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29 November 2018, Gateway House

Maritime security: a decade after 26/11

Ten years after the 26/11 terror attack, India’s maritime security is much stronger, with better inter-agency coordination and improved security structure. The Indian Navy was made responsible for maritime security overall, but no fool-proof and unambiguous command and control structure exists as yet.

Vice Admiral, Indian Navy

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The author headed the Navy’s operations directorate immediately after 26/11.

A decade after the shocking incident in Mumbai it is necessary to ask whether we have a better maritime security today than before. Has any progress been made? Good improvement is evident in several areas, but in some others it has been less encouraging. More needs to be done to achieve standards that will seriously deter threats from the sea in future.

Overall, the maritime security of the country, including of the island territories, is far better today than in 2008. After the attacks, the Cabinet immediately approved a new and overhauled maritime and coastal security. Although the new architecture did not entirely incorporate all the recommendations made by the Navy and Coast Guard, it was nevertheless a historic move that has forever changed the structure of maritime security in India.

The new security structure:

  • gave additional and new responsibilities to maritime agencies and police;
  • provided for the acquisition of additional assets (ships, aircraft, boats);
  • funded the creation of new infrastructure, such as coastal radars, Automatic Identification System[1] (AIS), National Command Control and Communication Network or NC3I, Joint Operations Centres and an information collation and fusion centre; and
  • mandated setting up of marine or coastal police in all coastal states, introducing better monitoring and identification mechanisms for fishing crafts and fishermen.

The Indian Navy was made responsible for the maritime security of the country, (which included both coastal and offshore security) but with an ill-defined authority over other maritime agencies, such as the Coast Guard, marine police, customs marine wing, maritime intelligence agencies and port authorities, of which there are nearly 17, both at the central and state levels.

There has not been an incident of successful breach of maritime security anywhere along the long coastline ever since. This is the best indicator of the success of the new security structure.

One reason for this transformation is improved inter-agency coordination and synergy. All the security agencies are also more serious and alert in responding to maritime security incidents. The persistent and systematic efforts and resolve of the Navy and Coast Guard, in pushing all other agencies to work in a coordinated manner through the regular conduct of state-wise, inter-agency coastal security exercises, called “Sagar Kavach”, has been instrumental in this.

The second reason is the Navy, which has performed well despite constraints. At the apex level in New Delhi, the National Committee for Strengthening Maritime and Coastal Security (NCSMCS), under the chairmanship of the cabinet secretary, with the Navy and Coast Guard chiefs, as also secretaries of several related ministries/departments and chief secretaries of states as members, has provided a forum to discuss points of discord and to resolve them, albeit through the long drawn out consensus-based approach.

This body, however, does not take executive decisions in operational situations; that job is left to the Navy, albeit with absolutely no authority, but with all accountability for a security lapse, should it occur. Several representations by the Navy to correct this have met with resistance from other maritime security agencies, such as the Coast Guard and marine police, as also disinterest from the government because of the misplaced fear of overreach by the Navy.

It is to the credit of the Navy and Coast Guard, and not so much the marine /coastal police (which is administered by the state concerned) that, despite absence of an enabling instrument for a fool-proof and unambiguous command and control structure, they have, through an agreed Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), evolved an effective coordination protocol to respond to an incident or crisis at sea. This is not the ideal arrangement to deal with incidents of national maritime security. An appropriate enabling instrument that provides authority and defines command and control is still required as is the case in say, France or Australia.

The third reason for the marked improvement in overall maritime security is the exponential growth in the number and quality of Coast Guard assets (ships, boats and aircraft), and increase in the number of Coast Guard stations and staff. Since 2008 the Coast Guard has added 78 ships, crafts and boats,17 aircraft, 20 new stations and inducted 6,000 personnel.[2] This is unprecedented.

Setting up of a chain of coastal radars and AIS stations along the entire coastline and in the island territories has complemented Coast Guard accretions. The effectiveness of this chain in detecting and identifying errant and delinquent vessels at sea has been invaluable. There have been several instances of vessels infringing regulations of safety (i.e. collisions) and security (i.e. carrying out illegal activities). These have been successfully traced, many hours or even days after the incident, with inputs entirely from the coastal radar and AIS chain.[3]

The real strength of this radar and AIS chain lies in the state-of-the-art-software, which collates and fuses the terra bytes of live data from these sophisticated sensors, every second, to produce a comprehensive pan-national situational awareness picture of the ocean space around the entire coast of India and the islands. This indigenous software, developed by Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL), has repeatedly proved itself and has been the key to the tremendous success of the surveillance mechanism of the entire coastline.

The radar and AIS chain has limitations in monitoring fishing boats because of their small size. Yet monitoring these boats and their crew is crucial for security as the perpetrators of 26/11 had exploited this weakness when they arrived through the sea route. Some success in this area has been achieved.

The fisheries departments of the various states were required to contribute towards maritime security by capturing the biometric data and other details of approximately 20 lakh[4] fishermen and lakhs of fishing boats of all types in all coastal states. They have now instituted a mechanism to issue ID cards to these 20 lakh fishermen across the country as also ID card readers (to read these cards), which can be used by the Navy, Coast Guard and police vessels. This is a notable accomplishment of the fisheries departments of the states and has facilitated a mechanism to check the identity of crew of fishing vessels at sea.

It is by no means perfect and major problems remain, such as crew not carrying their cards, boats refusing to be checked and employment of unidentified migrant labour from other states or countries, such as Nepal and Bangladesh, in fishing boats without ID cards.

