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Quad needs a new perspective based on UDA

NewsQuad needs a new perspective based on UDA

Quad’s ongoing maritime domain awareness (MDA), in the absence of a comprehensive Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA), is out of sync with reality.


Pune: The Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) Summit in Tokyo on 24 May 2022, brought the four global leaders together, at a time when the international community is going through a massive churn on multiple fronts. The cascading impact of the Covid pandemic, followed by the Ukraine crisis, has been unprecedented on global economic engines. The Quad summit overlapped with the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos, where another set of global leaders met to discuss the theme “History at a Turning Point: Government Policies and Business Strategies”. In both the major global meetings, the role of India has been recognised as a global player and the conducive political stability and coherent government policies acknowledged.
The Quad Summit had two major announcements for the free and open Indo-Pacific region, which has been the central theme for the Quad. The first was the Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) partnership that will provide a new stream of data from commercial satellites to countries across the Indo-Pacific region. The second was the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) for Prosperity, a US led economic grouping comprising 13 countries. These countries account for 40% of the global Gross Domestic Production (GDP). The economic framework broadly rests on four pillars: trade, supply chain resilience, clean energy and de-carbonization and taxes and anti-corruption measures. The joint statement states that the framework will attempt to “advance resilience, sustainability, inclusiveness, economic growth, fairness and competitiveness” in these economies.
This MDA announcement is considered as a substantial addition to the Quad agenda and certainly the most promising initiative till date. The critical component to this announcement is that, it satisfied the desire of most regional partners for the Quad to provide public good and address the needs of smaller states in the entire Indo-Pacific strategic space. If the Quad can implement it properly, it will be a game changer for the entire region and demonstrate real value for the smaller nations in the region. The legacy systems for monitoring the maritime activities, comprise coastal radars along with aerial and surface patrols. The 21st century saw the Automatic Identification System (AIS) to monitor the shipping traffic of more than 300 tonnage vessels, in the international waters. The licensed fishing vessels in some states are mandated to use the Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) for effective tracking. The AIS and VMS relay identifying data, position, course and speed by sending signals from trans-receivers on ships to nearby vessels and receiving stations, both on shore and in space.
The AIS and the VMS coverage, presently, is extremely patchy. The legal framework across multiple ocean areas are yet to make it mandatory for either of the systems to be installed and there are serious attempts to undermine the meticulous implementation. Thus, the maritime law enforcement agencies rely on the coastal radars and the aerial and surface patrols that have limited range beyond the line of site. The terrestrial AIS and VMS transponders traditionally used, also have the same limitation of range. Both the coastal radars and the terrestrial AIS/VMS are outrightly overworked and outnumbered to counter the scale of illegal and illicit activities in the Indo-Pacific region. The political instability and the belligerent non-state actors make it extremely challenging for the conventional systems to counter the scale of subversive activities in the region.
The satellite based AIS/VMS can be a good alternative to cover the larger sea areas, which is available only with the developed nations. The state-of-the-art satellite systems carry electro-optical as well as synthetic aperture radar sensors for imaging the earth surface. The shift from large and expensive satellites in geosynchronous orbit to constellations of small and cheap satellite in low-earth orbit has brought down the cost of satellite data. However, the scale of space-based remote sensing data required for persistent monitoring of vast Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) is still prohibitive for developing nations in the Indo-Pacific region. The remote sensing for MDA suffers from the issue of scale. The vast Indo-Pacific is too large for effective patrolling by aircraft or ships and too expensive for continuous imaging by satellites. The imaging satellites have a trade-off between resolution and aperture. Lower frequency gives better range, but poor resolution and vice-versa. A hybrid system is thus required to ensure larger areas being covered by low resolution electro-optical sensors or radars, whereas the sensitive smaller areas are mapped using high resolution imaging cameras.
