We tend to take our Coast Guard for granted, often shortsightedly, not realizing what a powerful and positive role they play in keeping us safe and secure. Their multi-purpose tasks extend from investigating threats and challenges at sea from sundry vessels, blocking the smuggling of drugs and contraband, curbing illegal unreported and unregulated fishing, stopping high sea piracy and conducting surveillance on the flow of migrants from neighbouring countries. Over 60 preventive platforms are active in the ocean on a given day to make sure nothing hostile or illegal gets through.
Head of Indian Coast Guard, Director General K Natarajan, PVSM, PTM, TM, who is the next Executive Director of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) Information Sharing Centre Singapore, gave an exclusive interview to Kamal Shah, Editorial Director, Indian Aerospace & Defence.
The DG ICG gave a graphic account of what goes into the mix and the high level of co-operation between various agencies and the Indian navy that makes all this possible.
Excerpts From The Conversation
Q1. How has the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) progressed in operational capabilities, considering the vast area of responsibility? Please enumerate the accomplishments and areas of thrust
Ans. The vast sea areas in our area of responsibility, which is about 1.5 times our landmass, pose a wide array of maritime challenges, which test not only our capability but also our resilience. The modern-day maritime challenges are unconventional, emanating from a mix of regional geo-political instabilities and conflicting interpretations of international maritime laws by countries.
The desire to defy the International Rule based Order by select radical and expansionist powers to suit its own benefits can act as a springboard for rise in asymmetric threats in the region and may have bearing on our maritime security. To safeguard national interests in the maritime zones and meet our obligations of safe & secure seas, the Coast Guard undertakes deployment of 45-50 surface platforms and 10-12 aircraft every day, with focused attention on surveillance, boarding, air-sea coordinated operations in addition to special operations.
The most recent challenge that the ICG faces is the drastic increase in concurrent operations. ICG assets have been kept busy by varied operations; testing our limits for Op capability. ‘Cost Benefit Analysis’ influences decisions for Op deployment of ships and aircraft. It has been our endeavour to achieve maximum operational output with optimum efforts from an Op resource without depleting our human and material resources.
On reflection, it has been a very satisfying period for me since I took over the reins of this fine service on 1 July 2019. ICG created yet another maritime history by averting a major ecological disaster in our immediate neighbourhood, off the coast of Sri Lanka, during operations ‘SAGAR AARAKSHA-I & II’, by dousing a daunting fire on board a Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) New Diamond and X-Press Pearl followed by preventive pollution response by ICG assets. The seizure of drugs and contrabands worth INR 5250 Cr, in addition to seizure of weapons, is a testimony of our hawk’s eye vigil on the vast EEZ.
We ensure safe, secure and clean seas, and maintain an enhanced level of co-operation and interaction with all stakeholders. We ensure close liaison with the Ministry of Civil Aviation, Ministry of Shipping and Department of Fisheries to harmonise the Maritime and Aviation Search & Rescue mechanism to undertake mass casualty evacuation. Joint operations with other Law enforcement agencies to ensure secure seas around the Indian peninsula has reaped great benefits. Co-opting with various Ministries and departments we have successfully introduced new and well-balanced National maritime laws.
Q2. What are the major challenges being encountered by the service in the present-day scenario? How do you visualize the Indian Coast Guard evolving in the future to undertake assigned roles and responsibilities?
Ans. On the operational front, the biggest challenge is surveillance of our vast and vulnerable coastline, which extends over 7516 kms. Post 26/11, there remains close coordination with various central and state agencies, which has led to significant success. These include the promulgation of Standard Operating Procedures, Joint Coastal Security Exercises, establishing Coordination Committees at the state and district levels under the civilian administration and the establishment of Joint Operational Centres (JOC) at Mumbai, Visakhapatnam, Kochi and Port Blair under the overall supervision of the Indian Navy. However, working & coordinating with off different Ministries and other stakeholder’s poses plethora of challenges.
