The geopolitics of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the global power play mandates a more nuanced strategic approach for India in the 21st century. The ongoing recognition of the economic potential backed by the demographic dividend calls for structural changes in our national policy formulation. The SAGAR (Security And Growth for All in the Region) vision announced by the Prime Minister in May 2015, is a progressive strategic intent that attempts to define a leadership role for India in the IOR. The security concerns coupled with socio-economic challenges does get addressed in the SAGAR declaration, if that can be implemented effectively. The over 2.4 lakh square kilometres of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), provides huge opportunity but also presents significant challenges. The policy framework post-independence has remained fragmented across the stakeholders and ensured poor coordination and inefficient resource deployment.

The Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) is a concept that attempts to facilitate pooling of resources and seamless exchange of information for a cogent maritime strategy, particularly for optimum management of the undersea domain. The four stakeholders namely the national security apparatus, the blue economic entities, the environmental and disaster management authorities and the science and technology providers need to come together to overcome the unique technology challenges of the tropical littoral water in the IOR. In this work we present a UDA framework for effective realisation of the SAGAR vision. Effective realisation of the SAGAR vision is no more a progressive thought but probably an absolute necessity to be able to keep pace with the global growth trajectory and avoid a demographic disaster. The aggressive influx of the Chinese into the IOR for strategic intent and our inability to harness the economic potential due to lack of maritime infrastructure remains an open challenge. The ongoing infrastructure development push by the government needs to be backed by nuanced environmental impact assessment to be able to maintain sustainability of the initiative in the long term. The UDA framework does present a Safe, Secure, Sustainable Growth model for Indiain the IOR.

Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR)

The SAGAR declaration is a recognition of the security concerns that we face in the IOR and also the acknowledgement of the huge economic potential that exists to be tapped. The regional consolidation is another critical aspects that is needed to prevent the extra regional powers from meddling with the regional peace and harmony. The ongoing geopolitics does gives a very contrary trend and demands serious efforts to change the volatile and unstable environment. India has to play a leadership role to be able to reverse this trend and ensure wellbeing of all in the region.

We look at the challenges of ensuring effective SAGAR. The first are the domestic issues that include demographic challenge to channelize the energies of the young India towards productive engagement. This will require opening up of new areas of productive employment. The economic development has to maintain the higher growth rate for a long time to be able to generate the resources for the ever increasing population. The positive engagement of the young population will also ensure minimal internal security concerns. The external issues include security threats from regional and extra regional powers to destabilise our socio-economic progress. The massive maritime infrastructure push is creating unregulated activities both within and also on a regional level, thereby causing sustainability concerns in the IOR. The growing global consciousness on environmental degradation is bringing uniform regulatory frameworks across regions and now India being a signatory to global norms may get constrained by these regulations.

Acoustic habitat degradation is a major fallout of the rising maritime activities without comprehensive regulatory framework. The increasing maritime activities are also accompanied by higher noise levels in the ocean. Acoustic signals or sound waves being the only signal that propagate efficiently underwater also means that the marine species use sound for multiple biologically critical functions. Thus, increasing noise in their habitat interferes with their ability to perceive the environment around them, thereby causing acoustic habitat degradation. The frequent stranding of marine mammals along the Indian coast is a manifestation of the catastrophic acoustic habitat degradation. Figure-1 presents recent incidents of stranding that is manifestation of the severe acoustic habitat degradation. Such stranding are attributable to the navigation failure due to high ambient noise leading to disorientation.

The safe, secure, sustainable growth model requires transparency in our sea areas to counter any security threat or manage any safety issues due to natural disasters and also environmental conservation efforts can be better implemented. The enhanced UDA will allow efficient resource utilisation even for any commercial ventures in the undersea domain. The only instrument for enhanced transparency is the deployment of sonars for military and non-military applications. However, the tropical littoral waters of the IOR ensure sub-optimal performance for the sonars deployed in the region. The same sonar when deployed in the temperate or polar region gives more than 70 percent enhanced performance due to the favourable medium conditions. This is a major technology challenge to ensure optimal performance of the sonars for any undersea application. The acoustic capacity building thus, required for enhanced UDA will mean huge investment on field experiments that no individual stakeholder can undertake on their own.

Underwater Domain Awareness

The concept of Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) in a more specific sense will translate to our eagerness to know what is happening in the undersea realm of our maritime areas. This keenness for undersea awareness from the security perspective, means defending our Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC), coastal waters and varied maritime assets against the proliferation of submarines and mine capabilities intended to limit the access to the seas and littoral waters. However, just the military requirement may not be the only motivation to generate undersea domain awareness. The earth’s undersea geophysical activities have a lot of relevance to the well-being of the human kind and monitoring of such activities could provide vital clues to minimise the impact of devastating natural calamities. The commercial activities in the undersea realm need precise inputs on the availability of resources to be able to effectively and efficiently explore and exploit them for economic gains. The regulators on the other hand need to know the pattern of exploitation to manage a sustainable plan.

With so much of activities, commercial and military, there is significant impact on the environment. Any conservation initiative needs to precisely estimate the habitat degradation and species vulnerability caused by these activities and assess the ecosystem status. The scientific and the research community need to engage and continuously update our knowledge and access of the multiple aspects of the undersea domain. Figure. 2, presents a comprehensive perspective of the UDA. 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 take shape of an event.

