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Indo-US relations: Underwater Domain Awareness and US partnership in the Indian Ocean Region

Huma Siddiqui
Indo-US relations, Underwater Domain Awareness, US partnership, Indian Ocean Region, SAGAR, Shipping ministry, Exclusive Economic Zone

The oceans are considered as the lifelines of global prosperity and are seen as an economic opportunity. Over ninety per cent of global merchandise trade is carried on the oceans and valued at about $ 20 trillion, with a rapid growth seen in the last 15 years. The sixty per cent of the world's oil production travels through the sea routes and, thus, make the sea a critical link in the global energy security. For India itself, ninety per cent of a trade by volume and ninety per cent of oil imports are carried through the sea routes. Piracy has also evolved as a major nuisance during sea trades, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) region is no exception. Terrorists' attack through the water route is a major threat and efforts are being taken by the government to counter such eventualities.

According to a senior naval officer the IOR is often frequented by silent underwater Chinese submarines. "Any unannounced lurking of such war machines without an official announcement is considered security-wise unsafe anywhere in the world. However, providing effective and deterrent surveillance in the IOR region is bereft with a lack of Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA)".

For IOR, India follows the doctrine set under the aegis of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR).

About half of the world’s container traffic and close to one-third of the world’s cargo traffic crosses IOR. The threat of sea-borne terror continues to endanger regional and global peace and stability. The scale and complexity of naval challenges requires a shared goal and responsibility of all the seafaring countries since international maritime stability cannot be the preserve of any one nation only.

"There is a need to create a more dynamic platform for UDA development in a sustainable and productive manner, with resource sharing amongst various stakeholders like Shipping ministry, Disaster Management setup etc. UDA framework, addressed as part of Indo-US trade during President Trump's visit shall go a long way to emphasize the collaboration required to undertake Acoustic mapping of IOR. This effort will help in the realization of government's SAGAR vision through UDA research," opined a senior officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

What is UDA?

This concept is being evolved in association with the already established Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), which gained a global significance post 9/11. India boasts of about 7,500 km of coastline, with coastal defence perceived as a heightened security threat post 26/11 Mumbai incident. For India, the MDA concept further got highlighted post 26/11 Mumbai attack and so have been a security-focused effort, leaving out other essential dimensions.

"The UDA is focused on the undersea domain monitoring in order to address mainly four stakeholders — the National Security, Blue economy, Environmental controllers and crucial Disaster Management establishments. At the outset, UDA concept reiterates that the acoustic knowledge pertains to underwater channel modelling and ambient noise modelling/simulation, a study to be amicably supported by field-level data statistics (through a long term research and sea trials). It is a well-noted fact littoral waters in the IOR presents a unique acoustic challenge due to ever-changing 'medium' characteristics. Such factors are the primary basis of detection of underwater sonar," explains Milind Kulshreshtha, C4I expert.

According to the C4I expert, "Sonars are underwater sensors which are either hull mounted on a ship or launched as a towed array (active or passive configuration) and are the only means for underwater observations. These utilize acoustic parameters primarily to 'hear' the target and hence rely heavily on the medium of sonic wave travel. But the IOR region medium is highly complex and adversely affects the sonar performances and the cause is mainly attributable to underwater characteristics and less on the hardware configuration."

Though the Pune based Maritime Research Centre (MRC), is spearheading the effort for UDA framework development, however, applications centred on the concept of UDA is taking longer to evolve.

"With the rapidly evolving Blue Economy, an increase in noise levels under the sea have affected the migration patterns of marine mammals. UDA shall provide great significance to the marine ecology and the growing dependence of the world on the sea for food security. UDA concept in the initial introduction itself brings out that vast maritime resources in India's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) covering more than 20 lakh square kilometre area have not yet been studied to utilize them to the best potential," concludes Kulshreshtha.