INS Tabar sinks pirate ship

More naval action off Somalia

The Puntland pirates are getting bolder. This week, they seized a large Saudi oil tanker and a Hong Kong owned ship carrying foodgrains to Iran. (linkthanks ST and Harsh Gupta)

That should explain the reason why they are picking the wrong fights. When challenged by the INS Tabar, pirates retorted that they would blow up the Indian ship. In the ensuing firefight, the Tabar sank the pirates’ mother ship, but some got away in the accompanying speedboats.

Now, taking out a mother ship is a very good thing. But the marine theatre is also getting more dangerous.

Update: For those of you who want something more than the terse official account of what happened, Gautam John suggests the masala version on Digg .

“Steady, number two. Retarget the #2 gun for that field artillery piece, air burst. Concentrate everything else on that hole.” The guns continue to fire. The artillery piece on the Somali freighter fires again, missing by 20 feet, then falls silent as the unshielded crew become victims of precision anti-personnel airburst munitions.

“Bring us about to one eight zero and slow to 10 knots. I’d rather not get any closer for now in case their muni-” The captain’s words are cut off by a bright flash as the ammo stores ignite and detonate on the other ship. A ring of distortion races outwards from the stricken vessel at the speed of sound. As it hits the Indian vessel, everything aboard rattles and the crew winces at the sharp report of exploding armaments. The Somali ship, now almost completely lifeless, breaks in half and begins to sink as secondary explosions erupt. [Chairboy/Digg]

My op-ed in Mint: On overseas military deployments

The need for a policy framework for unilateral action

In today’s Mint, Sushant & I call for a policy review on overseas military deployments:

…the emerging security environment and India’s increasingly global interests are likely to make the need for such deployments more frequent. Yet the current policy is dogmatic: Foreign deployments are contingent on being part of a UN mission. This is not only untenable, it also opens the door to an abdication of responsibility to protect India’s interests.

India must be ready to act unilaterally, but only dispatch forces to theatres—such as Somalia, Afghanistan or tsunami-hit littorals on the Indian Ocean—where its interests are at stake. Guidelines need to be developed to achieve twin objectives: strategic alignment with India’s geopolitical goals and operational flexibility for military commanders. [Mint]

Get the rest at Mint.

Naval intervention foils pirate attack on an Indian ship

The Indian Navy has been quick off the mark off Somalia

The MV Jag Arnav, a bulk carrier owned by India’s Great Eastern Shipping Company, was in the Gulf of Aden when it came under attack by Somali pirates. The Indian Navy’s patrol ship picked up the alarm signal at 10.30am today, and dispatched an armed helicopter and a contingent of marine commandos, who prevented the pirates from boarding and hijacking the Jag Arnav.

Hurray!

Pirates of Puntland

India must secure its maritime interests off the Horn of Africa

Among the tasks assigned to the Combined Task Force 150 (CTF-150)—an international naval task force comprising, among others, of US, British, French, Pakistani and Bahraini ships—are maritime security operations in the Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. While its purpose is to deny the use of the seas to smugglers and terrorists the main problem in the area under its watch is piracy.

CTF-150 doesn’t have enough ships to secure one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. So it advises large, slower vessels to travel in convoys so that it can better watch over them. But since this is not always possible, around one in 500 ships fall victim to pirates. Since the monthly traffic is around 1500, pirates succeed in raiding three or four ships each month.

The proceeds from these raids have sparked off a boom in Puntland, on the Horn of Africa.

Whenever word comes out that pirates have taken yet another ship in the Somali region of Puntland, extraordinary things start to happen.

There is a great rush to the port of Eyl, where most of the hijacked vessels are kept by the well-armed pirate gangs.

People put on ties and smart clothes. They arrive in land cruisers with their laptops, one saying he is the pirates’ accountant, another that he is their chief negotiator. [‘BBC’]

Indian ships, cargoes and sailors have been affected by piracy off Somalia in recent years. Even without considering the linkages to international terrorism, there is a case for the Indian navy to help secure shipping lanes and Indian interests in that region. The Indian government must quickly approve the Navy’s proposals (via interim thoughts)to begin patrolling waters off Africa’s eastern coast.

Concerning Australia’s uranium sales

The Rudd government would do well to climb out of an unnecessary hole it has dug for Australia

Greg Sheridan has a very insightful piece on the India-US nuclear deal and the stakes for Australia (linkthanks V Anantha Nageswaran). He gets it right when he argues that Australia can’t hope to enjoy a close relationship with India if it maintains a discriminatory policy on uranium sales.

Then the deal must be approved by the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Here’s where Australia comes in. With something like 40 per cent of the world’s known uranium reserves, Australia is a key member of the NSG. So far, the Rudd Government has not said whether it will support the US-India deal at the NSG or oppose it.

