The Maldives is facing a growing number of maritime threats, including piracy, illegal fishing, human-trafficking, drug-smuggling and gun-running. However, the archipelago is developing its ability to protect against any threat that may reach its shores. To this end it has established joint maritime patrols with India and is setting up a coastal radar system and information-sharing network.
In a paper released during the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) in Cape Town last week, the Maldives National Defence Force detailed the threats, challenges and responses to the issue of maritime security.
Due to its location in the Indian Ocean, the 1 190-island nation functions as a natural barrier between maritime traffic transiting through strategic gateways into the Indian Ocean such as the Malacca Straits, Strait of Hormuz and Bab-el Mandeb.
As a result, the Maldives faces a number of transnational criminal and piracy threats, including human-trafficking, drug-smuggling and gun-running. Although drug-smuggling routes have been known to cross the Maldives for many years, extensive crimes mentioned above are not exclusively known to target the nation. However, the Maldives has experienced an influx of skiffs floating into its waters since December 2009. Today there are 40 suspected Somali nationals in the Maldives waiting to be extradited back, according to the IONS document.
The Maldives is also feeling the shift in piracy operations within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In May and November of 2010 two merchant ships encountered pirates within the Maldivian EEZ – one was attacked and the other chased by pirates. Recently, on March 26, 2012, a Bolivian flagged bulk-carrier, the MV Eglantine was hijacked inside the EEZ. To date no Maldivian vessels has been approached suspiciously nor been affected by piracy directly.
Apart from security threats, the Maldives also faces pollution and illegal fishing problems, which is of concern as it dependent on its natural beauty and resources to generate economic growth. The Tsunami of Boxing Day in 2004, ruled out the Maldives’ age old traditional belief that they were immune to such natural disasters. The Maldives has not yet completely recovered from the impact of the disaster yet, according to the IONS document.
Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing in Maldivian waters has been a huge threat to small fishing communities dependent on this for their income. Foreign vessels fishing illegally in the Maldivian EEZ have been apprehended by the Coast Guard a number of times. The Maldives Government has also ceased issuing permits for foreign vessels to fish in the EEZ with a particular license since 2009. The Coast Guard collaborates with fishing communities and the Ministry of Fisheries to mitigate this exploitation.
With regard to law enforcement, the Maldives National Defence Force Coast Guard is the primary law enforcer at sea. It is supplemented by the Maldives Police Force’s Marine Police in enforcing the laws at sea. Various other government law enforcement agencies assist the Coast Guard in various aspects and levels.
Today the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) has tasked its maritime force with maritime and air space security, maritime mobility, maritime defence and force protection, maritime law enforcement, maritime search and rescue, disaster response and relief, marine pollution response and environmental protection, marine resource protection, port security and maritime VVIP security.
To conduct its responsibilities, the Coast Guard has a total of over 24 vessels in active service. These include three Offshore Patrol Vessels, three Inshore Patrol Vessels and sixteen high speed vessels (classified as Harbour Craft). These vessels are distributed throughout the country under the decentralized Area Commands of the MNDF. The Coast Guard also employs the only MNDF air asset, an ex-Indian Coast Guard Dhruv helicopter gifted to the island nation. This conducts medium range air operations, namely search and rescue and coastal patrols.
With limited resources and a vast sea area to manage, the Coast Guard has initiated the daunting task of increasing awareness of its maritime domain. This includes various projects relating to establishing an Automatic Information System (AIS)/radar chain along the Maldivian coastline with the assistance of the Indian government. In line with this project, the US government initiated the project of establishing AiS stations across the country, which should be completed at the end of this year. A point to note here is that the total coverage of these sensors would cover no more than 10% of the total water body of the Maldives.
Other collaborative maritime domain awareness initiatives are underway, such as building an information sharing network with local and internationalmaritime organisations and multi-national bodies. The Coast Guard has also planned to upgrade its SAR Operations Centre located in its capital, to a Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) within this year. This MRCC is expected to be the Maritime Information Sharing hub of the Coast Guard in the near future.
Furthermore, the Maldives in 2009 signed the Djibouti Code of Conduct for enhancing information sharing and training among the nations of Horn of Africa and West Indian Ocean Region. Under this agreement, the country is plugged into ReIMSC [International Maritime Security Corporation], relaying and receiving information related to maritime piracy. A proposal is also underway to join the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) for the purpose of attaining a purview of the East Indian Ocean Region.
The Coast Guard has also been conducting joint patrols, by air and at sea, with the Indian Navy since 2009 to increase mutual awareness of the Indian Ocean and strengthen the interoperability of the two forces. Furthermore, exercise and training are being conducted with visiting ships and mobile training teams of friendly nations.
With limited resources and a vast sea area to manage, the Coast Guard has numerous challenges. These include the lack of high-endurance surface units, the lack of trained personnel, and financial constraints. Although these major challenges hard to overcome, they are being tackled through collaborative means, according to the IONS paper.