and certain adversary naval assets passing through the Indian and Pacific Oceans. GSAT-7 (Rukmini) serves as a communication system by acting as a network between the navy and other naval assets at high speed. In the coming year, the Rukmini will be replaced by the GSAT 7R, which is more advanced and has the capability of providing ‘sensor to shooter’ augmentation connectivity to the Indian Navy (ISRO, 2018). Aside from these satellites, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has developed several minisatellites for the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), including the EMISAT, which has a ‘instrument to detect, locate, and characterise electromagnetic signals’ and serves as a reconnaissance satellite, also known as ‘India’s spy in the sky’ (ISRO, PSLV-C45/EMISAT MISSION, 2019), and the SIGNIT, which allows the intelligence gathering and helps the electronic surveillance capability.  According to reports, ISRO is developing on the demand of DRDO, a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite capable of denying the People’s Liberation Army-Navy and the Pakistan Navy access to sea shelters (Kumar, 2019).

Coastal Surveillance Network: Following the 26/11 attack, the importance of monitoring the 7500 km coastline 24*7 was recognised, resulting in the collaboration of the Indian Navy, Coast Guard, and the DRDO to build the Coast Surveillance Radar (CSR). CSR can detect all boats, trawlers, vessels, and dinghies at sea, even in harsh weather, and is part of the Integrated Coastal Surveillance System (ICSS), which includes a set of radar systems for coastal protection such as electro-optical sensors, microwave radar, and electronic warfare  (DRDO, n.d.). This ICSS would have 84 radars in two phases. Furthermore, friendly islands have been outfitted with 32 radar systems in order to broaden the surveillance spectrum. The Indian government has also provided this radar facility to Bangladesh in order to secure its eastern maritime border. All network radar data would be received by the Information Fusion Centre, which is part of the Information Management Analysis Centre (IMAC) in Gurugram (Navy, 2014).

Aerial capabilities: Naval aviation encompasses long, medium-range surveillance and maritime reconnaissance along the western and eastern seaboards. The Dornier DO-228 is a medium-range Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) brought from Germany for the Indian Airforce, but it is primarily used in maritime patrol, search and rescue, anti-submarine warfare operations, and maritime reconnaissance by the Indian Navy and coast guard (Rakshak, n.d.). The Indian Navy also has long-range 360-degree surveillance, multimode radar with the Magical Anomaly Detector (MAD) system for detecting, monitoring, and locating hostile surface and underwater objects in the water, one of which is anti-submarine warfare aircraft purchased from Russia, Ilyushin II-38 Sea Dragons (Technology, n.d.). The Boeing P-8I maritime patrol aircraft serves as a “jewel in the crown of the Indian Navy,” and six more have recently been inducted (Kumar, 2019). The India. Navy uses its helicopters for short-range operations such as patrolling, controlling sea traffic, and sea observation, which include the Sea King, MK.42s, Ka-31s, Ka-28s, Chetaks, naval Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH), and MH-60R Seahawks, which enhance the maritime surveillance superiority.

For short range operation the Indian Navy uses its helicopters for patrolling, controlling sea traffic and sea observation, includes the Sea King, MK.42s, Kamov Ka-31s, Kamov Ka-28s, Chetaks, naval Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) and MH-60R Seahawks, these will enhance the maritime surveillance superiority (Technology, ‘Indian Navy’s first MH-60R helicopter conducts maiden flight’, 2021). The recent acquisition from America the MQ-9 Sea Guardian last year and now signed a deal for 30 more which would boost the ISR capabilities. Apart from these long, medium, and short-range surveillance aircraft, India also has an Artificial Intelligence-based Unmanned Air System (AI-UAS) for actionable intelligence near coastal water and national impocritical areash as ports, harbours, and naval bases, procured from the Israeli-origin Heron and Searcher-II. The DRDO in India has developed the indigenous aerial surveillance Rustom 1 and Rustom 2 long-range drones (WORLD.NET, 2020).