It has however hinted that it would support the deal at the NSG, a hint Foreign Minister Stephen Smith repeated yesterday. Certainly Australia could kiss goodbye forever the idea of any decent relationship with India if it opposes the deal at the NSG.

Accepting the deal at the NSG would not commit Australia to supplying uranium to India. However, that will be the next big question…

Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Andrew Robb has effectively homed in on the contradiction between the Rudd Government selling uranium to China – which has a terrible, though not recent, record of nuclear proliferation – while refusing to sell uranium to India, which has never passed on nuclear technology to anyone.

..the Rudd Government will face a deep contradiction between supporting the US-India deal in the NSG, then saying it will not sell uranium to India. It will face an even bigger contradiction between its concern with greenhouse gas emissions and taking action, by refusing uranium to India, that impedes the development of clean energy. [The Australian]

How do you help a country like Burma?

The tricky business of delivering aid to victims of a natural disaster who are also victims of a repressive regime

A closed regime. Media controls. A category 4 cyclone. Damaged infrastructure. Broken communication links. Death toll first in the hundreds, rapidly upped to the tens of thousands.

From ReliefWebIt’s highly likely that the Burmese junta can’t cope with the disaster. Worse, its isolation is making a bad situation much worse. The international response is hobbled by the lack of communication channels, common frameworks and operating procedures.

India was among the first to respond. India’s military base at Port Blair, in the Andaman & Nicobar islands has some capacity address humanitarian disasters in the Bay of Bengal region. But while India dispatched INS Rana and INS Kirpan with emergency relief material—tents, medicine and food—the lack of communications (and previously agreed contingency plans) means that at the time of sailing, the ships didn’t quite know which port they could access.

The foreign ministry states that India is considering “further immediate relief and medical supplies, including by air”. Thailand is reportedly preparing to send supplies by air. Burma has also accepted Australian help. These responses will be constrained by Burma’s capacity to co-ordinate the use of its airspace, airports and landing strips. According to some weather reports, Cyclone Nargis could be followed by an even stronger cyclone, adding in a factor of urgency to this matter.

Ultimately, the delivery of relief supplies to the affected people depends largely on the Tatmadaw, Burma’s armed forces. The scheduled referendum introduces a political complication. That the junta is deeply unpopular is clear enough: but a botched response to the cyclone might well break the camel’s back. [Cyclone Bhola struck East Pakistan in late 1971, also ahead of elections, and set off a chain of events that led to the birth of Bangla Desh]

The problem is—the generals know this too. They could decide that the presence of foreign volunteers, media and military personnel is a risk to the survival of their regime, even if it means that the humanitarian response suffers as a result.

The toughest question for India and the rest of the world is should the world’s humanitarian response become an instrument to effect political change in Burma? For, isn’t releasing the Burmese people from the clutches of a brutal, repressive regime also, in the end, a humanitarian act? The answer is yes. As The Acorn has argued before, doing so is in India’s interests.

Related Links: NASA’s Earth Observatory has “before and after” images of the affected area; a briefing from the Global Disaster Alert and Co-ordination System

Using Bollywood for regime change

Why Tarun Khanna is wrong about Burma and confused about geopolitical power

The India-China hyphenation is doubly dangerous: one the one hand, the conflation of China and India (and its unspeakable, dreadful portmanteau) ignores the differences in the outlook, policies and global impact of these two countries. On the other, stretching the differentiation indiscriminately can lead to some very flawed policy prescriptions.

Like Tarun Khanna’s. In Mint, he argues that India should not try to match China in embracing the junta but rather extend “unstinting support” for democracy. Because because “India is congenitally incapable of deploying hard power” and because “India’s true strength lies in projecting soft power”, and because “trying to play China’s game against China is folly, not to mention unprincipled”.

Mr Khanna’s analysis, unfortunately, is drowned in cliches and unfortunate generalisations. On the face of it, it sounds reasonable that trying to beat China in its own game might not be a good idea. But what if it is not really China’s game, and that China is a player in a game that has its own age-old rules. Like the balance of power game, for instance. It certainly doesn’t make sense to suggest that India should not play the game just because China is playing it better. Does this mean that India should cuddle the junta? Not quite, as this blog has argued, but for very different reasons. [See this op-ed and this post]

There is something disturbing in Mr Khanna’s assertion that India is congenitally incapable of deploying hard power. He seems to have forgotten Hyderabad 1948, Goa 1961, Bangladesh 1971, Maldives 1988 and Sri Lanka 1987-1991. The claim that India is structurally incapable of deploying hard power does not hold water. Moreover, Mr Khanna misses a very important point: projecting “hard” power is not quite the same as using military force. Nuclear weapons, ballistic and cruise missiles and a blue water navy project hard power. None of this means that India must even threaten their use, much less use them.

