- The UDA framework, not only caters to the requirement of multiple sectors, but also requires highly specialized domain expertise of acoustics
- IMO has taken up the URN management as a high priority agenda and asked India to be the lead nation in the tropical waters of the IOR
- The skilling and knowledge requirement of the UDA framework can be divided into three broad categories: Acoustic Survey, Underwater Bio-Science & Bio-Technology and Underwater Artificial Intelligence & Robotics
- The undersea resources are another major opportunity that deserves far more focus
- MRC has generated significant awareness among the stakeholders and policy makers on the UDA framework and its relevance to the ongoing geopolitical and geo-strategic developments
The global community is increasingly looking at the maritime domain and the oceans for economic growth and climate stability. The maritime commons are de-facto the most preferred trade routes and carry close to 90% of the global trade. Sustainable and efficient transportation thus, becomes one of the priority areas. The undersea resources are another major opportunity that deserves far more focus. These resources vary from both living and non-living, with significant economic and strategic value. The global challenges of food and energy security could be address with higher focus on the ocean resources. Multiple rare earth elements are abundantly available undersea and have significant strategic potential. Access and control of these element are a major cause of conflict among the global powers, often leading to military interventions. Maritime security, thus assumes significance and more and more nations are maintaining their naval presence in the maritime commons.
The freshwater systems are equally important and similar stakes are involved. The sediment management is an important requirement given the heavy siltation in the tropical waters. The effective sediment management is the key requirement for port management, water resource management, navigability of the waterways, flood control & drought relief, sanitation & drainage and more. The freshwater systems in India, particularly in the major Rivers like Brahmaputra, Ganga, Sindhu, Karnaphuli and more, are known habitats for the freshwater Dolphins. These Dolphins are known to be blind and they perceive their environment through sound, referred as Acoustic Vision. The increasing Inland Water Transport is causing severe Acoustic Habitat Degradation for these freshwater Dolphins with critical impact on their population size. Thus, Underwater Radiated Noise (URN), management is an important requirement.
The governance mechanism can only be envisaged, if we have an effective situational awareness. The Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) is thus a pre-requisite to build on our understanding and appreciation across applications. The four stakeholders of the UDA are maritime security, blue economy, environment & disaster management, and science & technology. The acoustic survey using sonar, becomes the only tool to generate effective UDA. The tropical waters in the Indo-Pacific region have a unique characteristic, and the sonars suffer significant sub-optimal performance when deployed in these waters. The conventional attempt to import technology and know-how from the west (temperate & polar) has failed miserably in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Indigenous efforts are required to build on our acoustic capacity & capability to manage the challenges and opportunities in the tropical littoral waters of the IOR. The tropical littoral waters are also known for their abundance in terms of the undersea resources. The involvement of extra-regional powers in the UDA of our waters could have strategic vulnerabilities. The underwater data has significant security relevance and should not be made available to unauthorized entities.
The geopolitical interactions have strategically shifted to the tropical littoral waters of the Indo-Pacific region. The extra-regional powers are maintaining their strategic presence in the region with deployment of their military assets and other assets including research vessels to generate effective UDA. The IOR, particularly is extremely vulnerable due to its socio-political and socio-economic characteristics. The security concerns of maritime terrorism and piracy are rampant in these waters. The non-state actors are freely operating in collusion with the local governments. The extra-regional powers are deeply entrenched with the domestic politics of the region and manipulate the governance mechanism at will. The regional maritime framework has very little coherence with the long-term national interest. The IOR region is highly populated with highest rate of growth and low GDP growth, in-spite of having high potential for economic development.
The Government of India (GoI) has presented proactive stance in tackling the maritime opportunities. The Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) vision of the Indian Prime Minister in 2015, is a first of its kind regional declaration with clear focus on a leadership role for India in the IOR. It acknowledges the security concerns and recognizes the blue economic opportunities that exist in the region. The GoI has announced multiple mega projects to complement the SAGAR vision. The Sagarmala, Bharatmala, Gati Shakti, Jal Shakti Abhiyan, Start-up India, Skill India, Digital India, and many more to support the SAGAR vision. These mega projects are ambitious initiatives that will require skilled manpower and acoustic capacity & capability building of a different scale.
The National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC), over the last fifteen years of its existence has come a long way in addressing the skilling landscape of India. The NSDC has been able to put a structure in place to bring the stakeholders together and close the loop across sectors. The institutionalization of the entire skilling ecosystem is probably the biggest achievement and it has been able to standardize the skilling levels to close the demand and supply gap. There are 36 sector skill councils to address the requirements of varied sectors with seamless participation of the industry and the skilling partners.
