On Nov 7, 2023, the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), New Delhi and the Maritime Research Center, Pune organized a webinar on the “Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) Framework and India’s SAGAR Vision”.
In his opening remarks Cmde C Uday Bhaskar (retd), Director, SPS, dwelt on the importance of the Underwater Domain (UD) and how it has remained a relatively little studied area of human focus. He highlighted the diverse geophysical, geoeconomics and geostrategic aspects of the oceans and the underwater domain, drawing attention to the fact that while planet Earth is two-thirds water – little is known about what lies beneath the maritime surface. He said that the UD will be a critical maritime domain in the decades ahead and that this deserves greater attention by policymakers. He added that a greater understanding of the UD and the manner in which it could be harnessed could advance the SAGAR vision outlined by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Dr(Cdr) Arnab Das, Founder-Director MRC, focused on the uniqueness of tropical waters and emphasized the fact that this characteristic has to be understood and addressed if the Indo-Pacific strategic space is to be managed effectively. He presented the UDA framework, which comprehensively addresses the challenges and opportunities of tropical waters. The UDA framework provides for policy and technology interventions along with acoustic capacity and capability building. He highlighted the strategic/security and sustainable blue-economy issues faced in the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and beyond. A strong case was made for a digital transformation-driven UDA framework for realizing the SAGAR vision. He reiterated that India can play a major role in capacity and capability building for the IOR to realize the digital transformation in the underwater domain manifested as Maritime Spatial Planning (MSP). The MSP for the marine and freshwater systems can be a game changer for effective governance that can provide valuable diplomatic leverage for India in the region.
Dr. Ajay Kumar, former Defence Secretary and a seasoned bureaucrat involved in the formulation of varied policy initiatives of the Government of India and the coastal state of Kerala, made a strong case for the underwater domain being made the next frontier of human endeavour. While appreciating the strides made by India in the space and digital domain, he acknowledged the gaps in India’s indigenous capabilities in the UDA. The government has now given significant importance to the blue economy and major policy steps have been taken to make sure the contribution of the fisheries, blue energy and underwater minerals to the GDP is enhanced.
Dr. Kumar expressed concern over India being a late starter to the data collection drive in the IOR. The Chinese have been extremely aggressive and deployed multiple research vessels in our backyard. The technological advancement in digital transformation in the form of MSP and strategic security matters will be a critical priority, where the UDA framework can play an important role in our indigenous drive.
Kumar further stressed on the importance of innovation and mentioned the new initiative of the government to encourage entrepreneurs from within the country to attempt problem-solving for the Indian Navy. The importance of building a talent pool for UDA was emphasized, not only to meet domestic requirements but also to support regional and global demand. He said it was a golden opportunity for India to contribute to this demand of supporting UDA for the tropical waters.
For a coordinated effort to implement the UDA framework, a number of stakeholders, government agencies both in the state and the centre and the communities have to come together. In a democratic setup like India, so many agencies coming together is extremely difficult and the regulators will find it extremely hard to manage such a diverse set of entities to integrate into one institutionalized mechanism.
He highlighted the example of deep-sea mining as the big new opportunity that the global community is focusing on and added that “ We in India have a lot of distance to cover in terms of capacity and capability to reach deep underwater and undertake exploitation of these mineral resources in a sustainable manner.” He concluded by saying that UDA is a vast opportunity and we all need to come together to build a nuanced mechanism to manage this new frontier.
Vice Admiral A R Karve (retd.), an underwater specialist with many years at sea who had been involved in strategic security management at senior level, elaborated on the challenges of underwater deployment and tropical waters. He elucidated the unique strategic security threat in the IOR, both from the state and the non-state actors. The global commons like the open ocean have a massive problem of regulation as the actors have free access. In modern times traditional and non-traditional threats are becoming a serious concern for security agencies. The smaller nations face serious maritime security threats in terms of state and non-state actors having access to their shores.
