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The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) Framework

By: Dr (Cdr) Arnab Das

The 21st century is witnessing unprecedented strategic interactions in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), with flurry of political, economic and military activities, both by nations within and the extra-regional powers. The entire global power play is being seen to be unfolding in the tropical littoral waters of the IOR. The global oil reserves from the Persian Gulf pass through the IOR to feed the energy needs of the economic engines in the South East Asia. The finished goods from these industrial hubs traverse the return journey back through the IOR to markets of the west. It is the third largest ocean woven together by trade routes, commands control of major sea-lanes carrying half of the world’s container ships, one-third of the world’s bulk cargo traffic and two thirds of the world’s oil shipments. The global community has discovered the huge potential of undersea resources in the IOR and more and more efforts are being implemented to explore & exploit these precious resources. The economic potential is also accompanied by political volatility and the non-state actors have become a major security threat for the entire region and beyond. The region is highly susceptible to natural disasters originating from the seas and is at the forefront of food and water security concerns. The region is also likely to experience dramatic consequences of climate change, including sea level rise and warming ocean temperatures.

The plethora of challenges and the regionalism ensured that the IOR remained underdeveloped, inspite of having favourable demography and also high availability of natural resources along with geographical advantage of being central to all geostrategic and geopolitical interactions. The Indian Ocean Rim constitutes between a quarter and a third of world population that makes it a massive global market. Home to nearly 2.7 billion people, nation states whose shores are washed by the ocean are rich in cultural diversity and richness in languages, religions, traditions, arts and cuisines. The tropical water ensures very high biodiversity with huge economic potential across multiple sectors. The growing population has substantial socio-economic implications given the divide between the skilled & unskilled labour force. The sub-optimal capacity & capability building infrastructure can spiral into a socio-political crisis, given the aspirational young millennial population.

“Geopolitical & geostrategic convergence has been a massive challenge due to difference in national priorities and wide asymmetries in the capacities and governance mechanisms. “

The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) was formally launched at the first Ministerial Meeting in Mauritius on 6-7 March 1997. It is a dynamic inter-governmental organization aimed at strengthening regional cooperation and sustainable development within the Indian Ocean region through its 23 Member states and 10 Dialogue partners. The IORA facilitates and promotes economic co-operation, bringing together inter-alia representatives of Member States’ governments, businesses and academia. In a spirit of multilateralism, the Association seeks to build and expand understanding and mutually beneficial co-operation through a consensus-based, evolutionary and non-intrusive approach.

The IORA nations and their leadership need to be extremely creative to appreciate the potential in the region and formulate their strategy to harness the opportunities. The safe, secure, sustainable growth model has to be given the top priority. The following are the broad opportunities:

Living Resources: The tropical waters need no emphasis on the biodiversity and the potential in terms of the living resources. The fisheries to aquaculture to seaweeds and more have unimaginable potential for commercial use. The communities have been engaged in traditional practices and not been able to scale up in keeping with the new age requirements. The west driven corporate entities have been engaged in mechanized trawling and large-scale farms to exploit the undersea resources. The weak regulatory mechanism and the absence of local site-specific R&D has created an imbalance in the socio-economic structure and the local communities have been left out of the growth cycle. The ecological sustainability has become a major concern and causing significant unrest among the local communities. The overdependence of the local communities on the local climatic condition and the climate change manifestations are creating a deadly mix of unsustainable livelihood opportunities. The aspirational next generation is finding it difficult to carry forward the legacy and the financial institutions are not willing to support the local communities in their traditional practices due to significant uncertainty. The socio-political unrest is a good recipe for security concerns and rise of the non-state actors.

Transportation: The massive body of water connecting the nations on the rim is a substantial opportunity for efficient logistics and trade. Water borne transportation is known to be cheapest in terms of cost and also carbon footprint. However, the poor maritime infrastructure has been a cause of concern and basis for poor connectivity. The region was known to be a global leader in the past, however the last two centuries have seen a remarkable decline in the regional connectivity. The Industrial Revolution remained a missed opportunity for the region and maritime capacity & capability building remained a work in progress. The tropical littoral waters have unique siltation challenges and port management has to ensure site specific sediment management practices. The west driven models for maritime capacity & capability building will remain sub-optimal and indigenous effort is mandatory.

