Maritime Surveillance of the Indian EEZ

-Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, Research Fellow, IDSA


The surveillance of India's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in peace time is of considerable importance to its security, the protection of its natural resources, and the preservation of its marine environment. This mission provides early warning of a naval build-up or deployment in the area, assists in the maintenance of law and order at sea, enables the apprehension of foreign trawlers illegally fishing in Indian waters, ensures a quick response to pollution at sea, and assures the safety of life at sea. The growing importance of maritime surveillance is a direct result of the new international law of the sea, which provides littoral and hinterland states varying degrees of rights, and equally important, responsibilities, over an extended area of sea.

The effective surveillance of the Indian EEZ is a highly daunting mission, involving a vast area of sea, limited resources and capabilities of the Coast Guard and the Navy, an intricate mix of low and high technologies of detection and identification, and the use of the air and surface dimensions of the sea. In the future, surveillance of the EEZ is expected to become increasingly complex, with greater importance being given to new and advanced technologies, as well as to the critical dimension of space.

In order to examine the nature and extent of maritime surveillance of the Indian EEZ, this paper will look at the legal status of the EEZ, the role of the Coast Guard (the primary organisation responsible for the maritime surveillance of the EEZ), and the scope for technologies of detection and identification in the future.

Legal Status of the Indian EEZ

The concept of the EEZ, along with the varying rights and responsibilities of littoral and island states, is provided legal sanction by the Conference of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III). After much debate and discussion, it finally agreed to a new international Law of the Sea Convention in 1982. Some 12 years later, on November 16, 1994, the Law of the Sea entered into force, a year after 65 states had ratified the Convention. In the interim period, it was considered as part of customary international law. By late 1997, as many as 122 states had ratified the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention.

The Law of the Sea provides vastly extended areas of sea to littoral and island states, comprising a territorial sea of 12 nautical miles (nm.), a contiguous zone of 24 nm, and an EEZ of 200nm, along with a continental shelf of 200-350 nm., where applicable. In this respect, it has been estimated that a 500 km coast line of a state would provide an EEZ of as much as 185,000 sq. km.1 Littoral states possess varying degrees of rights and responsibilities over these areas of sea. With respect to the EEZ, they possess sovereign rights over all natural resources as well as over certain economic activities in the area, along with the exercise of jurisdiction over marine science research and environmental protection.

In view of the prospective changes in the international Law of the Sea, the Indian Parliament extended constitutional recognition to the new concept of the EEZ in May 1976. As a result, Article 297 of Chapter III, Part XII of the Constitution reads as follows:

" All lands, minerals and other things of value underlying the ocean within the territorial waters, or the continental shelf, or the exclusive economic zone of India, shall vest in the Union and be held for the purposes of the Union".2

Three months later, in August 1976, the "Territorial Waters, Continental Shelf, Exclusive Economic Zone and other Maritime Zones Act" entered into force (with the exception of Section 5—Contiguous Zone—and Section 7—EEZ—which entered into force in January 1977). This Act made provisions for India's territorial waters, contiguous zone, EEZ, and continental shelf. In December 1982, India signed the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, and ratified it (along with the implementation of Part XI) in June 1995.

The size of the Indian EEZ is estimated at 2.02-2.2 million sq km, covering both the western and eastern coasts, as well as the island territories of Lakshadweep in the Arabian Sea and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal. The variance of 180,000 sq km is due to the absence of published baselines of the country (from which maritime zones are calculated), as well as a series of minor hydrographic differences. Moreover, the size of the EEZ is expected to increase even further by the year 2004, in view of the legal provision of extending the continental shelf to 350 nm, if preliminary exploration of the extended area is completed by then. This could provide India an additional EEZ of approximately 1.5 million sq km, if its continental shelf extends well beyond 200 nm. or 100 nm. beyond the 2,500 metre isobath.3

