Event ReportsPublished on Jan 29, 2020
Underwater domain awareness framework: A new perspective for the Indian Ocean Region

Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) has gained substantial global relevance post 9/11. In India, its emergence in the strategic discourse gained significance post the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai. However, as a result, MDA has been reduced to a security-driven formulation, significantly limiting its growth and sustenance, said Dr (Cdr) Arnab Das, Founder and Director of the Maritime Research Centre, Pune. “So much so, that while India has a Military Maritime Strategy, it is yet to prepare a Maritime Strategy.” He was delivering a talk at ORF Mumbai on the topic of 'Underwater Domain Awareness Framework: A New Perspective for the Indian Ocean Region' on 23 January.

While MDA has remained captive to strategic thinking, one of its important subsets, i.e. Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) framework transcends the security discourse and integrates all key stakeholders including the security apparatus, blue economic entities, environmental regulators and disaster management authorities, and science and technology providers) to facilitate pooling of resources and synergising efforts for ensuring safe, secure, sustainable growth for all in the region.

Dr. Das introduced UDA as "our eagerness to know what is happening in the undersea realm of our maritime areas." Explaining the significance of UDA to the Indian Ocean, he dwelled on the importance of "strategically" mitigating the knowledge deficit on the subject. "It's just not enough to import technologies or ideas from other powers. We need to have our own efforts which we somehow haven't paid attention to," he pointed out. For that, he said that policymakers need to look at India’s position in the 21st century from a very different prism and navigate through the current realities with respect to UDA. The government should create an enabling environment and encourage interaction between the various stakeholders for the development of a comprehensive UDA framework and create a sustainable maritime model. This, he said, will help "monitor developments and predict the events before they occur rather than record them as they happen."  UDA, he said, cannot be treated merely as an “appendage of the MDA,” but must be used effectively for deployment of assets by India as a "strategic submarine nation."

With the rise in sea levels resulting in migration and the fact that 80 percent of the population lives within 20 nautical miles from the coast, he highlighted the need of high preparedness to deal with any unforeseen contingency. Additionally, the rapidly evolving Blue Economy resulting in increasing noise levels in the oceans that get further amplified by anti-piracy operations, has led to unnatural migration patterns and constant stranding  of marine mammals. Capacity building in UDA, he said, assumes great significance given these disruptions to the marine ecology and the growing dependence of the world on sea for food security in the face of a declining fish stock. Human action on the high seas have caused a great degree of acoustic habitat degradation and India needs to build its acoustic capacity to aid conservation and sustainable growth, he added.

While India, through enjoying the position of centrality in the Indian Ocean Region, has fallen short on several of these UDA parameters, China has started "exploiting" the area. China, through their ASIAEX, have managed to identify and elucidate properties of shallow water boundaries that impact underwater sound propagation and reverberation such as sediment inhomogeneity, sediment roughness and sea surface roughness in the East China Sea and thus established geo-acoustic description of the seabed. Describing this as a “path breaking project in the area of UDA,” Dr Das said that it had helped China to deal effectively with the US in these waters. He also applauded China's efforts to build institutional capacity working relentlessly for advancing UDA.

Dr. Das also pointed out the UDA’s importance in applied research for disaster management. UDA infrastructure and systems collect and interpret data which can be used in multidimensional manner by multiple stakeholders. In order to map 20 lakh square kilometer of India’s Exclusive Economic Zone, India needs to build unconventional data collection tools and methods. India can play up to its regional power image by not only taking the lead in data acquisition, but also gain diplomatically by sharing the same with the neighbors. He highlighted the example of Japan, which has invested in the study dolphins in Indian freshwater to acquire data.

“India is well-poised in the Indian Ocean Region to take a leadership role because of its strategic location, but this cannot happen unless it upgrades its acoustic infrastructure. For this he said a policy framework should also be laid out,” he said.

Lack of focus on UDA capacity building has also resulted in avoidable expenditure on importing western systems that may not work optimally given the different nature of the waters across the world’s oceans.  The speaker talked about the developments in the cold war era, where the Americans invested phenomenally in the acoustic capacity building to have stabilise sonar performance. The Indian Navy, Dr Das recalled, had imported the advanced acoustic systems from the US to stablise its sonar performance. When tested in the Atlantic, the system gave accurate results for 32 nautical miles, but its coverage dropped to just five nautical miles when it was deployed in the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean. “Thus, for the surveillance of the same area, India requires eight times more assets,” he pointed out. India can gain strategic advantage by just developing internal capacities to improve the accuracy of these systems to up to 10 nautical miles and thus enhance the capacity of its imports by four times.

Dr Das concluded by enumerating the country’s ambitions to expand its footprint in the maritime domain both for inland waterways development as well as outward thrust with initiatives such as Sagarmala and Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) and the national Maritime Agenda - 2020. Given India’s stated initiatives it is imperative to develop internal UDA capacities and capabilities.

This report has been compiled by Ameya Mondkar, Associate Fellow, ORF Mumbai.

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