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The next terror attack could be from the sea

“In this era of ‘no-war, no-peace’, there is an ever-present threat to offshore and coastal installations. The threat from the sea can take various forms — trained ‘sea terrorists’ can attack by approaching the target in dhows or even submersibles, making the last mile in collapsible rubber boats, lay explosives in the most vulnerable parts and depart or carry out suicide attacks. Another alternative would be to bring an explosives-laden ship and collide it against the target, or sink it in the harbour approach to block the port.”
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by Arun Kumar Singh

(May 21, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Last week’s serial bomb blasts in Jaipur, in which over 60 people were killed, has demonstrated yet again how ill-equipped India is to handle the new complexities of terror warfare. A new command must be created to protect the nation.

Jaipur was the eleventh major terrorist strike on ‘soft’ targets in the past three years. The political leadership has stuttered out its usual statements about ‘resilience’ and ‘foreign hand’ ad nauseam, while the bureaucracy has predictably kept mum on what is a colossal failure of leadership and intelligence at both the Central and state levels. The Intelligence Bureau, in the meantime, has suggested that terrorists are planning seaborne attacks against the dozens of oil rigs, including production and support platforms, along both the coasts of India. This appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

An oil rig, like the proverbial iceberg, has a small portion visible above the surface — leaving the vulnerable parts beyond visibility. What cannot be seen are the supporting legs of the rigs, the labyrinth of pipelines with interconnecting control valves that ensure flow of crude oil from the rigs to the mainland or to single buoy moorings (SBMs), which, in turn, permit oil tankers to embark the same crude for transportation ashore. In some places, like the Gulf of Kutch, these SBMs are also used to enable incoming oil tankers to pump out their imported crude to refineries ashore. Supporting this gigantic effort is a large number of logistic ships (OSVs, or offshore support vessels), which provide food, handle personnel transfers (sometimes also done by helicopters), pollution control response, fire tender duties, etc.

The extreme vulnerability of the oil rigs was vividly displayed by the massive fire and total destruction of an oil production platform in Bombay High in July 2005 when an OSV accidentally collided with the rigs’ underwater pipeline. This resulted in a massive search and rescue operation by the Indian Navy, the Coast Guard and by civilian ships, followed by counter-pollution operations by the Coast Guard to prevent pollution along the Mumbai coastline. In addition to the financial loss, the nation had to face a massive drop in crude oil outflow from this offshore oilfield, located some 40 nautical miles off Mumbai port. This event will not have been missed by the new breed of maritime terrorists, who would also know that India has invested over Rs 1,60,000 crores in these rigs. There is an organisation to deal with offshore security threats to oil rigs, coastal refineries, coastal nuclear power plants and ports. The Coast Guard looks after peacetime security and is in regular touch with all stakeholders — the Navy, the port authorities, shipping, ONGC, Oil India and the intelligence agencies. Wartime threats are handled by the Navy.

In this era of ‘no-war, no-peace’, there is an ever-present threat to offshore and coastal installations. The threat from the sea can take various forms — trained ‘sea terrorists’ can attack by approaching the target in dhows or even submersibles, making the last mile in collapsible rubber boats, lay explosives in the most vulnerable parts and depart or carry out suicide attacks. Another alternative would be to bring an explosives-laden ship and collide it against the target, or sink it in the harbour approach to block the port. And, of course, terrorists can enter coastal targets by land and cover the last stretch, as in Israel, in microlite aircraft to get in.

In any such terror attack, the repercussions would be severe — economic, environmental and in sheer terms of shock. India’s economic prosperity lies in being completely secure at sea — 90 per cent of our trade, 70 per cent of our oil imports and 70 per cent of our indigenous oil and gas production comes from the sea.

The issue of modifying India’s national security-cum-intelligence apparatus to address new forms of warfare has been hammered to near-death. Little may have moved but the need for a completely new machinery to fight terrorism is becoming all the more relevant in everyday incidents as in Jaipur’s. We are simply not equipped to address terrorism.

There have been reports that the government is considering handing over the 2010 Commonwealth Games project to the Army keeping in view the failure of the bureaucracy and civil administration to deliver. The United States, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, has been far more ruthless and successful in protecting its citizens. With Jaipur’s incident in focus, does it not look like it is time to hand over all anti-terrorist activities to three separate ‘empowered’ joint commands, which will include all elements of the military, paramilitary, police, intelligence, railways, ports, airports and any other agency that needs to be a part of the apparatus? These three commands can be headed by the Army, for land threats, the Navy for seaborne-coastal threats, and the Air Force to address aerial threats. There is also an urgent need to augment the force levels of the Navy and the Coast Guard. Each of these seagoing services should reach a strength of 200 ships, and each should double their aviation assets.

Laws to permit the Navy and Coast Guard to board and search suspicious ships need to be introduced at the earliest. The existing force levels — 75 ships and 45 aircraft for the Coast Guard; and 130 ships and about 200 aircraft for the Navy — are inadequate. Getting our counter-terror mechanism in place should take priority over time-worn intellectual debates. Also, at some point in the future, these joint commands could also be pressed into action to combat the Naxalite threat, which today spans 11 states. The protection of its citizens is the Centre’s primary duty. The buck stops there.

How seriously other nations take this threat is best exemplified by what I saw in the United States in 2005. All armed forces units were flying an additional flag — of a serpent with the inscription ‘Don’t Tread On Me’. This flag has been used by presidential proclamation only four times in 234 years. It was brought out during the wars that threatened the American nation — the War of Independence (1776-1781), the Civil War (1860-1865), the attack on Pearl Harbour (1942) and post 9/11 (2001).

India too faces this new form of warfare and its government cannot take the rather philosophical view that was once articulated by a television commentator, to my considerable amazement: ‘As everyone knows, there is no reality, but only points of view.’

Global terrorism is a hard reality, and it is here to stay, irrespective of individual perceptions and views. Dealing with this new form of asymmetric war will require the combined might and wisdom of all of India. We need not emulate the Americans by hoisting a second flag to remind our citizens (and leaders) that the nation is in a state of war. But we do need to get our act together, and quickly. The present form of asymmetric war being waged by international terrorists who serve no nation is, after all, too serious an issue to be left only to the politicians, bureaucrats and the overstretched intelligence agencies and paramilitary forces. Remember the old saying: ‘Steel fist in a velvet glove’? That is what we need.

( Vice-Admiral Arun Kumar Singh retired as Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command, Visakhapatnam, in April 2007 )
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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