Petroleum and Minerals: The IOR is a known deposit of energy and minerals. The growing interest in exploration and exploitation of undersea resources, in the absence of nuanced regulatory framework can be a major cause of concern. The lack of knowhow and technology is allowing the extra-regional powers to have freehand in terms of political interference and also commercial exploitation of the region. The means deployed are also not in keeping with the global norms making the sustainability a big casualty. The lack of regulations and the political interference by the extra-regional powers is also encouraging non state actors to participate in multiple high value economic activities. The piracy, maritime terrorism, arms smuggling, drug running and more are a natural manifestation of the breakdown of governance mechanism. Disturbed regions are never a conducive environment for economic growth to flourish and the security concerns will always drain resources & attention.     

Science & Technology:  The Science & Technology (S&T), will always be the driver for growth and prosperity. The tropical littoral waters of the IOR are extremely unique in terms of the underwater medium conditions. The acoustic survey is the most basic and probably the only means to generate awareness below the surface of the water. However, the sonars deployed for acoustic surveys in the tropical littoral waters present significant sub-optimal performance compared to the temperate & the polar waters. The ongoing practice of importing technology and knowhow from the west has been a big failure. Local site-specific R&D is the key to overcome such challenges, however the fragmented approach and lack of resources for focused & sustained R&D is a cause of concern.

“Policy & technology intervention along with the acoustic capacity and capability building has to be a S&T driven nuanced approach to ensure effective management of the challenges and opportunities.”

Today, India is in an enviable position geopolitically and geo-strategically to take the lead and drive a nuanced approach for the entire IOR. The IORA already is a platform for such an initiative and can be leveraged to play a leadership role in the region. Domestically as well, the SAGAR vision is major policy announcement to recognize the security concerns and the growth opportunities along with the regional declaration in terms of playing a leadership role. The government of India has initiated mega projects to complement the SAGAR vision, with project like the Sagarmala, Bharatmala, Inland Water Transport and many more. The GATI Shakti is another major announcement that recognizes the fragmentation among the multiple government ministries and the agencies to enhance the efficiency of logistics and infrastructure project implementation. Thus, both domestically and internationally India has shown leadership and creative strategic intent to drive a nuanced way forward.

The Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) Framework proposed by the Maritime Research Centre (MRC), Pune, progresses the Digital Oceans construct to ensure good governance across the entire IOR. The transparency as a result of effective realization of the Digital Oceans will serve all the four stakeholders namely maritime security, blue economy, environment & disaster management and also the science & technology providers. The sediment management, Underwater Radiated Noise (URN) management, the UDA tool for management of Shrimp & Seaweed farming and many more are some of the UDA framework deliverables for effective realization of the Digital Ocean construct. The pooling of resources and synergizing of efforts across the four stakeholders within the nations and also at the regional level will ensure efficient utilization of the available resources to focus on the local site-specific R&D to build indigenous capabilities. The acoustic capacity & capability building across the IORA will be the diplomatic leverage for India to play the leadership role in the region. It is well aligned with the SAGAR vision of the Honourable Prime Minister and the Indo-Pacific strategic construct being pursued by the global community. The Indo part of the Indo-Pacific will be strategically served with an effective realization of the UDA framework.

The IORA in its 25th year of existence may like to adopt the UDA framework to better serve the region with a strategic Digital Oceans realization. The outreach, engage & sustain is the three-step formulation to realize the UDA framework. The outreach will include seminars, workshops and interactions to sensitize the policy makers, stakeholders & practitioners about this new initiative. The engage will be to initiative UDA fellowships for students and young professions to work on innovative projects for effective realization of the Digital Oceans. Even the organizations and agencies both in the government and the private sector will be engaged in this step to identify issues of mutual interest for effective capacity & capability building. The sustain will translate to formalization of projects for policy & technology interventions on multiple fronts to comprehensively tackle the challenges and opportunities. Setting up of a Center of Excellence (CoE) to progress the UDA framework in a comprehensive manner could be institutionalized mechanism. The CoE will have five sub-centers namely a multidisciplinary research center, an academic center, a skilling & leadership center, an incubation center and a strategy center.

“The ongoing global geopolitical turmoil and the emergence of Cold War 2.0, has a significant chance of spilling over into a full-blown confrontation in the IOR. The AUKUS and the QUAD have their operational theatre in the Indo-Pacific and among that the IOR is now emerging as the strategic hotspot.”

The nations within have to take control and ensure that the extra-regional powers are not able to meddle in their regional governance mechanism. Balance of peace & prosperity will be the key. The UDA framework will be the game changer and the IORA Council of Ministers (COM) may like to consider it, as an agenda point for their next meeting.

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About The Author

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.