The international efforts to locate the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines flight MH 370 which went missing over the southern Indian Ocean nearly seven months ago have continued unabated. Till such time the debris and the black box is located, the cause of the accident will remain a mystery; but the unfortunate incident brought to fore the challenges posed by the underwater domain and also the national, regional and global limitations of search and rescue (SAR). Post the MH 370 tragedy, a number of conferences, workshops and symposia have highlighted the gaps in SAR in the Indian Ocean and the issue has been high on the national agenda as also in multilateral organisations.
The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), a pan-Indian Ocean multilateral organisation, has highlighted the need for regional efforts to build SAR capacity and capability. The Perth Communiqué in October 2014 listed a number of maritime security issues, such as sea lane security, terrorism and piracy that require the attention of the member states, and has advocated enhanced cooperation. Significantly, the Communiqué highlights the need for ‘greater coordination and cooperation among search and rescue services in the Indian Ocean region’. The document also makes reference to the IORA’s Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Search and Rescue to address this challenge and build capacity to respond to maritime and aviation related incidents. Australia, Comoros, Seychelles, Singapore and South Africa signed a MoU on SAR cooperation and Australia announced a $ 2.6 million fund to support Sri Lanka, Mauritius and the Maldives – three countries bordering its SAR region – for building capacities to respond to SAR incidents.
In the Indian Ocean, each coastal state is allocated a Search and Rescue Region (SRR) and they have set up national systems and arrangements such as Rescue Co-ordination Centres (RCC) and Rescue Sub-Centres (RSC), SAR facilities and communications in the area, including detailed plans for conducting SAR operations. The Indian Ocean is also divided into a number of sea spaces called NAVAREAS (VII- South Africa; VIII S-Mauritius; VIII N- India; XI-Pakistan; and X-Australia). These are administered by the coordinator country that is responsible for providing vital navigation warnings, including weather data.
A number of international conventions on SAR such as the 1974 Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR), 1982 LoS Convention, and the International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue (IAMSAR) have been adopted by member states.
Similarly, there are regional agreements that support national commitments to develop and render SAR. For instance, the ASEAN countries have adopted the 1992 ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea which urges states to explore cooperation in the South China Sea for SAR operations. The 2002 Code of Conduct notes that “pending a comprehensive and durable settlement of the disputes, the Parties may explore or undertake cooperative activities such as search and rescue operation;” and the ADMM Plus encourages practical cooperation for maritime security and HADR.
The IORA initiative can potentially transform the Indian Ocean regional SAR response capabilities. At the core of such initiative would be capacity-building through technology and training. A successful SAR operation is dependent on surveillance assets such as ships, aircraft, satellites and underwater systems. It is important to mention that most Indian Ocean littorals lack surveillance assets and proper equipment to conduct SAR operations, and only a few can undertake deep sea rescue. Similarly, training and enhanced planning is critical for SAR. It involves detailed organisational structures and strategies for mobilisation of the SAR resources for a quick response.
The IORA initiative is a welcome development given that the Indian Ocean witnesses a number of natural occurrences such as cyclones and tsunamis, dense shipping and enormous fishing activity. Also, its turbid and opaque waters make underwater operations complex, resulting in immense challenges for SAR agencies.
The Indian Ocean cooperative multilateral arrangements include the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS). The 2014 Perth Communiqué encourages a dialogue between IORA and IONS. It can be argued that if IORA is a politico-diplomatic arrangement for the regional states to formulate multilateral agenda and policy, the IONS is a tool for executing national commitment to IORA. In that context, the IONS charter of business, among other issues, is on ‘concept-development and associated table-top and/or real-world exercises’ on SAR including submarine rescue merit attention and further development.
It would be in fitness of things that IONS goes beyond dialogues, conferences and workshops to practical exercises at regional/sub-regional levels to respond to maritime insecurities in the Indian Ocean and develop common standard operating procedures to build interoperability among the various maritime agencies to address SAR.