The length, topography and nature of the Indian coastline make coastal security an extremely challenging task. It demands a coordinated approach involving many central and state agencies. The Coast Guard and the Navy are continuously striving to achieve seamless cohesion and flow of information towards ensuring a robust Maritime Security Mechanism.
The threats and challenges faced by various agencies need to be cohesively addressed in order to deploy an effective coastal security mechanism across the Indian coast. Smuggling of drugs and contraband, illegal unreported and unregulated fishing, and flow of migrants from neighbouring countries are prominent variables that underscore the need for coastal protection.
The ICG is a unique organisation for being the executive arm of 14 ministries with Ministry of Defence (MoD) as the parent ministry. A host of measures have been initiated by the concerned departments under the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Shipping and Department of fisheries, which are being progressed on fast track with a view to overcome the existing and future challenges. Their collective and focused efforts are expected to result in a synergistic approach towards ensuring India’s maritime security.
The Coast Guard is augmenting its force levels to enhance maritime surveillance capabilities through induction of additional surface and air assets. We have also intensified boarding operations apart from ushering in modern technology such as a Chain of Static Sensors (CSS) and Automatic Identification System (AIS) to complement the physical surveillance methodology. The Coast Guard is well equipped to meet the operational challenges of the future and to match the security demands because of enhanced traffic at upcoming ports and new projects under the Sagarmala Scheme.
Q3. How is the ICG contributing towards Make-in-India & Atmanirbhar Bharat? Few numbers would beget to understand the extent.
Ans. The Indian Coast Guard was conceived as a Sea-going non-military Armed Force of the Union. Although, the service was placed under Operational and Administrative control of Ministry of Defence, the assets were not built to mil specifications due to the roles and responsibilities. The initial induction of ships and aircraft in early 80’s was from abroad to provide the immediate required teeth for a functioning service.
This was followed by construction of comparatively smaller ships by Indian Shipbuilders based on Transfer-of-Technology (TOT) and is considered a significant stepping stone in surface platform acquisition for ICG. Subsequently, realising that most of the components and equipment that get in to the hull were of non-mil specifications and commercially available off-the-shelf, all assets are being built in India and sub-components and weapons are mostly Indigenous in nature. Thus, Ship Acquisition for ICG steadily shifted focus from foreign to indigenous built.
The ever-increasing roles and responsibilities of the ICG demanded induction of high endurance and economically viable platforms. In mid-80, a maiden contract for nine offshore patrol vessels was concluded with an Indian shipyard, thus marking a beginning for indigenization of assets by ICG. The service was also the first to induct the indigenous Dornier aircraft for maritime surveillance in 1987. Since then the ICG, has been a mascot for promoting the “Make-in-India”.
To add to many firsts, ICG is pioneer in acquiring indigenously designed and built interceptor boats with water jet propulsion in 1990, which is considered an important milestone towards augmenting the shallow water patrolling capability. The service is also the first to induct Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Mk-I in 2002, indigenously manufactured by M/s HAL, Bengaluru.
As per the development plan, ICG would have about 190 surface platforms and 100 aircraft by the end of 2025. In order to boost the Indian industry, all ship acquisition projects are being progressed under Buy Indian (IDDM) [i.e. Indigenously Designed Developed and Manufactured] category. ICG spends about 90% of its capital budget towards indigenous development of assets. Thus, I say it, with a sense of pride that “Indian Coast Guard has been a torch bearer in promoting indigenous assets and inducting them too, thus immensely contributing towards GoI’s vision of Make-in-India and Atmanirbhar Bharat”.
Q4. Aviation is an important component of the ICG. What is the status of indigenisation, acquisition and modernization of the aviation arm of ICG?
