Coastal surveillance: detecting threats key

Non-state actors may use asymmetric innovations to penetrate India's strengthening coastal defences.

The operationalisation of a static sensor site on Sagar Island off the coast of West Bengal in late December 2016 marked the completion of Phase-I of India’s Coastal Surveillance Network (CSN) project that was initiated after Mumbai 26/11.

Progress has also been made in integrating existing CSN sites with other tracking and sensor networks already operational along the Indian coastline. Beyond that however, attention needs to be given to indigenously developing the means to detect threats such as fibreglass submersibles that have very low detectability signatures. Given India’s strengthening coastal defences, non-state actors might just opt to up the ante by using asymmetric innovations in a bid to penetrate the same.

The CSN project is being implemented by the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) in two phases in collaboration with other stakeholders such as the Director General Lighthouses & Lightships (DGLL), Indian Navy (IN), state governments concerned etc. Under Phase-I of the network, static sensors have been set up at 46 different sites along the coast, with 36 on the mainland, six in the Lakshadweep & Minicoy Islands and four in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.

This scheme is tailored to provide surveillance around areas of high sensitivity along the coast line. Near gap-free real time surveillance covering up to 25 nautical miles from the coastline would however be achieved only with the completion of Phase-II, which is expected to happen by 2019, when 38 additional remote sensor sites would be established as part of the CSN.

These would be further complemented by some eight mobile surveillance units to fill in for static sensor downtime. Each CSN site has a 25 nautical mile range frequency diversity radar, 10 nautical mile range electro-optical sensor, a base station to exchange data with automatic identification system (AIS) transponder equipped vessels and a small target tracker to positively identify such vessels.

The sensor data generated from this network would be further supplemented with data from the National Automatic Identification System (NAIS). The CSN will also be interfaced with the Vessel Traffic Management Systems (VTMS) of major ports.

The data generated from these various systems will all ride the National Command Communication Control and Intelligence Network (NC3I) of the IN & ICG which links 51 Naval and Coast Guard stations. The data coursing through the NC3I communication backbone is aggregated, correlated and then disseminated via the Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC) in Gurgaon. 

As of today, despite the CSN plugging into NAIS and various VTMS sites, the fact remains that it would be able to identify only boats above a certain size. After all, more than 3,00,000 small fishing boats operate along our coasts and several of these do not carry any kind of transponder whatsoever.

Indeed, it was just such a boat (typically less than 25 metres in length) that was used in the suspected terror attempt off the coast of Porbandar in early 2015. So even if detected, final identification of friend from foe becomes a major issue for coastal security agencies when tracking very small vessels devoid of tran­sformers and necessitates physical interdiction by ICG vessels.

Presently, an indigenous multi-sensor Integrated Coastal Surveillance System (ICSS) demonstrator is being fine-tuned by the DRDO’s National Physical Oceanographic Laboratory, Kochi, in collaboration with other DRDO laboratories with a view to fixing this problem. An Indian AIS transponder which is likely to be much cheaper than imported alternatives and suitable for small boats is a part of ICSS.

Superior capability

The indigenous ICSS is being offered for Phase-II of the CSN as an alternative to the mostly imported systems that make up Phase-I CSN sites on grounds of security, upgradability, as well as superior capability since it has a novel underwater detection element as well.

Indeed, it is time for the CSN to start thinking beyond 'trackable but difficult to identify' targets to ones that are extremely difficult to detect itself. As the US experience with semi-subm­ersibles, narco-submarines and low profile vessels (LPVs) being used by drug cartels in the Ame­ricas reveals, there are several platforms which can be cobbled together by non-state actors from available materials in remote locations for covert operations that existing sensors will find rather difficult to.

The erstwhile Liberation of Tamil Tigers Elam (LTTE) was quite proficient in the construction of LPVs and it is believed that some of its ‘boat builders’ may have been hired by South American drug cartels to help design and build such vessels whose cost can range from a few hundred thousand to a few million dollars.

Such expertise could even flow to various perfidious actors in Pakistan or Bangladesh, given that it is known that terrorist organisations in South Asia do collaborate in unexpected ways.

It is perhaps time that all stakeholders concerned start brainstorming on ways to defeat such threats before they manifest themselves. Besides refashioning deployment procedures, attention will have to be given to garnering enough intelligence about networks that might be involved in the construction of such vessels, in order to neutralise the supply chain and expertise as it were.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based commentator on security and energy issues)

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