Combating Traditional and Non-traditional Threats at Sea

Navies all over the world, by virtue of the peculiar characteristics they are endowed with, play a significant role at all times in preserving the sanctity of the nation’s shores. Nontraditional challenges at sea like piracy, terrorism, poaching, narco-smuggling, gunrunning, human trafficking and environmental degradation have not only attained prominence, but tend to crop up in areas where they face the least resistance, thereby prompting the need for constant vigilance. Like in all illegal activities, there are fabulous sums of money to be made, which attracts all manner of criminal elements and even criminal enterprises in its fold. The involvement of organized crime in turn raises the bar for ruthlessness and violence at sea.

A more worrying prospect is the nexus that tends to develop between such criminal activities,which enables the diversion of proceeds thus generated towards fueling terrorism and insurgencies. The sea is a particularly inviting medium on this count as its vast remoteness encourages such activities to thrive under the radar of the law enforcement agencies.The one thing that is most central to a nation’s well-being is its ability to trade freely across continents. A country’s natural resources, coupled with a matching capacity to add value through industrial productivity, are all meaningless if a corresponding ability to trade is denied.

The importance of the sea can thus easily be envisaged when one realizes that more than 90%of world trade is conducted through this medium. This also helps explain why during both the world wars, one of the foremost missions assigned to the navies of both the major adversarial powers was to protect one’s own sea trade while denying it to the other side. Apart from scenarios where national interests trump collective needs, the concept of the sea as being a common heritage of mankind, from which all states benefit from, and of the freedom of the sea,has now taken firm root.

There was however a time not too long ago, 1492 to be precise, that the two great maritime powers of the day, Spain and Portugal, were at odds with each other as to which country should dominate the Atlantic Ocean. Pope Alexander the Sixth, to whom both the Catholic countries paid homage to, stepped in to resolve the conflict by neatly drawing a line in the middle of the ocean. This pact, known as the Papal Bull, essentially gave Spain full control of everything west of the line and Portugal everything to the east. At about the same time, a young adventurer named Christopher Columbus, after having successfully lobbied for obtaining the backing of the Spanish Crown for his expedition, set sail due west till he struck landfall in a remote island in what he insisted was the western reaches of the Indies instead of the Americas, and the group of Islands there continue to be referred to as the ‘West Indies’ to this day. For the next hundred years or so, Spanish galleons carrying Spanish conquistadors stalked the unfortunate land,blazing an inglorious trail of loot, plunder, disease, wanton killings, mass extermination,settlements and decimation of ancient empires like the Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru.Portugal, on the other hand, kept exploring due south and east, and when Vasco de Gama charted his way to Calicut in India after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, he laid the foundation for his country to achieve a near stranglehold over the thriving Indian Ocean trade well into the next century. The brutalities they committed along the way were justified on the basis of their God-given right under the Papal Bull to dominate the ocean and spread the true faith. When the Dutch grew strong and confident enough to challenge the might of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean, they thought it prudent to consolidate themselves in the East Indies first, prior making inroads towards the west. Grotius, a young Dutch scholar, came out in support of his country’s right to gain access to the Indian Ocean by penning detailed legal arguments, with one of the chapters, Mare Liberum, which earned him everlasting fame, being published as an independent treatise in 1608.

British maritime influence being no less significant, an accomplished English lawyer, John Selden, sought subsequently to counter Grotius’s arguments through his own work ‘Mare Clausum’, the closed sea, arguing essentially that the sea was as subject to contest and appropriation as the land.Grotius’s arguments about the freedom of the sea has since won the day. A watershed in favour of the equitable rights of all coastal and even non-coastal states occurred with the adoption of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982, which codified customary maritime law in sucha manner that the views of the weaker stakeholders were not ignored.

War at sea, coupled with the endeavour of each belligerent to defend its sea trade while threatening that of its adversary, is unfortunately still a way of life. Protection of our seaborne trade likewise,during a period of war or near war forms one of the primary wartime missions of the Pakistan Navy. PN generally goes about accomplishing it by affording direct protection in vulnerable areas, by deterrence and by Naval Control of Shipping. The convoy system, wherein a suitable number of warship escorts shepherd an assembled group of merchant vessels by shielding its exposed flanks, proved its worth in both the world wars. The high incidence of German U-boat attacks on merchantmen carrying much-needed supplies across the Atlantic,had virtually brought Britain to its knees by the summer of 1917, when the Admiralty decided to give the convoy system a go, something that was being urged by no less a person than the Prime Minister. This proved to be instantly and spectacularly successful, even though the bulk of the escorting work was being undertaken by rudimentary makeshift vessels. There is however an huge gulf between the vast open waters of the Atlantic and the confined spaces of the North Arabian Sea. The Pakistan Navy thus keeps this fact, as well as the advent of modern technology, in mind prior formulating its plan of action.

