Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) cannot be taken as an underwater extension of the ongoing Maritime Domain Awareness framework.
Pune: The Government of India (GoI) announced the appointment of Vice Admiral G. Ashok Kumar (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM, as the first National Maritime Security Coordinator (NMSC) on 15 February 2022. Former Vice Chief of the Indian Navy, Admiral Ashok has significant understanding of the ongoing geopolitical and geostrategic realities to deal with the challenges in the new global order. These are some of the measures taken by the government to bring focus towards the maritime domain and establish India as a maritime power. Right from the SAGAR declaration, to appointment of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and now this nomination, are some of the major strategic announcements that will bring more coherence and strengthen India’s participation in the global power play.
Security in today’s world is far beyond the hard military dimension and cannot be handled in the traditional military sense. The Indian Navy has done well to evolve as a formidable maritime security force and has been appreciated for its proactive stance in building its capabilities and fighting abilities. The Indian Navy was far ahead of time to convince the Government of India to announce the Military Maritime Strategy in 2007, even before we had a comprehensive National Maritime Strategy. The National Maritime Strategy is still work in progress. The document was titled “Freedom to Use the Seas”, and it may be important to mention that using the oceans requires synergy among multiple other stakeholders and in a democracy like ours, it will have its own challenges.
The Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) is a well-established formulation to bring effective governance into our maritime areas. The MDA was given significant boost in the US, post the 9/11 incident and the entire strategic community in the US and the West took cognition of MDA in their strategic security framework. The 26/11 Mumbai attack of 2008 was a turning point in India and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The Indian Navy took the lead and built an MDA road map for India and the region. The Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC) was proposed by the Indian Navy in the aftermath of 26/11 and operationalised in 2014. Located in Gurugram, it serves multiple nations in the Indo-Pacific region.
Globally, the traditional MDA has remained security driven and lacks the participation of the other stakeholders, namely, the Blue Economy, Marine Environment & Disaster Management and Science & Technology. Former American Navy Intelligence Officer, Cdr Steven C. Boraz has brought out the limitations of the ongoing MDA. His work titled “Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA)—Myths Vs Realities”, published in the Naval War College Review, 2009, is a seminal work and a must read for any one of us trying to push MDA.
The conventional MDA has remained a surface formulation with minimal penetration into the depths. The growing underwater threats and the disruptive means, available with our adversaries, particularly the non-state actors need a very different approach. Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) cannot be taken as an underwater extension of the ongoing MDA framework. The political, economic, physical and cultural issues locally need to be understood in its strategic context. The UDA got maximum boost during the Cold War Era, with both the superpowers spending significant resources and policy attention. Security requirements were not questioned and mega projects were supported for technology development and infrastructure building. The end of the Cold War saw a changing global order and politically it became unviable to prioritise security over the other socio-economic and ecological concerns.
The Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) system, which could be termed as the pinnacle of the UDA efforts during the Cold War period, saw a decline from 30 Integrated Undersea Surveillance System (IUSS) in 1980s, to around 04 Naval Ocean Processing Facility (NOPF) by the first decade of this century. The reasons were lack of funds and low priority accorded to the undersea monitoring. SOSUS, IUSS and NOPF were terminologies used by the US Navy for the same system, at different times to manage the ongoing socio-political realities. End of the Cold War saw the so-called top secret undersea data collected by the IUSS system being shared with the academia to draw conclusions on multiple UDA applications, both military and otherwise. In 1966, Dr Roger Payne, an American Bio-acoustician was called upon by the US Navy to interpret the recordings of their top secret hydrophones deployed off the coast of Bermuda. The recordings made by Frank Watlington, a Navy Engineer, eight years earlier, were reported as eerie underwater moaning and wailing sounds. Roger along with his wife Katherine Payne, declared that these were humpback whale sound with very unique structure. The 1970 release of their album “Songs of the Humpback Whale” sold 30 million copies and was considered a turning point in our understanding of the sound scape underwater. This is contrary to what Jacques Cousteau had said earlier in his book “A Silent World” released in 1953.
Let us talk about a few focusing events that drew considerable public attention about underwater noise due to military projects, leading to affirmative action to ensure sustainable marine environment. The Ship Shock Testing undertaken routinely by the US Navy came under criticism by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and a few other environmental groups in 1993. They moved court in April 1994, to enjoin the US Navy from conducting the ship shock trial of the USS Paul John, raising objections to the proposed site and also demanded filing of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The court accepted their contention and directed the Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) to conduct surveys and identify alternate sites with least damage to marine life, undertake close monitoring of the trials and also demanded submission of the EIS. Ultimately, the tests for USS John Paul Jones were conducted in June 1994 at a site recommended by NRDC, using only a 10,000-pound explosive charge.
The Greek Whale Stranding of 1996 is another focusing event of great significance. On 12th and 13th May, 13 Cuvier’s beaked whales (a deep diving breed that rarely stranded) were found stranded alive on a 38 km stretch of beach along the coast of Kyparissiakos, Gulf of Greece. At least seven animals died in the incident and others were pushed back to the deep oceans, by the locals on the beach. A biologist at the University of Athens, Dr Alexandros Frantzis linked the stranding to the use of sonar in the immediate area, in a correspondence to the journal Nature. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), was involved in a joint international experiment using high powered, low frequency sonar in the immediate area, at the time of the event. The letter did create a maelstrom and in June 1998, an international team of experts met in Italy to discuss the issue of unregulated underwater sound in the ocean. There was a subsequent trial in the International Court of Justice and the US Navy was asked to fund research to establish the cause and effect of such trials on the marine ecosystem. The petitioners also asked for a complete ban on such trials, and the US President had to use his special powers to avert such bans for national security requirements.
The Naval Facility Point Sur was a special naval project for underwater research and field validation. It was established in 1958, as a Naval Facility (NAVFAC) to monitor Russian submarines, as part of the SOSUS project. Long-range acoustic listening was first tested and partially developed at Point Sur light station with an associated SOFAR station. The Naval Post Graduate School (NPS), Monterey was involved in this project as an academic institute to drive the research. However, this facility had to be shut down in 1984, citing lack of funds for technology upgrade.
The tropical littoral waters of the Indo-Pacific region have a serious challenge of sub-optimal sonar performance. The UDA developed during the Cold War period was in the temperate and polar region to support superpower engagement in the Greenland Iceland United Kingdom (GIUK) gap. The sonar deployment in the tropical waters show up to 60% degradation and require indigenous R&D efforts with site specific field experimental validation. Such acoustic capacity & capability building efforts are highly resource intensive and cannot be supported from the defence budget. The environmental clearances will further escalate the cost.
The Post-Cold War global order needs to be understood politically and also socio-economically. The democracies have to balance security with sustainable development goals. Technology development for purely military applications is unsustainable. Environmental sustainability cannot be undermined and security projects have to navigate these concerns. Pooling of resources and synergizing of efforts across the stakeholders is the key. The UDA framework proposed by the Maritime Research Centre (MRC), Pune as shown in figure-1, is capable of managing the challenges and opportunities. The policy and technology interventions, along with acoustic capacity and capability building, has to have a nuanced approach. The first NMSC, Vice Admiral G. Ashok Kumar may like to consider the proposed UDA framework as a template for preparing India’s blueprint for National Maritime Security.
Dr (Cdr) Arnab Das is Founder & Director, Maritime Research Center (MRC), Pune.