In the EEZ, India possesses the following rights and jurisdictions: sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources of the seabed, subsoil, and the waters; rights and jurisdiction with regard to the establishment of artificial islands, installations and structures; exclusive jurisdiction with regard to other activities for the economic exploitation and exploration of the zone, such as the production of energy from the water, currents and winds; and jurisdiction with regard to the preservation of the marine environment, including pollution control. Other states could utilise the resources of the EEZ only with the prior permission of the Indian government.4 In terms of warfare, the EEZ is to be considered similar to the high seas, but for the additional obligation to have "due regard to the rights and duties of the coastal state".5

Role of the Coast Guard

In view of the vastly extended area of sea provided by international law, it was imperative that a separate organisation be formed to take responsibility for the management of the EZZ. Towards this end, the Indian government set up the Rustomji Committee for the Preservation and Protection of the EEZ in September 1974. This committee submitted its report to the Cabinet Committee for Political Affairs (CCPA) on January 7, 1997. The CCPA accepted, in principle, the recommendations of the report the same day, and approved the establishment of an interim Coast Guard Organisation; this was formed as part of the Navy less than a month later on February 1, 1997 (since then celebrated as Coast Guard Day). With the passage of the Coast Guard Act in Parliament on August 19, 19978, a regular Coast Guard (independent of the Navy) was constituted as an armed force of the state.

The statutory duties of the Coast Guard are listed in Section 14 of the Coast Guard Act. This notes that the service is to "protect the maritime and other national interests of India in the Maritime Zones".6 These include (a) ensuring the safety and protection of artificial islands, offshore terminals, installations, and other structures and devices; (b) providing protection to fishermen, including assistance to them at sea while in distress; (c) taking such measures as are necessary to preserve and protect the maritime environment and to prevent and control marine pollution; (d) assist the customs and other authorities in anti-smuggling operations; (e) enforce the provisions of such enactments as are for the time being in force in the maritime zone; and (f) such other matters including measures for the safety of life and property at sea, and the collection of scientific data as may be prescribed.7

Clearly, the major pre-requisite for the implementation of these tasks is the ability to conduct adequate surveillance of the sea; in its absence, the Coast Guard would simply not be able to fulfill its tasks. In effect, maritime surveillance is the raison d' etre of the service. It is, therefore, surprising that the Coast Guard Act fails to elaborate this crucial mission. This omission needs to be corrected at once. In any case, the maritime surveillance of the EEZ is carried out, largely exclusively, by the aircraft and ships of the Coast Guard.

Maritime Surveillance by Aircraft

At present, the Coast Guard possesses 17 Dornier Do-228-102s for the specific task of EEZ surveillance by air. An additional 19 aircraft of this type are planned to be acquired in the next five years. Virtually all these 17 aircraft have been manufactured under licence at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL); an initial three aircraft were acquired directly from the erstwhile West Germany. The operational speed of these aircraft is approximately 200 nm; this means that they can be at the outer perimeter of the Indian EEZ in about an hour. Their range is approximately 940 nm., with a service ceiling of 28,000 feet. They are equipped with the Marec or Super Marec Search radars, cameras and searchlights. They do not carry any weapons aboard.8

These Coast Guard aircraft constitute 4 squadrons, distributed on both the coasts; located at Daman, Chennai, Calcutta and Port Blair. In effect, just over 12 aircraft could be operational at all times on both the coasts, to conduct the surveillance of over 2 million sq. km. of sea! This is clearly a grossly inadequate force level for effective airborne maritime surveillance. Moreover, the major drawback of these aircraft is that they simply cannot enforce the law when required to do so, even though they have far greater speed, and can cover a much larger area of sea at any given time, in comparison to ships. Even if aircraft on maritime patrol detect a violation of Indian law in the EEZ, they are helpless in taking immediate action. At best, they can communicate the location, speed, and direction of the ship/trawler to their regional/district headquarter, and leave it to the ships to actually enforce the law by apprehending the violator. Nonetheless, they do play an important role in combatting pollution at sea.

