February 8, 2023

Comprehensive Maritime Domain Awareness (CMDA) In The Indian Ocean Region

About ninety per cent of India’s trade by volume and eighty-five per cent of oil imports for India come by sea. The security of the Indian Ocean has occupied a vital place in India’s national security concerns, more of now as India has risen on the world stage. The Indian Navy has been trying to achieve Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) throughout the key areas of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) which require great investment in the Indian Navy’s surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

After the launch of the Indian Navy GSAT-7 (Rukmini) communication satellite in 2013 to have a network-centric enabled navy; the induction of P8I aircraft from US and the upgradation of IL-38s from Russia, the Navy had got a leap in the Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) domain but the government have to undertake more efforts to enhance and optimize its surveillance through development and procurement of more systems, especially space and air-based ISR systems.

This not only becomes important due to increasing Chinese involvement in the IOR but also due to the complex geostrategic significance of IOR which abounds the presence of almost all major navies from around the world. Therefore, India needs to commission more surveillance ships; develop space-based advanced surveillance systems for Wide Area Surveillance (WAS) of the IOR and induct long-rage UAVs in large numbers.

As oceans are a common good of humanity, therefore it goes without saying that India also needs to deepen its partnership with other littoral states and like-minded nations operating in the IOR for better maritime cooperation enabling better operational fluidity in the region with the long-term objective to make a favourable regional framework in the IOR.

Enabling Sensors-to-Shooters from Space

In the year 2018, fourteen People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships were spotted by the Indian Navy and in 2019 as many as seven PLAN ships were spotted operating in and around the Indian Ocean. Admiral Sunil Lanba notes that PLAN deployments in the Indian Ocean on average a year comprise of seven to eight ships. PLA Navy is active in the Indian Ocean since December 2008 however PLAN’s submarine deployments in the Indian Ocean began in the year 2013. PLAN submarine deployments are monitored every 24 or 48 hours with maritime patrol aircraft locating the surface support ships. The course of action to intercept Chinese-origin boats and follow them throughout their tenure in the region shall make it easy for the Navy to counter these vessels at the time of conflict.

In strategic terms, the prevention of littoral states from becoming a possible base country for the PLAN is the highest priority for India in the region followed by enhancing MDA. India needs to achieve full MDA throughout the key areas of the IOR. This requires great investment in surveillance capabilities. China has in place the full spectrum of space military capabilities to fight and win local wars under informatized conditions as enunciated by its leaders. China has been strengthening its ISR capabilities through multi-domain capabilities ranging from traditional Sub-surface, Surface, Air and the new Space domain.

India which now has a Net-Centric Operations (NCOs) capable navy should be exploring new frontiers to use space-based technology for meeting the ever-increasing needs of C4ISR in modern operations. As of now, India has not been able to make use of the space domain to enhance its MDA capabilities. Kartik Bommakanti, Associate Fellow at Observers Research Foundation (ORF) notes that India’s fundamental deficiency is that it has not adequately exploited space sensors for MDA and ocean surveillance to the extent that China has. China, for its part, uses the term ‘infromatization’ instead of MDA, which broadly covers the entire range of the information spectrum, including Command Control Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) in the maritime domain.

The space-based reconnaissance capabilities are required for WAS of key regions as well as safeguarding the country’s borders and coastlines with near-real-time coverage on Pakistan and rest of the South Asia, while in north China especially the Tibetan plateau and the distant South China Sea (SCS). In absence of such capabilities in times of conflict, India would need to depend on other nations to assess adverse movements of the opponent military. This also makes analysing China’s reconnaissance capabilities covering India, important. The three sorts of satellites provide a great boost to PLAN’s WAS capabilities which include the Earth Observation Satellites, Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) and Positioning Navigation Timing (PNT) satellites which are generally known as GPS.

It is important to note that only satellites cannot achieve the precision location of ships or any other military target to enable target acquisition but it only provides approximate area location thereby significantly reducing efforts of terrestrial sensors based on ships and aircraft having narrow range and detection capabilities to engage the targets. Although the spacecraft does not make the terrestrial sensors insignificant since the satellite only provides approximate location there is a requirement of terrestrial sensors based on sub-surface, surface and aerial platforms to correlate data and find the exact location and the motives of the target.

A group of ELINT satellites since having a coverage radius of about 3,500 Km. can provide the area location of the target in a region, thereby focusing the constellation of imagery satellite on that area one can gain the approximate location of the target within some minutes. Other terrestrial sensors based on ships, aircraft, submarines etc. are required to find the exact location of the target and its motive.

All military and civilian vehicles from a bus to planes as well as precision weapons like cruise missiles require guidance through PNT services to hit the target. Some missiles and UAVs are capable of loitering over combat areas to find the target. The success of the missile hit is based on the level of Air Defence sophistication of the opponent. For instance, the Barak-8 missile deployed on modern Indian Destroyer like INS Kolkata can even hit missiles coming at a supersonic speed.

Therefore, ‘precision warfare’ today is not just about a single hit but constant engagement capabilities over some time to exhaust the defensive capabilities of the opponent at sea. All this makes multi-domain surveillance capabilities important in today’s warfare, especially space-based. They are less susceptible as compared to terrestrial systems, having wider coverage and hence can significantly shorten the Information-Decision-Action (IDA) cycle.

