The now defunct Bombay Fort overlooked the harbour in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, much like Fort St. George and Fort William at Madras and Calcutta respectively. These were the seats of power, and the headquarters of the Bombay, Madras and Bengal Armies. And rightly so, since maritime power was paramount. They also provided incidental protection to these cities which were the hubs of trade and commerce.
The fashionable Fort area is now the seat of the Western Naval Command of the Indian Navy. It was this area which was attacked by a highly trained and motivated group of terrorists on 26 November. The western fleet, the strike force of the navy, has an impressive flotilla which includes an aircraft carrier. It has under its command the submarine arm of the navy and much of its aviation resources as also the marine commandos - or MARCOS as they are now famously called. The western fleet is responsible for protection of the western seaboard from attack by sea besides protecting India's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), as well as shipping lanes in our territorial waters used by merchant vessels.
The Coast Guard, which is the navy's poorer cousin, is responsible for 'brown' or muddied waters along the entire stretch of the eastern and western seaboards. The Director General of the Coast Guard is a Vice Admiral from the Indian Navy and all the resources of the Coast Guard come under the command of local naval headquarters during operations.
The Global War on Terror has been waged since the unprecedented attack on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. Our own war in India started much earlier, when Bombay was hit by simultaneous bomb blasts in 1993. Bombay Port and the city are obvious and lucrative targets for any inimical intelligence agency or terrorist group. The west coast has been used on several occasions for landing arms, ammunition and explosives, as was exposed during the Bombay blasts. In a chilling film shown on CNN-IBN in 2006, the vulnerability of the coast to the ingress of terrorists with explosives was documented.
Two reporters hired boats and were able to penetrate each of the three tiers from blue to brown waters and then to the coast which is supposed to be protected by what is called the marine police. They were able to land contraband in broad daylight. The exercise itself was a major breach of security, which could have landed the reporters in big trouble.
A breach of security so near the headquarters of the Western Naval Command is completely unacceptable.
That the breach of security took place near the headquarters of the Western Naval Command is completely unacceptable. Whether or not 'actionable' intelligence was available to forestall this is not the issue. Bombay port itself, and the naval and merchant vessels in docks or at anchor could have been targeted; indeed the flagship of the FOC could have been attacked. Instead, the terrorists chose softer targets in the city, but this does not exclude the possibility of the coastal vessels and the naval fleet coming under attack. What makes things much worse is that a specific intelligence warning was indeed issued.
Given the gross failure to thwart the 26 November attacks right under the noses of the navy, one can only hope and pray that our 'strategic resources' are safe from similar assault. It is not possible to defend the entire coast or the EEZ all the time, therefore certain vulnerable areas and points have to be identified. Surely Bombay port and harbour, and nuclear facilities including BARC should be in that list and should have been guarded 24/7. If that ws done then there was a possibility that the guys landing in rubber boats would have been apprehended. The MARCOS should have been given this job.
If heads are to roll then, then it is incumbent on the FOC-in-C to resign his commission, on moral grounds if not the actual failure to perform the job. His fortress has been violated. His fleet could have been scuttled. In war time this would have been a court martial offence.
The failure has been all-round, if that's any consolation to those at the receiving end of criticism. In an interview, the naval chief has said that co-ordination between the Coast Guard and the navy needs to be improved. This is an admission of systemic failure in his chain of command. Moreover, if he believes - as he now claims - that his budget is insufficient to ensure the protection of the seaboard, he should have tendered his resignation when the insufficient allotment was first made in the budget. Or now. The less said about the MARCOS and their performance - both on and off the camera - the better. That the NSG took two days and nights to complete an operation after launching the assault is something which will be discussed in strategic circles - as an example of how not to conduct an anti-terrorist operation.
Compare the Indian scenario with that in the US. The American navy has been on station 24/7 to protect its territorial waters and the long and open seaboards to the east and west of the country. Every resource is used, and submarines ply the waters at periscope depth. There is continuous and extensive air coverage. Whether this is done by the coast guard or navy is irrelevant. Maritime protection is the ultimate responsibility of the Indian Navy and it has failed in its duty to anticipate possibilities and see through scenarios like the one which has shaken the security establishment to its core. That may be the only good thing to come out of the incident.
There is little use in maintaining a blue water navy if our own waters are unprotected. The primary role of the navy must remain the protection of the eastern and western seaboards. The projection of India's force overseas cannot compromise this more important objective. Having been shown up by the recent failure, the security establishment now has its task cut out. But it has to get the strategy right first.