Dr (Cdr) Arnab Das (Retd)
The four global commons namely the atmosphere, outer space, oceans and the polar region as per the United Nations (UN) have their unique significance as we plan our future. Effective management of these commons will define the future of human kind. The oceans or the maritime commons are by far the most accessed and critical for human peace and prosperity. However, it does present unique challenges and opportunities for effective maritime governance. Barring the cyber space (a new dimension to the global commons) which is again becoming another challenge, in terms of effective governance, the maritime domain needs to be understood in all its dimensions. Though, human connect with the maritime domain has been there since time immemorial, however, the challenges and opportunities that we face in the 21st century cannot be handled in the traditional ways.
Matters maritime have taken centre stage in the 21st century and every strategist and domain expert seems to be talking about maritime issues in their own specific way. The maritime domain indeed has diverse dimensions and it is in order that we analyse all these dimensions to find synergy and areas of dissonance. The term, Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) is synonymous to achieving effectiveness and efficiency in all matters maritime. Maritime dominance militarily, politically, culturally and economically can only be achieved with enhanced MDA. Post the 9/11, the MDA became a permanent feature in the US security lexicon and it received more and more attention right from the top of the hierarchy. MDA is aptly defined in the lines below:
Maritime Domain Awareness is where it all begins. We cannot conduct the operations that we must if we don’t have a good sense of what’s out there, moving on, above or under the sea.
-Admiral Gary Roughead, In Rhumb Lines, August 20, 2007
In India post the 26/11, the MDA became a critical component of the maritime security initiative. The setting up of the Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC) facility at Gurgaon by the Indian Navy has been a game changer in the MDA initiative. It is not just a major capacity and capability boost for India, but the same has been extended to friendly countries in the entire IOR and beyond. Apart from the massive operational advantage it provides, it is also a substantial technology demonstrator in terms of real-time data driven decision making capabilities. The real MDA is to manage the security challenges in the politically volatile IOR.
It may be said that the security management in the 21st century is extremely complicated given the state and the non-state actors working in cohort with each other to disrupt peace and harmony. The disruptive technological edge available and the absence of rules based global order further enhance the asymmetry. The ongoing security paradigm needs to be reviewed to manage the emerging situation. The only way is to be ahead of the curve rather than trying to catch up. Science & Technology (S&T) with the state machinery has to be prioritised to remain ahead of the curve.
The ongoing MDA efforts fail to comprehensively address the underwater threats emanating from the geopolitical and geostrategic developments, particularly in the IOR. The achievements in the surface MDA are yet to percolate to the underwater domain and the security driven formulation has its limitation of not being able to penetrate to the other stakeholders. Let us first objectively understand the challenges and opportunities in the UDA efforts particularly in the IOR to probably get some fair answers on its limited progress.
The IOR has a very unique geopolitical status, given the ongoing geo-strategic developments with major power play happening here. The IOR has become the hub for trade and energy security. With vast undersea resources, the nations within and multiple extra-regional powers are maintaining their strategic presence in the IOR. The political volatility has ensured unholy nexus between the non-state actors and the extra-regional powers. Even many nations in the region are conniving with the non-state actors as a regular instrument of state power to export terror and disruption to their adversaries. The fragmented geopolitics in the IOR has ensured zero synergy among the maritime nations and also meddling by the extra-regional powers in their domestic politics. The countries in the IOR are developing nations with tremendous socio-economic challenges and also growing population. Pre-modern states with substantial governance challenges have ensured minimal prioritising on indigenous Science and Technology (S&T) development to contain local site specific issues. There has been a massive push for import of military hardware from the west at very high cost, compromising on the other socio-economic requirements. Every stakeholder in the maritime sector even within the nations, namely the maritime security, blue economic entities, environment & disaster management and science & technology providers have been engaged in turf wars with no synergy what so ever.
The tropical littoral waters in the IOR have ensured sub-optimal performance of the sonars deployed for any underwater survey, whether for military or non-military applications. The degradation is of the order of 70 per cent, ensuring four times higher asset deployment for any underwater application. The acoustic survey is highly sensitive to the underwater medium fluctuations and it is important to map the environmental parameters that impact the medium fluctuations to contain the uncertainties. The precise mapping of the underwater medium requires high end Modelling & Simulation (M&S) efforts with field validation.
The high end M&S entails state-of-the-art data science infrastructure and high tech R&D knowhow. The field validation requires platforms and sensors to be able to map the undersea medium fluctuations at specific locations. Here again underwater robotics and signal processing are of paramount importance. If we were to structure UDA, more objectively, we may say it has three components namely to see comprising of the sensors and platforms to acquire undersea data, to understand comprising of the entire data science infrastructure for M&S and algorithm design with field validation for decoupling of the medium fluctuations and the last is to share comprising of the communication and networking to be able to facilitate real-time availability of the actionable inputs to the stakeholders on ground.
It is clearly known that the indigenous R&D efforts require substantial and sustained efforts to build these capabilities over a long period and also high resources to undertake field experimental R&D in the maritime domain. The short cut of importing hardware not customized to the local site specific conditions is highly counterproductive. The acoustic capability and capacity to develop the software to optimize sonar performance cannot be overstated. The canned generalised hardware from the west that were developed for the temperate and polar waters during the Cold War period are not valid in the tropical littoral waters and indigenous efforts to build site specific software solutions is inescapable.
