An interception in the Arabian Sea

Dissecting the national security issues

The Indian Coast Guard’s interception of a suspect vessel just inside country’s exclusive economic zone in the Arabian Sea, off the Gujarat coast quickly moved from being a national security issue to a partisan political issue. While politicisation of national security is not necessarily bad in itself, the polarised circumstances in which it is taking place leave no space for a reasoned discourse. As of this writing, online outrage was picked up by some of New Delhi’s rageboys for physical protests outside a newspaper’s office.

While partisan politics takes its course, there are two questions of public interest that need to be examined. First, who were the occupants of the suspicious boat, what were they up to, and importantly, how did Indian authorities assess the threat and authorise action? Second, was the Coast Guard right in doing what it did?

Given what we know, and given what the Coast Guard knew at the time, it is impossible to be certain who was in the boat and what they were up to. From the facts that are not in dispute, it is highly unlikely that they were innocent fishermen. They could have been part of a terrorist operation to ship arms, explosives, people, money, fuel or other dangerous material. They could have been part of a smuggling racket dealing with contraband of a similar nature. They could have been both. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said he thinks they were suspected terrorists. Praveen Swami, quoting unnamed sources–and he has among the best ones in New Delhi–suggests that they were probably smugglers. The Defence Ministry is conducting an investigation and we might know in good time, or–given that there’s no physical evidence left of the boat–we might not.

This brings us to the second question: in the circumstances, was the Coast Guard right to act in the way it did? This is a matter of judgement. After the 26/11 attack on Mumbai, the Coast Guard cannot be faulted for being aggressive in neutralising a perceived threat. There has also been an escalation of tensions along the India-Pakistan border, an escalation of conflict within Pakistan, open mobilisation of the Lashkar-e-Taiba leadership and cadre. The impending Republic Day parade and President Barack Obama’s visit to India as the ceremonial chief guest on January 26th are also factors that raise risks for a threat of any given likelihood. The Coast Guard in this context, in The Acorn’s judgement, did well to neutralise a suspicious boat whose intentions are highly unlikely to be bona fide. There might be questions of international law and precedent, but they are subsidiary to national security.

What, then, should we make of this episode? First, The National Security Council must use the opportunity to review and streamline the process that begins with an intelligence input to action on the ground, on in the water as in this case. Credible media reports suggest that there were gaps and jumps. Second, the Coast Guard and the Indian Navy must review procedures pertaining to rules of engagement, and enhance training to handle such threats. In a book published two years ago, this blogger had argued that India’s maritime security forces are sailing deeper into an era of ‘violent peace’, and will see a rise in threats from unconventional mariners. Finally, as pointed out in the same book, the Indian government (and this includes the armed forces) need more sophisticated information strategies in order to acquire narrative superiority. In simple terms, this means acting in ways that avoid controversy.

The Asian Balance: Policing the Indian Ocean

Doing more maritime chowkidari

Excerpts from my column in Business Standard:

What can we do in the short term? Now, while the Indian Navy has discharged itself admirably in escorting convoys and fighting pirates, it is primarily a war-fighting force. New Delhi’s priority must remain equipping it to become a blue-water navy capable of projecting power in India’s extended maritime domain. At this time, assigning more ships to maritime constabulary duties off the Horn of Africa could risk blunting the navy’s war-fighting edge. At the same time, India must not underestimate the growing pirate menace that threatens its commerce and the lives of a large number of its seafaring citizens.

One way out of this dilemma is for New Delhi to lease a handful of commercial vessels, equip them with adequate fire power, and place them under the operational control of the Indian Navy. After all, you don’t need BrahMos missile-equipped Talwar class battle axes to tackle pirates armed with assault rifles. Operating commercial vessels on lease can be adequate to the task, is less expensive and will allow the navy’s combatant warships to focus on their core competence.

In parallel, India should use its upcoming presence at the UN Security Council to strengthen the mandate, personnel strength and international support for the African Union (AU) force that is currently deployed in Somalia. Ugandan officials have long been asking the UN for more troops so that the AU force can take effective control over Somalian territory and secure its ports. This makes sense. The challenge will be to manage the complexities of Africa’s regional politics so that the international effort has both robust international oversight and legitimacy. It is uncertain, perhaps unlikely, that the AU force will fully succeed in establishing order in the near-anarchic world of Somalian civil wars. There is, however, a good chance that it will seal off the pirates’ main launching pads.

Read the whole thing at Business Standard

France, Pakistan, submarines and unpaid kickbacks

How do you say “some faecal matter has hit an air circulation device” in French?

From Paris come reports of an allegation that the real motive for the terrorist attack on French submarine engineers in Karachi in 2002 was non-payment of kickbacks to Pakistani officials.

At the time (1994), such commissions would have been legal: Before France joined an international anticorruption initiative in 2000, it wasn’t illegal for French companies to pay commissions to foreign officials to secure contracts overseas. The alleged commissions were supposedly to be paid before 2000.

Investigators are looking into whether part of the money from the commissions was destined to flow back into France to help finance the 1995 presidential bid of then-Prime Minister Edouard Balladur. At the time, Nicolas Sarkozy — now France’s president — was budget minister and Mr. Balladur’s campaign manager.

