Coastal security in deep water

Author : Arun Kumar Singh

Apart from the considerable casualties they left in their wake, if anything the multiple blasts of July 13 in Mumbai called attention to, it was to the fact that the city continues to be as vulnerable to terror attacks as before.

After the 26/11 Mumbai attacks in which terrorists entered the city from the sea, breaching our coastal security ring, it became clear that a comprehensive upgrade of the country’s coastal security system was necessary.

The upgrade would include additional trained manpower, patrol ships and boats and coastal radar chains. But this would take four to five years. In the intervening “vulnerable period”, between 2008 and now, certain emergency measures were to be taken to firm up our intelligence and prevention capability in vulnerable ports and cities like Mumbai.

Sadly, dozens of landing points for fishing boats in Mumbai still don’t have police posts, and ships entering the 12 nautical mile (nm) territorial waters outside the Mumbai port are not strictly monitored even though the media has highlighted the dangers. Ajmal Kasab and other terrorists landed at Colaba to carry out the 26/11 attacks. If that breach of our coastal security was not grave enough to warrant action at these landing points, the grounding off Juhu beach of MV Wisdom and MV Pavit last month should alert the authorities to the potential danger. What would, for example, happen if terrorists were to hijack a merchant ship and explode it in the crowded Mumbai harbour? That would set alight fuel and chemical-laden ships and shore installations and cause massive carnage.

There are also reports that some merchant ships still fail to give the mandatory 96-hour arrival information (prior to entering the port) to directorate general of shipping. In the US, for example, such lapses are severely penalised, with the US Coast Guard blacklisting defaulting merchant ships from entering any of the country’s ports. Can we emulate the American practice? After the 13/7 blasts in Mumbai, the media reported how Mumbai police boats were non-operational because of the meager fuel quota for the patrol boats (only 100 litres of petrol per week, that is, about three to four hours of patrolling time for one boat only) and the lack of essential equipment like cameras due to typical bureaucratic apathy.

Post 26/11, various measures were announced, including additional patrolling by the Indian Navy and Indian Coast Guard (ICG) aircraft and ships. The newly created Indian Marine Police (IMP), it was announced, would also patrol the 12 nm of India’s territorial waters. A coastal radar chain was to be set up to detect ships at 30 to 50 nm by getting “instant” details about their crew, cargo, movement, last port of call, next port of call, etc. through the Automatic Identification System (AIS), which is triggered by radar pulses from coastal, ship-borne or airborne radars. In addition, the coastal radar chain was to have an optronic sensor which would enable the display of TV-like images of ships and fishing vessels in India’s territorial waters. Any vessel not triggering an AIS response on the radar screen would be immediately stopped and searched.

On an average about 10 unseaworthy ships run aground off the Indian coasts in the rough monsoon season (from June to October) every year. These require expensive search, rescue and salvage operations as well as operations to counter marine pollution. Most advanced maritime nations, unlike India, have very strict laws in place to impose penalties, including jail terms, on the captains, crew and owners of such unseaworthy merchant ships. India has no comparable laws in place. The August 4 sinking of the Panama-registered MV Rak, 30 nm off Mumbai port, is one such example. Who will pay for the rescue of the crew, the salvage and counter marine pollution operations? Will the owner, captain and crew of the ship be arrested if this ship is found to be unseaworthy?

Obviously, the Indian Navy, already saddled with coastal security and anti-piracy operations in the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden, urgently needs more ships and long-range maritime patrol aircraft, along with additional dedicated maritime surveillance-cum-communications satellites. At present no Indian port is Container Security Initiative (CSI) compliant. A CSI compliant port requires large numbers of special electronic and X-ray machines to quickly scan hundreds of containers being offloaded from ships onto trucks before they are driven to major cities inland. This prevents explosives or “dirty nuclear bombs” being smuggled into cities by terrorists. Clearly, our coastline is not under foolproof radar surveillance — shore-based, ship-based and aircraft-based — to the extent required. Had it been so, two ships, moving at very slow speeds due to wind or ocean currents, could not have drifted to Juhu beach undetected. There still are many loopholes in our coastal security in several areas that need to be plugged urgently. The Indian Navy-ICG joint operations centres in Mumbai, Kochi, Vishakhapatnam and Port Blair must have real-time maritime domain awareness of every single vessel entering the 200 nm Indian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and each vessel must be interrogated before being given permission to enter the 12 nm territorial waters belt of India.

It would be worthwhile for a joint team comprising the Indian Navy, ICG, IMP, customs and Mumbai harbour police to visit the New York port’s US Coast Guard station and understand how the US Coast Guard and New York police coordinate their maritime surveillance activities. Using ships, aircraft, coastal radar and optronic systems, and harbour patrol, they monitor every vessel from the time it enters the American EEZ and till it ties up alongside the jetty.

The ministry of shipping and transport should also send a team to see how the CSI works in Rotterdam and how unseaworthy ships regulations are enforced in the US and the UK. The initial capital costs of securing Mumbai (and other ports and offshore oil rigs) would be high, but allowing Inter-Services Intelligence-sponsored terror to strike repeatedly would have a far more devastating impact on national morale and economic growth.

Finally, of course, Parliament needs to pass a comprehensive law, plugging all loopholes in our national and coastal security system. A look at the USA Patriot Act (2001) and the UK’s terrorism acts (2005, 2006 and 2008) should provide the Indian government useful insights on what is needed to combat terror.

(Vice-Admiral Arun Kumar Singh retired as Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command, Visakhapatnam. This article first appeared in the Asian Age on August 5, 2011)
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