Bustling Gurgaon, a thousand miles from the coast, may seem an odd location from which to monitor the Indian Ocean, but that is exactly where the navy – to safeguard against repeats of the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist strikes – established the Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC).
This high-tech control centre obtains feeds from a range of space-based and terrestrial sensors as well as other sources to track fishing boats and commercial vessels near India’s coast and in the vast maritime domain beyond.
On Saturday, this initiative for maritime domain awareness (MDA) went international.
Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, while addressing an audience that included the envoys to New Delhi of several global powers and regional countries, invited them to join an international version of IMAC called the Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR).
While IMAC was set up to defend India’s coast, the IFC-IOR is a diplomatic initiative that underlines India’s status as the guardian of the Indian Ocean – a “net security provider” that brings together regional countries to safeguard global commons, freedom of navigation and provide security against challenges such as piracy, terrorism, gun-running, narcotics, human migration and illegal fishing.
Sitharaman, while inviting all countries to “contribute towards a safer global commons,” stated that India wanted “partners and equals to work together.”
“The only way (to tackle these challenges) is through collaborative and cooperative efforts, of which the IFC-IOR is a shining example… I, therefore, invite you to participate and contribute in this endeavour as equals,” stated Admiral Sunil Lanba, the navy chief.
While the navy declines to reveal how many countries have expressed interest in joining the IFC-IOR, a senior naval officer says “at least 10 countries” have been already asked to join. Attending the inauguration ceremony on Saturday were the envoys of the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Australia and France, among others.
Speaking off the record, since government permissions were still being obtained, diplomats told Business Standard they were extremely keen to join the IFC-IOR.
There are already three similar MDA initiatives in the hemisphere. These include one in Singapore that focuses on south-east Asia, one in Madagascar, run by the European Union, that focus on the African coast and the Southern Indian Ocean, and one in the Mediterranean Sea. However, the IFC-IOR focuses squarely on the waters that carry the bulk of global trade.
Vice-admiral Pradeep Chauhan, director of the navy’s think tank, the National Maritime Foundation, highlights the importance of the Northern Indian Ocean. The international sea lanes of communications (SLOCs) running through these waters carry 75 per cent of the world’s maritime trade and half of daily oil consumption. “The IFC-IOR focuses squarely on this area, stitching together data from other similar initiatives”, says Chauhan.
Lanba said the IFC-IOR was initially being launched as a “virtual centre,” from where member countries could access information electronically through the internet or video-conferencing. However, facilities were being created to house liaison officers from member countries, which would be stationed here to physically man the facilities.
This would be a significant enhancement of India’s military diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific region.
The IMAC, which remains the mother facility for the IFC-IOR, was sanctioned by the government in March 2012, and operationalised in November 2014.
Its thrust remains to track civil and commercial shipping. The navy has a separate “Operations Room” that is used to track its own and hostile warships. There is a deliberate firewall between the two.
The IMAC (and, therefore, the IFC-IOR) obtains inputs from a range of sensors. Primary inputs come from India’s coastal radar network that is manned by the Coast Guard.
On the international level, India has White Shipping Agreements with 36 countries, and three multinational agencies. This feeds in details of all commercial ships passing through their ports.
IMAC also incorporates inputs from long range identification and tracking. This mechanism, which works under the International Maritime Organisation, paves way for 174 countries to provide real-time information on their commercial shipping.
Such diverse data is fused together into a “common operating picture” by custom-designed software. While this was procured internationally, it will be replace within a few months by indigenous software called “Sangraha”, developed by Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL). Navy officers claim that BEL’s software greatly improves the “common operating picture” with its advanced algorithms.