Ans. ICG has 68 Aircraft in the inventory with 10 new generation Advance Light Helicopters MK III (part of 16 ALH Mk-III project) being accepted from M/s HAL and joining our fleet in a staged manner with scheduled delivery of last 04 ALH in Mar 2022. In addition, we are progressing cases for Twin Engine Heavy Helicopters (TEHH) and long-range Multi-Mission Maritime Aircraft (MMMA) to enhance our interdiction, SAR and surveillance capability.
We undertake Mid-Life upgrade of in-service Dornier Aircraft through M/s HAL (TAD), Kanpur to enhance capabilities of the present fleet of aircraft. Mission Management System, being indigenously designed by M/s HAL will also form a part of Mid-Life Upgradation (MLU) of Dornier fleet. ICG is the first service to procure this state-of-the-art system. We are also in the process of modernising our Airfield Infrastructure at all the dedicated Coast Guard Air Stations for all weather operations. Realisation of these projects will surely provide the much-needed impetus to the air arm of our service.
Q5. What are the areas and technologies where indigenisation content could be increased to further increase Make-in-India and Atmanirbharta?
Ans. India’s stature was grown as one of the biggest arms/ defence related equipment importers of the world and thus it embarked on an ambitious Make-in-India programme, in the manufacture of defence platforms and equipment including ships, submarines, aircraft, armoured vehicles, etc. The Defence Procurement Procedure has also been amended to introduce Buy Indian under IDDM (Indigenously Designed, Developed and Manufactured) category. Few of the areas and technologies where it is felt that the indigenisation content could be increased to further increase Make-in-India and Atmanirbharta are:-
- Infrastructure development by augmenting the existing designing capabilities in critical technologies in the field of propulsion, weapon, sensors, RADAR and AI technologies, etc.
- Adequate investment in R&D institutions for perusing high-end research along with sustained parallel efforts to gear up our ability to manufacture major sub-systems and components for defence requirements.
- By bringing suitable policy reforms for facilitating ease of business to attract global manufacturing players and FDIs in order to compete with oversees major manufacturing hubs in technology areas related to shipbuilding and aeronautics.
- Indigenise and support MSME and start-ups by creating a better level playing field between the Public and Private sector. The efforts can be evident by the fact that, GoI in a major departure from the previous policy is now allowing the private Indian industry to avail Transfer-of-Technology, which was earlier exclusive domain of DPSUs/ OFBs.
All procurement cases being progressed by the ICG are in line with the policies of the GOI, wherein, the focus on indigenous content is emphasized on utmost priority and followed meticulously. Dedicated R&D by Indian Defence PSUs and other Indian industries would certainly be helpful in achieving the desired results. The service has always been pioneer in inducting state-of-the-art technology on board ships and we will continue to do so in the future acquisitions to deal with complex maritime security challenges. Emphasis is on increasing indigenous content in ships built by Indian Shipyards.
Q6. On the procurement front, what is the ICG’s expansion plan in the near future? What are the existing and new platforms, assets technologies ICG aiming at in its expansion plan?
Ans. ICG grew corresponding to its responsibilities and the world has watched with great fascination, our evolution and progress from a midget fleet of seven ships to being the fourth largest Coast Guard in the world. Today, ICG stands tall having developed core competencies in its area of responsibilities viz. Search and Rescue, Pollution Response, Maritime law enforcement, etc., and contribute significantly towards progress of the national leadership’s vision of SAGAR and promotion of blue economy.
ICG has been proactively pursuing augmentation of surface assets with a fleet of new generation ships fitted with latest propulsion systems, state-of-the-art equipment and machinery, keeping in line with the latest technological trends.
Presently, ICG has a fleet of 158 surface platforms. ICG will be inducting last of the OPV this year in the series of 12 OPVs, 02 PCVs have been contracted recently and are at construction stage for delivery by 2025. Case has also been progressed for acquisition of 08 FPVs and 06 ACVs. The ICG air arm has 68 aircraft (both fixed wing and helicopters).