Surface Capabilities: The Indian Navy, having defence close ties with Russia has few others like Israel, France etc has the ship borne surface and air surveillance radar, these includes the Terma’s SCANTER 6002, Russian Frigate-MAE, Thales D-band LW-08, IAI’s S-band MF-STAR (Kumar, 2019). The Revathi is an indigenous 3D ships-borne surveillance radar with a digital receiver that aids the signal processor in ‘providing high resolution, accuracy, response, and information’ (DRDO, ‘3D Surveillance Radar for Indian Navy-Revathi, n.d.). The indigenous Humsa-UG, Atlas Electronic low-frequency Active Towed Array Sonar (ACTAS), and Thales Passive Towed Array Sonar (PTAS) are all capable of detecting submarine tracks in shallow or deep waters. Submarines are also equipped with modern sonars to detect other submarines or surface radars, in addition to their capabilities (Kumar, 2019). The Indian Navy currently has 16 submarines with underwater intelligence and surveillance capabilities. The INS Chakra, India’s nuclear-powered attack submarine, is considered part of the country’s intelligence multiplier arsenal. The INS Kalvari class is well-equipped for modern detector and stealth capability. The Sindhughosh is a midget submarine used by the Marine Commandos (MARCOS), which are responsible for hostage rescue and reconnaissance missions (Sutton, 2020). The Indian Navy is developing the ‘high-endurance autonomous underwater vehicle and the torpedo shaped aerial unmanned vehicle developed by DRDO for the Navy.

Early warning System: The Russian-made Kamov Ka-31 aids India by detecting aircraft and surface ships at long ranges. Aside from that, the Hindustan Shipyard Limited at Vizag is built the 10-000-ton INS Dhruv, an ocean surveillance ship with an indigenously developed high definition Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) that includes X and S band, electronics, and communication systems, as well as tracking and intelligence capabilities (ATV). The nuclear missile tracking vessel INS Dhruv was operated jointly by the DRDO and the National Technical Research Organisation, India’s technical intelligence agency (Desk, 2021).

These are some of the ISR capabilities that the Indian Navy possesses; it is critical to note how these ISR capabilities have increased the country’s maritime domain awareness.

Impact on India’s Maritime Domain Awareness

The term “Maritime Domain Awareness” (MDA) refers to a country’s understanding of the maritime domain. MDA is defined by the International Maritime Organization as “effective understanding of any activity that may have an impact on security, safety, economy, or environment”  (Silva). While examing India’s MDA, it is evident that that most of it increased only after the 26/11 attack in terms of security, economy, safety, and the environment. Since then, India has had a comparatively high MDA, but it is critical to understand how ISR capabilities contribute to MDA achievement. India, as a country with a large coastline and EEZ, as well as a major player in the Indian Ocean Region, must ensure the region’s and its territories’ safety. It has been aided in achieving this goal by a few ISR capabilities. One of India’s main goals is to become a net security provider in the region, in order to achieve Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) (Baruah, 2018). The Indian government’s recent discussion of the formation of a National Maritime Commission, which will oversee matters related to MDA, is a significant step forward. The MDA includes aspects of security, economics, and the environment.

The Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC) is a government-run organisation that manages and analyses data. The establishment of such an agency following the 26/11 attack has enriched the security network within the maritime domain, as it is a nodal agency that would collect all necessary information, fuse it, and categorise the threat. It is also known as the ‘National Command Control Communication and Intelligence Network’ centre. The IMAC will soon be renamed the National Maritime Domain Awareness Centre (NDMA), which will reflect importance of intelligence gathering on MDA. The Information Fusion Centre (IFC-IOR) was established to provide the Indian government with access to not just the information in its area, but the entire IOR, which includes 20 navy ships, 51 linking stations, and 31 coastguards (Online, 2021). This will aid India in monitoring illegal activities in the area, as well as limiting China’s influence in the region. The main function of this centre is to collect data using coastal radars, White Shipping Agreement, and Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders, which are installed on the above-mentioned ISR capabilities and merchant ship, air, global shipping, and traffic management systems, in accordance with SAGAR standards  (Siddiqui, 2020). It has also taken the lead in BIMSTEC in organising a coastal security workshop, as the majority of BIMSTEC nations are located along India’s east coast. In contrast, India, which has a space station and nuclear facility on its eastern border, has only recently established a tri-command base in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in response to a Chinese threat. India’s recent deals with Boeing’s P8I show how the country is emphasising the importance of regulating its coast and waters (Gopal, 2020).

