Author’s Note.  (This article builds on the theme of  Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) developed by Rear Admiral (Ret) William McQuilkin. On 22 Dec 2018, ie two weeks ago, the Indian Defense Minister, Mrs. Sitharaman, formally inaugurated the “Information Fusion Centre- IOR” just outside New Delhi.   



A very significant, but perhaps not a widely acknowledged step, was taken on 22 Dec 2018 towards cooperative maritime security in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). In setting up the “Information Fusion Centre- IOR” (IFC-IOR), India took forward its own measures for maritime security on a wider format with several nations in the Indian Ocean as equal partners because they are equal stake-holders. The essential prerequisite of security in a globalised and  shared maritime “common” is domain awareness (MDA).  

The Two Triggers

While awareness of the battle-space has been an age old naval requirement, it could be said that two events, more than anything else were the triggers for the present mechanism of shared MDA. The first shock was delivered on 11 Sept 2001 (“9/11”) by terrorists crashing  hijacked aircraft into multiple targets within the United States. The point to note—and only superficially strange—is that the sea did not play a role in the process. After all, the nineteen terrorists (15 were from Saudi Arabia) had all entered the US via commercial airlines. The second shock was delivered on 26 Nov 2008 (“26/11” in India, for Americans perhaps “11/26”), yet again by ten terrorists, all from Pakistan. Using a hijacked Indian trawler, they navigated into a Mumbai fishing harbor and then attacked at several places in South Mumbai. In this case, better MDA might have made things more difficult for the terrorists.

Nonetheless, both 9/11 on a global scale and 26/11 on an initially Indian littoral canvas provided the push and the urgency for monitoring the global “common” while not only ensuring the freedom to use the seas but indeed to ensure more secure seas. We may need to side- step a little here. First, Alfred Thayer Mahan’s line remains valid, “…the sea presents itself from the political and social point of view is that of a great highway; or better, perhaps, of a wide common, over which men may pass in all directions…” (italics author’s) remains fundamentally valid. Second, a vast majority of  nations now genuinely wish to participate in and preserve an environment in which seas remain secure in a very wide sense of the term for all users. This is one of the reason’s why the Indian Navy’s strategy document of 2015 is entitled “Ensuring Secure Seas: India’s Maritime Security Strategy” and its 2006 predecessor was called “Freedom of the Seas: India’s Maritime Strategy.”  Importantly, MDA transits from a largely Indian Navy centred and driven plan to a shared, cooperative and cross- domain enterprise between 2006 and 2015. For India, 26/11 was a wake up call.

How did  9/11 impact on the way maritime traffic and activity are monitored?  For several years before 2001 steps had been initiated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) for ships to have some identification system that was automatic, obligatory and available for wide sharing. Thus was born the Automatic Identification System (AIS) for merchant ships. In its earlier concept, it was relatively short range. Moreover, the primary drivers were collision avoidance through mutual awareness. The idea was very much analogous to regulations governing the way civil aviation was organized, monitored and shared across regions. Of course, apart from safety angles,  security was always a factor for monitoring air traffic not least because it often used someone else’s national air space and hijacking and bombing of commercial aircraft were not  uncommon practices for terrorists. Initiating  similar monitoring regulations in the maritime domain, however,  presented some challenges. The underlying themes of freedom of navigation, rights on the high seas and a perception that the dangers of collisions at sea are lower were impediments. Moreover, “the culture of secrecy” in maritime trade because profits and competition were involved were difficult to surmount as highlighted by Nimmich and Goward (International law Studies, Vol 83).  Mohammed Atta and the other 18 terrorists inadvertently changed the environment that enabled both single- nation and collective MDA to be transformed.     

“See, Understand, Share” 

 As a consequence therefore, of 9/11, and later 26/11, several aspects of maritime security came to be focused upon. It is not important here to go into the sequence of decision- making, or the difficulties and perhaps even misgivings. The Container Security Initiative (CSI), Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), AIS regulatory framework all have  reached a state of maturity and general commonality of understanding. Measures that were being contemplated between 2001 and the Nov 2008 Mumbai attacks came in handy just as international cooperative efforts to counter piracy off the Horn of Africa got underway. Informal and semi- formal arrangements for information- sharing  resulted in more formal arrangements.

The model for India’s IFC-IOR is similar to what Singapore set up in 2009. The Indian Navy (IN) and the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) set up the Indian Maritime Analysis Centre in 2014 (IMAC) in the city of Gurugram(formerly Gurgaon), just outside New Delhi. That this city is North India’s IT hub may be a coincidence, but IMAC itself is about collation and analysis of data.  Apart from national imperatives of maritime security, the IN then started putting in place the results of a few years of maritime diplomacy for cooperative maritime security in the IOR and beyond. (These efforts benefited from decades of bilateral and multi- lateral maritime security cooperation with some IOR states wherein the IN was the lead instrument.) In fact, for the past decade, prime ministers and other cabinet members as well as the foreign service have flagged maritime security cooperation very consistently.  