The few developed nations and big corporates have ensured substantial remote sensing data availability for manual analysis. However, the data analytics has to catch up in leaps and bounds. Automation and machine learning are critical for real-time identification of suspicious behaviour from diverse data sources. The challenges vary from uneven regulatory frameworks across nations, capacity and capability limitations, data privacy concerns, lack of seamless cooperation across regions, lack of local site-specific R&D and more. The extra-regional powers manipulate the nations in the region for their vested interests, making it extremely skewed and unviable in the long term. Consistent with the power play of the West and dominance of the military industry complex, the US-based HawkEye360 is the leading commercial operator, whose data the Quad members plan to purchase and share with partners across the Indo-Pacific region. The Quad will also facilitate data processing and real-time sharing of inputs through existing channels. The US Navy’s SeaVision platform, India’s Indian Ocean Region Information Fusion Centre, Singapore based Information Fusion Centre, the Australia-sponsored Pacific Fusion Centre in Vanuatu and the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency’s Regional Fisheries Surveillance Centre in the Solomon Islands are the data analytics centres being used presently. The availability of high-quality data for these centres will mean significant enhancement in the effectiveness of the ongoing MDA initiative in the Indo-Pacific region.
The conventional MDA has remained security driven with minimal participation from other stakeholders, namely the blue economy, environment and disaster management authorities and the Science and Technology (S&T) providers. The security establishments, by design, are extremely sensitive to the classified data being shared for any civilian application. The data processing centres mentioned above are largely managed and controlled by the security establishments with near zero bandwidth for delivering any public goods. The coastal communities and the blue economic stakeholders will continue to have this as a pipe dream. The security bogey will continue to draw maximum budgetary resources for military spending in developing nations with significant socio-economic challenges. The MDA will continue to draw significant resources with minimal delivery for the public goods as promised. The IPEF will also not be able to make any impact, if these fundamental concerns for dominant security-led limitations are not addressed. The ongoing MDA has remained on surface with near zero penetration in the underwater domain. The vast economic resources undersea have significant economic potential, but in the absence of good governance mechanism, it can be a serious sustainability concern in the future.
The tropical littoral waters of the Indo-Pacific region present unique political, economic, physical and military challenges and opportunities. The volatile political scenario, both at the domestic and regional level ensures fragmentation across the stakeholders and multiple communities. The pooling of resources and synergizing of efforts is a big casualty to attempt any optimisation of resource deployment. The extra-regional powers find it easy to meddle in the domestic politics and ensure poor governance across the region. The socio-economic condition in the region allows easy exploitation by the West on multiple counts. The developing status does not allow them to prioritize Science and Technology (S&T) and invest in local site specific R&D, so they continue to remain dependent on the exploitative West for their outdated and discarded technologies. The most critical uniqueness is the sub-optimal performance of sonars in the tropical littoral waters. The sonars imported from the West (developed during the Cold War period for the temperate and polar waters), suffer over 70% degradation in the tropical littoral waters. Thus, any attempt at deployment of these imported systems, in the absence of any indigenous efforts to customize these systems for the tropical conditions is highly redundant. In the present scenario, where the adversaries, particularly the non-state actors have disruptive means of underwater drones and acoustic mines, to cause massive damage, the conventional maritime forces are highly ill-equipped to counter the asymmetric threat.
The Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) Framework proposed by the Maritime Research Centre (MRC), Pune is a comprehensive situational awareness construct to address the concerns of all the four stakeholders, namely the maritime security, blue economy, environment and disaster management and S&T. The pooling of resources and synergizing of efforts across the stakeholders as the core spirit of the UDA framework, makes it extremely valuable for the developing and smaller nations to manage their challenges and opportunities and achieve good maritime governance. The Digital Oceans construct, driven by the UDA framework makes it futuristic and compatible to the state-of-the-art S&T tools. The specific challenges and opportunities of the tropical littoral waters of the Indo-Pacific region are best managed by the effective realization of the UDA framework. The illustration presents the comprehensive UDA framework as proposed by the MRC.
The ongoing MDA, in the absence of a comprehensive UDA is significantly out of sync with the reality. The MDA must expand its scope and depth to include larger public good on multiple dimensions. The Quad leadership will do well to invest on the UDA framework proposed by MRC. The proposed MDA and the IPEF, can be effectively delivered with an honest implementation of the UDA framework.

Dr (Cdr) Arnab Das is Founder & Director, Maritime Research Center (MRC), Pune.

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