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Explained: The state of coastal security, after the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks

On the anniversary of the Mumbai attacks, the Defence Minister spoke of a security cover now in place that tracks suspicious activities at sea. A look at how an organisation called IMAC coordinates this effort

Written by Krishn Kaushik | New Delhi | Updated: December 3, 2020 12:18:43 pm
Monitoring the ocean from IMAC headquarters in Gurgaon. (Express Photo)

Speaking on the 12th anniversary of the 26/11 attacks, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said that “today, the Indian Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Police have prepared such a three-tier security cover in the coastal areas of the country that no suspicious activity can be escaped from their lives”. To ensure that these three tiers work in an integrated manner, an organisation named the Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC) was set up in 2014.

Why was the need felt?

The ten Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists who carried out the 26/11 attacks had entered Mumbai through the sea, using inflatable speedboats. A senior security establishment officer said on Thursday that in the aftermath of the attacks, “several vulnerabilities of coastal security came to the fore”, and IMAC was created so that “another dastardly act like the 26/11 attacks do not take place”.

The Indian Navy is responsible for overall maritime security (coastal and offshore) and is supposed to be assisted in coastal security by the Coast Guard, State Marine Police and other agencies. Post 26/11 though, at the meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security on February 16, 2009, the Coast Guard was additionally designated as the authority responsible for coastal security in territorial waters, and thrust was given to enhance surveillance in territorial waters by all agencies including the Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Police, and Customs.

What is IMAC?

IMAC, based in Gurgaon, was established in November 2014, and is the nodal centre for maritime security information collation and dissemination. It is jointly operated by the Navy and Coast Guard and is the cornerstone of the National Command Control Communication and Intelligence Network for monitoring maritime traffic in India’s area of interest.

IMAC’s task is to facilitate exchange of maritime security information among various national stakeholders, and generate a common operational picture. Since “threats in maritime domain have a transnational” character, the senior official said IMAC feeds data from international sources as well.

It is important to note that IMAC tracks only non-military or commercial ships, known as white shipping. Military ships, or grey hull ships, are tracked by the Directorate of Naval Operations, as this is on a classified network.

Also read | 12 years after 26/11, nearly half of India’s fishing vessels still without transponders

What does IMAC look at?

IMAC focuses on ships passing through the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). At its headquarters, officers can look at all ships that transmit signals to an Automatic Identification System (AIS) when passing through IOR, and can look at information including route, destination, nationality and ownership for each vessel.

The IOR, 5500 nautical miles wide by 7500 nm long, includes 35 countries. It is the busiest maritime trade route, with 11,000 to 12,000 ships present in it at any given time. And at any given point, IMAC can sift data points such as how many Chinese vessels are in the region, or how many vessels are headed to a particular port. It can also check if a vessel has changed its identity, or if it has been involved in law-enforcement issues in other countries.

As an example of insights drawn from the data, sources said there has been a “steady rise” of Chinese research vessels in the IOR over the last few years. The general area of deployment of Chinese ships is in the 90 Degree East Ridge, which is under the Bay of Bengal and Southwest Indian Ridge. The data has also shown an increase in Chinese fishing vessels in the high seas in IOR — from approximately 300 four years ago to around 450 now. These fishing activities are concentrated in the Central Arabian Sea and Southwest Indian Ocean.

How does IMAC function?

IMAC has linkages with a number of national and international organisations, from which It collates data, analyses patterns, and alerts relevant authorities if anything is found suspicious. Among its sources for data:

# 51 nodes across the country run by the Navy or the Coast Guard; there are 46 stations in the Coastal Radar Chain that have radars, optical and meteorological sensors.

# The Vessel and Air Traffic Management System under the Petroleum Ministry.

# The National Automatic Identification System, which has 87 stations. Post 26/11, the government has made it mandatory for all vessels longer than 20 m to have an AIS that transmits its identification and other information — in addition to the international regulation that AIS is compulsory for any vessel heavier than 300 gross tonnage.

# The Long-Range Identification and Trading Information from 174 countries, which comes from the Directorate General of Shipping.

# India’s White Shipping Information Exchange Agreements with 36 countries and three multinational constructs

# Space-based AIS that provide information on offshore and deep sea vessels, sanctioned vessels list, additional databases, intelligence inputs, and information about research vessels.

# The Indian Ports Authority, information from which has been integrated recently.

These data are then analysed with various tools that create a comprehensive picture for each vessel visible as a dot on the screen. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

What more needs to be done?

When a vessel does not transmit any information about itself through the AIS, it is known as a dark ship. There are limited options to track them.

While some big vessels may choose to not transmit on AIS, many of India’s smaller shipping vessels have no transponders. An official from the security establishment said that of the 2.9 lakh fishing vessels in India, around 60% are smaller than 20 m, most of them without transponders. “These gaps are exploited by subversive elements,” the official said.

Lt General P J S Pannu, who was the deputy chief of the Integrated Defence Command, and had studied coastal security in the late 1990s, said that “after 26/11, it was critical for India to have a robust tracking system for all fishing vessels” and that “IMAC is the ideal solution to collate data from multiple sources once transponders are fitted on vessels”.

The AIS, he said, “which is a one-way beacon transmitting the unique vessel ID similar to ADS-B on aircraft, is only installed on larger fishing vessels due to its size, weight and cost” and “doesn’t allow fishermen to report emergencies at sea nor communicate with the shore, nor does it allow the vessel to receive any data back from the Navy or Coast Guard”.

ISRO has been trying to develop a solution for fishing vessel tracking over the last one decade. “Certainly our fishermen’s boat integration with IMAC will guard our coastal frontiers. Fishermen in Gujrat and Maharashtra can be vulnerable to be lured if they are not stitched in the national security apparatus,” he said.

The Cabinet Committee on Security is also considering a proposal by the Navy to develop a National Maritime Awareness Centre, a multi-agency body including the Navy, Coast Guard, intelligence agencies, state marine police forces, and ministries of shipping, ports and fisheries.

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