The fourth dimension of India’s maritime warfare

Watching the Republic Day parade this year, one could be struck by the similarity in outward appearance of the marching contingents of the Indian Navy and Coast Guard. Both contingents were dressed in smart black suits with distinctive white accoutrements, reflecting their common heritage and origin. Post 1962 border war with China, our strategists realised […]

maritime warfare
maritime warfare

Watching the Republic Day parade this year, one could be struck by the similarity in outward appearance of the marching contingents of the Indian Navy and Coast Guard. Both contingents were dressed in smart black suits with distinctive white accoutrements, reflecting their common heritage and origin. Post 1962 border war with China, our strategists realised the importance of a paramilitary force to guard our land borders, which resulted in raising of the Border Security Force, which was mandated to secure our land borders with Pakistan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. However, it was not until 1978 that the Coast Guard was carved out of the Indian Navy and mandated with protection of our maritime borders and Exclusive Economic Zone, also called the EEZ, which extends up to approximately 350 km from our coast.

Coming back to the Republic day parade, the Indian Navy, in a conscious bid to focus the message on its responsibility towards ensuring safety of navigation in the Indian ocean, showcased its most potent air and surface platforms: long-range maritime patrol aircraft P-8I, aircraft carrier Vikramaditya and destroyer Kolkata. The subtle message being that the Navy has reach and capability to monitor the entire Indian ocean, an area of over 70 million kilometre square. By contrast, the total land area on surface of planet earth is 148 million kilometre square! This proves that the Indian Navy has a tough task on its hands and would need all available assets to monitor this area. The Indian Navy is also the prime responder to all countries fringing the Indian ocean for disaster relief and humanitarian operations, be it cyclones, floods, water shortage, volcanic eruptions, etc. In addition, foreign cooperation activities are undertaken by the Indian Navy with almost all countries in the Indian ocean (with notable exception of Pakistan), under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s SAGAR initiative which translates as Security And Growth for All in the Region.

The recent relief operation in Madagascar, quirkily named ‘Operation Vanilla’ (no reference to the ice cream flavour, rather a harkback to the colonial practice of growing vanilla plant on these Indian ocean islands), showcased the Indian Navy’s outreach to these countries. A landing tank ship, Airavat, on a routine mission, was diverted after an international call for help by the Prime Minister of Madagascar. This ship, which was already carrying nearly 4 tonnes of food items, makeshift tents, clothing, medicines, water, etc (I believe all navy ships proceeding to outside waters do so nowadays), was the first to reach Antisiranana port in North Madagascar and provide this relief. On the lighter side, while most of us have heard about this remote island nation from the eponymous Disney movie involving runaway zoo animals from New York Zoo, the Indian Navy is no stranger to Madagascar, having been engaged with this country by way of ships visits and cooperation activities, for some decades now.

The Coast Guard, as the name suggests, was primarily formed to relieve the Indian Navy of the constabulary role and keep the Navy’s focus on war-fighting and exerting India’s influence in the Indian ocean. The growth of the Coast Guard, which is also under the Defence Ministry, was however in fits and spurts (due to the near-continuous focus on our land borders by previous governments). This was until Ajmal Kasab and his cohorts launched the seaborne massacre in Mumbai on 26 November 2008. The recrimination and soul-searching that followed resulted in coastal defence of India (including coastal security) being handed over to the Indian Navy, with the Coast Guard in a supporting role (to primarily provide coastal security). The thinking probably was that the Navy would hand-hold the Coast Guard in developing its coastal security capability till the time the Coast Guard was ready to undertake its mandate independently. In the 11 years after 26/11, growth of the Indian Coast Guard has been phenomenal. A large number of ships and aircraft of all shapes, roles and sizes have been added to make our Coast Guard the fourth largest in the world (Coast Guard is likely to grow to 200 ships and 100 aircraft by 2023). This expansion resulted from a concerted effort by all government agencies involved in coastal security to enable the Coast Guard to find a firm footing and to provide concomitant funding. The Navy, in the meantime, purchased a large number of smaller platforms for coastal security and sought to use high-end technology to support coastal security, also creating the IMAC Centre in Gurgaon to draw an electronic net around our coast. So where are we headed in terms of roles of the Indian Navy and Coast Guard in furthering our national interests and looking after our coastal security? Most defence analysts I have spoken to indicate that there is now a large grey zone within which both the Indian Navy and Coast Guard are operating simultaneously, sometimes duplicating efforts and on rarer occasions, also at cross purposes.

A recent case in point: while Indian Navy was escorting Indian merchant ships in the Persian Gulf (to protect critical shipping trade due to Iran-USA crisis), along with nearly 80 other foreign warships of various countries doing the same for their own merchant ships, a Coast Guard ship was simultaneously on a ‘goodwill’ visit to Gulf states. It seems that our maritime mandarins in South Block have missed the forest for the tree! The ship, Samudra Pehredar, incidentally a state-of-the-art pollution control vessel, has light self defence capability, and is mainly required to protect our EEZ from major oil spills. Similarly, both the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard are utilising a bulk of their platforms and considerable manpower to scour the coast on 24×7 basis, to prevent another 26/11. While the Coast Guard has been procuring vessels suited to this task (and in great numbers), the Navy has sadly been forced to utilise a considerable portion of its precious budget for smaller platforms which are suited for coastal security. What would I propose to solve this maritime conundrum? Our strategic maritime community needs to reassess the precipitative actions taken after 26/11 and examine the current capability of our Coast Guard. The Balakot strikes in last February have also taught us that any armed force could be called to action at a moment’s notice and we are on a hairtrigger which would need to be pressed, even by the unilateral action of a single jihadi.

The Indian Navy and Coast Guard therefore need to be provided greater separation in their roles and responsibilities, whilst still supporting each other in their primary mandates, to the extent feasible, and in a coordinated manner. The Indian Navy should be slowly divested of coastal security, freeing up its large and armed ships for sailing well beyond our waters. The Coast Guard should be given complete jurisdiction of the Maritime Zones of India (up to around 350 km from the coast) for all legal and economic related issues. The two maritime forces of the nation, working along clearly mandated lines and utilising their precious assets for exactly the role that we the citizens paid for, would greatly enhance our war-fighting ability, coastal security and support to Indian ocean countries. The Indian Navy has always claimed that it operates in all three dimensions of maritime warfare: air, surface and sub-surface. I would argue that in the Indian context, the fourth dimension of maritime warfare is coastal security, towards which our maritime security managers need to pay much greater attention.