It would have been illegal for part of the alleged commissions to flow back into France — a mechanism sometimes known as reverse kickbacks. Prosecutors say they have documents that indicate part of the alleged commission may have been aimed at helping Mr. Balladur’s campaign coffers. The prosecutors and investigators say they have no evidence implicating Messrs. Balladur or Sarkozy. [WSJ]

But Mr Balladur lost the election to Jacque Chirac, who supposedly stopped paying those kickbacks. The Pakistanis “eventually lost patience and organised in retaliation the attack on the bus full of French engineers, who were working on the Agosta submarine project.” (More details here)

That’s not all. The online edition of the Times of India has a PTI report that says “According to media reports, the French secret service retaliated after the 2002 attack, breaking the legs of two Pakistan navy admirals and killing a lower-ranking officer.” PTI doesn’t say where this nugget came from.

Mr Sarkozy described these allegations as “ridiculous”, “grotesque” and rhetorically asked “who would believe them?” He did not, however, unequivocally deny them. It’s not as if his name is coming up for the first time in allegations of reverse kickbacks in naval deals—l’affaire Clearstream 2 involved Taiwan, frigates, kickbacks and campaign finance.

But there are holes in the story: France24 quotes a family member of one of the victims alleging that the kickbacks were to paid to Asif Ali Zardari who was a minister in Benazir Bhutto’s cabinet when the deal was struck, but in prison and out of favour when the terrorist attacks took place. It’s hard to see why ‘officials’ would take up the cudgels on his behalf.

Meanwhile in Pakistan, the Sindh High Court acquitted two members of the Harkatul Mujahideen Al-Alami who had earlier been convicted by a lower court for having carried out the attack on the French engineers. On the familiar grounds that the prosecution “failed to prove the case against the appellants beyond any reasonable doubt.” Even the small fry got away.

Blame it on Lax Indica

Where India yields, China will step in.

Quite often, the alarm and indignation comes from a sense of entitlement. Surely, the argument goes, India’s size and geographical location entitles it to a pre-eminent maritime status in the Indian Ocean, so how dare China intrude and construct a “string of pearls” around India?

To be sure, the emergence of China as a regional maritime power is the big story of our times. Over the past two decades, China has methodically developed basing arrangements (the ‘string of pearls’), invested in a submarine fleet designed to counter the US Navy’s aircraft carrier groups and, is now working on a surface fleet (including six aircraft carriers) whose purpose is to project power. This worries Indian strategists, because some of China’s accretion of power will come at India’s expense. While China certainly seeks to contain the expansion of Indian power, the object of its grand strategy is to counter the United States. And it is getting there: not by matching renminbi-for-dollar and getting into an arms race, but largely by developing capabilities that exploit United States’ weak points.

So at a time when China seeks to play in the same league as the superpower of the day, it is to be expected that it will try to extract advantageous positions in the Indian Ocean region at India’s expense. The big scandal is not that China is securing bases in India’s neighbourhood by shoring up nasty regimes and abetting their outrageous policies; but rather, India does not even show any sign of doing what is necessary to protect its interests.

So Home Minister P Chidambaram criticised China for fishing in troubled waters by backing the Sri Lankan government to the hilt in its war against the LTTE. So what else does Mr Chidambaram expect it to do? If the UPA government couldn’t find the resolve to shape a bold Sri Lanka policy that would promote India’s interests, why should he hold it against China for doing so? Similarly, if the UPA government found itself immobilised over its Nepal policy, why should China be blamed for promoting what it sees as its own interests? (See Lax Indica). Surely, the likes of Pranab Mukherjee and A K Anthony didn’t think that China should be held to the statements they made about there being enough space in Asia for two powers to rise simultaneously? (Even as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Mr Chidambaram did gruesome damage to the pace at which India could rise in the first place).

Let’s face it: unless the next government—regardless of whether it is the UPA, NDA or a Ghastly Numbered Front that comes to power—firmly resolves to ensure that India’s strategic frontiers are not rolled inwards, strategic containment is assured. Those who take recourse to fatalism and declare that coalition politics doesn’t allow an assertive foreign policy, especially in India’s neighbourhood, better not express indignation when they spot a Chinese aircraft carrier group a few hundred nautical miles from Kochi or Mumbai. Actually, coalition politics has been offered as an excuse for gross mismanagement of neighbourhood policy—other than during the election season, coalition partners limit their foreign policy demands to largely to rhetoric. It stands to reason, therefore, that a central government that can’t stand up to pressure from its coalition partners can’t stand up to pressure from Beijing.

Indian submarine says an unfriendly hello to Chinese destroyers

So an Indian submarine was caught snooping around the two ships that China sent on an anti-piracy mission to the Gulf of Aden. The South China Morning Post (subscription only | available here) reports that the two ships and the Indian submarine were "locked in a tense standoff for at least half and hour" on January 15th. (linkthanks V Anantha Nageswaran)

According to the report—the Indian submarine tried to jam the warships’ sonar systems, and tried to evade them by diving deeper. But it was "eventually" cornered and force to surface. In the meantime, the Chinese ships activated their anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters and prepared their torpedoes for action.