In addition, the Navy possesses a number of aircraft for maritime surveillance, comprising 8 Tupolev Tu-142 Ms, 5 extremely old II-38s, and a few Dornier Do-228s and PBN Maritime Defenders.9 Although these aircraft are not optimised for EEZ surveillance, they could carry out this task. However, it must be clear that this is not a priority task for these aircraft, and at, times, could intrude into their own operations. Enhanced coordination between the Coast Guard and the Navy could clearly benefit airborne maritime surveillance of the EEZ.

Maritime Surveillance by Ship

At present, the Coast Guard possesses 49 surface ships. These range from 2,000 tonne Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) to small patrol craft of less than 50 tonnes. The largest of its ships, the two Indian-built Samar-class OPVs are equipped with guns and a helicopter each. The third, and final, ship of this class is expected to be commissioned soon. In addition, the nine 1,200 tonne Vikram-class OPVs are the only other class of ship in the Coast Guard to possess a helicopter each. Virtually all Coast Guard ships have been built in Indian shipyards.

Even though the operational capability of the Coast Guard stands at its highest level yet, only 15 of the 49 ships can be operational at any given time for obvious reasons. Moreover, they are also distributed amongst the two coasts and the island territories. These ships possess relatively limited speed and radar capability with which to detect and identify violators of the law. At a speed of 14 nm, for example, a surface ship could reach the outer perimeter of the EEZ only some 14 hours later! With a radar range of 30 nm., the area of sea over which surveillance can be effectively carried out is limited. If we calculate this radar coverage for 15 ships at some distance from each other, the total area of surveillance, in relation to the size of the entire EEZ, is minuscule indeed. Although warships of the Navy also patrol the seas, their top priority is not the maritime surveillance of the EEZ.

Clearly, the Coast Guard does not have the required numerical strength to conduct effective surveillance of the Indian EEZ. Cooperation with the Navy would considerably enhance the surveillance of the EEZ, but this would remain of low priority to naval forces, which prefer to be engaged in other activities elsewhere. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Coast Guard chooses to maintain effective surveillance over certain limited areas of sea, where the propensity for action is seen to exist. This could take place with regard to the maintenance of law and order at sea, and disputed maritime boundaries with neighbours.

At the present time, the Coast Guard, in association with the Navy, is involved in intense maritime surveillance over the Palk Straits and the Gulf of Mannar, to prevent the infiltration of Sri Lankan Tamil militants into the country (Operation Tasha) and the influx of Tamil refugees (Operation Nakabandi), respectively; off the coasts of Maharashtra and Gujarat, following the serial bomb blasts in Mumbai in 1993 (Operation Swan); and off the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to curb poaching by foreign nationals in their inland creeks (Operation Bulund).10 It was not surprising, therefore, that in a much-publicised incident in early February 1998, the Coast Guard, with the assistance of naval ships and commandos, Army personnel, and Air Force helicopters, successfully intercepted a large consignment of weapons on Longoff Island in the Andamans. These weapons comprised 154 guns, rocket launchers, communication sets, and 400,000 rounds of assorted ammunition, destined possibly for militant groups in the north-east.11 It may be noted that in March 1997, the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) had also seized a shipment of arms in the Andaman Sea, destined for a militant group in India.12 Since its formation, the Coast Guard has apprehended over 500 foreign trawlers, along with approximately 5,700 personnel, for illegally fishing in Indian waters. During April-November 1996, for example, it apprehended 25 trawlers of six countries: Sri Lanka (17), Myanmar (3), Pakistan (2), Indonesia (1), Malaysia (1), and Thailand (1).13 During 1997, it caught 42 foreign vessels fishing illegally in Indian waters.14

The Coast Guard expansion plan of 1992-97 provided an outlay of Rs. 1,223 crore; for the 1997-2002 period it has sought over double the amount, a sum of Rs. 2,674 crore, in view of the increasing number and costs of the vessels and aircraft to be acquired. During this period, it plans to acquire 22 new OPVs and Fast Patrol Vessels (FPVs), hovercrafts, six surveillance helicopters and an undisclosed number of fixed-wing Maritime Reconnaissance (MR) planes.

