Instead, key challenge will be to keep the unmanned project up & running at all times; Initial steps taken towards enhanced Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) in areas where there was none;
Guarding a 7500km long coastline against the nature of asymmetrical threats that India faces is severely daunting. Then to expect an over-lapping chain of radars to instantly solve our woes is an insult to the system and the men operating it. And thus, there is an urgent need to water down our expectations from the handful of radars that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has commissioned with much fanfare. To their credit, the ministry as well as the Coast Guard have been honest in admitting the same.
This piece has been conceived after discussing the subject in somewhat detail with the main stakeholders which include the designers, operators as well as the intended beneficiaries. Also the author had the benefit of visiting one of the site of static sensors, located 125km from Mumbai at the Korlai lighthouse in the Raigad district.
Where does this system help us?
Costing Rs 601.75 crore for the equipment as well as a decade long maintenance contract between Coast Guard and public sector major Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL), the project envisages setting up of 46 static sensors across the mainland and the islands, in its first phase.
Explained a Coast Guard officer, “Lets just say there were beachfronts where we had no presence, and there are many such places. Now imagine we get a facility at such fronts to not only electronically monitor upto 50km inside the sea but also to physically maintain a vigil, sitting in Mumbai or Delhi.”
At present, to investigate even a minor issue, ships or aerial assets need to be moved into an area. “Once these sensors are in place, we can determine the extent of the problem and frame a better response so that valuable time of our assets is optimally utilised,” he mentioned.
Static sensor systems which find space either on existing lighthouses or in the same compound, are replete with an array of equipments which includes radars, communication systems (VHF), electro-optic sensors which can provide physical & thermal images of objects at sea, meteorological sensors and GPS, the output of which can be relayed on a real-time basis to control and command centres. There can be no doubt that it packs quite a punch. The effort is to ensure that the set-up can provide all essential data that a commander sitting in the headquarters, needs for planning an operation, without having to physically asses anything on ground.
BEL, which has acquired, assembled and readied the entire set up claims that work has simultaneously been done on ensuring a smooth flow of the sensors’ output into multi-agency pools, thereby making the system a major intelligence gathering tool.
Another plus is that the data generated can be supplemented with the already established Automatic Identification System (AIS), Vessel Traffic Management Systems (installed at major ports) as well as Fishing Vessel Monitoring System and the Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) system.
What is pulling the system down?
- To begin with, the magnitude at which this system is being developed is the world’s largest. Nations like France use such a system to monitor the English channel, given its high traffic density. Even smaller nations like Seychelles and Mauritius are implementing this project. But at much smaller and thus easier scales. Also, one can imagine the sheer volume of data pouring in 24×7, from 46 sites where these sensors will be located. To monitor, sift and effectively react will, in itself, require a huge manpower effort from the Coast Guard.
- Technology-wise this system will test the acumen of the personnel, who will have to master it. It was learnt that to even set up the system required overcoming a huge challenge. In fact, a senior Coast Guard officer mentioned how the technical snags kept cropping up, thereby delaying the inauguration which was initially planned in June of 2012. “In fact even till the last week, we weren’t sure so the minister’s program was confirmed only on Monday of this week,” he mentioned. In fact this inauguration was one rare instance where the Defence Minister had to wait for the system to be fine-tuned because it usually works the other way.
- Integration and relay of data is yet another area where glitches continue to mar the project. Even as the defence minister dedicated the Maharashtra cluster of sensors to the nation, it was learnt that not all the radar stations in Maharashtra were functional! “There is some trouble being encountered in getting output from the sensors at Tarapur and Tolkeshwar,” admitted an officer. A BEL official mentioned that they will soon initiate a detailed training program for handling and maintenance of these sensors, for Coast Guard personnel.
- Another aspect which needs understanding is that this system only helps in effective deployment of assets and not substitute the same. Assets are something the Coast Guard is desperately gunning for, even as a large number of ships have been decommissioned recently. “We are aiming for a major growth with over 100 assets at various stages of acquisition. Even though Antony termed us as the ‘fastest growing service’, we see respite still a few years away wherein a substantial number of major and minor assets (including aerial ones) will have been incorporated,” mentioned a senior officer.
- The utility of this system lies in ensuring the over-lapping of radar cover so that a seamless surveillance is maintained. Officials believe that to achieve the same, there is a long road ahead.
- Finding adequate number of berthing facilities is another area which directly impacts operational effectiveness. “Today, apart from Mumbai, Mangalore, Goa and Kochi, there are barely any areas where I can find berth for my ships. Ports are not ready to offer us as they are seeking increased revenues. Lets say these sensors point out something, now unless I have a ship somewhere in the area, my response gets delayed. And let us not be under the notion that with these four berthing areas, I can take care of the entire western region,” lamented a Coast Guard officer.
- Coast Guard and BEL have envisaged this project as an unmanned one. In case the equipment needs repair, this will be met by an engineer from BEL physically having to travel to remote lighthouses for rectification. This may take days and can impair operational capabilities. Said a BEL official, “We are aware of this and our engineers, even if there is no complaint, will keep frequenting these locations just to ensure readiness at all times.” This problem may get further compounded by the fact that the hardware for the project has been sourced from varied nations like Canada, Israel and France, even though the Multi Sensor Data Fusion software has been developed in-house.
- While inaugurating the system, Antony mentioned that despite all systems being put in place, “Even a fishing boat can carry out a dastardly act,” referring to the Mumbai attacks of 2008. Despite four years having gone past, there is not enough which has been done to regulate fishing vessels. To add to it, even pleasure crafts, the use of which is mushrooming, are following the same route of lack of effective registration over which concern has been expressed (https://jugalthepurohit.wordpress.com/tag/pleasure-craft/). Why this affects a system like the static sensor is that lack of documentation means that the radar and camera may pick up a target but there would be no effective way of finding out its details and thus, if suspected, necessarily a ship or an aerial asset will need to investigate the same.
- Limitations of equipment is another aspect that is concerning the Coast Guard. “Within our organisation too, there are different figures floating around about the extent of the reach of our radars, cameras etc. The fact is that we are not very sure of the capabilities and how they perform in a humid and salt-laden atmosphere that prevails along the coastline,” mentioned a senior officer.
“Till complete physical verification takes place on the ground, security is far from complete. Let me caution you against thinking that by completing this system, we will have secured our entire coastline.” – Union Defence Minister AK Antony
“It is a good system that has come about. Extensive studies, on-site demonstrations were sought and done to come up with the best possible solution for Indian conditions. However, this system also needs to be supported by a variety of factors and it can independently not solve all our woes.” – Vice Admiral (retd) Sanjeev Bhasin
Even though the precise locations remain unknown, the ministry will initiate the second phase involving setting up 38 additional radar sites, integrating 21 VTMS sites and procuring 08 mobile surveillance systems from the middle of 2013, once the first phase ends.