The Bangladesh Navy has witnessed phenomenal growth in past three decades. It is evolving into a truly three-dimensional navy capable of maintaining an effective posture across the full spectrum of any conflict at sea. Notwithstanding the fact that the Navy has already made significant investments, there is still a need for new equipment as the Navy faces major challenges as many of its ageing units are in urgent need of replacement. ESD had the opportunity to talk to Rear Admiral Mohammad Musa, Commander Khulna Naval Area (COMKHUL).
When Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan on 26 March 1971, the navy consisted of only two armed river patrol boats. Today, its inventory stands at more than 100 ships and craft and some 22,000 personnel. Bangladesh has a 710 km coastline along the Bay of Bengal with the principal ports of Chittagong and Mongla and, having settled its maritime boundaries with Myanmar in 2012, and India in 2014 via international arbitration, a sovereign claim over an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 118,813 km2. Bangladesh also has one of the largest inland water transport networks in the world, covering a total length of some 24,000 km with river ports at Dhaka, Narayanganj, Chandpur, Bhairab, Barisal, Chittagong, and Khulna and minor 21 inland river ports. The Navy Establishments and assets are spread over three regions: the Dhaka Naval Area, the Chittagong Naval Area, and the Khulna Naval Area. The Naval Headquarters are located in the country’s capital Dhaka and includes the establishments BNS Haji Mohsin, BNS Sheikh Mujib, and the Naval Unit Pagla. The main naval bases are located in Chittagong, 250km south east from Dhaka, and Khulna 270 km south west of Dhaka, and Kaptai 60 km east of Chittagong. A new base, BNS Sher-e-Bangla, is under construction in Patuakhali in southwestern sector of Bangladesh. It will become the navy’s largest naval base with ship berthing and aviation facilities. A separate submarine base, BNS Sheikh Hasina, is also under construction near Kutubdia Island. The navy’s training establishments are the Bangladesh Naval Academy, BNS Issa Khan in Chittagong; the New Entry Training School, and the School of Logistics and Management in Khulna located in BNS Titumir, and BNS Shaheed Moazzam at Kaptai, in the Rangamati Hill District.
ESD: Admiral Musa, I had the honor to meet you at the 12th Regional Seapower Symposium in Venice. What is the value of the RSS for the Bangladesh Navy?
Admiral Musa: Nowadays, as transnational maritime challenges are becoming more diverse, complex, unpredictable, and intertwined, cooperation between navies is imperative. So we need the integrated approach to ensure our maritime security. The 12th Regional Seapower Symposium brings together allies and partners who desire to strengthen international security and stability. This symposium is an excellent platform for an open and constructive exchange of ideas and generates maritime awareness, and highlight the need for a shared approach to ensure peace and prosperity.
ESD: As the Commander Khulna Naval Area can you provide some details about your command?
Admiral Musa: As Commander Khulna Naval Area, I deal with all maritime activities of Bangladesh’s south and south-western region, and assure the security of the country’s two major sea ports Mongla and Payra. The Khulna Naval Area is the navy’s western naval command, headquartered in BNS Titumir in the city of Khulna. BNS Titumir, one of our navy’s largest bases, is home port to numerous naval units and houses several naval establishments such as the School of Logistics and Management, and the New Entry Training School [a boot camp for new recruits]. We are also responsible for the administrative and logistic support to all our navy ships, the Khulna Shipyard and the Mongla and Payra Port authorities.
ESD: Looking at the Bangladesh Navy in general, what are its tasks and missions?
Admiral Musa: The Bangladesh Navy (BN) plays a central role in safeguarding the nation’s sovereignty and interests in the maritime domain. Our primary tasks are to patrol the territorial waters, ensure our rights over the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and Continental Shelf; keep the Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC) and our ports open; protect the fishing fleet; conduct Maritime SAR-operations; carry out oceanographic surveys; provide disaster management and humanitarian assistance & disaster relief (HA/DR) in the event of natural disasters (floods, cyclones, tidal waves, earthquakes), and any other task for which the government may deem it necessary to deploy the navy. The increased use of the maritime domain for illegal fishing, smuggling illegal drugs and other illicit traffic, considerably augmented our commitments.