The UDA framework, not only caters to the requirement of multiple sectors, but also requires highly specialized domain expertise of acoustics. The tropical littoral waters of the Indo-Pacific region, has unique challenges and opportunities and cannot be addressed by the knowhow imported from the west (temperate & polar). The global expertise on underwater acoustics was developed by the west, during the Cold War period, however it does not apply to the tropical waters. Thus, indigenous efforts are required and the same can be exported to the entire Indo-Pacific region. The SAGAR vision of the Honourable Prime Minister can be truly realized with an effective implementation of the UDA framework.
The skilling and knowledge requirement of the UDA framework can be divided into three broad categories: Acoustic Survey, Underwater Bio-Science & Bio-Technology and Underwater Artificial Intelligence & Robotics. These three broad categories cover the entire spectrum of skilling requirements for supporting the UDA framework across applications. The skilling levels are divided into five levels across the three categories as follows:
(a) Technician to repair, maintain and operate the sonar equipment. The same level can also handle equipment for handling of biological samples.
(b) Deployment Specialist to deploy the sonar equipment or sample collection infrastructure. This is highly specialized as water front activities are not straight forward and are fraught with hazards to life and equipment.
(c) Data Logger to manage the data and the samples appropriately right from collection to processing. Data handling and sample handling in the underwater domain is not straight forward and requires specialized understanding of the medium conditions, particularly in the tropical waters.
(d) Data Analytics to manage the data/sample processing and the application specific analytics. The real-time actionable inputs and user-friendly presentation of the inputs is a critical requirement. High performance computing infrastructure and AI & ML based algorithm design and development are some important requirements.
(e) Research Staff to analyze the inputs at a strategic level requires deep understanding of the domain and the tools. Nuanced interventions at multiple levels can only be undertaken with sustained and long-term study of the various aspects. Well informed and data driven decision making is the key.
There is significant merit in considering setting up a sector skill council to address the specific requirements of the UDA framework. The focus on the critical, particularly to manage the challenges and opportunities of the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific region. This will also give us a diplomatic leverage to connect with the entire Indo-Pacific region, in the true spirit of the SAGAR declaration.
The Maritime Research Center (MRC), Pune has generated significant awareness among the stakeholders and policy makers on the UDA framework and its relevance to the ongoing geopolitical and geo-strategic developments. The NITI Aayog has recognized the national capacity & capability building gap and tasked the MRC to work on a draft national policy framework. The study undertaken by the MRC, identified seven distinct direction that require specific attention:
(a) Strategic Security as underwater threats, both for internal and external security are important and extremely asymmetric given the disruptive means available with the adversaries.
(b) Sustainable Blue Economy as the unimaginable economic growth opportunities exist in the tropical littoral waters. Balancing sustainability and growth simultaneously is a challenge and effective governance mechanism will be critical.
(c) Underwater Archaeology is an important vertical, given the wealth of traditional knowledge we have in India. The over 10,000 year’s civilizational history with rich maritime heritage cannot be ignored, when we want to move ahead. The modern Science & Technology (S&T) tools should help us map the traditional knowledge to scale up for the present requirements.
(d) Coastal Governance is an important requirement, given the coastal states need to be integrated to the ongoing geopolitical and geostrategic developments. Sensitizing them to the modern S&T tools and seamlessly transforming their practices into the new global order.
(e) Inland Water Transport is a mega initiative of the Government of India. Over 20,000 kms of waterways are planned across 116 National Waterways. The tropical littoral waters in the Indo-Pacific present unique challenges to keep the waterways navigable due to heavy siltation. Sediment management, URN management and many others will be critical requirements.
(f) Freshwater Management is also a very critical requirement, given the issues of water resource and quality management. The freshwater resource is highly scarce and only getting depleted with high levels of contamination. The rapid urbanization and industrialization is going to continue and we have to find ways to manage the challenges and opportunities in a nuanced manner.
(g) Water based Communities are extremely unique and their traditional practices are getting fast diminished. These practices have evolved over several centuries and are deeply rooted to the local conditions. These skills and knowledge must be retained and customized for the modern requirements.
A special sector skill council will be able to serve the requirements of all these seven sectors and ensure their growth and prosperity. The comprehensive user-academia-industry partnership will go a long way in addressing the challenges and opportunities. The figure below presents the entire skilling landscape in the appropriate perspective.
Dr (Cdr) Arnab Das
Dr (Cdr) Arnab Das, Director and Founder of MRC, Pune. Dr Das is a former Naval officer with 2 decades of active services and PhD holder from IIT Delhi with specialization in Underwater Acoustics. He has worked on several projects and has a plethora of publications to his credit.