“Ultimately, the goal is not to create perfect situational awareness, but rather to leverage the most important commodity to a commander—time—to think through multiple concepts of operations (ConOps) which can be used to jump-start subordinate planning as battlefield conditions and objectives become more apparent…” Admiral Scott H. Swift (Retd.), U.S. Navy

Achieving Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA)

In future, due to China’s aid, countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh besides Pakistan will operate a fleet of submarines which in turn would enhance the complexities of policing in the region but it is a quite worrying situation that the Indian Navy still doesn’t have Medium Lift Helicopters that can be decked on ships having helicopter hanger facility. They are said to be a key asset to conduct Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) operations at sea. The absence of an ASW helicopter dilutes submarine detection capabilities which can enhance the chances for a ship to get hit by a submarine. Hence, India is procuring 24 MH-60 Romeo helicopters from the U.S., on an emergency basis.

India must also focus on manufacturing a greater number of ASW corvettes and minesweepers. These ships will try to fill critical gaps which India faces in terms of submarine strength vis-à-vis China which wants to have the strength of 99 submarines by 2030. The PLAN is augmenting its littoral warfare capabilities, especially in the South China Sea with high-rate production of the JIANGDAO-class corvettes (Type 056), more than 70 have entered service. The latest variant is for ASW with towed-array sonar.

Beyond 2030, China may build more than 60 of this class, ultimately replacing older PLAN missile-armed patrol combatants. There are many places in the IOR where water is shallow. In shallow waters, the detection of submarines and mines is especially problematic therefore India in future is looking to build about 16 Anti-Submarine Warfare-Shallow Water Crafts (ASW-SWC).

Major navies across the world are developing a network of sensors to include ships, submarines, buoys, satellites and unmanned underwater gliders for sub-surface WAS. To make the surveillance system work, China is using or adapting a lot of existing technologies. For underwater surveillance, it is installing a network of underwater sensors similar to the American Cold War Era SOSUS (Sound Surveillance System). South Korea began building a coastal SOSUS system after 2010 to deal with North Korean (and, by implication, Chinese) submarines off their coasts.

It is reported that a network of China’s underwater sensors has been extended to the Indian Ocean, as there is also the presence of some SOSUS sensors in the ocean. The system works by gathering information about the underwater environment, mainly water temperature and salinity. These underwater passive sonars listen to everything and sent their data via cable to land stations. From there it is sent back to a central processing facility, via satellite link.

The US is also working on its new underwater sensors systems akin to its SOSUS system which China is trying to replicate. One such system is known as Deep Reliable Acoustic Path Exploitation System (DRAPES) and another as a Surveillance Towed Array Sonar System (SURTASS) which consists of a small fleet of civilian crewed ships that carry sensitive towed listening (passive) arrays that can detect submarines from distances. The new detection technologies, from low-frequency sonar to flashing LEDs plus big data computing to enhance the faint signals they pick up — are making submarines easier to detect.

It is unclear whether the PLA can have the capability to collect accurate targeting information and pass it to launch platforms in time, for successful strikes in far sea areas beyond the first island chain. The such system might not be viable for the far seas such as in the IOR unless and until it is supported by a robust precision strike delivery system, nearby to the target. China’s major focus has shifted to developing unmanned platforms for sub-surface missions, its defining attribute is the ability to extend combat operations into the adversary’s A2/AD zone without risking the integrity of onboard systems or putting its own force in harm’s way.

These vehicles can perform a variety of non-lethal actions: active surveys of shallow water littoral regions, detection and monitoring of mines; jamming enemy communications; providing acoustic intelligence; conducting oceanographic and hydrographical surveys; providing submerged communications to the undersea platforms. In future, the weaponisation of such Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) is no bridge too far hence making them Lethal Autonomous Weapons (LAW).

The advent of improved sensors and processing will make below-water warfare more like warfare above the water.” Bryan Clark, Senior fellow
Centre for Strategic Budgetary Assessment (CSBA)

No photo description available.

Reconnaissance in the Grey Zone

The boundaries of war have extended into the land, sea, air, cyber, and brain domains enabling intelligentized warfare, and giving rise to a more striking feature of integration between military and non-military domains. Hence, the boundary between peacetime and wartime has got increasingly blurred and especially when it comes to the sea.

There are many threats which can come from non-state actors as well which may be instigated by a state to carry out deliberative attacks on national soil or assets at the sea. India has a long coastline to defend which stretches to 7516.6 Km. The 2008 Mumbai terror attacks showed that if the non-state actors of minuscule numbers are given the right training and resources, they can be transformed into a killing machine.

Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in its report the Indian Ocean Region: A Strategic Net Assessment notes that a confrontation with terrorists at sea remains far more likely than a major engagement against the PLAN The glaring example is the Sea Tigers, the maritime suicide units of LTTE in Sri Lanka, this group was able to conduct repeated large-scale attacks against the Sri Lankan Navy using fast attack crafts, swarming tactics, vessel-borne IEDs and mines placed in harbours and sea lanes by divers.

