UN mandate to tackle pirates essential, feels India

Sandeep Dikshit

Present flotilla of warships in the Arabian Sea inadequate

India mulling an increase in force levels

NEW DELHI: With pirates moving their operations into the high seas, the present flotilla of warships in the Arabian Sea is inadequate to check piracy, say security experts. Even as India is mulling an increase in force levels, it also realises that one nation or a grouping of nations is inadequate to provide an iron-clad guarantee of safe passage to lightly manned and entirely unarmed merchant vessels in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman.

India feels that the U.N. Security Council resolutions 1816 and 1838 and the International Maritime Organisation’s mandate offers the required flexibility for all the currently uncoordinated operations to be bunched under the United Nations flag. Besides improving communications if the UN mandate is granted, improved coordination would help counter the change in tactics of the pirates of moving from a narrow channel between Gulf of Aden and Bab-el-Mandab to well away from the coast line.

Till the UN mandate materialises, India would like to increase the number of its warships in the area from the present one to four and is about to enter into negotiations with the French for berthing and logistic facilities from its base in Djibouti.

The issue was discussed between Defence Minister A.K. Antony and senior Navy officials on Thursday.

At present INS Tabar relies on the Sallalah port in Oman and is examining half a dozen locations. The issue of utilising the strategically located Djibouti is scheduled to come up at the defence dialogue between Defence Secretary Vijay Singh with his French counterpart.

The complication facing the anti-piracy crusade in the region is the different force structures among which coordination and communication is at a premium.

Moreover, all these force structures are virtually common, thus providing a narrow base of countries. The Combined Task Force 150 comprises seven nations which have been operating in the Persian Gulf under a different mandate but have now shifted to the piracy-prone areas. Then there is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), in which apart from two countries, the rest are the same as CTF 150. From November-end, a third group will arrive from the European Union. Then there are the Russian and Indian Navies operating independently. The Arab countries are also discussing the possibility of sending their ships. “There are a fair number of assets but the task of coordination is not clear,” commented a senior security official.

While in the Straits of Malacca, piracy is of the traditional kind, the Arabian Sea variant is of a different dimension requiring tremendous surveillance. Pirates of the classical hue usually rob the personal belongings of crew members and the cargo if it is accessible. But off the coast of Somalia, the cargo is irrelevant except in a few cases like that of Fiona which had tanks or the Saudi vessel with hundreds of million dollars worth of oil. But in all these cases the target is ransom.

The pirates operate out of mother ships that are essentially 200-300 tonne mechanised crafts which look like biggish fishing trawlers that can merge with normal fishing activity. But unlike the regular fishing trawlers these mother ships have sophisticated communication devices and radars. As a result, they are able to monitor shipping traffic up to a vicinity of 50 to 60 km. With high speed boats trailing the mother ships, the highly skilled pirates coerce merchant vessels into slowing down and have the ability to board high speed vessels when they do not stop.

“Having been drawn from land-based militias that have been active in Somalia for nearly two decades, the pirates are formidable foes for merchant vessels,” said the official. Then there are linkages on the shore which throws up several complications for the international community.

“We would now have to keep an eye on the entire Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman where the surveillance effort would be phenomenal. No nation or Navy can do that,” he said.

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