The proliferation of submarines in the IOR was highlighted by him and he specifically mentioned the growing Chinese presence for the last two decades. This presence is not just in terms of deploying their PLA (Navy) ships and submarines, but also building maritime infrastructure in the region to support their strategic presence. The Chinese are also deploying their survey and research ships to enhance their UDA for the tropical waters of the IOR. The digital data that they are collecting at an aggressive pace is a matter of serious concern. He gave a detailed account of the Chinese platforms being deployed for scientific data collection and also as submarine support vessels. He said the monitoring of the Chinese activities in the IOR has only been on the surface and India’s ability to detect underwater threats has been limited.
The modern underwater threats are extremely high-tech and the counter to these threats will require massive and coordinated efforts across the scientific and strategic communities. In some areas, the Chinese are far ahead of the Americans and the international norms are unable to regulate the new advancements in terms of Underwater Unmanned Vehicles (UUVs) in the global commons.
Admiral Karve made a strong case for the UDA framework to be an agenda point for multilateral fora like the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), International Tuna Convention (ITC), QUAD and such like, so that we can leverage the international mechanisms to ensure peace and prosperity in the IOR. He stressed on adding the underwater component to the ongoing Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) efforts in the Indo-Pacific strategic space through the data fusion centers across multiple locations, including the one in India at Gurugram, Haryana. He also made a case for setting up an exclusive state-of-the-art center for UDA in the IOR that could be supported by international collaborators.
In the Q&A session that followed, Dr. Satheesh Shenoi, former Director of the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), Chennai and the Indian National Center for Ocean Information Service (INCOIS), Hyderabad acknowledged the gap in our understanding of tropical waters but said the government had announced the Deep Ocean Mission recently which attempts to comprehensively generate a much deeper understanding of the underwater domain across varied dimensions. Highlighting the recent attack on Israel, he warned that the strategic security dimensions have changed significantly and one needs to be ready for even underwater drones being used as weapons as conventional means may not be able to address these threats.
Cmde Anil Jai Singh (retd.), who has been a submariner and also India’s Naval Attaché in London and is now a senior corporate representative for a multinational company that provides sonars and underwater systems to navies across the world, wanted to know from the panel if India had a roadmap with clear timelines and milestones. Dr. Ajay Kumar responded by saying that the Indian Navy has taken up the innovation challenges to make a serious attempt at bridging the gaps; however, on the non-military front, there seems to be no visible effort. He pointed out that the UDA framework as proposed by the MRC and NDT would be the most holistic and effective approach towards building the national and regional initiative.
Cmde Uday Bhaskar also responded to the question and remarked that during the Vajpayee regime, maritime issues received appropriate attention at the apex policy-making level. However, the larger structural decision-making framework in the country has not been conducive to allowing major systemic changes. He pointed out that in the recent past, under Modi’s leadership, the decision-making has apparently been far more resolute. However, he added that in the maritime context, the Sagarmala of Vajpayee and the SAGAR of Modi have remained earnest statements and far greater effort to envision the national template and implement it across sectors was required.
The closing comments from the speakers acknowledged the importance and the serious gap in the UDA efforts in the country. Vice Admiral Karve cited the 26/11 incident and said that even after such a massive incident, as the Indian Navy’s point person to set up the Data Fusion Center at Gurugram, the coordination effort among different stakeholders remained extremely challenging. The multiplicity of stakeholders and government ministries had very divergent ideas and appreciation of the maritime domain. Dr(Cdr) Das said the government had taken some serious measures to progress the UDA framework. Ten e-learning modules covering various dimensions of the UDA framework have been uploaded to the IGOT platform of the government by the Capacity Building Commission (CBC) to expose it to all concerned officials, both in the centre and the states. The Ministry of Science & Technology has recognized MRC as a Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (SIRO), making MRC eligible for research funding and also exemption from any duties for imports. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) is working towards making the UDA framework an agenda for the multilateral forums in the IOR. Dr. Ajay Kumar recommended a national approach to drive the UDA framework and to make that happen, it should find a place in the political manifesto of the national parties.