The sea has historically and traditionally been a medium of contrasts. Its seemingly placid surface yields easily to an undulating intensity, and it doesn’t take long for gale force winds to develop into destructive storms. An unruffled sea one moment and not long after, triggered by a massive underwater quake, a tsunami sweeps countless shores with unrelenting fury. Legitimate trade likewise plies side by side with illegal trafficking.
The stakes these days are considerably higher. The entire global economy currently relies on international trade, of which as much as 85% is conducted through the medium of the sea. Threats to the global socio-economic order doesn’t just stem from piracy as in the past, but are now so diverse in character that it has led many analysts to dub the oceans as the ‘biggest crime scene in the world’. The vastness of the interconnected oceans, with enforcement and jurisdiction challenges of their own, offers an appetising opening to organised criminal
enterprises to benefit from, by stealthily operating under the radar, so to speak. The use of inconspicuous vessels for undertaking such illegal activities compound problems related to policing and detection. Stoppages of commercial vessels for search on mere suspicion causes
unacceptable disruption in world trade. In the Arabian Sea, dhows, extensively used for legitimate coastal trade, have been seen to traffic in contraband cargo. Boats designed for fishing, an activity that provides livelihood to around 12% of the global population, are known to indulge in various illegal acts, like piracy and drug smuggling, on the side.
The bombing of the 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, brought the spectre of maritime
terrorism to center stage. The tabling of the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code in December 2002, as an amendment to the existing Safety of Life at Sea Convention 1974/78, which incorporated mandatory requirements and implementation guidelines to signatory governments, port authorities and shipping companies, provided the impetus for strengthening global maritime security through individual as well as coordinated efforts. There can however be no doubt that the one sure way of effectively confronting the multitude of threats tending to disturb good order at sea, it is through concerted action featuring a collaborative approach.
Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the western Indian Ocean was curbed in large part by the convergence of warships from as many as 29 countries which, operating either singly or in groups like the EUs Operation Atalanta, NATOs Operation Ocean Shield or CTF 151, were all bound together by a shared objective. Regional initiatives like the IMO-sponsored Djibouti Code of Conduct played a significant role too in this endeavour. The Jeddah amendment of 2017 has seen the scope of the alliance widened to include the combatting of all illegal activities, and not just piracy, at sea.
Recognising that maritime security would remain a mirage if it wasn’t backed up by actionable intelligence, the Republic of Singapore Navy took the much-needed initiative to set up an Information Fusion Center in April 2009 at its Changi Naval Base. This regional center has by now established linkages with 71 Operation Centers from 38 countries, with 16 International Liaison Officers being based there as well. Another notable regional initiative has been that of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium. Fashioned after the Western Pacific Naval Symposium, IONS has attracted not only the Indian
Ocean littoral states, but also welcomes extra-regional countries with a stake in the region. The Conclave of Chiefs, which forms an integral part of every biennial symposium, ensures that not only are views exchanged, coordinated responses are also agreed upon at the highest naval level. The overarching objective of the conference after all is to evolve and act upon a unified plan of action against the multitude of maritime security challenges plaguing the region. With the
redesignation of the US Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific Command last year, the interest of the United States in the region in general and IONS in particular is bound to increase.
Pak-US relations may have witnessed many ups and downs over the years, but the one area where their interests have always coincided is that of the sea. In fact, it was a CENTO-related naval exercise held in Pakistani waters in November 1963 that facilitated the maiden entry of
the US Navy in the Indian Ocean. This was followed by a stopover at the port of Karachi in August 1964 of three newly-built nuclear vessels, the USS Enterprise, Long Beach and Bainbridge, during their unprecedented around-the-world unrefuelled cruise to demonstrate the efficacy of nuclear propulsion.
Though CENTO as an organisation could not stand the test of durability, its annual naval exercises, aptly codenamed MIDLINK, conducted alternately in Pakistani and Iranian waters,
showcased the visibility and camaraderie of the US, Iranian, Pakistani and Royal navies. These exercises, while they lasted (till the disbandment of CENTO in 1978), prized the promotion of
partnerships and interoperability over Cold War theatrics.
USN warships however continued to remain a familiar sight in the North Arabian Sea. Port calls at Karachi were invariably followed by Passexes (passage exercises) or by a series of bilateral exercises codenamed Inspired Siren. It was in one of the latter exercises in 1995 that a USN warship, utilising its shipborne helicopter and a trained ship boarding party, practically demonstrated the concept of VBSS (Vessel Board Search & Seizure). This has considerably
assisted the Pakistan Navy in refining its procedures to undertake search operations at sea in a safe and effective manner. And indeed, when CTF 150 was set up in the wake of the UN-sanctioned invasion of
Afghanistan, the Pakistan Navy had neither any qualms in offering its services nor did it face any problems in fully integrating itself in the workings of this task force. Pakistan Navy went on to subsequently command this force, whose area of operations included some of the world’s busiest sea lanes, a record ten times. Likewise, when another Combined Task Force, CTF 151, was established in January 2009 to pursue a specific counter piracy mandate, the Pakistan Navy not only signed on immediately, but went on to command it too for eight times. The experience gained by the Pakistan Navy through participation in these task forces has enabled it to further fulfill its international obligations by launching the Regional Maritime Security
Patrols. The Pakistan Navy further solidified its credentials as a force for good by initiating a series of biennial exercises codenamed Aman (Peace), the first of which was held in early 2007. The sixth in the series, held in February this year, brought together as many as 45 countries on a common platform of pursuing the cause of peace at sea. It is always a heartwarming sight to see representatives from countries as disparate as the US, Russia, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia braving political divides to attend conferences, briefings, sports fixtures, food galas and international cultural displays in the same spirit that their warships undertake an International Fleet Review at sea.
Non-traditional challenges at sea have not only proliferated over the years but tend to crop up in areas where they face the least resistance. In a canvas as vast as the sea, its resident challenges, being trans-boundary in nature, are bound to be complex enough to test the limits of an individual navy or other maritime law enforcement agency. Surveillance, vigilance, maritime patrols, intelligence gathering and info sharing are all naval missions required to be undertaken
in a well-coordinated manner if the genie of instability at sea is to be kept bottled up. Where land divides, it is said, the sea unites. And such unity is direly needed if the global objective of freedom of navigation, to the exclusion of all else, is to be realised. Pacem in Maribus, Peace on the Seas, can only come about if all responsible coastal states reach out across the sea to clasp hands in the pursuit of a common purpose.
Note: This article was published in the winter 2019 issue of the quarterly magazine UNIPATH, which covers US CENTCOMs area of responsibility.