Indian Navy comes of age

WELCOME DEVELOPMENTS: The sinking of a pirate ship and the shooing away of its two ancillary units by INS Tabar speak volumes about the skill and tenacity of the Indian Navy.

WELCOME DEVELOPMENTS: The sinking of a pirate ship and the shooing away of its two ancillary units by INS Tabar speak volumes about the skill and tenacity of the Indian Navy.   | Photo Credit: — Photo: AFP

Sreeram Chaulia

The fact that piracy is viewed as a global evil that needs to be jointly combated provides respectability to the forthright measures of the Indian Navy.

The sinking of a pirate ‘mother ship’ by the Indian naval stealth frigate, INS Tabar, off the coast of Oman has suddenly shone a ray of hope on the seemingly intractable crisis of a hijacking spree near the Horn of Africa. As the volume and scale of piracy has shot up over the last year, especially along the Somalia-Yemen-Oman waters, victim companies and their respective governments were in a major quandary about the appropriate response.

Most tellingly, the world’s strongest navy — that of the United States — had recently expressed helplessness and shock when pirates daringly scrambled aboard and seized a Saudi ‘supertanker,’ thrice as large as an aircraft carrier, that was transporting crude oil worth $100 million. The American navy had been red facedly explaining that it is “hard to stop the pirates” and that its warships could “do nothing” unless they were within 10 minutes distance from a potential hijacking event.

India dispatched the Russian-equipped INS Tabar for anti-piracy surveillance and patrolling on November 2 and it had already been involved in action on November 11 in preventing armed pirates from capturing an Indian and a Saudi vessel. The robustness and alacrity with which Indian marine commandos sprung into mission mode contrasted with the overcautious and clueless attitude of other international naval forces who are currently participating in a joint endeavour to secure the safety of the vital sea lanes between Europe and Asia.

NATO’s Operation Allied Provider had deployed frigates from Italy, Britain and Greece for a while in the same littoral environs as INS Tabar, but the entire exercise was downplayed for fear of raising undue expectations of successfully rooting out the scourge of piracy. To boot, a brace of experts like Roger Middleton of Chatham House had been airing views that a posse of 20 or 25 naval warships would “definitely not spell the death knell of Somali piracy.”

The only comparable incident to that of the Indian naval strikes is a June 2008 interdiction of pirates in the Gulf of Aden by HMCS Calgary, the Canadian warship, whose helicopters drove away two small pirate boats from preying upon merchant shipping. However, the Canadian intervention did not result in the sinking of any pirate vessel, as the attackers swiftly redirected their skiffs back towards Somali territorial waters. India’s assertive naval interception of pirates and usage of guided missiles and cannons at the targets is in a different category altogether and sets an example for the other multinational navies which have been wringing their hands about the complexity of the challenge on their hands.

Incidentally, the decision to send INS Tabar to the Gulf of Aden had been arrived at by the Government of India after eight months of deliberation during which the navy left no stone unturned in convincing the nation’s political leadership that the move would be in the interests of Indian-flagged merchant ships which frequent the route. Owing to past baggage, India has been reluctant to be seen internationally as an expansionist or aggressive naval power. Therefore, several considerations were weighed and taken into account by the country’s civilian establishment before giving the green signal to the navy.

The defensive language in which the sinking of the pirate mother vessel by INS Tabar was reported also reflects this cautious but pragmatic foray into ‘out of area’ waters far away from the Indian coast. According to the naval spokesperson, heavy gunfire was aimed at the pirate ship purely in “self-defence” after the pirates had issued threatening calls and initiated the hostilities. The description of the enemy vessel’s upper deck as being loaded with gun-toting and RPG-brandishing pirates was released by the navy to complete the picture of a responsible retaliation on thuggish criminals rather than a proactive or flashy adventure.

Given that the battle — which lasted four to five hours — transpired in international waters, India has no reason to be apologetic about its courageous and exemplary role in tackling one of the oldest crimes in history. In June 2008, a U.N. Security Council resolution with the consent of the beleaguered Somali government unanimously endorsed foreign navies to counter piracy even within Somalia’s territorial waters. The fact that piracy is viewed as a global evil that needs to be jointly combated thus provides respectability to forthright measures of the Indian navy.

In this context, it is worth recalling that piracy is considered a violation of jus cogens, the peremptory norm of international law from which no derogation is ever permitted. Along with slavery, torture and genocide, piracy has been outlawed through centuries of customary and codified international law as an intolerable offence that militates against the common good of humanity. If ever there was a foolproof legal backing for the use of military force for a noble cause, INS Tabar has hit the right notes by confronting the armed brigands who have sent shivers down the spine of the entire world comity. For once, painful sagas of detentions of sailors and payment of ransom were averted through quick and decisive blows.

For years now, Indian naval officers have been making the case for expansion from a ‘Brown Water’ coastal defence force into a ‘Blue Water’ entity that can project national power beyond 200 miles of the country’s shoreline. The need to match China’s energetic ‘string of pearls’ blueprint in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific regions and to appraise the high seas from a strategic lens was not lost upon the brightest Indian naval planners.

Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes have shown in a thoroughly researched volume, Chinese Naval Strategy in the 21st Century: the Turn to Mahan (2007), that Beijing’s geostrategic thought in the 21st century is informed by the concepts espoused by legendary American naval theorist, Alfred Mahan. Mahan believed that controlling seaborne commerce was the key to victory in war. India, whose economic and trading interests now stretch from the Middle East to the farther reaches of East Asia, is gradually waking up to this wisdom and trying to keep up with the Joneses by building up a ‘Mahanian’ navy.

The 2006 ‘Operation Sukoon’, in which advanced Indian missile frigates evacuated Indian nationals trapped by the war in Lebanon, was a sign of the maturing of this vision of a navy that can deploy with aplomb to the Far West and East, outside the Indian Ocean.

Seen in this backdrop, the sinking of a pirate ship and the shooing away of its two ancillary units by INS Tabar are welcome developments that speak volumes of the skill and tenacity of the Indian navy in defending national and, indeed, international interests. The navy’s own conviction is that the dream of a confident ‘Thalassocratic’ India is very much in the realm of feasibility, provided there is less dithering and more political will to open cheque books among civilian rulers in New Delhi. For a country nursing a deep desire to be recognised and respected as a power that does good in the world, there can be no sounder investment than in the Indian navy.

(Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in Syracuse, New York.)

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