            An extract from the official briefing before the inauguration stated that the “IFC-IOR is established with the vision of strengthening maritime security in the region and beyond, by building a common coherent maritime situation picture and acting as a maritime information hub for the region. Establishment of IFC-IOR would ensure that the entire region is benefitted by mutual collaboration and  exchange of information and understanding the concerns and threats which are prevalent in the region.” In short, as Dana Coward first put it very simply, the purpose is to “see, understand, share.” (USNI Proceedings, Apr 2007) The IN now becomes the host Navy just as the Singapore Navy is at the confluence of the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. From media reports it seems obvious that several countries are interested in partnering with India. About a dozen ambassadors and nearly three times that many diplomatic representatives were present at the opening of the IFC-IOR. It is likely  that about 40 countries may  being invited to join in. Eventually, several of these may post liaison officers who would then make their own real- time assessments with information available on tap and convey it back to their superiors. Importantly, they would share their own inputs and analyses to help better regional and multi- lateral responses whenever necessary. Currently, the IFC benefits from “white shipping” agreements with 36 nations and three similar multi- lateral constructs. More are in the offing, surely.

Fishing and Troubled Waters

After her vulnerabilities were exposed on 26/11, India has taken some extraordinary steps of getting most fishing vessels to be part of an automatic identification scheme as well as encouraging smaller boats to get better at “seeing, understanding and sharing.” Fishermen are aware how the L-e-T and Pakistani Intelligence-supported terrorists killed all the four crew member of the small Indian trawler Kuber and “weaponized” it a bit like  was done with American commercial airliners. Quite a few nations are contemplating similar steps for their own and regional safety by mandating fishing vessel reporting systems. Some nations are not keen, of course of bringing their fishermen under similar identification and monitoring frameworks. At the root of the initiative to have a good operating picture of Indian fishermen  is the simple enunciation by Admiral Vernon Clark while advocating something like a “Maritime NORAD”. He said, “We will not win the war on global terrorism if we cannot tell the bad guys from the good guys” (Dec 2004 interview to Signal magazine).

Towards a Safer Indo- Pacific

            It is clear now that the Indian initiative to set up the IOR-IFC, deploying its own surveillance capabilities and  conjoining with similar “MDA” frameworks to the East and the West links not only the Indian and Pacific oceans but feeds on information from the Mediterranean as well as the Atlantic. When Karl Haushofer used the term Indo- Pacific in the 1930s, the context was not very much different on a geo- strategic plane to what it is today. Oceans and seas are contiguous and ambitions as well as the use or abuse of their waters does not necessarily recognize boundaries. The Indian maritime strategist, KM Panikkar was right in quoting Haushofer’s views on the Indo- Pacific as an arena for competition once again, “We listen to the march of time in Indo- Pacific spaces where front positions are now being occupied for thousands of years to come…(Panikkar in The Strategic Problems of the Indian Ocean, 1944).

            The IFC-IOR, with its shared awareness of the maritime domain will begin contributing to better adherence to rules that help mutual security. But it goes beyond narrower interpretations of security to enabling better and faster as well as more efficient response systems for Search and Rescue (SAR) and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). Shared awareness would help better sharing of resources. This was reiterated by several international speakers as well as by the Indian Naval Chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba during the 10th Anniversary Conference of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS,  currently chaired by Iran), and fits in well with the cooperative nature of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) in which maritime security is a key objective.  

Friendliness of Purpose     

As a large country with an important maritime   orientation as well as interests, India has demonstrated a “friendliness of purpose”. The term is used in a contrasting sense of George Kennan’s phrase “unfriendliness of purpose” in describing the USSR during the early days of the Cold War (From his article, “Sources of Soviet Conduct”, Foreign Affairs, July 1947). In China’s conduct, as this writer has pointed out elsewhere, an “unfriendliness of purpose” manifests in more than a few ways. While we need not go into its global illustrations, many of China’s actions in the South and East China Seas (SCS and ECS) are perceived by many littoral nations and other interested users as unfriendly. Its moves with the SCS Code of Conduct are creating new anxieties even when the stated purpose is the opposite. A few questions arise. Why is China finding it difficult to partner with SCS and ECS countries in cooperative MDA? Will it step back from using its  fishing fleets as coercive instruments? Could we see a day when identities of its fishing vessels would be available on a free to access basis by users of SCS and ECS? Would China itself feel confident and comfortable in sharing “white shipping” and fishing vessel data with partner nations?

            There is another angle to consider. China has the capacity and the capabilities for high quality autonomous MDA and it will get better at it with time. Firstly, it has a growing capability for maritime observation from space as well as with UAVs and maritime air patrol capabilities. Second, it has the capability to use its growing cyber warfare capabilities to stealthily tap into other MDA frameworks. Third, due to its legitimate presence in international shipping, maritime finance business, stakes and controlling ownerships in several ports worldwide, in the canal systems as well as in shipping insurance its awareness of white shipping should already be quite good. If all these are logically considered, there are good  reasons, from its own perspectives, for China to avoid rules- based frameworks now in place for MDA. Given the history of 26/11 and the ways in which Pakistan uses “irregulars” and fishing vessels as coercive instruments,  it is to be expected that they might resist information- sharing about their fishing vessels identities. We may expect continuation of a “friendliness” deficit from some nations but hopefully, matters could improve. At least they ought to.

IFC-IOR: Improving with Age    

In time, the IFC-IOR will get better at the job it has set out to do. As  the number of partners increase, so will the inputs that are available for sharing. Depending on bilateral arrangements within the grouping, it is possible that the international liaison officers deputed by partner navies or other maritime agencies  of IOR will provide the all- important human interface in analysis, dissemination and consequent action. To “see, understand, share” could often be appended the consequential actions of “sail, fly, intercept or assist” and make the Indo- Pacific a safer,  more secure common.        

(Sudarshan Shrikhande is a retired flag officer of the Indian Navy)