A Reappraisal of Maritime Defense for Sri Lanka

By Asanga Abeyagoonasekera* 6 November 2019

“The deep-sea contains earthly treasures that aren’t remotely understood or developed. But if we want to obtain these treasures, then we must master key technologies for entering the deep sea, surveying the deep sea, and developing the deep sea.” President Xi[i]

Ruhuna, the southern kingdom of Sri Lanka was established by King Mahanaga. Within it, the historic entrepôt to the Maritime Silk Road is situated in ‘Godawaya.’ Although rich in archaeological findings, it is presently a small fishing hamlet at the mouth of the Walawe river. A nearby temple possesses a stone Brahmin inscription dating back to the 2nd century, stating that the customs duties collected at the port were dedicated to the Buddhist temple.[ii] A few kilometres from Godawaya port lies the town of Hambanthota, the much-discussed modern port that has been leased out to the Chinese.[iii] It is an identified entrepôt for the 21st century Maritime Silk Road.

In 1804, Leonard Woolf, the British civil servant, husband of Virginia Woolf and author of the popular novel Village in the Jungle, arrived in Hambanthota to assume duties as the Assistant Government Agent. The British commenced the construction of its first coastal defence tower, ‘the Martello Tower’ in Hambantota (Image 1).[iv]

Italian Giovan Giacomo Paleari Fratino’s design of the Mortella point tower in the Island of Corsica, built in 1565, was the British replication in Sri Lanka. Its construction understood the importance of coastal defence towers. Martello towers are a feature across prominent imperial port cities across, including Hambantota.

The evolution of coastal maritime defence has evolved from towers looking for visible objects floating along the surface to invisible and submerged undersea stealth operations in the 21st century. Unfortunately, certain policymakers in the developing world still think in the era of towers, expecting clear visibility of threats.

The inability of small nations to grasp the entirety of the contemporary geopolitical snapshot, and the lack of financial resources to build capabilities of their own, are among the numerous limitations that prevent them from enhancing their modern maritime security capabilities. In such a vulnerable environment, most nations stretch their hand for assistance from global maritime powers.

The great maritime powers of this century have invested more in developing asymmetric advantages in the marine sphere than in the geosphere. Before the U.S. House Armed Services Commitee, Admiral Harry Harris, the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, testified, saying that the the United States “ must maintain its asymmetric advantage in undersea warfare capability including our attack submarines, their munitions, and other anti-submarine warfare systems” to counter threats such as Chinese coercion.[v] It is not only Americans concerned of a growing maritime footprint of the Chinese in the Indian Ocean. The “Indian navy also devotes considerable resource and effort in tracking PLAN [People’s Liberation Army-Navy] subs,” according to Indian maritime expert Abhijit Singh.[vi] He further explains, “China’s submarine deployments in the Indian Ocean undercut the logic of India as a net security provider in South Asia. The attempt at eroding New Delhi’s strategic primacy in its backyard makes the latter’s need for a counterstrategy in the wider Indo-Pacific region urgent and imperative.

While China’s scale of submarine buildup cannot be matched – not even by the USA or India – another significant area of fast-developing expertise is Beijing’s oceanographic research investment, which now dwarfs that of any other country. In 2012, the Chinese national maritime research fleet comprised just 19 vessels. By the end of 2017, it had expanded to 50 ships, half of which were classed as distant-ocean vessels capable of conducting maritime research.[vii]

According to Ryan D. Martinson and Peter A. Dutton’s report on China’s Distant-Ocean Survey Activities: Implications for U.S. National Security, published by the U.S. War College, China’s Qingdao National Lab conducts research to support China’s naval development. “The Qingdao National Lab – in conjunction with the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) – is leading an enormous project to build an integrated network of fixed and mobile sensors to monitor the undersea conditions in the Western Pacific, South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean.” This project is intended to enable China to conduct large scale, real-time ocean observation. According to the report, “Project scientists are developing models for understanding – and ultimately predicting – the dynamic undersea environment. Project funders and participants openly acknowledge the security objectives driving their scientific work. Though the network is still being developed, existing infrastructure is already serving the oceanographic needs of the PLAN.” Data collected from sea-based sensors is shared with the MNR’s National Marine Environment Forecasting Center, which in turn supplies oceanographic and meteorological products to the PLAN. The same report notes that “[w]hen Xiang Yang Hong 01, a marine research vessel, was commissioned in 2016, authoritative sources stated that its various tasks would include ‘comprehensive observation in the field of military oceanography.’” This is the same marine research vessel Xiang Yang Hong 01 that berthed at the port of Colombo in Sri Lanka on April 9th this year.[viii] This was a few days before the brutal Easter Sunday bombings, where several Chinese oceanographers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the First Institute of Oceanography under the Ministry of Natural Resources of China were killed.

Some Western scholars point out the blurred civil-military nexus of the Chinese marine research model. On the other hand, the U.S. marine research model clearly distinguishes between military and civil, with U.S. Navy ships used for military surveys and civilian ships engaged in marine scientific research. Regardless, China continues with its mission to be the lead player in exploring the ocean depths.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the clearly defined purpose of marine scientific research is “to increase scientific knowledge of the marine environment for the benefit of all mankind.”[ix] It is unclear if all these powerful nations are actually engaged in this noble task, or whether they are simply trying to increase their military footprint in the oceans, using civilian oceanographers to develop models for understanding oceanic phenomena. These same models could be applied to the development of combat systems and tactics needed by the military fleet, thus the study of the dynamic ocean is especially important for undersea warfare. 

