Pune: The 21st century has seen a decisive shift in the global order. The rise of China and decline of Russia, has not only presented a new power dynamics, but also shifted the strategic engagements towards the maritime space of the Indo-Pacific region. The Indo-Pacific region comprises of the tropic littoral waters of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. The relative decline in the American hegemony has also resulted in the higher assertion by China on global matters. To counter the aggressive assertion by China, the global community has started to initiate political, economic and military alliances like the QUAD comprising of US, Australia, Japan and India. The inclusion of India in QUAD is a significant recognition of its central role in global matters and India needs to scale up its maritime capacity and capabilities to match up to the global expectations.

The Indian government has demonstrated significant maritime intent in the 21st century and we can see a major shift, away from the continental mind-set in policy making and execution. The Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) vision of the Honourable Prime Minister is a major strategic declaration at the apex level and has significant ramifications for India in the geopolitical and geostrategic interplay. The SAGAR declaration has four major connotations, as stated by the Prime Minister himself in the Shangri La dialogue of 2018:

(a)        India recognizes the security challenges that exists in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

(b)        India acknowledges the growth opportunities that exist in the IOR.

(c)        India has had a glorious maritime past and the rich maritime heritage gives us strength to shape our future.

(d)        India would like to play a leadership role in the IOR and consolidate its geopolitical and geostrategic position.

The maritime focus has resulted in multiple major initiatives by the Government of India and mega projects like the Sagarmala, Bharatmale, Inland Water Transport, Multimodal transport and many more have been initiated. The deep sea mining mission, International Seabed Authority (ISA) allocation and many more are an indication of the seriousness of the maritime intent at the highest level. The mega policy focus, is a substantial forward movement towards getting India on the path of a prosperous maritime nation. There is work to be done to realize such mega vision on the ground. The micro interventions in terms of policy, technology, human resources and more, will require significant effort in the long term and in a sustained manner. The safe, secure, sustainable growth model will require a nuanced approach at multiple levels, given the socio-economic challenges and opportunities.

The mega vision are always accompanied by challenges and opportunities. The Indo-Pacific strategic space and India’s inclusion as a major strategic partner also presents huge responsibility for our internal mechanisms to match up. The Indo part of the Indo-Pacific needs to be understood in the political, economic and physical context. The political challenges like volatility, fragmentation, instability and more has ensured significant lack of maritime governance in the region. The geopolitical fragmentation means lack of synergy among the nations in the region, allowing the extra-regional powers to have a free run to meddle in the region and manipulate the policy making to suit their selfish interests. Even internally, the stakeholders within these nations are marred in turf wars and no synergy in policy making has been observed. Over dependence on the extra-regional powers has had a major fallout on the governance mechanism. The economic challenges like inequalities, growth challenges, geopolitical instabilities, political manipulations and more has a major impact on the long term growth prospects. The lack of big investments do not allow consolidation and thus the return on investments is low. The regulatory frameworks are also ineffective to allow level playing field and many time the foreign vendors with massive investment capabilities get an upper hand over our own corporates. The physical challenges include technological and geographical aspects. The tropical littoral waters have a major impact on the sonar performance to the extent that the degradation of performance is of the order of 70%. Such sub-optimal performance of the sonars deployed for any underwater survey requirement is a critical handicap for driving any meaningful maritime activities. The import of sonars in the absence of indigenous development is a major drain on the economy and with no tangible returns. Such sub-optimal sonar performance not only meant inefficient & ineffective deployment but also prohibited multiple applications to be realized.

The possible opportunities are significantly encouraging. The political entities with limited resources and reach, can be motivated to reform themselves and come together for a greater cause. India is well positioned geographically and geo-strategically to play a leadership role in the region. The SAGAR vision can be realized with strategic and nuanced approach. The economic opportunities in the Indo-Pacific both in terms of undersea resources and the global commons as a facilitator for economic growth and prosperity is waiting to be explored and exploited. The tropical littoral waters further presents unimaginable living and non-living undersea resources up for grabs. However, such massive opportunities also raise concerns of sustainable growth in terms of the ecological impact and also multiple maritime governance related issues. Abundant economic opportunities also attract state and non-state actors to disrupt peace and harmony, thus security challenges also need to be addressed. Thus, technological superiority to always remain ahead of the curve, is mandatory to be able to play a leadership role.