The UDA framework as proposed by the Maritime Research Centre (MRC), Pune can possibly address the challenges and opportunities in the IOR. The pooling of resources and synergising of efforts across the four stakeholders will comprehensively address the infrastructure limitations and gaps in our knowhow. The participation of all the four stakeholders will bring substantial coherence in our collective effort and also enable massive indigenous S&T participation. The four stakeholders are the maritime security apparatus, blue economic entities, marine environmental regulators and the disaster management authorities and the science & technology providers. Taking S&T support from foreign powers for humanitarian relief and disaster management will boost our overall acoustic capability and capacity.
The same can be used for our strategic acoustic capacity and capability building as well. The S&T superiority so developed will give us diplomatic leverage to bring more synergy among the IORA nations. Environmental concerns are a critical factor to bind the nations in the IOR and keep the extra-regional powers at bay. India needs to play a leadership role with effective UDA built under a comprehensive framework. UDA framework as proposed by MRC deserves to be accorded national priority, if we want to truly achieve the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) vision of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The UDA framework should become part of the agenda in all the regional maritime forums like the IORA, BIMSTEC, Indian Ocean Commission and others.
Underwater Domain Awareness Framework
A conceptual framework, constituting the foundation for developing a national UDA policy, is represented by Fig. 1. The underlying requirement for all the stakeholders is to know the developments in the undersea domain, make sense out of these developments and then respond effectively and efficiently to them before they can pose any challenge.
The UDA on a comprehensive scale needs to be understood in its horizontal and vertical construct. The horizontal construct would be the resource availability in terms of technology, infrastructure, capability and capacity specific to the stakeholders. Although the stakeholders represented by the four faces of the cube will have their specific requirements, the core will remain the acoustic capacity and capability. The vertical construct is the hierarchy of establishing a comprehensive UDA. The first level or the ground level would be the sensing of the undersea domain for threats, resources and activities. The second level would be making sense of the data generated to plan security strategies, conservation plans and resource utilisation plans. The next level would be to formulate and monitor regulatory framework at the local, national and global level.
Fig. 1 Comprehensive Perspective of Undersea Domain Awareness
The figure above gives a comprehensive way forward for the stakeholders to engage and develop a cross-disciplinary outlook. The individual cubes represent specific aspects that need to be addressed. The User-Academia-Industry partnership can be seamlessly formulated based on the user requirement, academic inputs and the industry interface represented by the specific cube. It will enable a more focused approach and well defined interactive framework. Given the appropriate impetus, the UDA framework can address multiple challenges being faced by the nation today. Meaningful engagement of Young India for Nation Building probably is the most critical aspect that deserves attention. Multi-disciplinary and multi-functional entities can interact and contribute to seamlessly synergise their efforts towards a larger goal.
In the peak of the Cold War, the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) was the mainstay of the US-led UDA initiative. Initially, it was a top secret military mission, however towards the later part of the Cold War, which was opened up for academia led field experimental R&D for enhancing S&T efforts. SOSUS was in the typical temperate/ polar waters and had its major role in stabilising sonar performance in the initial days. However, the same findings were not valid for the tropical littoral waters. Post the Cold War period, towards the end of the 20th century the US establishment realised that the Chinese have developed significant submarine capabilities and need to be contained with much higher UDA efforts in the tropical littoral waters of the South China Sea (SCS).
ASIAEX was a massive Shallow Water Acoustic Measurement (SWAM) exercise launched by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) in 2000, under the guise of an academic R&D initiative led by the University of Washington. The ASIAEX was a massive data collection exercise undertaken over three years in two phases, to validate the M&S efforts undertaken by the US academia led by University of Washington. This gave a massive S&T leverage to the US establishment over their adversaries in the tropical littoral waters of the SCS and elsewhere. The US continued to deploy underwater drones and acoustic arrays on a regular basis even post the ASIAEX to ensure continuous update of their understanding of the tropical littoral underwater conditions across the globe.
The Chinese on their part did not object to the US move, but instead participated in the entire ASIAEX phase II, that was opened to academia from the region. The Chinese were clear that they on their own could have never undertaken such a massive SWAM exercise, so became part of it to learn. However, the Chinese had their own grand plan of the Underwater Great Wall initiative for acoustic capability and capacity building. The Underwater Great Wall project was officially declared only in 2015, although there was at least two decades of effort behind that. The Chinese commenced the serious UDA efforts in later part of the 20th century and the Underwater Great Wall project was the coming of age of their back room efforts. We can see a belligerent Chinese maritime presence in the SCS post 2016 and more recently, they are even seen in IOR and beyond. The Chinese are routinely deploying research vessels in the IOR to bolster their UDA efforts.
It is time that India also collaborates with its QUAD partners to build effective UDA in the IOR, through the academic route to build real S&T capabilities to manage the challenges and opportunities for all the stakeholders. SWAMs is the only way forward and it does require a nuanced approach with long term commitment and sustained support from the Government. Such efforts will have huge strategic ramifications going forward. Before we plan our UDA collaboration, we need to first build our own organisational structure and policy framework. Hardware can be imported in the short term before we can start our own Make in India, however, the soft acoustic capability and capacity building has to be urgent and home-grown with fringe support from outside. The Indo part of the Indo-Pacific needs to be understood and the UDA framework proposed by MRC can truly facilitate that.
-The writer is Founder and Director of Maritime Research Centre (MRC), Pune. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda