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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2732

Under Scanner Naval Seamanship

By Defence Analyst - Syndicate Features

Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee has done well to express the Government’s grave concern during the Naval Commanders Conference over naval accidents of the kind that led to the sinking of the missile-boat “Prahar” after it collided with a merchant vessel off the coast of Goa. Mr Mukherjee’s advice that a sense of responsibility be inculcated in all ranks of the Navy (coming as it does soon after the leak of sensitive information from the War Room in Delhi) is an indicator that the Navy needs to brush up its seamanship and standard operating procedures.

Not long ago the INS Ghariyal, a landing ship capable of delivering tanks to a beach-head in wartime, ran aground off the Chennai coast and one diver was killed in the attempt to extricate the vessel. The absence of proper charts of the sea area was blamed for the accident among other contributory factors.

Given that the new tactical doctrine of the Indian Navy is to be part of a three-dimensional fighting force –on land, in the air and at sea in any conflict situation like during the Kargil war it must upgrade its hydrological database and create up-to-date charts of every inch of not just our maritime boundaries but also of the other coastlines of littoral States in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.

There is no excuse for the absence of charts of any portion of the Indian coastline because India has one of the best survey institutions. Shifting sandbanks is a natural phenomenon and it is in the interest of the Indian Navy that it knows where the sea state has changed because on this depends the efficacy of its missions.

The undersea earthquake and the resultant tsunami have changed the topography of Andaman and Nicobar islands. The IAF station was swept away and there was considerable damage to the naval base at Port Blair. The changes caused by the tsunami need to be incorporated in naval charts otherwise there will be more accidents of the INS Ghariyal type which was a pre-tsunami event.

The INS Prahar accident underscores a danger of a different type. Unlike in aviation where air traffic controllers guide the passage of aircraft from take off to landing, there are no such facilities to naval vessels. Usually, as in the old days of seafaring a sailor was put on watch duty to report on any approaching danger.

In this day and age of global positioning system (GPS) and International Maritime Satellite (INMARSAT) system that do give the position of the vessel in relation to others in the area an accident like that of the INS Prahar can only be laid at the doorstep of an incompetent captain, an asleep-on-duty watchman, or worse, the non-availability of up-linking equipment to be able to take advantage of the GPS and maritime satellite facilities.

Some time ago there was talk of India launching a maritime satellite of its own. The INS Prahar episode and, more particularly, the tsunami (there was another recent alarm when an undersea earthquake 8 on the Richter scale occurred near Togo Island in the Pacific) would make such a facility a must in gauging the modernity of the Indian Navy and the ability of the nation as a whole to handle the disaster management.

Maritime security is acquiring greater importance because of new conventional and unconventional threats as on land. The new naval war doctrine which is designed to enmesh with operations on the land and the air as was done during the Kargil operations must also be accompanied by an equipment acquisition policy that assists seamanship. For conventional warfare the proposed acquisition of improved versions of maritime strike and reconnaissance aircraft and Kamov airborne early warning and command helicopters will make for target acquisition over long ranges.

The Kamovs have the additional capability of undersea search for enemy submarines which are acquiring greater menace by the day. Anti-submarine warfare has become more complicated as new technology intended to enable the submarine to remain underwater for longer periods without coming up to recharge its batteries – the air-independent propulsion technology – has been introduced in this part of the world. Pakistan is manufacturing these submarines at its Ormara dockyard using French technology. In the sense of conventional warfare, therefore, the Indian Navy will have to acquire counter-measures to take care of these kinds of developments.

It is in the unconventional warfare in the maritime environment that both the Indian Navy and the Coast Guards need to hone their skills. We have already had the experience of the Mumbai serial blasts wherein the weapons of mass destruction were brought onto land via the sea route. More recently, an Indian merchant vessel was hijacked by pirates off the east coast of Africa necessitating the deployment of naval vessels to intercept it.

This kind of threat from the sea has grown exponentially given that local militant groups have forged international links for logistical support. That remains Pakistan’s classic role on the western seaboard. On the eastern shores Bangladesh has allowed its territory to be used as a conduit for the replenishment of weaponry from overseas sources by militants operating in the North-east.

In this context, the ability to prevent such activity requires, in the first instance, better surveillance capability over a larger sea area to allow for interception far away from Indian shores. Indian seamanship both inshore and far offshore must be upgraded to do this.

The deteriorating situation between the Sri Lanka government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has the potential of spilling over into India benignly, in the form of refugees, and malignantly in the form of attacks by the Sea Tigers on Indian merchant and naval vessels if the LTTE perceives that India is taking sides with the Sri Lanka government. There is, thus, the potential that an insurgent organization would try to impose its will on Indian maritime protection agencies by the threat of reprisals against Indian shipping.

In this scenario, the tools required would include the ability to detect and neutralise any threat that may present itself. Indian agencies need to understand why the Sri Lanka navy is seeking a large supply of night vision devices and unmanned aerial vessels (UAVs) from wherever it can get them and has sent a shopping list to Pakistan.

In geopolitical terms this means that Pakistan’s capability for mischief against India will tend to improve and it would see this as an opportunity to tie down the Indian Navy and the Coast Guards and prevent the transfer of forces from eastern sector to the west against Pakistan. These perceptions of threat require both perspicacity in tactical deployment and skills in seamanship that preclude the kind of accident that occurred to the INS Prahar.

- Syndicate Features -

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