And with the settlement of maritime boundary delimitations with our neighbours [India and Myanmar], and the introduction by our government of the ‘Blue Economy’ Programme, our tasks increased even further. This ‘Blue Economy’ initiative aims at turning the Bay of Bengal into a hub of economic development and to effectively utilise the marine resources through the conservation and efficient use of the resources of the sea. Obviously, this implicates the reliance on the navy to lead many of these national maritime issues in order to protect our maritime interests and coordinate the Blue Economy Activities.
ESD: The national and the international environment are characterised by the increase of asymmetric threats at sea. Does your navy has sufficient assets to comply to all its commitments?
Admiral Musa: In the past decade, the Bangladesh Navy has mustered adequate assets to carry out its mandated tasks and we are working to improve our capabilities even further. Our Government is very supportive to develop a credible fleet, with robust and dynamic support structures, as well as a skilled and motivated workforce. Its “Forces Goals 2030 Initiative”, introduced in 2011 and being revised periodically, represents a major qualitative and quantitative improvement of our capabilities, turning the Bangladesh Navy into a credible three-dimensional force.
ESD: Can you give us a rundown on your navy’s procurement programmes? What projects are being carried out and which are in the planning stage?
Admiral Musa: In the past decade, we acquired two ex-Chinese JIANGHU III class frigates (BNS ABU BAKR and BNS ALI HAIDER in 2014); and the two JIANGWEI II class frigates (BNS OMAR FAROOQ and BNS ABU UBAIDAH) in January 2020; four newly-built SHADINHOTE class corvettes (BNS SHADINHOTA and BNS PROTTOY in 2016, and BNS SHANGRAM and BNS PROTTASAHA in 2019), two Chinese MING class diesel electric submarines (BNS NABAJKATRA and BNS JOYATRA) submarines, two helicopters from Italy (Agusta Westland 109E ‘POWER’) in 2011, four LCU type landing craft in 2015 and two maritime patrol aircraft from Germany (Dornier 228NG) in 2013. At the same time, we are also developing a sustainable local shipbuilding capability. Our shipbuilding infrastructure is being upgraded in order to build up to frigate-sized vessels and carry out the maintenance of all our units in-country. On order are a second batch of five PADMA class patrol vessels, and two more MPAs from Germany. On the longer term, we are looking into the replacement of our BNS OSMAN (ex-Chinese JIANGU II class) frigate and the six ex-RN ISLAND class offshore patrol vessels, as well as into the procurement of new mine countermeasure vessels, logistic ships, and additional helicopters and MPAs.
ESD: Drones are a major game-changer in maritime surveillance. Do you plan to acquire drones?
Admiral Musa: Indeed. The Bangladesh Navy Centre for Research & Development has already produced indigenously built drone for targeting practices, and is also working on research to manufacture drones and UAVs to carry out surveillance and monitor coastal and offshore activities.
ESD: Partnerships and international co-operation became a necessity. How would you assess the level of interaction and cooperation with other navies?
Admiral Musa: The motto of our foreign policy is “Friendship to all, malice to none”. The BN is a trusted regional partner and maintains strong relationships with many navies in the region and beyond, in order to effectively counter common threats at sea. We undertake a wide range of cooperative initiatives, such as bilateral and multilateral exercises at sea, joint training and capability building programmes. And we are engaged in various initiatives like the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, the Western Pacific Naval Symposium, and the Regional Seapower Symposium. Some of our officers and sailors undergo training in Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Turkey, the UK, and the US. Likewise, personnel from India, the Maldives, Qatar, and Sri Lanka receive training at Bangladesh Navy Training Establishments. We do regularly deploy assets ‘out-of-area’, i.e. our ships have been operating in Multinational Task Force in UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) in the Mediterranean Sea since 2010. And we also support international HA/DR operations, such as in the Maldives in 2014, the Philippines in 2013 and in Colombo after cyclone “Roanu”.
ESD: What do you think is needed for an effective approach to counter the arising threats and challenges?