Assets likely to be procured in the near future include, 09 ALH Mk-III and 06 MMMA, apart from the ongoing projects consisting of Mid-Life Upgrades of existing Dornier Fleet, procurement of 16 ALH Mk-III (06 already accepted by ICG) and 14 Twin Engine Heavy Helicopters (TEHH).The acquisition is being appropriately planned in a phased manner to enable capacity building with due focus on consolidation.
Q7. We are witnessing a changing face of maritime trans-national crimes. How is the Indian Coast Guard dealing with it? What are your views on cooperation with the neighbouring maritime nations to foster relations and deal with trans-national maritime crimes?
Ans. Our region faces many traditional and non-traditional safety, security and environment related challenges that have evolved over the years. The modern day maritime challenges emanate from the increasing use of oceans for economical purposes. Therefore, maritime domain is constantly evolving and presents the dynamic challenges in the field of security and safety.
Transnational maritime crimes, unregulated and cross border fishing, Drugs trafficking, illegal immigration have been identified as the major challenges confronting the nation. To effectively address these challenges the Coast Guard is functioning in close coordination with various ministries and departments and a host of national and international Maritime agencies and organizations.
The change of regime in Afghanistan and their reliance on narco-economy have further heightened the geo-political security concerns in IOR with increased vulnerability of Indian coasts to the possibility of drug trafficking and Narco-Terrorism as its ominous fallout.
The past two and a half years proved to be a big setback for traffickers as ICG successfully seized about 2.5 tons narcotics and contraband worth over INR 5000 Cr in various intelligence-based operations bringing the total drug overhaul by ICG to more than INR 11,500 crore since inception. The recent cases of apprehension of Sri Lankan boats Shenaya Duwa, Akarsha duwa and Ravihansi, denying entry of about 700 kg of narcotics in the Region, least to mention seizure of lethal small arms such as AK-47 rifles are textbook examples of ICG’s robust detection and response mechanism against such inimical designs.
Because of the response mechanism adopted by ICG against transnational maritime crimes that resulted in back-to-back seizure of drugs, we have successfully disrupted the southward flow of drugs originating from Makran coast. Consequently, apprehension of contraband like Gold and other contrabands worth more than INR 20 Cr in last two years is the testimony of our commitment towards safety and security of Indian EEZ towards chocking transnational crimes.
The anti-poaching operations aimed at protecting our marine resources have also resulted in seizure of illegal marine wild life resources like sea cucumber (approx. 5,700 Kg) worth more than INR 21 Cr. We are keeping strict surveillance over fishing activity in the EEZ and because of our peacetime policing not a single Chinese fishing vessel has been found engaged in fishing in our waters. However, they transit through the EEZ using the right of freedom of navigation and it is ensured that they comply with the provisions of international laws like keeping their fishing gear properly stowed.
Due to the stringent access control and vigilance at sea along with effective coordination with neighbouring countries and Central Intelligence agencies, the network of Human Trafficking through sea route has also been considerably checked and constant vigil is being maintained through all available resources to curb the network, as it poses grave security concern with wide spread repercussion if left unchecked.
For the later part of your question, let me first draw your attention towards “Ocean Peacekeeping”. It is a new maritime cooperative security concept drawing the attention of Coastal Nations. Ocean Peacekeeping fundamentally concerns the activities, which are necessary to execute the obligations stipulated in various IMO conventions and at the same time enforcing our maritime laws in a coordinated manner, based on agreements and arrangements with the objectives of maintaining the good maritime order and preventing peacetime destabilisations of maritime safety and security at sea. Today, the threat to security of ocean is not a concept limited to the military forces.
The activities to cover the gap between the coastal policing and military presence would be of significant importance for the future maritime forces. The Coast Guards world over are preparing themselves to meet the new challenges through co-ordinated ocean peacekeeping process – a step towards Maritime Harmony and we are no exception. We execute ocean peacekeeping roles through bilateral, multilateral and Regional Co-operation measures.
