SSCP-A Mariner’s Perspective

published on May 13, 2007





Capt (Retd) H. Balakrishnan, I.N







1.      The SSCP is an off-shore shipping canal project in the PalkBay. It plans to cut short the distance navigated by ships sailing from the West coast of India and bound for ports on the Eastern seaboard and vice versa, by precluding the necessity to circumnavigate around Sri Lanka.


2.      The total length of the SSCP in the Palk Bay is 152.2 Kms. It is divided into three legs. The Southern leg in the Adam’s Bridge area is 20 Kms. The Northern leg in the Palk Strait area is 54.2 Kms. The Central portion is 78 Kms. Dredging is to be carried out in the Southern and Northern legs to maintain a dredged depth of 12 metres. This would facilitate a navigable channel for ships with a draught of upto 10.7 meters. The canal will be 300 meters wide.


3.      The basic justification advanced in favour of the project is that it will reduce the sailing distance between Kolkata and Tuiticorin by 340 nautical miles and between Chennai and Tuiticorin by 434 nautical miles. This enables savings in fuel costs and sailing time, for ships plying between these ports.


4.      This paper aims to analyse the viability of the SSCP against the canvas of the following factors, that have a bearing on shipping:


(a)             Environmental Factors

(b)            Security Implications

(c)             Navigational and Allied Factors





    Tropical Cyclones


5.      The India Meteorological Department has assigned the Palk Bay area as a ‘High Risk Area’ for cyclonic activity. The cyclone season  in the Bay of Bengal is generally between Oct to Jan. It is interesting to note that the IMD’s records from 1891-2001, states that of the 452 cyclones that hit the Indian coastline, 256 were on the East coast. We mariners, in a lighter vein, refer to the Tamil Nadu coast between Rameswaram and Cuddalore as the ‘cyclone coast’!! There are valid reasons for this quip. Of the 256 cyclones referred, 64 have crossed the Tamil Nadu coast in this period. Of these, 36 were ‘severe cyclones’ (winds in excess of 90 Kmph). More interesting, of these cyclones, SIX have crossed the Palk Bay, 14 have crossed the coast at Nagapattinam and THREE have crossed the Gulf of Mannar. All these cyclones can have a devastating consequence on the SSCP and shipping in the area.


6.       A few more examples of the devastating consequences of these cyclones, will be illustrative:


(a)            In Dec 1964, a cyclone washed away the Pamban Bridge.


(b)            In Dec 1973, FIVE metres high tidal waves hit the Palk Bay area – the very same area where the SSCP is to be dredged!!


(c)            In Dec 1977/78, under the influence of a severe cyclonic storm that crossed the coast near Nagapattinam, 120 Kmph winds were recorded in the Palk Bay area.


(d)            In Nov/Dec 1997/98, an oil-drilling ship, anchored with SIX anchors in the Cauvery Basin, broke loose from her anchors and was washed ashore by a cyclone.


7.      The foregoing will serve to illustrate the fact that the Bay of Bengal cyclones pose a ‘clear, live and present danger’ to ‘Safety of Lives at Sea’ (SOLAS). And, the SSCP is sought to be created in a ‘cyclone danger area’!!




8.      Allied to the cyclonic activity in the area, is the problem of siltation leading to a loss of sea depth. Scientists have concluded that the Palk Bay area is one of the FIVE areas, off the Indian coast, where  siltation takes place regularly. Some of their calculations have indicated a loss in sea depth of about 1 cms every year. It is pertinent to state that TWO of the LEGS of the SSCP, where dredging is to be undertaken, happen to cross two such micro regions where high siltation takes place.


9.      To conclude, the environmental factors of cyclonic activity and siltation rates in the Palk Bay area, impinge on shipping safety. It is also appreciated that maintenance dredging may have to be undertaken through the year to maintain dredged depths. This could lead to substantially increasing the costs of the SSCP.




Global Scene on Maritime Terrorism  


10.  While terrorist attacks are predominantly land based, non-state actors have also sought to exploit vulnerabilities in shipping, ports and the container supply chains in Asia, Middle- East, Europe and North America.


11.   Conventional arms trade and smuggling, both highly profitable global businesses, are spreading increasingly sophisticated conventional weapons to non-state actors, including long- range anti-ship missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles and close range armour piercing missiles and rocket propelled grenades. All these weapons are capable of inflicting serious damage to ships.


12.  The list of foiled, failed and successful attempts in maritime related terrorism over the past decade is significant. Yet, there is a tendency to overlook or downplay what has happened, and thus ignore the possibility of further trouble. It is clear that terrorists can see the potential of using the maritime trading system and its land links in the container supply chain to conceal weapons or agents for attack purposes. Two recent examples of terrorist attacks on naval warships help illustrate the point.