Maritime Surveillance in the Future

In essence, the effectiveness of maritime surveillance is dependent on two critical capabilities—detection and identification. More often than not, detection by itself is not sufficient. As soon as a ship/trawler is detected, it is important that identification be made, in order to distinguish it from the other ships detected in the area. This requires the ability to scan a wide area of sea, the provision of high resolution imagery, and near real-time transmission. These operations would also be need to be as economical as possible. It is clear that neither ships nor aircraft can wholly meet these criteria. Instead, two possible options for effective maritime surveillance of the EEZ in the future are the deployment of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) at sea, and the launch of satellites especially equipped for this task.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are increasing being used by armed forces around the world. The success of Israeli tactical UAVs during the 1982 Lebanon conflict, especially the provision of real-time data to the battlefield commander, brought about a renaissance of sorts in UAV technology. The 1991 Gulf War saw their use on a small scale. Since then a number of countries have been engaged in the development and production of UAVs, including the USA ("Outrider", "Pioneer", "Global Hawk" and "Dark Star"), Russia ("Sterkh"), France/Germany ("Brevel" and "Crecerelle"), the UK (Phoenix"), Germany ("Seamos"), Czech ("Sojka"), Israel ("Hermes 450", "Heron", "Hunter", "Searcher", and "Sniper"), and Japan ("RPH-2"). A recent authoritative survey has listed 143 UAVs and drones currently under development/production by 53 companies in 13 states.15 Clearly, the largest number of companies working on UAVs and drones are located in the USA. The major problems in development currently being faced include the attempt to place too many sensors on too small an air frame, the transmission of unhindered data from the UAVs, and the retention of control by the ground control station.16

Amongst the UAVs, only the German "Seamos" programme is exclusively aimed at maritime surveillance. Developed by Daimler-Benz Aerospace, known globally for its production of the Dornier aircraft, the company has considerable expertise in maritime security affairs. The overall length of the UAV is 9.35 feet, with a maximum overall span of 20 feet; it weighs just over a 1,000 kg (minus the booster); is powered by a single Allison 250-C20W engine; and equipped with radar. It flies at a speed of just over 100 miles per hour (mph), at a maximum altitude of 13, 125 feet, and has an endurance of nearly five hours. Its most distinguishing feature, however, is is Vertical Take-Off Landing (VTOL) capacity, making it eminently suitable for launch and retrieval by ships at sea.17

India's Capabilities

During the past few years, India has also been engaged in the development of a Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) "Nishant", as well as a Pilotless Target Aircraft (PTA) "Lakshya". Work is being carried out at the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) in Bangalore, an establishment of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). The "Nishant" is presently completing the test phase for both the flying vehicle and the payload. It is 1.2 metres in length with a wing span of 1.5 metres; it weighs approximately 300 kg. (including a 45 kg. payload); is powered by a German ALVIS AR-801 engine; and is capable of five-four flights at low altitude (up to 1,000 metres).18

Till late 1997, three prototypes of the "Nishant" had been built, with 14 pre-production vehicles under construction for comprehensive operational evaluation. Full production is expected to begin later this year. Follow-on programmes are also being undertaken, although they do not include ship or land-based UAVs for maritime surveillance. Also, India recently ordered 32 "Searcher" UAVs from Israel.