The MoU for co-operation on maritime issues have been signed with Coast Guard agencies of Bangladesh, Indonesia, Japan, Oman, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Korea and Vietnam. We have re-configured our approach in operationalising the provisions of these MoUs by invoking the Information Sharing Mechanism for co-ordinated response. We undertake diplomatic stance for achieving the common objectives with other Coast Guards and assist them in training and capacity building.
The changed face of conflict at sea today requires us to be perceptive, adaptive, to address simultaneously the immediate as well as the root causes of low intensity conflict. It requires a deeper commitment of cooperation and true multilateralism than humanity has ever achieved before. The ICG is steadily working towards such peacekeeping activities by interacting with International maritime agencies to create conditions that favour lasting maritime peace with other Nations in the IOR and beyond.
Q8. How do you foresee ICG’s operations to overcome the ever-increasing maritime challenges? What are your plans to build up and consolidate the ICG capability in performing SAR roles?
Ans. Our operations are governed by two components – Prevention and Measured Response, which ensured no loss of life at sea during the passage of more than 10 cyclones in the preceding two years. We are confident that orienting a thrust towards Prevention shall mitigate vulnerability to threats and bolster resiliency during contingencies. Whereas, Measured Response shall draw upon efficient command and control chain in quelling crises.
Prevention and Response operations are interdependent and collectively contribute to courses of action in countering enduring and emerging threats towards attaining desired ends. Proficiency, Procedures and Actionable Intelligence are emphasised as critical ways of ICG operations.
The tenets that shall remain in forefront towards effective discharge of our Charter are Purposefulness, Progressiveness and Proactiveness. Deployment ready force, unity of effort as well as innovative deterrent approach are imperative to meet ICG mission requirements. We will continually strengthen our fleet, provide support to other Maritime security agencies and reinforce International, National, State and Local partnerships with stakeholders, while maintaining dynamic and transparent interactions with techno-logistics associates in the public-private sector.
We will leverage National Legislations and provisions flowing from International Protocols, Memorandum of Understandings (MOUs), Bilateral and Multilateral Agreements/Treaties, that instil unity of effort, in planning and executing maritime safety, coastal security and environmental protection operations.
For your next part of the question, India has a Search and Rescue Region (ISRR) of over 4 million sq kms. Indian Coast Guard has been assigned the responsibility for providing Search and Rescue in the ISRR. Coast Guard Maritime Rescue Coordination Centers (MRCCs) located at Mumbai, Chennai and Port Blair coordinate all cases pertaining to the Search and Rescue in the ISRR. These MRCCs are further assisted by the Coast Guard Maritime Rescue Coordination Sub Centers (MRSCs) co-located with the Coast Guard District Headquarters in each of the Coastal State of India.
Further, for effective SAR efforts, ICG is also in the process of developing common SAR support software for Maritime SAR along with other stakeholders. Our efforts have yielded the desired results and we were able to save over 10,000 lives in distress at sea, since inception in 1978, which translates to saving one life every two days.
In order to extend ICG’s reach to the limits of the ISRR, we are consolidating the CG force level as per ICG perspective Plan. We are inducting Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV) capable of carrying twin-engine helicopters for extended SAR ops. We are also in the process of inducting the Twin Engine Heavy Helicopters (TEHH) to support fleet and augment our SAR efforts. These state-of-the-art aviation assets will have higher speeds and longer endurance, which are vital for the successful culmination of SAR Ops.
Q9. How do you see operations co-opting with the other Armed Forces?
Ans. The question is a testimony of co-operation amongst Armed forces. The dynamic nature of the maritime environment and the changing roles of Coast Guard from time to time have necessitated the need to work in tandem with various stakeholders, including Coastal Marine Police. Thus, it will not be an understatement that Joint Operations is the second nature of Coast Guard. ICG and Indian Navy (IN) operate in the same domain, and have overlapping responsibilities with regard to the Maritime and Offshore Security, until the limits of EEZ.
