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Securing the Indo-Pacific; Interview with Cmde. R. S. Vasan IN (Retd.)

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

Article No. 71/2018

The following is an interview with Commodore RS Vasan IN (Retd.), Director Chennai Centre for China Studies and Regional Director NMF (TN) on the topic- ‘India’s Initiatives in the Indo Pacific Area for Security and Stability’. A paper on the same will be presented by him at the Maritime Patrol Asia 2019 Conference at Singapore on 29-30 January 2019.

1. Why are strong and effective maritime patrol capabilities important in the Indo–Pacific?

Image Courtesy: U.S. Army / Staff, Center for Strategic and International Studies

What was previously Asia Pacific is today known as Indo Pacific, signifying the importance of the vast oceanic area from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. It is this huge oceanic space which nations of the world depend on for safe and efficient transportation on the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs). The SLOCs are constantly threatened by violent non state actors, requiring a high degree of maritime domain awareness (MDA). The acts of piracy along the African coast were a grim reminder that both ships and sea-farers are in great danger due to acts of piracy on one hand and acts of terrorism on the other.

The density of shipping and various vessels of all description is going up steadily and the C4ISR architecture of maritime nations are challenged. It is here that nations have to build capacity and capability to know the emerging situation at sea in real time. This involves using all means to spot and track both legal and illegal entities at sea.

The Indo Pacific is also an arena for power play that brings in extra regional players, and that complicates matters for law enforcement agencies. There is a need to discern the chaff from the grain and that cannot be done if one does not have the requisite three dimensional capabilities. The fourth dimension of cyber space has become integral and that again demands that the MDA is fully shored up to be ahead of the threats.

2. Why is maritime security a particularly complex challenge in this region?

Image Courtesy: U.S. Navy, Policy Forum

The area houses many nations which are in different groups such as IORA, IONS, ASEAN, SAARC and suchlike. The ways these maritime nations govern themselves are different and it is always a challenge to find common ground. Issues of commonality and interoperability need to be addressed in a holistic manner. There are protocols that govern maritime SAR requirements which allow nations to work together based on the Search and Rescue Region (SRR). However, when it comes to issues related to security (not safety) there are issues that make it difficult for nations to work together. The restrictive attitude to adopting a united approach stems from historical disputes.

The complexity is also due to the range of activities in the Indo-Pacific area that includes Illegal Unregulated and Unreported fishing (IUU), presence of submarines, warships, and commercial craft all operating in the same medium in close proximity at times. The location, tracking and prosecution of those who are indulging in unlawful acts can only be done if there is a seamless surveillance which leads to effective counters being initiated.

3. What more can be done to improve maritime defences against common threats such as piracy and trafficking?

Image Courtesy: The Medi Telegraph

The example of Somalia clearly illustrates that, as long as the navies of the world are willing to unite, such threats can be dealt with. Also, there is a need for all the stake holders to work in unison. For example, the promulgation of the Best Management Practices for vessel hardening prior to entering the High Risk Area has gone a long way in being prepared to face such contingency.

Likewise, for preventing human trafficking, drug smuggling and other unlawful acts, there is a need for good, shared proactive intelligence without which the time available to respond would be minimal. Preventive measures are needed in addition to use of law, regulation and units in the sensitive areas if we have to contain the menace. The use of cutting edge technology and collaboration with like-minded nations who would be facing similar challenges would prepare those facing such challenges.

 4. What should be the priorities for nations currently looking to develop their maritime patrol capabilities and how can maritime security best be achieved on limited budgets?

For every nation, there is a set of challenges which are shaped by its location, neighbourhood, culture and the dynamics of marine activity. The requirement of surveillance or patrol is inescapable if one has to defend one’s shores and areas of interest in the maritime domain. No nation wants surprises such as the Mumbai terror attack, which claimed innocent lives.  How much one can spend to achieve “much more with much less” is a question that is always uppermost in the minds of policy makers and other enforcement agencies. Not every nation can afford high end technology and will need to work with limited budgets. Here is where there are cost effective solutions that would come to the rescue of those nations which have limited budget and capacity to spend.

The other solution is to work with maritime neighbours and have shared responsibility for surveillance. The Eyes in the Sky (EiS) that was launched by Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia to contain acts of piracy in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore (SOMS) illustrates that pooling of resources and working together will complement MDA capabilities. There is also the concept of commercially available off the shelf (COTS) substitutes for some of the more expensive surveillance equipment.

There is another area of great interest – work is going on in developing the fishers as the eyes and ears of the security forces. Many navies and coast guards enlist the support of fishers to report unusual activity, as they are widely dispersed and their presence will be an added tool for augmenting surveillance.

5. What can delegates expect to take away from your session?

Image Courtesy: NDTV

What is very clear is that this is the century of the seas and there is lot that is happening in the Indo-Pacific area. My session will chart the challenges and examine the way in which we can provide cost effective options. There will be references to the Mumbai terror attack that brought about a paradigm shift in the way coastal and oceanic security challenges have to be dealt with. There will be case studies and examples which bring home important lessons on how to go about this vital business of providing seamless surveillance and security to ensure that there is unimpeded movement of goods and people without being challenged by Violent Non-State Actors (VNSAs). I am hoping that there will be ample opportunities for the delegates to interact both during and after the session to engage in the study of this all too important and fascinating study.

(Commodore RS Vasan IN (Retd.) is the Regional Director NMF at Chennai and the Director C3S.  The views expressed by the speaker are his own and do not reflect those of the institutions he is affiliated to. He can be reached at

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