Satellites in orbit clearly provide the key to comprehensive and effective maritime surveillance, although it is clear that only a handful of countries can develop such technologies and expertise. Since the first Sputnik launch by the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1957, thousands of satellites have been launched into orbit. Indeed, for some 30 years, during the 1963-1993 period, over 110 satellites were launched or attempted to be launched annually; it was only in 1993 that this number decreased to under 110. In 1997, the number of satellites launched or attempted to be launched had once again surpassed 110.19 In the near future, at least 70 per cent recent of all satellites built and launched are expected to be civil (commercial) communications satellites. The remainder will comprise other civil satellites (for navigation, scientific, weather, and earth imaging/observation purposes), and military satellites (for communications, early warning, navigation, reconnaissance and surveillance, scientific and weather purposes).20

It is these civil (commercial) earth imaging satellites (expected to constitute only 5 per cent of the total market in the near future) that have critical utility for maritime surveillance. This is especially true when over 70 per cent of the globe is covered with water. The advent of these remote sensing capabilities transformed earlier conventional surface measurements by aircraft, through uniformity of coverage and the provision of a series of reliable and repetitive measurements.21 Such polar-orbiting satellites are expected to cross the Indian Ocean from top to bottom in approximately half-an-hour, and a state's EEZ in less than a minute.22

Moreover, the high-resolution imagery at present provided by these satellites, expected to become even higher in the near future, is steadily blurring the distinction between civil and military satellites. Whereas the sophisticated French military reconnaissance satellite "Helios" (launched in 1995) has a resolution of 1 metre, civil satellites provide a resolution imagery of only 5-10 metres (expected to become 1metre shortly). However, the resolution of the American military Key Hole (KH) satellite series, is much higher, believed to be approximately 0.15 metres.

Moreover, imagery from civil satellites is now readily available at relatively inexpensive prices; in 1997, the cost of a French Systeme Pour I' Observation de la Terre (SPOT) image was approximately US $8,000, a Canadian Radarsat image was selling at US $4,000 each, and Russian images were available for US $3,600 in film form, and US $10 per sq. km as digital data. 23 In 1992, two Russian firms also began to sell selected images with resolutions as high as 2 metres, based on the Russian military KVR-1000 satellite system.24

The importance of high-resolution imagery from civil satellites is particularly important when examined in terms of the resolution required to detect and identify surface ships at sea. It has been estimated that for surface ships, a resolution of 7.5-1.5 metres is required for detection; 4.5 metres for general identification; 0.6 metres for precise identification; 0.3 metres for a description; and 0.045 metres for technical analysis.25 In effect, the resolution of civil satellites at present is sufficient to detect and identify (generally) surface ships at sea. Clearly, this is not applicable to sub-surface forces (submarines).

India's Capabilities

India has made considerable progress in satellite technologies and launcher systems over the years; the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is especially active in this area. In terms of satellites, the Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) series stands out. Five IRS satellites have been launched so far into low earth sun-synchronous orbit: IRS-IA in March 1988, IRS-IB in August 1991, IRS-IE in September 1993 (not operational), IRS-IC December 1995, and IRS-ID in September 1997. In 1998-99, second-generation IRS satellites, IRS-2A and IRS-2B, are expected to be placed into orbit, followed by others, including the Cartosat and the Resourcesat, for land applications and coastal zone studies, respectively. Whereas the IRS-1C satellite is estimated to possess a resolution as high as 4.8 metres, the Cartosat (IRS-P5) satellite (to be launched in 1999) is expected to provide high-resolution imagery of just 2.5 metres. 26 Meanwhile, a major advantage for India is its ability to bypass the film retrieval infrastructure, and, therefore, proceed directly to real-time collection of data from space.27

Towards the end of 1998, India will launch the first of a series of scientific ocean satellites, Oceansat-1 (IRS-P4), into a near polar sun- synchronous orbit, in commemoration of the United Nations International Year of the Ocean (1998). This satellite will have a payload dedicated to oceanography and ocean meteorology, including an Ocean Colour Monitor (OCM) (for measuring biological constituents such as chlorophyll pigments and assessment of primary productivity), and a Multifrequency Scanning Microwave Radiometer (MSMR) (for measuring the Sea Surface Temperature—SST). This will be followed by the Oceansat-2 in 2001, which will carry a complete set of oceanographic payloads, including a Wind Scatterometer and Radar Altimeter.28 At present, there are no plans to place radars aboard these satellites for the provision of high-resolution imagery for maritime surveillance.