Admiral Musa: Today, maritime threats have become widely diversified. We need to share information and help each other by identifying and combatting these threats, not only to ensure safety and security at sea, but also to reduce any misperceptions of a situation in order to avoid an escalation. It helps to develop a right perception on the threat and the measures to be taken by both maritime agencies on either side A good example is the introduction of the coordinated patrols(CORPAT) in June 2018, with our frigate BNS ABU BAKR and the offshore patrol vessel BNS DHALESHWARI, and the Indian Navy deploying the SHIVALIK class frigate INS SATPURA and the KAMORTA class corvette INS KADMATT. For the second edition, in October 2019, we took part with our frigate BNS ALI HAIDER, the corvette BNS SHADINOTA and a SWAD Team; the Indian Navy with the destroyer INS RANVIJAY, and the corvette INS KUTHAR.
These of CORPAT-patrols represent a significant improvement in countering transnational maritime threats and in our in naval relations
ESD: Which role does your navy play in the war on terror and counter-piracy operations?
Admiral Musa: We seek to shape a favourable and positive maritime environment towards preserving peace, promoting stability, and maintaining security. Our contribution in the war on terror and the counter-piracy operations has been appreciated for many years now. Together with the Bangladesh Coast Guard, we continuously patrol the northern Bay of Bengal and have succeeded in drastically reducing piracy, armed robbery and petty theft. And we are a proud member of elite maritime task force of the UN. We have been participating in UN missions since 1993, such as the UNIKOM post-Gulf War I in 1997 to patrol in the waters of the Iraq-Kuwaiti border, the Force Riverine Unit in UN Mission UNMISS in Sudan in 2005 until 2012, a Boat Detachment in Ivory Coast, and operated for 11 years off Abidjan between 2005 and 2016, and, since 2010, in the UN Maritime Task Force in Lebanon UNIFIL.
ESD: Cyber defence is becoming a priority in all military domains, not least for navies. What are the major cyber threats for the BN?
Admiral Musa: The Government takes the cyber threat very seriously and launched a comprehensive effort to strengthen our cyber defence. Otherwise, cyber-attacks will increasingly become harder to detect and even more difficult to counter. As we are becoming increasingly dependent on connectivity and digitalisation, the vulnerability of the ships and their systems will increase. Therefore, we need new capabilities, more surveillance and an integration of both national and international resources. We are improving our cyber situational awareness and working to acquire necessary expertise and capabilities.
ESD: People are the key element in naval forces. Many navies in the world are facing retention problems. Is this problem affecting your navy and what challenges does your navy face when recruiting and retaining people?
Admiral Musa: Today the people of Bangladesh have a greater expectation about quality of life to be rendered to them. Consequently, we are taking the necessary steps to improve our quality of life, work, and leadership. Job satisfaction leads to better productivity, retention and efficient performance. The navy provides education, professional training, post-retirement job opportunities, and family support in case of injury or loss of life during service. Our welfare schemes are comparable to those in the private and civil sector.
ESD: What will be the greatest challenges the BN will have to face in coming years?
Admiral Musa: The maritime domain is central to our security and prosperity, so it’s essential that we prepare for a wide range of contingencies. The modernisation and enhancement of the Navy’s capabilities is an on-going process to meet emerging maritime challenges and threats. Like most of the world’s navies, we face a wide array of challenges. Work is ongoing in how we can overcome these through acquiring state of the art platforms, development information technology and digital transformation, indigenous development and self-reliance, enhance surveillance and cyber security, utilisation of artificial intelligence (AI), and recruiting and training skilled human resources.
ESD: What is the way ahead for the Bangladesh Navy?
Admiral Musa: The Bangladesh Navy is well on course to become a credible three-dimensional force. As aforementioned, the introduction of a series of new platforms with much greater endurance and capability will allow us to increase our capabilities on, below and above the surface. Mod-ernisation, efficient manning, and self-reliance will remain the key driving factors for our innovation process. I dare say that we are becoming a credible and self-sustained maritime force, well-suited to meet today’s and tomorrow’s national and regional needs. We are an ‘Available, Adaptive and Affordable force’, always ready to meet the aspirations of our nation.
The interview was conducted by Guy Toremans.