January 28, 2020
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Port Hole

An American warship is 'caught' spying in the Indian waters under the pretext of research

Port Hole
Port Hole
This must be the first case of serious organised spying on the Indian navy to come to light in the last decade. Last month, naval headquarters dashed off a detailed note to the ministry of defence (MoD) raising serious objections to an American warship spying consistently for several months in 2002-2003 and carrying out unauthorised exercises off the Visakhapatnam coast well inside India's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The area under survey was too close for comfort to the strategic naval base at Visakhapatnam. The spying operations were conducted under the garb of 'research' and without prior permission, flouting all rules of engagement. Such 'intrusions', say senior naval officers, could well lead to a compromising of India's security.

The detailed note from naval headquarters to the MoD (accessed by Outlook) raises serious concern about the presence of American warship USS Bowditch in India's EEZ. The warship, ostensibly granted rights to conduct 'survey and research', seems to have exceeded its brief and there is a clear suggestion that it was spying to assess India's hidden naval capabilities. "The navy," says a senior naval officer, "regards this American act as illegal, against international rules and without the permission of the Indian government."

In the note, naval headquarters has said that the American warship had clearly violated Indian and international law. "Notwithstanding the US position...the so-called military survey and research is a facade or smokescreen to camouflage their actual intent," it points out. The navy has also proposed that the ministry take up the issue "strongly through diplomatic channels, failing which the matter be referred to relevant bodies in the United Nations as an international dispute".

The note outlines a number of issues. USS Bowditch carried out an ocean military surveillance within the EEZ comprising 250 nautical miles of Indian territory. The navy says the warship gathered data that could reveal much military information on the ocean environment, including identifying possible underground nuclear facilities and submarines. Such data helps reorient technology in undersea warfare and enemy ship detection.

According to the navy, the ship, in direct contravention of well-laid down international laws, mapped the ocean floor, carried out seabed studies, including topography, nature and type of sediments, acoustic signal range limitation observations, assessed temperature, salinity, sound velocity and sea current profiles using state-of-the-art sensors. "It is clear from the above that the type of activities the vessel is capable of carrying out include various kinds of 'acoustic surveys'. Measurement of parameters is prohibited under existing guidelines on the subject by the ministry of defence," the navy wrote in its note.

To safeguard the EEZ and territorial waters, Parliament passed the Territorial Waters, Continental Shelf, Exclusive Economic Zone and other Maritime Zones Act, 1976. The Act identifies 250 nautical miles as exclusive Indian territory, in which the Indian government has sovereign jurisdiction to authorise, regulate and control scientific research. "No person can conduct any research within the EEZ without the consent of the central government," the Act states.

According to Naval HQ, the US ship deliberately violated the Law of Sea convention of 1982. "Those wishing to undertake research in another state's EEZ are subject to various regulations. First, it must provide the coastal state (in this case India) with specific information about the proposed project at least six months in advance. Second, it must allow the coastal state to participate or be represented in the project. Thirdly, it must provide the coastal state with the results of the research. Failure to comply with these obligations entitles the coastal state to suspend the research or require its cessation," the note states.

USS Bowditch did nothing of the kind and quietly left Indian shores some time in late 2003. What is peculiar is why the relevant authorities in the navy raised no objections when the US ship was actually conducting its 'survey'. Or why the US navy personnel were not arrested. Asked for clarifications, an Indian navy spokesperson said the matter was "being looked into". Says Commodore Uday Bhaskar of the Delhi-based Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses: "Generally, protocol is adhered to in such cases. But if the naval headquarters is making these charges, it needs a thorough examination." Adds Admiral Raja Menon (retd): "It is a very delicate situation. Even though such an incident did occur once in the early '90s, the Americans do not want their freedom of seas to be curtailed in any way. The best way out of this would be that the information be shared between two maritime powers, India and the US."

The navy has challenged the US interpretation of events. "The US contention that the military survey activities are related to freedom of navigation on the high seas and they can carry out such activities in the EEZ of the coastal state is wrong interpretation of relevant laws.... Freedom of navigation does not give absolute right to a warship to carry out resource-oriented research without the consent of the coastal state," says the note. It also adds that "the concept of military survey activities coined by the US is not available under any laws of sea governing the international community. Such activities under the garb of 'high seas' freedom or freedom of navigation are also not permissible under UN laws".

Says former navy chief Adml R.H. Tahiliani, "The charges are serious. The navy knows what it's saying. It can't be a frivolous complaint." Agrees Col P.N. Khera, editor, Asian Defence News International: "Under the garb of joint Indo-US defence cooperation, no unauthorised intrusion should be allowed. The Indian protest should be strong and vigorous."

Interestingly, the same vessel was 'misused' for spying purposes and was intercepted inside its EEZ by the Chinese navy in March 2001 and forced to turn back at gunpoint. Naval researchers studying similar US research requests to different countries between 1972 and 1978 say that a majority of them were rejected outright and, in those cases where permission was granted, the surveys were conducted under strict surveillance of the coastal country concerned. In 1968, North Korea found another US warship, PUEBLO, allegedly spying in its EEZ under the guise of a research vessel. Since then many countries have been wary of entertaining such requests from the US navy. India doesn't seem to have learnt its lesson from other countries' experiences. But at least the naval headquarters has registered its protest. Now it's over to the MoD.
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