Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Still at Sea

The crowd never thins at the Gateway of India in Mumbai, the commemorative monument that will now be remembered more for the terrorists who stepped through it to ravish the city than for King George V and Queen Mary, in whose honour it was built in 1911. While several lean back on the meandering low wall next to the Gateway and gaze at the Taj Mahal hotel, more look out to the sea: The wrathful waves lash at the walls before crashing against the rocks. Like coastal people everywhere else, sea has been a comforting source of livelihood, romance, poetry and sometimes unexpected accidents in Mumbai, but it was never expected to have connived with the enemy. Just how did the insulating folds of the waves become instruments of hostility?
A senior officer from the Indian Navy says, “Between the 26th and the 29th of November last year, the violent and tragic death of some 180 Indian citizens and foreigners in Mumbai, cruelly underscored one of the most abiding lessons of the history of India, in that whenever we have neglected maritime security, the effects have been painful and long-lasting.” The effects on 26/11 will certainly be long-lasting, especially if the government refuses to learn the right lessons. And already there are signs that indeed this might be happening.
Just as the Kargil conflict, that brought home the glaring gaps in intelligence gathering/sharing and border management among other things, forced the government to look at the entire gamut of national security in a holistic way (and led to the creation of various committees under the group of ministers focussing on issues like intelligence, border and management and so on), 26/11 led to a similar exercise. Ironically, the post-Kargil holistic exercise promised to deliver in two areas, border management and intelligence (with higher defence management remaining in cold storage), and it was these two that failed yet again. After the hard-won Kargil conflict, the government of the day realised that there was a serious lack of communication between all the multifarious intelligence agencies — turf war, lack of trust, or sheer pettiness that the other should not get the credit —, hence the government created a 24-hour Multi Agency Centre (MAC) within the Intelligence Bureau to work as a coordinator between all the intelligence agencies like R&AW, military intelligence, state police, Para-military forces and so on. The idea was to create a seamless network of intelligence flow from the collector to the interpreter, analyser and the executor. But MAC remained still born. The individual personalities, egos and absence of executive direction collectively buried what could have been a beginning of inter-agency cooperation.
Border management fared a little better, but was hampered by the land-locked vision. So while the government enunciated and executed the policy of one border one force on the land, the coastal border remained at sea. Despite the surprised breach of the Himalayan frontier, nobody in the government seriously thought that sea would be no protection either. An ad hoc arrangement carried on between the Indian Navy, Coast Guard (ICG) and a half-baked entity called the marine police to guard what was vaguely called the coastal border of India. Since the whole system was amorphous there was no accountability. And nobody knew where the buck stopped.
How lose the structures were and how petty institutional leadership was, was evident when a blame game started between various agencies after the November 26 attack. Deliberate leaks were fed to the media by the intelligence agencies apportioning the blame on the Indian Navy, which in turn defended itself by rubbishing the claims of timely intelligence by saying that it was not actionable. Meanwhile, coast guard offered its stock of explanations for why the lapse was not on their part. And nobody even bothered about the marine police because clearly nothing was expected of them. Since everyone was on their own in this, there was no accountability and no fixing of responsibility. “But because the terrorists came from the sea, people at large assumed that the navy should be held accountable. Do you hold the army accountable when the terrorists come by road, like in the case of Indian Parliament?” asks one senior naval officer.