Clearly, the imagery from the later versions of the IRS series of satellites can detect and generally identify surface ships of a certain size and class at sea. However, in view of other priority tasks, they are not being used for this mission. In effect, the IRS satellites are not being utilised by the Navy or the Coast Guard for the non-military mission of conducting space-borne surveillance of the Indian EEZ. Another problem is the inability of these satellites to clearly identify violator ships amongst the hundreds of fishing boats/trawlers in a specific area in proximity to the coast. Such a task would require electronic identification aboard all legitimate ships in the Indian EEZ, which would enable space-based sensors to track their progress, as well as identify boats fishing illegally in Indian waters. While this may be an ideal solution, it is clearly beyond the limits of reality in the future.


It is clear that the maritime surveillance of the Indian EEZ is an extremely difficult and complex task, at the best of times. The sole organisation responsible for this mission, the Coast Guard, simply does not have the requisite resources, ships, aircraft or manpower, to conduct it effectively. Naval assets could assist in this mission, but it would never be on a priority basis for the Navy. In effect, the Coast Guard is daily engaged in the surveillance of specific areas of the EEZ, where the potential for trouble is perceived to exist. Clearly, for the effective surveillance of the EEZ, and its consequent impact on enhancing Indian security, additional funds need to be provided to the Coast Guard in the immediate period.

In terms of technologies for maritime surveillance in the future, the deployment of UAVs and earth (read water) observation satellites, provide the best bet. India has made considerable progress in these areas, although it still falls short in a number of ways. Therefore, further initiatives need to be taken immediately with respect to the development of a maritime-specific UAV, and the provision of requisite sensors aboard Oceansat satellites, for the maritime surveillance of the Indian EEZ.



1. Mark Broughton, "Electronics in the EEZ", EEZ Technology (1997), p. 123.

2. Rahul Ray-Chaudhury, "The Indian Coast Guard in the 1990s", Indian Defence Review, October 1993, p. 64.

3. Department of Ocean Development Annual Report 1996-97 (1997), p. 22.

4. Rahul Ray-Chaudhury, Sea Power and Indian Security (1995), p. 82.

5. Horace B. Robertson, Jr, The "New" Law of the Sea and the Law of Armed Conflict at Sea", The Newport Papers, no. 3, Ocotber 1992, pp. 22-23.

6. "The Coast Guard", Coast Guard Headquarters (1993), pp. 1-2.

7. Ibid.

8. See Jane's Fighting Ships 1997-1998 (1997), p. 292.

9. Ibid

10. Ministry of Defence Annual Report 1996-97 (1997), pp. 37-38.

11. Times of India, February 12, 1998, p. 1.

12. Jane's Defence Weekly, March 26, 1997, p. 14.

13. n. 10, p. 38.

14. Times of India, January 29, 1998, p. 9.

15. "Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Drones", Aviation Week and Space Technology, January 12, 1998, pp. 96-103.

16. Steven J. Zaloga, "UAVs Gaining Credibility", Aviation Week and Space Technology, Ibid, p. 93.

17. No. 14, pp. 98-99.

18. M.A. Khan, "India's RPV Programmes", Military Technology, 11/97, pp. 58-59.

19. Marco Antonio Caceres, "Satcoms Prosper", Aviation Week and Space Technology, n. 15 p. 137.

20. Ibid, p. 138.

21. Organisation for Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Cooperation (IOMAC), Applications of Satellite Sensing over the Indian Ocean, August 1991, p. 4.

22. Ibid., p 47.

23. Gerald M Steinberg, Dual Use Aspects of Commercial High-Resolution Imaging Satellites (February 1998) p 11.

24. Ibid., p. 8.

25. Ibid., p. 26.

26. Ibid., pp. 15 and 19.

27. Prashant Dikshit, "A Verification for India", Strategic Analysis, February 1994, p. 1452.

28. A.E. Muthunayagam, Unpublished Paper, Satellite Oceanography, 1998, p. 5.