Flashpoints | Security | South Asia

Sea Vigil: India’s Coastal Security Exercise

Given India’s vast coastline and a not-so-benign neighborhood, India has to remain vigilant to external threats via sea routes.

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
Sea Vigil: India’s Coastal Security Exercise
Credit: Flickr/ Sanyam Bahga

Since the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, coastal security has assumed particular importance among India’s national security concerns. Because that attack came through a sea route, the national government and state governments along India’s long coastline have taken several steps to address potential capacity issues of various intelligence and security forces. One such step is the biennial coastal security exercise called “Sea Vigil.” The second edition, “Sea Vigil-21,” was held on January 12-13, 2021.  

India began this biennial pan-Indian exercise in January 2019. In addition to all the coastal security agencies from the different states and union territories, the exercise also pulled in other maritime stakeholders including fishing and coastal communities. The exercise is meant to assess India’s coastal security preparedness to prevent any “attempt by anti-national elements to carry out an attack on its territory or against its citizens by infiltrating through the sea route.”  

The Indian Navy in its statement on the 2019 inaugural edition said that the exercise tested a number of contingency situations including attacks on vital installations and assets along the coast and studied the response mechanism in terms of coordination and information sharing among the different agencies involved in the exercise. The exercise has been used to validate the effectiveness of the response measures and address the gaps that may exist.  Multi-agency teams were tasked to review the security practices at several vulnerable spots across the coast including fish landing centers; major, minor, and intermediate ports; lighthouses; coastal police stations; control rooms; and operation centers. The 2019 exercise was conducted under the lead of the commander-in-chief of coastal defense, Southern Naval Command, and observed by the Joint Operations Center at Kochi in southern India.  

Like the first edition, the second iteration was held all along the 7,516-kilometer Indian coastline and exclusive economic zone with the participation of all 13 coastal states and union territories as well as other stakeholders. According to a statement released by the Indian Ministry of Defense, “the scale and conceptual expanse of the exercise is unprecedented in terms of the geographical extent, the number of stakeholders involved, the number of units participating and in terms of the objectives to be met.” Sea Vigil-21 is a precursor to the major theater-level exercise TROPEX (Theater-level Readiness Operational Exercise) that the Indian Navy conducts every two years. The Defense Ministry suggests that the two exercises together could cover the entire range of maritime security challenges that India faces, both during peacetime as well as in conflict situations.  

In addition to pooling together resources from the Indian Navy, Coast Guard, Customs, and other stakeholders in the maritime security realm, the exercise involved all the key ministries of defense, home affairs, shipping, petroleum and natural gas, fisheries, customs, and state governments along the coast. State police teams, the Indian Navy Marine Commandos (MARCOS), and Commandos from the National Security Guard (NSG) also took part in the exercise to test their preparedness to address possible maritime terrorist attacks.  

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The exercise included the participation of more than 110 Indian Navy and Coast Guard surface assets to validate the effectiveness of India’s coastal security policies. The Information Management and Analysis Center (IMAC), based in Gurgaon (a suburb of New Delhi) and the various associated bodies within the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard stations were also part of the exercise in testing the surveillance and information dissemination exercise. The exercise was also important to review the technical surveillance infrastructure called the National Command, Control, Communication and Intelligence (NC3I) Network.    

Given India’s vast coastline, spanning across more than a dozen states, and a not-so-benign neighborhood, India has to remain vigilant to external threats via sea routes. Even before the 2008 Mumbai attack, Mumbai had suffered from terrorist attacks, including the serial blasts in March 1993, a reminder of the security vulnerabilities that continue to plague India from maritime spaces. In the wake of the 1993 blasts, India stepped up efforts through Operation Swan, which was primarily to prevent illegal infiltration along the Maharashtra and Gujarat coasts. But clearly, these were not enough to prevent the 2008 terrorist attacks that once again came through a sea route. Subsequently, the Indian government began a major effort to upgrade police forces of the various Indian states, though there continues to be criticism about how this modernization is being carried out.

Another challenge is that there are multiple agencies involved in ensuring India’s maritime and coastal security, including the Indian Navy and Coast Guard as well as the marine police forces of the coastal states and union territories. The Indian Navy and Coast Guard are responsible monitoring in depth and protecting India’s exclusive economic zone. The latter is also responsible for security of the territorial waters. The marine police from different coastal states have a responsibility for maintaining a watch on areas close to shore. While the Indian Navy praised the efforts of all the different agencies in working together in a well-coordinated manner during Sea Vigil-21, the multiplicity of agencies could prove to be challenging in an actual crisis.