Indian Ocean navies must share information, coordinate maritime communications


The introduction of high-tech sensors and communications equipment by the countries of the Indian Ocean Rim has brought benefits to the region, but much still needs to be done, according to attendees and speakers at the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) in Cape Town.

The IONS Sessions on Sharing Information and the Collaborative Response today, presented to naval members of some 38 Indian Ocean and other interested nations, indicated that the application of new technology makes dealing with crime, pollution and disasters on the high seas a much quicker and more effective process when countries cooperate effectively.

Maritime Search and Rescue Coordinating Centres (MRCCs) are regional nodes which facilitate search and rescue. Using the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), among others, they identify vessels in distress (“alerting”), locate vessels, co-ordinate search and rescue and communications and issue maritime safety bulletins. Captain King Chiragi, Tanzania’s Director of Maritime Safety and Security, highlighted the need for cooperation between MRCCs in ensuring safe sea lanes where authorities need to reach ships in distress.

Situational Awareness, whether for shore-based authorities, civil or military facilities, or ships at sea, is of vital importance, Chiragi said. For military and civil authorities, satellite systems and radar can show the positions and courses of dozens of ships, but Chiragi pointed out the fact that it can become difficult when it comes to countries sharing information across national boundaries in pursuit of maritime criminals, whether pirates or smugglers, and the MRCCs are a very helpful tool in overcoming this information challenge. The centres are also highly effective tools for search and rescue operations, Captain Chiragi added.

Twenty-one countries share piracy information from the regional MRCCs in East Africa and Yemen. Since 2010, 30 incidents of piracy have been reported in to the Dar es Salaam centre in Tanzania and three pirate attacks were foiled as a result of the speedy receipt, interpretation and dissemination of the information.

Captain Karl Otto of the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) outlined his organisation’s use of this technology. He discussed the Automatic Information System (AIS) radio system which works in tandem with the Long Range Identification and Tracking System (LRIT), a satellite-based system which can track ships up to 1 000 nautical miles away.

The drawback of these systems, he told defenceWeb, is that if transponders on board the ships are switched off. Another problem is that if vessels are small, such as the skiffs used by Somali pirates, this makes it difficult to see them among larger, compliant and law-abiding vessels.

There were lessons to be learned from other regions of the globe which have faced some similar challenges, although there were significant differences too, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force’s Vice Admiral Tomohisa Takei said. He suggested that Indian Ocean nations could adapt measures hit upon by the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS), but Indian Ocean nations would have to adapt the solutions found in East Asia to their own needs.

Captain Philip Holihead, formerly of the British Royal Navy and head of the Counter-Piracy Project Implementation Unit of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) said piracy had shown up the glaring lack of co-ordination at all levels in the international arena.

While the Indian Ocean region had plenty of systems which provided data on shipping and piracy incidents, this information needed to be streamlined and shared.

He suggested regional military-civilian command centres should be set up which could increase maritime awareness in the region and so enable navies to better make plans to deal with threats. One or more of the region’s navies – such as South Africa – would be required to show leadership in this.

It is clear that much of the necessary maritime communications infrastructure is already in place in the Indian Ocean sphere, but it there was clear consensus among the experts that coordination and cooperation were badly needed in order for effective maritime security and management in the Indian Ocean.