Perhaps, it is a harsh indictment on the people, given that the government or the Indian State itself did not completely appreciate the concept of what comprises coastal security, or even the maritime border. India has a coastline running into 7,516km. But this is not really the maritime ‘border’, which lies a further 12 miles seaward from the declared baseline of the country. A baseline is drawn along the furthest points of a country’s coast, taking into account all the promontories as some coastlines are not linear, for instance, Bangladesh. Given this, the baselines also often are a little away from the actual coast. This 12-mile sea belt is called the territorial waters, which are as much part of the country as the land itself. Interestingly, Pakistan, given certain promontories on its coast has drawn its baselines way off the coast, thereby giving itself territorial waters of almost 32 miles in certain parts. While Indian Navy did raise objections to this, but they have been at best half-hearted. Two hundred nautical miles beyond the territorial waters lie the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
In terms of securing this vast expanse of sea, before November 26, the ICG was responsible for, in the words of director general ICG, Vice Admiral Anil Chopra, “Continuous surveillance of over 2.2 million sqkm of India’s EEZ, and respond to distress calls in the Indian Search and Rescue Region which spans over four million square kilometers.” Territorial waters in India, which are merely the aqueous form of the country, were the responsibility of the marine police. Using the analogy of continental security to explain coastal security, a naval officer says, “Within the borders of India, the ‘dissuasive’, ‘deterrent’, ‘preventive’ and ‘curative’ functions of the State are carried out along a ‘degrade path’ upon which the principal mechanism is the police. When the police fails, the State proceeds down its ‘degrade path’ and calls upon its ‘armed police’, then its ‘Paramilitary forces’. It is only once all these mechanisms have failed that the State calls upon its military. Since the laws of the Republic of India apply in full measure to uphold the majesty of the State throughout the 12-mile limit of the territorial waters of India, the principal mechanism by which the State must carry out its ‘dissuasive’, ‘deterrent’, ‘preventive’ and ‘curative’ functions, remains the police. The degrade path here will be the same, and the paramilitary option, if required, would be exercised through the deployment of the Indian Coast Guard. Thus, for the government to proceed right to the end of its ‘degrade path’ to the navy, within its territory, can only be an interim solution and certainly not a permanent or even a long-lasting one. The mere fact of variations in the physical character of the territory (‘land’ versus ‘water’) can hardly be taken to be a valid determinant. If, for instance, a violation of the country’s laws were to have occurred in Nainital lake, should the government call in the navy, simply because the medium of the territory is water? Why then should it be any different within the sovereign-territory of India that happens to abut its coastline?”
Given this, if indeed there was intelligence about a vessel in the Indian territory, it had to be shared with the police and perhaps after that the ICG. But such was the confusion, when the attack took place that everyone jumped in the fray, including the marine commandos, who given their location in Mumbai were the first to respond. Given the situation, they could have hardly sat on procedures, but the point is, there were no procedures for anyone to follow, despite the supposed revamp of border security after the surprise in Kargil. Mention of this endemic confusion found its way in the report FBI submitted to the US Senate committee. According to the report: The Indian response to the Mumbai terror attack was hamstrung by lack of coordination between ‘different levels of the government’ and the local police’s inadequate training and lack of ‘powerful’ weapons. It further says that, ‘Unified command system is of paramount importance if governments are to respond to terrorist attacks quickly and effectively.’
In a few months, we would be ready to commemorate the first anniversary of the November 26 attacks in Mumbai. Long enough time for lessons to be learned, inter-agency differences to be papered off, security gaps to be plugged in and the consciousness about the exact nature of threats India faces to sink in. And once again it seems that there is a post-Kargil like holistic review, this time, because the attackers came from the sea and not the mountains, with the coast in mind. And yet again, there is a fear that once the immediacy ceases, things will relapse into the happy state of complacency.
However, before that happens, here is what the government has done. Among the very first things that the new minister of home affairs, P. Chidambaram did (he succeeded Shivraj Patil, who paid the price for the 26/11 attack) was announce the creation of something called National Intelligence Agency (NIA), which many view as a rival to the IB. Till now, the NIA continues to look for basic facilities to house the organisation. The comatose MAC was revived and various organisations were asked to depute a representative to it. Looking seaward, it has now come up with a maritime security plan, under which the navy is the ‘designated authority’ responsible for complete maritime security, with both coastal and offshore security under its control. The ICG will no longer patrol the EEZ, but instead focus on the territorial waters under the navy’s supervision. As the DG ICG says (see interview), “Post 26/11, the Coast Guard has now been given additional responsibility of coastal security in India’s territorial waters i.e., up to 12 miles from our coastline.” In addition to this, yet another effort is being made to overhaul the moribund marine police, who will now stay close to the shore and if need be patrol the seas up to three to four kilometers. In an effort to fix responsibility, under the overall command of the navy, the ICG will be designated as the authority for coastal security in territorial waters, including areas patrolled by state coastal police. The DG, ICG will be designated as commander of coastal command that would be responsible for overall coordination between state and central agencies.
