Blue-Water Navies in Brown-Water Operations

Nonetheless, in the coming era, the challenge of threats such as those from asymmetric warriors and piracy, coupled with gunrunning and drugs smuggling, will only grow. This is owing to the fact that India’s maritime neighbourhood encompasses states which are economically weak and susceptible to fundamentalist ideologies.

Issue: 5 / 2012By Commander (Retd) Neil Gadihoke

The terminologies that describe the ‘types’ of navies are loosely defined; and their meanings have changed throughout history. Expressions like blue-water navy, green-water force and brown-water operations are mentioned and written about without clear cut demarcations. This perplexity is inevitable, given the varying perceptions and interpretations of matters maritime, in different parts of the world.

A ‘brown-water navy’ focuses on coastal operations and primarily takes a defensive role. Colloquially, the brown-water area encompasses areas close to the coast, invariably within the territorial waters of the country. It is the most important maritime arena, in which are found the majority of a nation’s maritime policing efforts, and environmental and economic attributes. In a few instances, the term ‘green-water navy’, has also been used. The green-water environment extends from the outer edge of the brown-water area, past the continental shelves, archipelagos and islands; perhaps 100 miles (160 km) from shore.

While a blue-water navy can project power into another nation’s littoral, when it does so, it remains susceptible to threats from less capable forces, such as asymmetric tactics from fast attack craft. As a case in point, on October 12, 2000, the US Navy destroyer USS Cole was attacked by terrorists in Aden Harbour. This attack by a boat loaded with cache of explosives resulted in killing of 17 sailors and wounding of 39, apart from seriously damaging the destroyer.

Most existing conventional maritime forces are a reflection of the erstwhile philosophy that mandated keeping track and combating big warships of opposing blocks during the Cold War, but today find ill-suited to gather intelligence on terrorists using rubber dinghies. The sobering thought after the ghastly assault on Mumbai in 2008, termed as 26/11 attacks, was that nations needed a stronger Coast Guard before they need a blue-water navy. Conversely, if investments have already been made in blue-water navies, they will have to learn to regress to brown-waters to combat activities of asymmetric warriors and pirates.

Since conventional high value platforms are an overkill to counter such activities, appropriate platforms and tactics will have to be thought of. The cue for such force restructuring can be taken from the US Navy which has developed the littoral combat ship (LCS) designed from keel up for asymmetric threats. The LCS is an innovative concept because it is designed to be a plug-and-play vessel. It replaces three kinds of ships: mine sweepers, coastal patrol craft and frigates, by the ability to switch the mission packages. LCS is a fast, highly manoeuvrable, networked-surface combat ship, which is a specialised variant of the family of the US future surface combat ships, known as DD(X). In sum, LCS is designed specifically to satisfy the urgent requirement for shallow draft vessels to operate in the coastal waters in order to counter growing asymmetric threats.

Over the years, the Indian Navy has been fairly involved in brown-water operations such as coastal surveillance and anti-piracy operations. Such brown-water tasks can be divided into two broad categories: low intensity maritime operations (LIMO) and maintenance of good order at sea. Without doubt, these commitments are here to stay. LIMO involves the graded application of maritime military power against state-sponsored or non-state actors undertaking anti-national activities. The Indian Navy and the Coast Guard have been engaged in such duties in the Palk Bay, along India’s maritime boundary with Sri Lanka, since the late 1980s in ‘Op Tasha’. This was to prevent exodus of refugees to India as also to prevent any support to the erstwhile Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) by their sympathisers. On the West Coast too, the Indian Navy has been conducting surveillance operations since 1993, along the coasts of Maharashtra and Gujarat, called ‘Operation Swan’. This is to prevent the clandestine smuggling of arms and explosives consequent to the Mumbai blasts of 1993. In the coming decade, the use of the seas by terrorist organisations is likely to see an increase, as their movement on land becomes more difficult. The audacious attacks of 26/11 on Mumbai are testimony to this fact, more so as the terror infrastructure remains intact in our immediate neighbourhood. As a critical tool of national security, the Indian Navy is duty-bound to thwart the terrorist designs. Involvement of the Navy in Operation Tasha and Operation Swan since the early 1990s is a classic example of a blue-water navy being tasked for low end functions in the war fighting spectrum, the so-called brown-water tasks.

Further, the International Maritime Bureau has assessed that two-thirds of all piracy cases occur in the Indian Ocean region, in areas such as the Somali coast or the Malacca Strait, where either the authority of the state is weak or heavy traffic provides cover for unlawful activities. Piracy off the coast of Somalia has grown exponentially in the recent past. A large percentage of India’s trade, including oil and fertilisers, passes through the Gulf of Aden. The safety and unhindered continuity of maritime trade, through ships that transit this route, is a primary national concern as it directly impacts our economy. About 25 Indian flagged merchant ships transit the Gulf of Aden every month. In addition, the crew of many foreign flagged vessels comprise Indian nationals, as India contributes seven per cent of world’s seafarers. As a fallout of these statistics, the Indian Navy’s involvement in antipiracy operations has grown steadily over the years. Since 2008, about 2,000 merchant ships of various nationalities have been safely escorted by the Indian Navy in the Gulf of Aden and it has prevented more than 40 piracy attempts on merchant vessels. Quite clearly, the Indian Navy’s commitment to anti-piracy operations is here to stay.