Besides, the ambitious project to fit all fishing boats with equipment for satellite- based identification and tracking of the boats at sea, has still not seen satisfactory progress. Strict enforcement of these regulatory measures is fraught with political implications as the fishing community everywhere is reluctant to comply with rules that are perceived as unnecessarily restrictive of their freedom at sea.

The slowest progress is seen in the areas where it is most required, which is the setting up of the coastal or marine police wings in each coastal state. All the agencies have, over the last ten years, shown improvement in their cooperation and coordination responses, except the coastal or marine police, whose performance has remained below expectation.

Steps taken to set up the marine police wings have not been satisfactory in most cases. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) had approved financial assistance to states for procurement of police patrol boats, construction of piers and jetties and other basic maritime infrastructure. States were required to follow up on issues such as proper and sustainable recruitment, training, and deployment and maintenance of assets, provided initially through central funding, but nearly all have failed to do so. Boats are improperly maintained and anywhere from 10-50% of them remain unserviceable in the states. Little or no funds are budgeted for the day-to-day expenditure of running and maintaining the boats.

Recruitment of a dedicated cadre of marine police is non-existent. Repeated offers by Navy and Coast Guard to induct retiring sailors who are well trained and motivated, have not been taken up seriously by the states. All coastal police still rely on the Navy and Coast Guard for their basic training.

The problem lies in the temporary (barely two- or three-year) attachment that police personnel have with the marine wing. Indian Police Service (IPS) officers, assigned additional responsibilities of administering the marine police, are posted erratically, and that too, for very short and unpredictable periods of time. With no continuity of police personnel, the performance of coastal police across India has fallen short of expectation. In addition, the police hierarchy is deeply opposed to the additional responsibility thrust upon them by way of the CCS mandate of 2009.[5]

There is now a rethinking of the existing three-tier maritime security architecture, comprising the Navy, the Coast Guard and coastal/ marine police, the first two reporting to the Defence department and the latter coming under the purview of the Home ministry and the states. Some within the Navy question the need for it (the Navy) to continue as the agency responsible for overall maritime security.

The Coast Guard has grown substantially in the last ten years, is better equipped, and has developed SOPs and established effective mechanisms and linkages with other agencies involved in maritime security. All these features, they believe, have provided the Coast Guard the capability and capacity to take on the responsibility for national maritime security, leaving the Navy to revert to its original responsibility of ‘maritime defence’ of the country.

The opposing view maintains that the Navy, being the premier maritime agency, is better placed to ensure both maritime defence (required in conflict, crisis or against a specific threat in peace) as well as maritime security (an everyday, 24×7 activity for maintaining good order at sea), as it has been doing since 26/11. They believe the status quo is preferable because though the Coast Guard has grown exponentially and will continue to expand in future, it will, on its own still not be able to handle all types of crises or incidents that routinely occur at sea. For example, if an incident occurs beyond the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which is the limit of the Coast Guard’s mandate, the Navy will have to step in.

Even some incidents that occur within the EEZ (such as, the tracking and sinking of the drug boat off the Gujarat coast in January 2015 or the capturing of sea pirates in the Lakshadweep Islands in 2011) still require pooling of assets by both Navy and Coast Guard for success of the operation. This is typical of developing countries, whereas in the more developed nations, like the U.S., the Coast Guard’s capacities give it a larger, more independent ambit.

Currently though, without an explicit authority given to the Navy to discharge its responsibility, the existing arrangement is unsustainable. An earlier proposal made by the Navy in 2008 (but not accepted by the government) for a Naval “Maritime Security Advisor” was made precisely to meet this requirement of an apex command and control authority. Of all the issues that are periodically examined by the NCSMCS at New Delhi, this perhaps ought to deserve the highest attention.

Strengthening India’s maritime security is still a work in progress, but it is far better today than it was in November 2008. It has been a challenge to reach this level of efficacy. Improving it is necessary, and much depends on how the central and state governments address the weak links. These include: an ineffective marine police; a fisheries sector where implementation of rules on the monitoring of fishing boats is weak; and the lack of an apex authority for maritime security.

The state governments ought to take both the police and fisheries sector issues more seriously and implement the measures which have been repeatedly pointed out to them in the debrief of more than 100 coastal security exercises, conducted under the Sagar Kavach programme, across the country over the last ten years. The central government must examine afresh the issue of having an apex authority and SOPs for effective command and control and issue necessary guidelines at the earliest.

Abhay Raghunath Karve is a veteran vice admiral, having served in various senior positions in the Navy, including its operations directorate after 26/ 11 for more than three years when historic changes in India’s maritime security structure were initiated. In subsequent assignments too he was closely associated with the implementation and monitoring of coastal and offshore security measures. 

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[1] Automatic Identification System (AIS) is an electronic device on all big ships, mandated by the International Maritime Organisation, for their safety at sea. The AIS sends out electronic interrogation signals which are responded to by other ships within range with similar equipment. The interrogator is thus able to obtain all the information he requires about the ship, including its course, speed, origin, destination, tonnage and other details. Such systems are also installed along the coast in many countries so that ships that are 20 to 30 miles from it can be identified.

[2] Data and statistics obtained from Coast Guard sources

[3] This is the author’s own personal experience over the past five to six years.

[4] Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying & Fisheries, Government of India, <> (Accessed on 26 November 2018)

[5] All these deficiencies of the marine police have been routinely and repeatedly observed by the author in every post-exercise (Sagar Kavach) debrief and have been raised to the highest political authorities of the states concerned as also in the NCSMCS.