Underwater Domain Awareness: A New Perspective for Young India

A Maritime Studies expert explores the possibilities of developing a comprehensive awareness of the underwater domain in the Indian Ocean region to enable young India to seize opportunities

India in the 21st century is no more satisfied with merely managing its own issues; it aspires to manage global affairs. While we are on this course, sooner than later, it is in order that we examine the contemporary challenges in this regard and identify opportunities for the future. 

This reflection attempts to highlight India’s maritime potential and give some directions on opening a new window of opportunities for the next generation. While the Underwater Domain has remained rather unexplored in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), it poses significant challenges with the geo-strategic and geo-political realities. It calls for a nuanced approach and could offer substantial opportunities for India’s youth to shape their future. 

Geo-strategically and geo-politically the centrality of India in global affairs is getting reaffirmed yet again in our times. India was a global power with substantial maritime capabilities in the medieval period, and its seafarers and traders, travelled far and wide for economic, cultural and civilizational expansion. The prosperity attracted the Mughals and the Europeans to invade and rule us for as long as possible. The Mughals brought in a continental mindset that facilitated the entry of the European powers as a result of our depleting maritime capabilities. The continental mindset ensured that there was almost negligible focus on the maritime strategy; maritime capacity and capability building found very little priority in the national vision. The British systematically ensured plundering of our resources and capabilities, and left us in a state of strategic mess. We forgot history and remained a continental nation in our policies and strategic vision for many decades post-independence. The maritime potential with over 7,500 km of coastline and vast undersea resources available to be exploited remained ignored until the beginning of the 21st century. 

The aspirational India needs to look at things more strategically while the entire global community is focussed towards the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) for multiple strategic reasons. The energy flow (oil and natural gas) from the middle-east to the South East Asian economies and the flow of raw material from the African coast to the manufacturing hubs in the South East Asia as well the reverse flow of finished products to the European and African markets make the IOR a major shipping route. The high value assets and the strategic energy assets make it a strategic region ensuring military presence from even extra-regional powers. The IOR is slowly turning into a conflict zone. The extra-regional powers are meddling with the nations in the region and encouraging massive military build-up. These are largely developing nations with substantial socio-economic challenges. However, their military spending is at an all-time high. Fragmented regional dynamics is encouraging political volatility and non-state actors are actively indulging in activities that destabilize peace and harmony in the region. It is becoming a vicious cycle, detrimental to the prosperity in the region. The maritime resources are getting undermined due to the geo-political mess and lack of strategic capacity building. 

Sea blindness impacts the academia and there is hardly any maritime-related course in the academic or research institutes, given the maritime potential that we possess as a nation. The lack of awareness is a major cause of concern and we have failed as a nation to recognize the maritime potential right from policy, to technology and  innovation and also human resource development. The Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR), announced by the Prime Minister in May 2015 has been an ambitious declaration that addresses India’s aspirational intent to become a regional power in the IOR. 

The government on its part has initiated multiple mega projects to complement the SAGAR vision. These include the Sagarmala, Inland Water Transport (IWT), multi-modal connectivity, water resource management (Ganga rejuvenation) and more. These mega-projects could translate to massive job opportunities in the logistics sector, cyber (to support logistics), high end data science & robotics, civil engineering for building infrastructure, ship design, shipbuilding & ship repair, maritime security & safety, operational research and management and many more. Now these jobs have three broad categories of back end opportunities as well, in addition to the front end jobs they create. These include policy, technology & innovation and human resource development to manage such mega-projects. Presently, most of these opportunities are going to overseas experts and our own people are being deprived. A critical factor here is that in the absence of strategic capability and capacity building efforts, we continue to remain dependent on these foreign experts at a very substantial cost. At times, the solutions provided them are not customized to the ground realities and fail miserably to meet local expectations leading to political upheavals. Social engineering is another aspect that needs substantial investment to manage the changing socio-economic realities and better manage social harmony in a diverse country like ours. Research on all aspects including science & technology, social engineering, human behaviour & psychology, environmental impact and many more need substantial investment and could create massive opportunities for the next generation..  

The demographic dividend that we talk about needs to be channelized and their energies must contribute to the growth story that we want to see unfold in the 21st century. The industry continues to complain that our young generation is not employable. The academia needs to recognize the future needs of the nation and adapt to the new perspective. Upskilling has to go hand in hand with knowledge-based learning. The nation must mobilize multiple stakeholders to coherently build capabilities and capacities for a safe, secure, sustainable growth model. The maritime area that includes the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) has an expanse of over 20.4 lakh square kilometres and also the river network of over 20,000 km has significant underwater resources and brings with it security vulnerabilities given the political volatility in the IOR.

The Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) framework is a proposal by this writer. It can possibly facilitate realization of the SAGAR vision in the true sense. The key aspect here is transparency and ability to monitor every development for correlation and prediction of any associated event.  Typically there are four broad stakeholders of UDA that have endeavoured to generate understanding of the undersea domain to further their interests. 