Making these announcements in February 2009, the Union defence minister, A.K. Antony also said that, “The navy will control all navy and coast guard joint operations. This will ensure that the assets are optimally deployed and there is synergy between the two organisations.” To facilitate this, a national command, control, communication and intelligence network will be set up to ensure smooth coordination between the navy and the coast guard. That apart, joint operation centres will come up in Mumbai, Kochi, Vishakhapatnam and Port Blair. Also on the anvil are nine additional coast guard stations to integrate with coastal police stations located at Karwar, Ratnagiri, Vadinar, Gopalpur, Minicoy, Androth, Karaikal, Hut Bay and Nizampatnam. New posts of additional director general and three deputy DGs have also been sanctioned in addition to 20 per cent increase in ships and 30 per cent increase for shore support.
Despite these tactical-level initiatives, the government has come in for criticism for not creating formalised structures that would oversee and evolve the concepts in maritime security which goes beyond coastal security. Like the creation of the Chief of Defence Staff, the government is dragging its feet on Maritime Security Advisory Board and maritime security advisor. Says a naval officer, “Our efforts to constitute a single agency to oversee, coordinate, and regulate all activities at sea, had been characterised by a desire to arrive at a compromise-solution, which would avoid generating turf-sensitivities, and, one that would, therefore, be acceptable to the majority of stake-holders. While noble in intent and pragmatic in approach, such a solution is inevitably long-drawn in its formulation and acceptance, and, more importantly, sub-optimally efficient in its execution. In view of the imperative of avoiding any repetition of the Mumbai tragedy, this ‘compromise-formula’-based approach is clearly no longer a viable one. Yet, the government has been unable (or unwilling) to create a suitably empowered maritime security advisor who would be able to meaningfully assist the National Security Advisor, within the maritime domain.”
To make up for this, what is going to be created is a high-level committee headed by Cabinet secretary K.M. Chandrasekhar to regularly review coastal
security. This committee will include the navy chief, secretaries of such ministries as defence, home and petroleum as well as chief secretaries of all coastal states. Clearly, the government wants the bureaucrats to remain at the top. And equally clear in these series of measures is the inherent confusion that will prevail eventually. Maybe, because in India, turfs are difficult to come by, and nobody wants to let go of what it has, and the government is simply delicately tottering around these sensitivities.
Assuaging the navy, the defence minister in an interaction with the media in February 2009 said that, “In the future, we have to give more support to the Navy. We have to be more careful in the seas, as 90 per cent of India’s international trade is carried out through the sea route.” As a mark of government’s commitment towards coastal security, several interceptor boats, off-shore patrol vessels, radars and surveillance aircraft and helicopters have been sanctioned. In all, 194 high-speed interceptor boats are supposed to be procured on a fast track basis. But this is easier said than done, because boats cannot be bought off the shelf. Moreover, all procurements have to follow the laid down procurement procedure, which of course is time-consuming, lest some irregularities are discovered (like kickbacks, for instance) a few years later. Which is why, a senior naval officer scoffs at the idea of ‘fast-track’. According to him, “The need for the speedy procurement of adequate numbers of suitable patrol-craft is well recognised. Yet, the monies allocated for this purpose are public funds and need to be expended with due fiscal prudence. This brings in ‘procedures’, with their attendant, and often significant, delays, especially at the bureaucratic overseeing levels.”
It is not just the MoD that is looking for the boats. The ministry of home affairs is also keen to procure them at the earliest for the state police. In early July, home minister P Chidambaram held a meeting to review the indigenous manufacturing of high-speed interceptor boats. As of now, 13 boats have been supplied to Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Goa, Lakshadweep and Pondicherry. These dual jet engine boats are equipped with GPS, a radar, a powerful search light and binoculars. Duplication of assets seems imminent, but obviously this is not the time to talk about it. That will be the job of Comptroller and Auditor General a few years later.