All the prominent maritime powers, as well as the countries straddling the Gulf, have a great stake in keeping the international sea trade routes open and may not take to kindly to any form of disruption in a twosidedwar. Belligerents likewise, if convinced that no significant advantage is likely to be accrued by disrupting their adversary’s sea trade while their own is equally vulnerable, may well decide to steer clear of what has been termed as guerre de course. And therein lies the value of deterrence.Naval Control of Shipping is an operational concept that arose out of the experience gleaned from the two world wars, in which Naval Headquarters essentially takes over the routing of the merchant vessels flying the country’s flag through a set of predetermined instructions. Despite adhering to this practice, the Pakistan Navy remains conscious of the unpredictable nature of war and is accordingly looking at the post9/11 concept of Naval Cooperation and Guidance,which constitutes a significantly different though more realistic approach. Realization has gradually dawned that most of the challenges currently being encountered at sea are transnational, trans-boundary and hybrid in nature. In order to effectively deal with these common threats, a joint response assumes the utmost importance. Such threats at sea, while deadly enough in their own individual right, assume frightening dimensions when some sort of criminal nexus develops between them. Since fabulous profits can be raked in through such illegal activities, away from the glare of law enforcement agencies, it attracts in its fold unsavoury elements, who can use this money to fund acts of terrorism. Because of its unpredictable nature and massive devastation potential, terrorism poses the most significant risk by far to merchantmen and even naval vessels. The bombing of USS Cole while at anchor at Aden in 2000 and MV Lindberg off the coast of Yemen in 2002, both rammed by explosive-laden dinghies, best illustrate the nature of this threat, though not its full potential.

It cannot be denied that effectively countering such diverse threats in such a vast medium is indeed an uphill task. Singapore’s case is instructive. Referred to as a port state, whose jugular vein lies in the security of the Malacca Straits, it moved to restructure itself at the ministerial, departmental and field levels, developed effective regional partnerships and set up the Information Fusion Centre as a regional maritime security info sharing portal. Pakistan Navy too, realising the need to bring all the country’s public sector agencies with a stake in maritime security, together on the same grid, took the initiative to set up the Joint Maritime Information & Coordination Centre (JMICC) at Manora, Karachi. JMICC, which has established working linkages with other regional info sharing portals, most notably the IFC at Changi, has been functioning smoothly since its inauguration in February 2013.

While info sharing and coordination are undoubtedly important, their contribution may not amount to much, were it not for a corresponding ability to act. The Pakistan Navy and the Maritime Security Agency stand ready to respond to any reported security or safety breaches off the country’s coast. The most effective way of countering a common hybrid menace is through regional alliances stretching down to the field level. The Pakistan Navy is playing its due role in such a joint endeavour by participating in Combined Task Forces 150 and 151, both of which it has had the signal honour of commanding numerous times. The US-led CTF150 had been setup in the wake of the UN-sanctioned invasion of Afghanistan, with the prime objective of ensuring maritime security in the Arabian Sea, by undertaking counter-terrorism operations. When piracy incidents off Somalia started registering a sharp upturn, a dedicated Combined Task Force, CTF 151, was set up to patrol, monitor and counter piracy in general in the Gulf of Yemen.

Pakistan Navy’s willing participation in both CTF 150 and 151, has not only solidified its credentials as a force for good, but has also enabled it to gain requisite expertise in the associated fields of maritime coordination, maritime tasking and interoperability.

In a canvas so vast, the stakes so high and the challenges so complex, navies happen to be possibly the only viable instrument nations have at their disposal that can underwrite their maritime security. Considering the exceedingly complex neighbourhood the country finds itself in, the Pakistan Navy has no choice but to maintain a high level of preparedness, matched with a corresponding willingness to collaborate on a regional basis towards a shared objective.


Note: This article was published in the 29 May 2016 edition of the daily newspaper ‘Pakistan Today’ as well as the 01 June issue of another daily newspaper ‘The News International”.

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