Monday, August 08, 2016

Ocean Security - The Basic Picture

Some years ago, an acquaintance asked to me to comment about security in the Indian Ocean Region. I told them that I was deeply ignorant of the topic and I would be unable to make a useful to contribution to the debates.

In the intervening years, I have been trying to educate myself on the issues that are at play. I am by no means an expert on the issues, but I would like to share what I have learned so far.

So first off - some very simple geographical realities

1) International trade accounts for more than 50% of global GDP.  90% of international trade occurs via the sea.  This trade is both in the form of ships carrying cargo and telecommunication cables carrying data.

2)  While the global shipping routes are confined to relatively well-defined patterns and corridors, a threat to these corridors can be projected from anywhere in the ocean.

3) The point of projection of the threat can be located above, on or under the surface of the water - and when you consider that 71% of the earth's surface is covered by water - that is a lot of space to secure from interference.

Now some crude economic realities.

1) It is significantly more expensive to create sea-going vessels. (typical motor vehicle costs tens of thousands of dollars, a typical ship will costs tens of millions of dollars). Building large fleets of vessels is economically forbidden.

2) The cost of operating a ship - navigating in a featureless sea, travelling through inclement weather, enduring the corrosion due to salt and sea life, all the gas you need to sail, the redundancy in the manpower you need etc... - is very high. And given the unpredictability of sea and weather, the risk of catastrophic loss is daunting. This means every voyage costs quite a bit of money. Every fleet (big or small) makes a very serious effort to cut down on operating and maintenance costs.

3) Costs of training people to work at sea are high. Given how different performing a single task at (or under)sea when compared to its land based counterpart, the cost of retraining humans to perform specific roles at (or under) sea is quite high. This adds to the overall cost structure associated with sea borne operations.

That brings us to some technical or physical constraints.

1) Water is much more dense than air - it produces a lot more drag. Moving in water produces significant challenges to speed and maneuverability.

2) Water absorbs light - you can't see what is below you. The ocean floor is very poorly known. A significant portion of the oceans are simply unexplored.

3) A variety of geophysical forces affect the winds and the water currents in the sea. These forces are poorly characterized and difficult to anticipate.  This imposes significant challenges to navigation. his makes it very difficult to know where you are. Navigation at sea is only possible using the starts (astronomical) or using a man-made navigation system (LORAN or GPS etc...).

This lays out the backdrop for the problem of providing security in the oceans.

- You have a vast space from which a threat can materialize.

- You have very limited resources to sense an emergent threat.

- You have significant physical constraints on what responses you can mount to a perceived threat. 

in the next post - I will discuss the nature of the threats, the issues associated with sensing them and the limited response option sets.


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