What is exercising the navy is that the government is focussing only on coastal or border security and not maritime security which has a different connotation altogether. Just as it is trying to fence all the land borders, it is trying to achieve the marine equivalent of fencing on the coast as well with the focus on 24/7 patrolling and seamless radar coverage, which incidentally still has a long way to go. The navy looks at coastal security, not in terms of ‘fencing ourselves in’, but in terms of enhancing the maritime surveillance capability: Continuous, omnipresent, gapless surveillance. As one officer says, “At the regional and extra-regional level, this translates into a continuous scanning of the primary and secondary areas of maritime interest..., the determining of ‘who’ is doing ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘how’ and ‘why’... the identification of potential threats while they are still distant from our shores and in an embryonic stage of development, rather than when they are full-blown and at our doorstep. This involves Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) of a high order and over a very large maritime expanse.”
Further expanding on the theme, he says, “On the coast itself, this translates into a fully networked chain of coastal-radars, integrated with AIS (Automatic Identification System) and LRIT (Long Range Identification and Tracking) receivers, as also receivers for the ISRO-designed transmitting beacons which are expected to shortly be fitted aboard fishing and other small craft, the entire chain being controlled through a hierarchy of shore-based nodes (Joint Operations Rooms) in which the ‘picture’ from each of these and other sensors can be collected, collated (synthesised), cross-referenced, displayed and disseminated. These sensors would be augmented by space-based, airborne and ship-borne surveillance-means. Integrating all these inputs is the challenge that needs to be overcome and it is here that we can benefit most from the experiences of foreign navies, such as those of Australia, France, Israel, etc.” The greater challenge is not equipment, but trained man-power, because even when equipment is procured, developing human skills will take time, particularly when it comes to the police forces, which not only need to learn to use different kinds of weaponry but also acquire a different mental make-up.
While the government supports navy’s expansive concept of MDA being intrinsic to maritime security in fits and starts, it does not fully appreciates the virtues of such an idea to give it sustained attention, especially after 26/11 when there is a fear that the navy may be required to do more policing in tune with the government’s defensive policy on the land borders. Naval officers are at pains to emphasise that its visions of MDA does not imply lack of concern for border security. “Indeed,” says one, “the navy’s prime responsibility, like that of the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force, is to protect the country from such external threat as might undermine the territorial integrity of the country.”
“However,” he says, “The manner in which this needs to be done is quite different from that of the army’s protection of the country’s land borders. In maritime terms, ‘neighbours’ can be acquired with an ease and speed that tend to overwhelm a purely continental mindset.” He uses the model devised by Rear Admiral K. Raja Menon to illustrate his point. According to Admiral Menon: “Current technology allows a modern, Carrier Strike Group (CSG) to exert its power to a range of 400 nautical miles (740 km) around it. This circle may be considered to define the area of superiority within which the air and sea space may be said to almost ‘belong’ to the nation owning that Carrier Strike Group. To all practical (although not legal) intents and purposes, therefore, this is a moving area of ‘sovereignty’. When such a CSG’s circle of superiority impinges upon – say, the Indian coast – we have suddenly acquired a new and powerful ‘neighbour’ who (as long as he remains where he is) may even be superior to us. Now we could choose to counter this superiority by building, say, an air-base at this point. However, what needs to be appreciated is that such Carrier Strike Groups can move up to a 1,000 km in a single day, and have a disconcerting habit of disappearing and appearing in odd places with little or no warning. It is, therefore, impossible to site relatively static defensive formations, such as airfields, cantonments, etc, all along our coast. This would, in any case, be poor strategy. Instead, the capability of another country to appear, threaten, coerce, and/or influence us, can only be countered by our own mobile force.”
This thinking encompasses what the navy calls strategic reach, or the ability to influence things way beyond its maritime boundaries. This calls for not just a different capability (certainly not defensive) but thinking as well. Unless coastal security forms part of the overall maritime security, the enemy will continue to find the gaps or weak links. After all, soldiers can hardly stand arm in arm all along the coastline.