13.    Attack on the U.S.S. Cole.  In Oct 2000, Al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen, packed a small boat with explosives and rammed the same onto the U.S. Navy destroyer, U.S.S. Cole, while the ship was in harbour. The blast left a gaping hole on the side of the destroyer and the cost of repairs amounted to USD 250 million. The blast killed 17 U.S. Naval sailors and, wounded another 40 seamen.


14. Missile attack on Israeli Naval Ships.  On 14 Jul 2006, two days after hostilities between Israel and the Hezbollah commenced, the latter fired TWO, C-802   radar guided cruise missiles from ashore in Lebanon, at Israeli naval vessels patrolling off the Lebanese coast. One missile seriously damaged an Israeli naval corvette. The second missile narrowly missed another corvette. Instead it hit a Cambodian registered merchant vessel, sinking it with eleven hands on board.


The LTTE Factor


15. The LTTE factor has a direct bearing on the safety of shipping navigating through the SSCP. The LTTE has control over most of North Sri Lanka coastal region and the seas contiguous to it. The Sea Tigers, the naval arm of the LTTE, have displayed considerable ingenuity and daring in sea borne insurgency. They have carried out numerous daring attacks on Sri Lankan naval ships, and have not hesitated in resorting to suicide missions. It is pertinent to note that the SSCP is a ‘next-door-neighbour’ in the area of operations of the Sea Tigers!!


16.A new addition to the LTTE’s fighting capability is its ‘Air Arm’. They have todate carried out THREE daring ‘night attacks’ on Sri Lankan assets. This factor adds a new dimension to the threat perception along the SSCP.


17.Reports in open source literature indicate that the aircraft deployed by the LTTE Air Force is the Czech manufactured ‘ZLIN-Z 242 L’ aircraft. These appear to have been purchased from a private South African flying club. The aircraft is delivered in a knocked-down condition and can be easily smuggled as automobile parts or components of heavy commercial vehicles. By all accounts these aircraft were ferried by sea using forged Bills of Lading. This corroborates Para 11 above.


18.  Reports also indicate that the flying training for the LTTE’s pilots was carried out by the same South African flying club. It is also suspected that armament training were carried out by mercenaries in South Africa. All the air attacks on Sri Lankan assets todate have been at night, indicating a high degree of proficiency. The SSCP falls within the radius of operation of these aircraft!!


19.      Media reports of 28 Apr 2007 in Chenai, attributed the recent killings of the TN fishermen at sea to the LTTE Sea Tigers. The grounds for the killings, attributed to LTTE sources, was that these fishermen were ‘spying’ on the LTTE’s activities at sea!! If that be the case, the possibility of the LTTE advancing the same argument for attacking ships navigating through the SSCP cannot be ruled out. The consequences of a ship sinking in the canal could have a disastrous impact on the viability of the project itself. It would have a psychological impact on the shipping industry which may then tend to avoid the SSCP and circumnavigate Sri Lanka in the larger interests of safety of men and material.





20.The official website of the SSCP states: “ Ships originating in the West of India and destined for Chennai, Ennore, Vishakapatnam, Paradeep, Haldia and Kolkata have to travel around the Sri Lankan coast resulting in increase of travel distance and time. Apart from this ships belonging to the Indian Navy and Cost Guard need also to traverse around Sri Lanka- – “ .


Navy and Coast Guard


21. The website statement about the Navy and the Coast Guard would give the impression Naval/Coast Guard ships sail to and from either coasts on a frequent basis. In reality this is not the case.


22.  The navy has been operating on a ‘Two Fleet’ concept for over three decades, to safeguard our maritime interests on the Eastern and Western seaboards. New induction ships are allotted to both Fleet to maintain the required Force Levels on both coasts. Thus the requirement for ships to cross over to the other coast is more the exception than the rule. At the most, they may meet annually for a combined Fleet exercise programme.


23.  Besides, peacetime sailings of the Fleet are to hone skill levels in battle-manoeuvres, missile and gun firings, submarine exercises, aircraft operations and underway re-fuelling exercise at sea. All these and other exercises are conducted in areas far removed from the coastal and international shipping lanes for obvious reasons. Under these circumstances and considering the security implications in the area contiguous to the SSCP, it is debatable whether a Fleet would prefer to navigate through the SSCP. Also, if the Fleet happens to be a carrier battle group, availing the SSCP route can be almost ruled out, on account of various tactical factors.


24.  During the period of hostilities, it is improbable that ships on passage to either coast would navigate through the SSCP as it militates against the basic principles of naval operations of avoiding straits and narrows to maintain secrecy of  deployment.


25.  Similar arguments can also be advanced on the deployment of Coast Guard vessels.


Mercantile Marine</STR

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