The defence establishments of powerful nations will be fed with significant amounts of scientific oceanographic data collected from the oceans. The Indian Ocean will take the center stage in the present geopolitical context, where data from local waters will be a rich source of information for militaries to predict future trends and characteristics of the ocean.

The Indian Ocean has already become an undersea competitive arena for listening devices and passive sonar systems to track ships and submarines. The sophistication and the use of these data are different from the Cold War period, when the U.S. installed a network of hydrophones on the seabed to detect Soviet submarines.

Today, unlike the Cold War, there will be multilateral maritime military collaborations among India, the U.S., and Japan to specifically monitor PLAN submarine activity in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean Rim. Japan, “besides providing funds for the upgrading of naval air bases and construction of new electronic/signals intelligence stations along the Andaman and Nicobar chain of islands, plans to finance an undersea fiber-optic cable from Chennai to Port Blair.” This network will likely be linked with the existing U.S.-Japan “Fish Hook” sound surveillance (SOSUS) network, which monitors the activity of PLAN submarines (Image 2).[x]

Image 2 – The US-Japan Fish Hook SOSUS Network (The Tools of Owatatsumi,Japan’s Ocean Surveillance and Coastal Defence Capabilities, ANU Press Map 4, Page 54)

All these undersea activities will be transmitted to the shore to feed into the National Command Control Communication Intelligence (NC3I) Network of India’s Information Management and Analysis Center (IMAC), and also linked with the National Maritime Domain Awareness (NMDA) project  (Image 3).[xi] “In the NMDA project, the NC3I network will function as the communication backbone and the IMAC will continue to be the nodal centre, but will be rechristened as the NMDA Centre.”[xii] 

Sri Lanka’s role and policies in the marine sphere need to be understood by policy- and decision-makers of national security to fully account for the geopolitics above and beneath the Indian Ocean. Projects of vital national interest which we need to immediately contend with include the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC)[xiii] which touches our surrounding ocean; the Jaffna (Palaly) International Airport[xiv] that covers our skies; and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact grant from the United States, assisting to organise our soil to make land policy decisions.[xv] The Compact programmes under this grant cover strategic projects that should be carefully analyzed, discussed at a policy level in Parliament and calibrated based on research inputs and longer-term thinking before placing any signature.

As Sri Lanka heads to presidential polls in under a month, the incoming leader will require a wide geopolitical lens for decision making, well beyond traditional coastal defence.

*Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is the director general of the National Security Think Tank of Sri Lanka (INSSSL) under the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense. The views expressed here are his own. This article was initially published by Hudson Institute Washington DC. http://www.southasiaathudson.org/blog/2019/11/4/a-reappraisal-of-maritime-defence-for-sri-lanka?fbclid=IwAR058Q0nFV4dqTCohSQH-X0pKDUlFDc9gbXG9Hsd0qDQ61eGMyso8o5Rq5E


[i] [“Struggle to Build China Into a World Sci-Tech Power”— Speech at the National Sci-Tech Innovation Meeting, Meeting of the Two  Academies, and the 9th Congress of the China Association of Science and Technology (May 30, 2016)] 新华 [Xinhua] May 31, 2016, www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2016-05/31/c_1118965169.htm

[ii] Godawaya: an ancient port city https://www.archaeology.lk/668

[iii] China signs 99 year lease Sri Lanka’s Hambanthota Port https://www.ft.com/content/e150ef0c-de37-11e7-a8a4-0a1e63a52f9c

[iv] Martello Tower Hambantota by Anuradha Piyadasa https://www.archaeology.lk/5791


[vi] Decoding Chinese submarine ‘sightings’ in South Asia, eroding New Delhi’s strategic primhttps://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/decoding-chinese-submarine-sightings-in-south-asia-eroding-new-delhis-strategic-primacy/articleshow/66631063.cms?from=mdr

[vii] China’s Distant-Ocean Survey Activities: Implications for U.S. National Security by Ryan D. Martinson and Peter A. Dutton

[viii] “Xiang Yang Hong 01” Research Vessel Starts Its Second Section of 2019 Northeast Indian Ocean Cruise http://en.fio.org.cn/pages/newsshow/?3-5-1-735

[ix] UNCLOS Part XIII https://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/part13.htm

[x] Fish Hook Sea bed SOSUS Network https://defence.pk/pdf/threads/fish-hook-sea-bed-sosus-network.448398/

[xi] National Command Control Communication Intelligence (NC3I) http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/45237364.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst

[xii] Parrikar, https://pib.gov.in/newsite/printrelease.aspx?relid=111697

[xiii] Government to spend 900m for MRCC http://www.dailynews.lk/2017/04/06/local/112650/govt-spend-rs-900-m-mrcc

[xiv] Jaffna International Airport  http://www.sundaytimes.lk/article/1106398/jaffna-international-airport-to-be-declared-open-today-flights-to-operate-from-november

[xv] MCC Compact Grant program consist two projects the Transport Project and the Land Project, Land Project include creating an inventory and mapping state land parcels, creating a deeds registry improvement, land valuation system and establishing a Land Policy Research Group (LPRG) to advise government on land policy decisions. Cabinet green lights MCC http://www.ft.lk/top-story/Cabinet-greenlights-480-m-MCC-Compact-deal-with-US/26-688661 

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