Whenever commentators call for the “projection of soft power”, one listens to see how exactly they propose this could be done. In Mr Khanna’s case, India would do this by an unstinting support for democracy and you-can’t-be-serious-ly through Bollywood. Here he is incredibly mixed up. Now unless India is willing to support democratic forces with financial and military support (“hard power”) they can’t conceivably overthrow the junta, not least because it will turn to China for support. And at this juncture, the fact that there are Bollywood lovers in Burma isn’t going to matter much. In other words, talk about moral support for democracy is certainly about softness, but won’t work without real power.

Moreover, it is naive to believe that turning Burma into a democracy will necessarily transform it into a pro-India country. Democratic governments can play one power against another, just as well as dictatorships can.

Mr Khanna begins his essay by pointing out how Chinese influence has supplanted Indian influence in Burma. This is not as much because of politics as it is because of economics. China’s economic growth has given it the clout it has. India can regain the clout at the ground level in the same manner. Like geopolitics and balance of power, the trade and investment game is also not “China’s game”.

There is a case for India to support democracy in Burma but not on the grounds Mr Khanna has laid out. And as a foreign policy prescription, it is dangerous to propose that all that is needed towards this end is “a projection of soft power”.

Saying no to the USS Kitty Hawk

The irony of Gorshkov

The latest angle to the ups and downs of securing a second aircraft carrier for the Indian navy is the speculation that the United States intends to offer the USS Kitty Hawk, a 53-year old vessel that is up for decommissioning from the US Navy.

Image: Stratfor
The American offer is interesting for three reasons: first, it offers India greater bargaining power with Russia in the negotiations over the delivery of Admiral Gorshkov (INS Vikramaditya). Second, it offers the Indian navy capabilities to operate and train its personnel on an American platform. And third, it could improve India’s maritime power projection capabilities to a relatively greater extent.

The integration of this huge American ship into the Indian navy, however, is likely to pose its own set of problems. From the type of aircraft that can fly off it, to operational processes, to the logistics and docking arrangements, there are a whole range of operational issues that need to be addressed. And in addition to all the usual problems related to the purchase of second-hand equipment (the Kitty Hawk was commissioned in 1955), the possibility that the United States might insist upon an “end-user clause”, requiring US clearance before offensive operations seriously undermines the case for its purchase.

But the main reason to reject the American offer may lie elsewhere. The Kitty Hawk at a full displacement load of over 80,000 tons, it is three times larger than Viraat and almost twice as that of Gorshkov. It is also about a third longer than Viraat, but can carry seven times as many aircraft (70 against 12). There is no doubt that the Kitty Hawk is in itself an attractive alternative to Gorshkov or an addition to the fleet. The problem though, lies in the relevance of aircraft carriers in future naval combat. [See this interview with John Arquilla in MIT Technology Review]

China and Pakistan are investing in a submarine based fleet. Iran is investing in small, fast armed vessels. And they are also investing in anti-ship missiles. The latter are improving in range and capability, and are fairly accessible to even smaller states and non-state actors in the region. In naval conflicts of the future, aircraft carriers will need to increasingly stay away from hostile shores, limiting their effectiveness. The other way of looking at it is that the benefits of deploying an aircraft carrier—and the complement of frigates and destroyers that form part of the task force—will diminish over time, while costs will increase or stay the same. A bigger aircraft carrier may pack a bigger punch, but is also more vulnerable in itself, costlier to protect and will cause a greater strategic setback if damaged or destroyed. [Moreover, as India’s missile capabilities have come of age, they can increasingly replace carrier-based aircraft, just as they are replacing land-based ones]

The person who recognised this and developed a naval strategy that put a lot of weight in submarines was, ironically, Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, Sergei Gorshkov. While India has bought a ship named after him, China and Pakistan have bought his logic.

This is not to say that the Indian navy doesn’t need aircraft carriers—it does. There are conceivable scenarios where aircraft carriers can be decisive, though not all of them involve actual combat. The point is that the role of carriers is diminishing in the 21st century naval battlefield, and hence smaller, perhaps, is better.

(Navy chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta) denied reports that the United States had offered to gift India its Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier, which is due for decommissioning. Even if the offer were made, India would not accept it, he said, because the ship was “too old, too big.” [The Hindu]

Related Link: Information Dissemination on ‘A strange solution for India’s Russia Problem’

Update: A version of this post appears on the South Asia Monitor, an online publication of the Contemporary Studies Society, New Delhi