The UDA framework on a comprehensive scale needs to be understood in its horizontal and vertical construct. The horizontal part would be the resource availability in terms of technology, infrastructure, capability and capacity specific to the stakeholders or otherwise. The four stakeholders will have their unique requirements, however the acoustic capacity building will remain the core that will ensure optimal performance of the sonars deployed in any medium condition. The vertical part 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.



Geopolitics of UDA

The global development of underwater technology and undersea deployment of sonars picked up momentum post the World War II. The Americans and the Russians developed hardware and algorithms to detect underwater targets at long ranges. The theatre of action was in the Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom (GIUK) Gap located in the Northern Atlantic Ocean. These powers conducted numerous sea experiments to minimise the medium uncertainties and achieved reasonable sonar performance. The undersea medium was characterised by deep sea and near polar conditions. The improved performance of the sonars or more specifically stability in their performance, lead to mass production and corresponding lowering of cost. The Americans and Russians were busy making allies across the globe and also supplying military hardware to fund their war machine.

Post the Cold War era, there were significant changes in the global military management. The theatre of action shifted to the near shore littoral regions and the unquestioned military spending was no more politically viable. These two were a very important factors that shaped sonar deployment globally. The developing nations with military hardware did not have the soft acoustic capability to make them work in their tropical littoral waters.

Particularly, India and China lacked capability to undertake massive sea experiments in their waters to make sense of the medium fluctuations to tune their signal processing algorithms for enhanced sonar performance. Also, the military budget was not good enough to deploy long term systems for data collections and analysis.

In America, the post-Cold War scenario was very unique. The massive war infrastructures like the SOund SUrveillance System (SOSUS) that was a top secret underwater surveillance system to detect Russian Submarines during the Cold War period had to be opened up for non-military research to manage its operational and maintenance cost. The SOSUS data was extremely useful for multiple non-military research like marine mammal habitat assessment and massive acoustic capacity building research. The Point Sur Naval Facility (NAVFAC), in California had to be shut down in 1984 due to high operational cost. The environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) got very heavy on the US Navy and managed to oppose multiple projects due to their adverse impact on the environment. The early 90s saw projects like the Ship Shock test, SURTASS LFA and many more being curtailed or shut down due to environmental concerns and the Navy was forced to file Environmental Impact Statements (EIS).

In the early 21st century when the Chinese dragon started raising its head, the Americans planned a massive Shallow Water Acoustic Measurement (SWAM) experiments in the tropical littoral waters of the South China Sea. The ASIA-EX was a unique exercise planned by the University of Washington and funded by the Office of Naval Research (ONR). In the first phase, six US Universities participated to plan the entire experiment in 2001. Then, in the next phase they involved multiple regional institutes and universities from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea. This was a tropical shallow water experiment in South and East China Sea to understand the local medium condition for effective sonar deployment. The American agenda was clear, to collect data and build acoustic capacity for future military and non-military deployments in the region. The Chinese were also clear in acknowledging their limitations in undertaking such massive shallow water experiments, so participated to learn from the US. Thereafter they have been routinely undertaking such experiments and building on their acoustic capabilities. The Underwater Great Wall project is one such initiative. China has built multiple Acoustic Institutes and Universities in the last decade. We see them now asserting themselves in the IOR as well, to establish undersea sensor network.

Way Forward

The geographical advantage India has in the IOR can only be leveraged with technological superiority and enhanced acoustic capacity for effective UDA. This requires massive experimental studies to be able to minimise the uncertainties of the tropical littoral waters of the IOR. The search of MH-370, lead by Australia was another big example of acoustic capacity building. The massive mobilisation of assets and continuous undersea acoustic data collection across diurnal and seasonal conditions gives huge statistical understanding of the medium fluctuations. The Quad of America, Australia, Japan and India need to plan SWAMs to ensure enhanced acoustic capacity building to be able to counter China in the IOR. The Indian scientist need to go out to sea and participate in field experiments on a massive scale. The acoustic institutes focused on UDA need to come up with strategic goals.

India in the 21st century has to balance multiple issues as listed below:

  • The security scenario in the IOR particularly from the maritime front needs serious consideration and countries in the region cannot afford massive investments in the military hardware that gives very poor range. Indigenous effort is inescapable, but it requires massive investment with coherent and sustained policy support.
  • The demographic dividend has a serious concern as well. If the young India is not channelized into constructive nation building activities then we may have a serious socio-economic problem to deal with. Opportunities for young India need serious consideration along with appropriate skilling as well.
  • Policy framework to synergise stakeholder efforts and pooling of resources for national initiative. Stakeholders engaging with foreign partners could be a security concern and needs to be addressed in a very comprehensive manner with discouraging binaries like Security Vs Development, Development Vs Environment and so on. Comprehensive Indian Maritime Strategy is probably the best way forward. UDA could provide the structural framework to draft the comprehensive Indian Maritime Strategy.
  • The human resource with the right skills will be a very critical component to take forward any such initiative. The nation needs academic institutions with the right R&D infrastructure to address the requirement of scientific inputs and human resource. The Maritime Research Centre at Pune, is one such initiative.
  • Cdr (Dr) Arnab Das is the founder Director of the Maritime Research Centre and has articulated the concept of Underwater Domain Awareness as a comprehensive framework to ensure safe, secure, sustainable growth for India in the IOR.

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