Globally, domain awareness is the most potent antidote for governance. Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) is thus, the critical link to realize the Indo part of the Indo-Pacific. The MDA term came to prominence globally post the 9/11 incident and became a critical component of the US strategic lexicon. In the IOR, post the 26/11, the MDA was included in the strategic discourse. Massive investments were made and significant capacity and capability building was undertaken to prepare for the future. However, this event driven and security centric MDA, could not penetrate into the other stakeholders and thus suffered from limited resources and comprehensive framework. Further, the MDA in its present form, remained limited to the surface, even in the developed world. Given the major part of the maritime domain being underwater, this superficial addressing of the domain awareness can, not only be ineffective but detrimental in the long run.

The Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA), thus needs to be prioritised to effectively generate enhanced maritime governance. The underwater domain has certain unique and inherent challenges in terms of its resource requirement and also, site specific characteristics. The acoustic survey is the only means to generate UDA and the sonar is the only instrument to make it happen. The acoustic propagation is highly sensitive to the medium characteristics, and thus the tropical littoral waters with its significant diurnal and seasonal fluctuations in the medium parameters, result in sub-optimal sonar performance. The Science & Technology (S&T) intervention with local site specific Research & Development (R&D) is the only way forward to enhance the UDA in the tropical littoral waters of the Indo-Pacific.

The underwater technology development or the first attempt at UDA could be traced back to the Cold War period. The post-World War-II geopolitics, mandated that the US and the Russian naval forces engage in the temperate & polar waters in the Greenland Iceland United Kingdom (GIUK) gap. It was considered the most strategic location for the two forces to engage and dominate. The two super powers of the time, invested heavily on acoustic capacity and capability building, to ensure enhanced sonar performance. The SOundSUrveillance System (SOSUS) was one of the big developments of the times and also the Point Sur Naval Facility was another major acoustic capacity & capability development initiative. These and many more associated efforts, were military driven massive investments to enhance the UDA of the times. The political realities of the times allowed massive economic investments for military reasons.

The post-Cold War period presented new global order. Massive investments for military purposes were no more politically viable and also the environmental activism had risen to the extent that every major military project was questioned for its environmental impact. The Point Sur Naval Facility was shut down, due to high operational and maintenance cost. The SOSUS was reduced to three networks from its glorious Cold War deployment of 30 networks. The SURveillance Towed Array Sensor System-Low Frequency Active (SURTASS-LFA) system that is considered a variant of the SOSUS, was questioned for its impact on the marine mammals and had to submit an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). EIS for military projects, was never heard off, during the Cold War period. Ship Shock test locations for naval ship validation against explosive impact was marred in political controversy due to activism by the environmentalists, and finally the Navy was forced to shift the location of such test in consultation with the environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC). It was clear that the exclusive military driven initiatives had no place in the new global order.

The post-Cold War era also signalled, shift of the naval engagement towards the tropical littoral waters. The US establishment basked in their unipolar glory for a decade, before they realized that the Chinese have developed significant submarine capabilities to challenge the US hegemon in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. The US soon realized that they need to develop UDA in the tropical littoral waters. The Office of Naval Research (ONR), commissioned what is called ASIA-EX. In 2000, the university of Washington led ASIA-EX and involved five other US universities in the phase-I to plan the entire Shallow Water Acoustic Measurement (SWAM) project. The planning involved the acoustic modelling and simulation to mitigate the tropical littoral challenges and enhance the sonar performance. In the phase-II, to avoid any diplomatic backlash, they co-opted multiple academic institutions from the region including China, Taiwan and others. 20 universities participated in the field experiments for over three years to collect massive amount of real data for validating the modelling & simulation efforts of phase-I.