IMAC is a crucial step in securitizing this region, apart that signing the White Shipping Agreements between the foreign navies, where the information of their country’s ships is shared (‘Information Network Protocol’), and the ships are classified into white, which includes commercial ships, grey, which includes military vessels, and black, which includes illegal ships and vessels. With the information gathered, the nations analyse and categorise the ships that fall into each category. This agreement is critical in determining the types of ships that pass through these areas. When a ship does not fall into the categories of white or grey, it is referred to as “Dark Shipping” (Note, 2018). The IMAC along with the IFC-IOR has been able to track the shipping and other commercial activities in the Indian Ocean.

Figure 1: The working of IMAC

Source: Author

Through the above diagram its clear how the IMAC keeps a track on these suspicious vessels with the help of AIS. IMAC working along with IFC-IOR has increased the networking has been able to control the non-traditional issues such as drug trafficking, smugglings, IUU etc. Aside from such agencies, the formation of the National Maritime Commission demonstrates how the Indian government intends to concentrate on all aspects of the maritime domain. Other sectors, aside from security, such as economic activities in the area, can be regulated through ISR capabilities such as the Rukmini, which will monitor this area from space, with assistance from the Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing taking place in India’s EEZ and well as securing the SLOC which will not hinder the global economy. Despite the fact that environmental security is a top priority, there is a need to regulate whaling and other sea-based activities due to the increased use of these activities.

The recent discovery of Ambergis, a rare material found in the intestine of sperm whales. Smugglers have been apprehended, and such activities can be curtailed through regional monitoring. Controlling such practises would help to maintain the sea’s food cycle. In addition, with the rising low pressure in the region and cyclones hitting the coast, these ISR capabilities can keep an eye on fishing boats and other commercial vessels in the area, and in the event of a crisis, the Indian Navy has used these capabilities to conduct HADR programmes. The Navy’s ISR capabilities would be beneficial in ensuring political, economic, and environmental security. With ISR capabilities, the navy can ensure security and ease of trade, while also protecting the environment by regulating the region. As a result, we can use ISR capabilities as a tool in boosting India’s MDA.


This demonstrates how ISR capabilities would ensure India’s safety at sea, along its coast, and its national security. One of any nation’s ultimate goals is to protect its national interests, and one of those interests is national security. The Indian Navy’s ISR capabilities would aid the country’s coastal and EEZ security, as well as other aspects. The emerging threat in the region can be understood by analysing the threats emanating from the sea. India’s potential in terms of ISR capabilities is in the stage of advancement, but it still needs to develop certain areas with indigenous capabilities or through procurement. India is modernising its technology, and its adversaries are modernising their naval forces as well. China, for example, has developed the Z-20 stealth helicopter, which is difficult for radars to detect. This demonstrates that naval modernisation cannot be stopped at a single point; it must continue to evolve in order to combat the adversary. Most of the efforts taken to combat challenges are taken when the attacks hits, the loopholes need to be tracked with help of ISR capabilities and which the growing power asymmetry with China, India need to gear up. Another 26/11 or any such attack can be avoiding with proper intelligence system. Despite the fact that India’s MDA was slow, with the coming of new maritime security coordinator and national maritime commission, India’s approach to maritime has undergone a transition. By developing these capabilities, India can improve its operational readiness to deal with a variety of threats and attacks.

(Aishwarya R J is a second-year Master’s student at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education. Graduated in B A International Relations, from the Central University of Kerala. Areas of interest include Maritime Security, India’s National Security, Indian Foreign Policy, Defense Studies, and China. The views expressed are personal and do not reflect the views of C3S.)


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