National Security Apparatus The underwater domain with its inaccessibility and opaqueness, makes it a complex problem for surveillance and identification of disruptive elements. The involvement of non-state actors further vitiates and complicates matters. This keenness for undersea awareness from the security perspective, means defending our Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC), coastal waters and varied maritime assets against the proliferation of submarines and mine capabilities intended to limit the access to the seas and littoral waters. Multiple defence sector entities are setting up their maritime security R&D and manufacturing infrastructure in India. Start-Ups also have huge potential to join this mega opportunity.

Blue Economic Entities These include trade and connectivity to the world for ensuring energy and food security. The oceans are a vast reserve for living and non-living resources and can potentially contribute towards the economic wellbeing of the nation in a substantial manner. With increasing focus towards the oceans, massive career opportunities across sectors like pharma, oil & gas, fishing, undersea mining, logistics, shipping and many more are waiting to be seized. 

Environmental Regulators and Disaster Management Authorities The oceans are also a place where multiple natural disasters originate that can create massive destruction and loss of human life. It may not be possible to prevent a natural disaster, however, early warning can certainly minimize the loss of life and property. Human activities in the maritime domain are causing serious environmental degradation and is a threat to sustainable growth. Regulatory authorities and management entities need to gear up to meet the challenges of the future and that will involve domain knowledge and corresponding infrastructure development. The monitoring mechanism will be the key and these all will generate substantial opportunity for India’s youth. 

Science and Technology Providers There is always a requirement for safe, secure, sustainable growth in the underwater domain. Safety pertains to effective disaster management, while security refers to manmade threat from adversaries. Sustainable growth will not only mean ecological issues but on a comprehensive scale that will encourage universal prosperity. Science and technology will always be the main driver for such endeavours. Understanding of the ecosystem that exists undersea, the interaction between the multiple components of the ecosystem and also the impact of various human interventions on the ecosystem will require research efforts. Field experimental research needs to be backed with science and technology tools to generate the precise inputs on the undersea domain. Academic curriculum must incorporate real world problem solving and be in tune with the contemporary nation building requirements.

The conventional approach of each of the stakeholders pursuing their own UDA efforts has serious limitations given the highly resource intensive field experimental research initiative required for a long period. This has seen that UDA has remained an exclusive club of very few developed nations with access to such resources and know-how. Vested interest of these few have further resulted in inequitable distribution of the global resources leading to unrest and conflict. We have gone through a full circle and now it is time we built universal systems that can minimize conflict and bring peace and harmony internationally.

Figure 1, presents a comprehensive perspective of the UDA framework as proposed by the author. The underlying requirement for all the stakeholders is to know the developments in the undersea domain, make sense out of these developments and then respond effectively and efficiently to them before they take shape of an event. 

Figure 1. Comprehensive Perspective of Undersea Domain Awareness

The UDA on a comprehensive scale needs to be understood in its horizontal and vertical construct. The horizontal construct would be the resource availability in terms of technology, infrastructure, capability and capacity specific to the stakeholders or otherwise. The stakeholders represented by the four faces of the cube will have their specific requirements, however the core will remain the acoustic capacity and capability building. The vertical construct is the hierarchy of establishing a comprehensive UDA. The first level or the ground level would be the sensing of the undersea domain for threats, resources and activities. The second level would be making sense of the data generated to plan security strategies, conservation plans and resource utilization plans. The next level would be to formulate regulatory framework and the monitoring mechanism at the local, national and global level.  

The figure above gives a comprehensive way forward for the stakeholders to engage and interact. The individual cubes represent specific aspects that need to be addressed. The User-Academia-Industry partnership can be seamlessly formulated based on the user requirement, academic inputs and the industry interface represented by the specific cube. It will enable a more focused approach and well-defined interactive framework. Given the appropriate impetus, the UDA framework can address multiple challenges faced by the nation today. Meaningful engagement of the Indian youth for actual nation building beyond rhetoric, probably is the most critical aspect that deserves attention. Multi-disciplinary and multi-functional entities can interact and contribute, to seamlessly synergize their efforts towards a larger goal. The proposed UDA framework encourages pooling of resources and synergizing of efforts across stakeholders towards safe, secure, sustainable growth for all.

The young India needs to be appropriately skilled in terms of policy, technology and also management aspects to be able to manage this massive UDA framework at the national, regional as well as the global levels. The unique tropical littoral condition in the IOR has ensured that import of underwater technology has not helped in the past. Investments in import of hardware (both military and otherwise) have been futile in the absence of indigenous efforts to understand the local site-specific conditions. Field experimental work is required to churn data for analysis and interpretation. Today, with Artificial Intelligence and Data Science tools it is possible to handle such huge data bases and make sense in real time. Academia needs to participate in field experimental research and make use of massive data analytical tools. 

A strategic approach is called for and the proposed UDA framework can possibly address all aspects for realization of the SAGAR vision. The youth of India have a role to play and the policy outlook needs to address the concerns in a more comprehensive manner. This will be able to engage them to their full potential and also make them contribute to building the country in a meaningful and knowledge-based manner. 

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