The takeaway for the US was very clear and they continued to deploy underwater drones and acoustic arrays, post ASIA-EX to continue to build acoustic capacity and capabilities in the region. The Chinese were also extremely strategic in their approach. They willingly participated to learn from such a massive field experimental SWAM project and there was no looking back for them. In 2015, the Chinese announced the Underwater Great Wall project. This was a massive underwater research setup in the lines of the Point Sur Naval Facility. This was an indication of coming of age for the Chinese as far as acoustic capacity and capability is concerned. Any acoustic expert will agree that the Chinese must have been working for over two decades on the Underwater Great Wall project, before the official announcement.

In Jan 2016, during the period President Trump was declared as the next POTUS, but had not taken office yet, the Chinese had captured a US drone deployed by USNS Bowditch, in the South China Sea. The Chinese returned the drone after three days, but with a clear message that they will not allow any more deployment of drones and acoustic arrays in their waters (as defined by them). The entire Trump era saw aggressive assertion by the Chinese in the maritime space with multiple confrontations in the name of Freedom of Navigation. The Chinese have demonstrated a very systematic and sustained acoustic capacity and capability building over the last three decades for enhanced UDA across the entire Indo-Pacific region. In 2018, the Chinese have been reported to have undertaken, over 24 research expeditions in the IOR, compared to 26 by the next six nations including US, France, UK, Germany, India and Japan. These research expeditions are reportedly for getting high resolution underwater data for future deployment of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs). It may be acknowledged that such data for the IOR, are not available with any of the global powers.

The UDA framework proposed by the Maritime Research Centre (MRC), Pune attempts to provide a solution to multiple challenges and opportunities presented above. This version of UDA is not the mere underwater component of the conventional MDA discussed above. The four stakeholders of the comprehensive UDA include, maritime security, blue economy, environment & disaster management authorities and science & technology providers. The figure-1, presents the comprehensive UDA framework as proposed by MRC. The underlying requirement for all the stakeholders is to know the developments in the undersea domain, make sense out of these developments and then respond effectively and efficiently to them before they take shape of an event.

The UDA on a comprehensive scale needs to be understood in its horizontal and vertical construct. The horizontal construct would be the resource availability in terms of technology, infrastructure, capability and capacity specific to the stakeholders or otherwise. The stakeholders represented by the four faces of the cube will have their specific requirements, however the core will remain the acoustic capacity and capability. The vertical construct is the hierarchy of establishing a comprehensive UDA. The first level or the ground level would be the sensing of the undersea domain for threats, resources and activities. The second level would be making sense of the data generated to plan security strategies, conservation plans and resource utilization plans. The next level would be to formulate and monitor regulatory framework at the local, national and global level.

The figure above gives a comprehensive way forward for the stakeholders to engage and interact. The individual cubes represent specific aspects that need to be addressed. The User-Academia-Industry partnership can be seamlessly formulated based on the user requirement, academic inputs and the industry interface represented by the specific cube. It will enable more focused approach and well defined interactive framework. Given the appropriate impetus, the UDA framework can address multiple challenges being faced by the nation today. Meaningful engagement of Young India for Nation Building, probably is the most critical aspect that deserves attention. Multi-disciplinary and multi-functional entities can interact and contribute to seamlessly synergize their efforts towards a larger goal.

The post-COVID19 global order means limited resources across the stakeholders and requirement to explore new areas of growth to stay afloat. The developing nations will never be able to provide enough resources to prioritize S&T and local site specific R&D. The pooling of resources and synergising of effort across the stakeholders as brought out in the UDA framework proposed by MRC can be nuanced approach to overcome the challenges of the post-COVID19 era. The binaries of Security Vs Environment, Security Vs Development, Development Vs Environment and more can be effectively countered with the proposed UDA framework. This provides a comprehensive way forward to counter these turf battles within the nations and in the region.

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