This is the century of the seas, with multiple sea-based trade conduits connecting the states, compounded with the constantly increasing significance of the maritime choke points and the international sea lanes. The concept of ‘Blue Economy’ has been gaining prominence among the various jargons used in the maritime domain. For any country to become a Blue Economy, it has to ensure the security of the seas that it relies on in order to sustainably exploit the marine resources. The efforts for preserving the good order at sea to realise this common interest shared by several countries have gained momentum of late. Achieving Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA)- knowledge of everything about the seas- can catalyse such efforts.

Being a country, which is excessively reliant on the maritime trade routes, the need to develop a comprehensive MDA has been critical for India. This has found greater currency in the Indian doctrinal pronunciations especially after the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. The lax coastal security dented the image of India’s maritime security architecture. Further, as the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is regaining worldwide importance for its dynamism, the securitization of this region that is in India’s proximity has been an indispensable concern for the peninsular state. At a point when incidents at sea have massive consequences on land as been currently witnessed in the Persian Gulf, there is an all-time rise in importance given to MDA, particularly in India.

The geopolitical significance gained by the Indian Ocean Region has made the plethora of threats infesting the region subject to more severe concern. Maritime threats including piracy, terrorism, drug trafficking, illegal migration, Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing and Climate Change are testing the maritime security of the Indian Ocean Region and the Indo-Pacific at large. Apart from these, the gradual proliferation of Chinese presence in the IOR has raised the eyebrows of many regional and extra-regional powers, including the United States, France, Japan and Australia. India, being one of the countries which has a lot of stakes in the Indian Ocean Region and with a long coastline, has identified such maritime threat perceptions and looks forward to bolster its MDA to astutely tackle the same.

The foremost requirement for a standard MDA system is to ensure the collection and dissemination of real-time intelligence that can be used by various naval and intelligence agencies responsible for the maritime security of the region. This ought to be ushered by an erudite naval strategy that lays foundation for good infrastructure and can expeditiously exploit the acquired actionable intelligence. India has, thus, been massively harnessing its technological potential and devising a holistic strategy to build its maritime security forces as well as to be situationally aware and to win the cooperation of other littoral states of the IOR. This can enable India to gain control of the situations that might turn against its maritime interests, thus, its national interests.      

The latest incorporation in India’s MDA system is the Information Fusion Centre – Indian Ocean Region (IFC- IOR) at Gurugram, India which is mandated not only to collect intelligence but also to exchange information with other maritime nations in the IOR. This has proved to be a step ahead in the attempt for joint collaborations among other stake holders in the IOR to secure the global commons. Apart from this, there has been an extensive revamping of the maritime force structure after the setback in 2008, thus conferring the overarching responsibility of India’s maritime security to the Indian Navy. This move was taken to ensure better coordination between the various maritime security forces- the Navy, the Coast Guard and the Marine Police.

Further, surveillance systems, both dynamic and static such as the Automatic Identification Systems (AIS)- Space Based and Vehicle Based – have been introduced in order to track the vessel movements and events happening at the seas. Additionally, Coastal Surveillance Radar Stations are installed along the Indian coastline as well as extended to the neighbouring littoral states of Seychelles, Mauritius and Maldives for enhanced domain awareness. 

The deployment of the maritime patrol aircrafts like P8-Is and Heron and Searcher UAVs along the coastal borders of mainland India and the island chains of Andaman and Nicobar have enabled the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance of the territorial waters. The P-8Is are also capable of anti-submarine warfare and anti-surface warfare with a high endurance of 10 hours, thus being equipped to detect and neutralize threats.

India has begun to place more importance to the strategically significant Andaman and Nicobar Islands by strengthening the Tri-service command and founding the third Airbase, ‘INS Kohasa’, to overlook the entire region. The Indian Navy is going through an overhaul, and modernization efforts are underway as the Navy forms the main buttress of maritime security for India. India has also signed White Shipping Agreements with several countries and is also a signatory to the Trans-Regional Maritime Network (T-RMN), making itself privy to the information on the movement of commercial vessels in the seas.

India’s active role in the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) has steered the pursuit towards joint cooperation in the realm of MDA. Joint naval exercises have further improved the interoperability of different navies that will prove to be instrumental in protecting and pursuing their common maritime interests and Blue Economy aspirations. The Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System (IRNSS) has helped in gaining access to real-time information of India’s near neighbourhood. By undertaking HADR operations and participating in joint space missions to augment the use of satellites for MDA purposes, India plans to extend its penetration to all the corners of the IOR. All of these initiatives come under the broad umbrella of the Indian Navy’s ‘National Maritime Domain Awareness Project’.

With advanced technologies like Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) acquiring a prominent place in the strategic deployments of few countries in the Indo-Pacific region, there is a dire call for state-of-art technologies that can counter these platforms so as to sustain India’s prowess in the maritime domain. As discourses on new dimensions of warfare like ‘Maritime Militia’ are introduced, there is rising concerns over dealing with these threats. These futuristic facets of naval warfare have not been taken into the garb of the international maritime law yet. This makes the international maritime legal regime vulnerable enough to be upended according to any country’s vested interests. So, what can guarantee a peaceful climate at sea if the maritime laws are not updated to the contemporary developments? The flagship program introduced by the Narendra Modi government, SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region), envisions India to develop its capability and harvest its potential so that it can be a ‘regional net security’ provider.

To start realising this mission, India should continue investing more on its MDA, beginning from the Indian Ocean and gradually covering the entire Indo-Pacific as India identifies this megaregion as its maritime strategic geography. This can monitor the good order at sea and also serve India well with its maritime interests. As India bats for a ‘Free and Open Indo-pacific’ under a rules-based order, a holistic approach towards maintaining the order needs a thorough deliberation on the future developments vis-à-vis maritime strategies, diplomacy and naval warfare, both on the legal as well as the operational aspects.

The policy paralysis with regards to the establishment of the ‘National Maritime Authority’ questions the very coordination and effective execution of India’s MDA. Maritime India needs a centralised maritime governance authority. Also, as the security systems are getting overwhelmingly dependant on technology and internet, achieving MDA also necessitates the adoption of stringent cybersecurity architecture to protect the Critical Information Infrastructure. These structural constraints need to be catered to so that the operational proceedings can find fruitful expressions in aiding India to achieve its Blue Economy aspirations, among its other maritime interests, through effectual domain awareness.

Image credit: Indian Navy (Via Wikimedia Commons). This file is a copyrighted work of the Government of India, licensed under the Government Open Data License – India (GODL)

The views and opinions expressed in this articl are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.