Since its inception in 1978, the ICG undertakes the mandated charter of protecting India’s Maritime interest through jointmanship with the Indian Navy, an aspect that other countries are trying to emulate for dealing with the ever-increasing maritime challenges at sea during peacetime. The ICG-IN synergy is imperative towards National maritime security. ICG participates in all joint exercises and extended EEZ surveillance with the Indian Navy. IN and IAF participates in National level Maritime Search and Rescue Exercise (SAREX), National level pollution response exercise (NATPOLREX) and Coastal security exercises (SAGAR KAVACH), conducted by ICG every year.
This jointness has improved synergy, enabling ICG preparedness for smooth transition from index operations to high intensity joint operations. Another important facet in jointness is the training aspect of our personnel from ab-initio to professional courses at Indian Naval Schools or aboard Indian Coast Guard Training Ship (ICGS Sarathi) with Naval Training Squadron-1 (TS-1), which allow us the opportunities to be mutually supportive and optimize our joint efforts without duplication of efforts.
Q10. The Coast Guard has progressed very well over the years and emerged as a formidable maritime force. What do you think is the core reason behind the organisation’s success?
Ans. The main force behind our success are the officers, enrolled personnel and civilians who are highly motivated and put-in untiring efforts in steering the growth of the service overcoming challenging situations with limited resources, work force and strict time schedules. In addition, the operational response for search & rescue at sea, combating marine oil pollution and ensuring a robust coastal security and law enforcement framework has been the result of the hard work and professionalism of the personnel manning the ships, air squadrons and hovercraft fully supported by the operational control authorities ashore.
Q11. You have been elected as the Executive Director of the prestigious and strategic organisation ReCAAP, Singapore. How big an achievement this is for the ICG and the country? What is your vision for ReCAAP?
Ans. India remains committed to curbing incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships in the region. As the principal maritime law enforcement agency in India, the ICG represents India in the ReCAAP. Being elected as the next ED of ReCAAP is a testimony of India’s sustained efforts and contribution to maritime security in the Asian Region. India has always accorded utmost priority to the regional maritime cooperation and played a stellar role in the deliberations for evolving and subsequent drafting of the robust collaborative framework of ReCAAP Agreement.
In fact, it was the apprehension of the hijacked merchant vessel Alondra Rainbow by the Indian Coast Guard in 1999 which kick-started the process of formation of regional cooperative arrangements like HACGAM and ReCAAP. Incidentally, India was the 10th Contracting Party to ratify ReCAAP in June 2006, which enabled the agreement to come into force. India has been steadfast in supporting ReCAAP ISC in its endeavour to combat piracy and armed robbery in the region.
One Indian Coast Guard officer has been deputed as a Secondee to ISC since 2007 and India has been contributing financially to ReCAAP ISC and has co-hosted the capacity building workshops in 2011, 2017 and 2019. We jointly hosted the international seminar on ‘safe and secure seas’ at Goa in Feb 2017 to commemoratethe 10th anniversary of ReCAAP and 40th anniversary of the Indian Coast Guard.
ReCAAP is a Regional Government to Government Agreement and have a well-established mechanism to implement the provisions and Terms of Reference of the Agreement. All decisions are undertaken by Consensus among the Contracting Nations.
During the last Governing Council Meeting of ReCAAP, India supported the proposal of ReCAAP ISC to study, research and analyse the nexus between maritime terrorism and cybersecurity with piracy and armed robbery.
As ED, ReCAAP it will be my endeavour to implement the policies and plans approved by the Governing Council and bring vibrancy in coordination among the stakeholders especially the Shipping Organisation for expeditious flow of information, embracing the latest means of convergence communication technology, as also to harness the best use of Big Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence to understand the trend, pattern and prevent the incidents of Piracy and Armed Robbery.