Hence, it would not be wrong to say that Pakistan can apply state resources towards organising, staffing, training and equipping a maritime asymmetric force since terrorism remains part of its national policy, while still maintaining a semblance of plausible deniability should the group undertake such attacks.

We have received intelligence that the underwater wing of Jaish-e-Mohammed is being trained for attacks”- Admiral Karambir Singh (CNS) (August 27, 2019)

On the other hand, the dramatic expansion of the PLA Marine Corps (PLAMC) is also a concern to the security of IOR. By 2020, the PLANMC could have consisted of 7 brigades with more than 30,000 personnel. The PLAMC can be dispatched to far-flung installations like the Gwadar in Pakistan, and the new PLAN base in Djibouti which is already having the presence of these troops. As per some estimates, it is reported that the PLA Djibouti base can hold about 10,000 troops.

Reportedly, the insurgent groups based in Pakistan and Myanmar have close links with China. China’s inroads into Myanmar, especially its alliance with insurgent groups based in Myanmar are a case of concern. The real asymmetric threat doesn’t come just from non-state actors but also Underwater Unmanned Vehicles (UUVs)/ Autonomous Unmanned Vehicles (AUVs). The AUVs which are built by China apparently for civilian purposes can be operated through ports in Pakistan and elsewhere. It is possible that such operations can be considered by China upon Andaman and Nicobar Islands and other locations having important installations. Such AUVs can be further utilised for conducting artificial manoeuvres at sea, enabling Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) at sea.

The Island territory of India is vulnerable therefore the security of the islands is also important. The Island Information System geo-portal and Holistic Development of Island Scheme for the security and development of vulnerable islands have been undertaken by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). India must plan for fully utilising its island territories both on its East and West coast for strategic purposes, trade as well as tourism for better blue-water economic growth as well as security in the region. Besides military threats, threats like smuggling, illegal trafficking, natural disasters like oil spills, Illegal Unreported and Unregulated fishing (IUU) Etc. must be countered by employing better Technical Intelligence (TCHINT) resecures. Similarly, India should develop active marine operations capabilities in the grey zones in IOR and beyond.

According to an Intelligence Bureau Audit in 2016, out of 13 major and 227 minor ports in India, 187 had little or no security at all. It was also highlighted that there is no statutory body which can oversee compliance with required security standards which need to be implemented and ensured by these ports. Coastal large-scale X-ray, gamma-ray machines and radiation detection devices for scanning incoming ships to identify any hazardous material like Nuclear Biological Radiation and Chemical (NBRC) material must be installed at major ports. The report also stated that there are 6 different ministries and 15 different organisations which are dealing with India’s coastline and maritime security which needs to be synergised at all levels.

Emphasis on obtaining a complete picture of the situation is highly unrealistic. Such a picture is not only difficult but, in most cases, impossible to achieve, and the expectation of it is fraught with many dangers… One of the distinguishing traits of the successful commander is the ability to act quickly on incomplete knowledge of the situation… This is especially the case at the operational and higher levels, where one’s commanders are forced to make some assumptions about not only the current situation but also trends several weeks or even months ahead.”- Prof. Milan Vego, US Naval War College taught
operational art to three generations of U.S. Navy

Further Complexities: Decision Making Amidst Unrestricted Flow of Information


The Indian Navy Maritime Security Strategy states “the MDA will be developed using all sources, including aircraft, both manned and unmanned, ships, submarines, Special Forces (SF), ground and space-based assets, information and cyber systems. MDA will shape and support actions during the conflict, enable disruption of the adversary’s Information Decision-Action (IDA) cycle, and contribute to the generation of battle-space dominance”.

In the coming years when India would strengthen WAS capabilities for greater MDA with long-range ASCM in services such as Nirbhay, the extended-range Brahmos missiles and supersonic missile launched torpedo with a range of more than 700 Km, India’s conventional deterrence in the IOR would significantly increase. Chinese assets in IOR would also remain vulnerable to the Electronic Counter Measures (ECMs) capabilities of the Indian Navy since PLAN ships will require to frequently communicate with the home base as operating in an extra-regional environment with a centralised hierarchy in power. It will require the Indian Navy to invest more in ECM capabilities throughout the IOR. This also becomes important to break PLA informatization initiatives.

In the near future, the surface, underwater, and aerial sensors can be integrated with space-based satellites which can provide real-time coastal security monitoring capabilities, supported by A.I. and big data analytics solutions enabling real-time database management or better say big blue ocean data. The Indian Navy would require to provide greater emphasis on expertise in integrating information sources from space, sub-surface and surface sensors as well as integrated data management and analysis to cater to real-time operational needs with help of A.I. and data analytics tools.

The Policy Brief first appeared in IADN Strategic Focus magazine, December 2022 Issue.


  • Shantanu K. Bansal

    Founder of IADN. He has more than 10 years of experience in research and analysis. An award winning researcher, he writes for the leading defence and security journals, think-tanks and in-service publications. He is a senior consultant at the Indian Army Training Command (ARTRAC), Shimla. Contact him at: Shantanukbansal2@gmail.com

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