|#1333||4876||February 06, 2015||By Radhakrishna Rao|
Abstract: This article looks at the maritime threat facing India in the context of the Indian coast guard intercepting a Pakistani-origin vessel, on 31 December 2014, said to be carrying explosives in the guise of a fishing boat, an operation carried out based on the intelligence outputs provided by National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO).
In a well-planned operation on the high seas on December 31, the Indian Coast Guard successfully foiled an attempt that was believed to be aimed at repeating the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attack. The 26 November 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai did expose the gaps in the maritime security mechanism of the country. The most striking lesson of Mumbai terrorist attack is that India’s 7,516-km long coastal stretch needs to be protected much the same way as the landlocked borders are secured. In the 26/11 terror attack , 10 heavily armed militants from Pakistan described as “non state actors” travelled all the way from Karachi, hijacked an Indian fishing vessel plying in the Arabian Sea, steered it to the coastal stretch close to Mumbai before going on a killing spree that resulted in the death of more than 160 people.
Circumstantial evidence point out to the possibility of the Pakistani boat being used as a conduit to supply explosives to mount terrorist attack on the Indian mainland. Unfortunate as it is, even after the ghastly Peshawar terrorist attack that claimed the lives of more than 130 innocent school children, Pakistan seems to have failed to realize that terrorism is a double-edged sword. According to Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, the crew of the Pakistani vessel claimed to be a fishing boat was in touch with the Pakistan army and it was clearly a part of the terror link on the Arabian sea channel close to India. “The most important factor for classifying the boat as suspected for probable terrorists is that they committed suicide. Even a normal boat with drugs would throw them away and surrender. No one will kill himself unless motivated to do so,” he said.
Indian Coast Guard sources say that four people on-board the boat finding themselves trapped after unsuccessfully trying to escape set the vessel on fire and it ultimately sank. The inmates of the boat did not look like fishermen as there was no trace of fishing nets on-board, said the Indian Cost Guard. Cornered from all the sides, the boat blew itself up 365-kms off Gujarat’s Porbandar coast after many warnings. “The route taken is not the normal fishing route and the area is not a fishing area. Even smugglers of gold and contraband take to a busy route to pass it off as a fishing boat,” noted Parrikar. Parrikar’s thesis was that smugglers don’t keep in touch with maritime agencies or the army. As it is, intelligence inputs provided by NTRO were clear and left no room for speculation or equivocation. This helped the Coast Guard respond without any loss of time. And the Pakistani boat was brought under surveillance for almost 12-14 hours before the Coast Guard launched an action plan for interception. The Dornier aircraft equipped with surveillance instruments had spotted out the boat in an isolated location. Evidently, the intelligence inputs were based on satellite phone intercepts.
Significantly, NTRO had started tracking the boat immediately after it left Keti Bunder near to the Pakistani port city of Karachi. For India this episode comes as a chilling reminder of terrorist threat on the high seas. In October 2000, suicide bombers had exploded a small boat alongside the US Navy destroyer in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 American soldiers and injuring many others.
As pointed out by Commodore Uday Bhaskar, who heads the Society for Policy Studies, the coast guard acted on “actionable intelligence” and the pre-emptive action showed the competence of coastal surveillance grid that had come up after the November 2008 terror attack on Mumbai. “Interception of conversation by intelligence agencies and passing it on to the Coast Guard indicated that all the components were in a state of high alert” said Bhaskar.
Following this episode, Indian navy has sought a complete control of Porbandar airport in Gujarat to boost the vigilance over the Arabian Sea waters shared by India and Pakistan. To keep a tab on the possible exploitation of Arabian Sea channels by terrorist groups based in Pakistan, India navy will need to strengthen its presence in Gujarat by a substantial extent. Though in the aftermath of 26/11 a number of measures were mooted to realize a fool-proof maritime security cover, much ground needs to be covered in realizing this objective. The Indian navy has already made it clear that its responsibility stretches from the Strait of Hormuz in the West to the Strait of Malacca in the east.
In addition to the terrorist threat emanating from the so called non state actors supported to the hilt by the military establishment of the Pakistan, Indian maritime security agencies should also take cognisance of the fast spreading Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean region. In recent years, China has succeeded in gaining a toe-hold in a number of countries in the Indian Ocean region through the projection of soft power based on a mix of diplomacy, trade and aid. The growing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Myanmar, Seychelles, Mauritius and Maldives cannot but be a matter of concern for the Indian maritime security agencies. The ‘string of pearls” strategy being fine-tuned by the Chinese navy to quietly “encircle” India has been taken cognisance by the Indian navy which is closely watching the growing Chinese involvement in the creation of maritime infrastructure in the countries of the Indian ocean region. On another front, reports that Maldivian nationals were being indoctrinated in the seminaries of Pakistan and trained by Pakistan-based militant groups clearly show a potential catalyst for maritime terrorism in the Indian Ocean region.
With a view to enhance coastal surveillance, a chain of 74 Automatic Identification System (AIS) receivers have been set up along the coastal stretch of the county. This is augmented by an overlapping chain of coastal radars that cover both the island groups as well as the costal stretch of mainland India. In December 2014, a hub to monitor maritime security was launched in New Delhi. The GSAT-7 communications satellite launched in August 2013 with its advanced communications links serves as the exclusive satellite of the Indian navy designed to enhance the situational awareness in the Indian oceanic stretch. And in the years ahead, the Indian navy is planning to build up a capability to expand its reach to virtually every part of the high seas around the world in keeping with the emergence of India as a major military power.
Of course, the Indian navy and the coast guard have prevented a number of attacks by sea pirates on the cargo vessels moving in the international waters. Even so, the possibility of pirates off the coast of Bangladesh targeting ships in the Bay of Bengal could be a matter of concern for the Indian navy in the near future. Not long back, pirate fishing vessels from Taiwan and Thailand operating in the Bay of Bengal were a common sight. Indian navy should also focus on ensuring the safety of sea lanes in the strategically important Indian Ocean region through which half of world’s maritime traffic flows.
The proposal to transform Andaman and Nicobar group of islands into a major platform for enhancing maritime security should be given a practical shape at the earliest. A similar augmentation need to be carried out in the Lakshadweep and Minicoy islands in the Arabian Sea on the west. It is in the fitness of things that Indian navy plans to position its most advanced P81 long range reconnaissance aircraft in the Andaman and Nicobar islands to expand its surveillance across the Indian Ocean region and beyond. In 2012, the Indian navy commissioned INS Baaz, India’s eastern-most air station in the Campbell Bay in Andaman and Nicobar island group.
Even so, every thing is not hunky dory as far as India’s maritime security system is concerned. An Indian Parliamentary panel report last year had cited the concern of the some of the states which found the centrally sponsored coastal security scheme to be “excessively top down”. The proposal to create two marine police training institutions catering to the needs of the western and eastern coasts is yet to take off. Of course, in the budget proposal for 2014-15, a sum of Rs.1500-million was set aside for the construction of marine police stations and supporting system as well as the purchase of boats to strengthen the coastal security apparatus.
By all means, the Indian navy needs to build adequate stand off capability for sea lift and expeditionary operations to achieve desired level of power projection. At the end of the day, the Indian navy should try to transform itself into a three dimensional, network centric space enabled, blue water maritime force. According to the Indian navy chief Admiral R K Dhowan, the navy’s operational readiness was at the highest, as the time of patrolling at sea has increased by 50-75% when India’s naval presence is felt from Vladivostok to Australia to Hawaii and Persian Gulf.
The author is a freelance writer on subjects related to national security. Views expressed are personal.