That’s how the movie ended. But what the Chinese naval strategists will be worrying about is "just when did this movie start"? They will also be worrying about whether the ending was somehow or the other scripted by the Indians.

In any case, as the SCMP points out, while "provocative and unfriendly" such an incident is hardly unusual. China knows this all too well, given that its submarines buzzed a US naval carrier group and its ‘fishing boats’ travel on two thousand mile fishing expeditions.

Given how rare it is to see a Chinese destroyer in the Arabian Sea, it is understandable that the Indian navy wanted to have a closer look. And even if the SCMP might not have all the details right, the message from this incident cannot be lost on the international community. Not least in Beijing.

Related Link: Pragmatic Euphony on the China and the military equation

Poseidons for the Indian navy

Buying arms from big trading partners is a good idea

From the geopolitical perspective, the Boeing P8I “Poseidons” that India has contracted to purchase are very good deal. India should ideally purchase military equipment from countries with whom it has broad and deep trading relationships. The current situation is quite the opposite: India has next to no non-military trade with Russia, and a little with Israel—the two largest military equipment suppliers. This gives them undue strategic and commercial leverage, which Russia has been exploiting to its advantage.

So India must deepen trade and investment with Russia and Israel. And buy arms from the United States, with whom it has wide-ranging economic ties.

Another reason for increasing the American share in India’s equipment mix is operational interoperability. India must develop the capability to interoperate with US and its allies as it will become necessary in a variety of future conflicts. This does not mean buying whatever is on offer—for instance, while augmenting amphibious capacity with landing ship tanks is a good idea, purchasing a huge aircraft carrier is not.

The curious incident of the US Navy in Somalia

Tackling piracy off Somalia might not be in US interests

One of the points that came up in recent off-blog discussions with a fellow INI blogger was the rather curious surge in piracy off Somalia’s coast during a period when the US Navy had a significant deployment in the region. Yesterday’s post suggested that “the US navy’s reluctance to take a more forceful stand against Somali pirates is intriguing.”

Some cynics responded by saying that this is so that American private military companies can benefit by providing security services to the world’s shipping companies. Beyond that ready explanation—it is traditionally used to explain most US foreign policy decisions—the question is whether there are deeper strategic reasons motivating the US Navy’s posture in this theatre.

Galrahn at Information Dissemination (one of the best blogs on naval affairs) offers a realist explanation. He argues that “Somali piracy is not counter to US interests in Somalia.”

The United States is essentially allowing Somalia to remain an ungoverned country because the status quo gives us more freedom of action in fighting al Qaeda and other extremist terrorism allies in Somalia. Piracy is a side effect, and not necessarily a terrible side effect, of that strategy…The pirates are not only commercial in nature, but they are enemies of the Islamic extremists that represent the enemy of the United States. It sounds crazy to say, but the pirates are essentially the secular, liberal capitalists of Somalia, and the United States would prefer to deal WITH not AGAINST those types of people.[Information Dissemination]

On the face of it, this is a reasonable conclusion. It explains why the Pentagon spokesman held forth about a holistic approach, when a case can easily be made that piracy can be contained by purely military means. But it is unclear why the United States is so sure that piracy will remain the domain of liberal, secular capitalist Somalis. As a tactic, piracy can help the Islamist militias to secure funds and weapons. As a strategy, it could help open a new front in al-Qaeda’s war against the West. Unless the US Navy can be selective and calibrate its go-easy policy on pirates, there could be unpleasant, unintended consequences for its own interests.

But Galrahn’s other point—that the go-easy policy makes other countries realise the need to update international law to tackle the such threats in the twenty-first century is more valid. But it is hard to accept that American attitudes are driven by grand strategy. For any sufficiently advanced grand strategic explanation is indistinguishable from post-fact rationalisation.

Questioning the holistic approach

The problem of piracy off Somalia can be contained by purely military means

The US defence department spokesman has contended that “you could have all the navies in the world having all their ships out there, you know, it’s not going to ever solve this problem…It requires a holistic approach from the international community at sea, ashore, with governance, with economic development.”

That’s a fashionable thing to say these days. And it’s true in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where the US armed forces are fighting a counter-insurgency war.

The situation off the Somalian coast is different. A long-running civil war in that country has resulted in anarchy, which in turn has allowed the unchecked growth of sea-borne piracy in the waters off its coast. Piracy can be contained without necessarily having to stabilise Somalia.

It is possible to tackle piracy by purely military means. If the world’s navies devote an adequate amount of assets to the problem, and equip their commanders with the adequate rules of engagement, piracy can be stamped out. For if budding pirates notice that nine out of ten pirates don’t make it back from their first voyage, they might turn to other vocations—perhaps even warlordism and armed robbery on land. While Somalia’s problems won’t go away, they won’t directly threaten the world’s seaborne trade.

Solving Somalia’s problems does need a holistic approach. Solving the piracy problem, however, does not. But the US navy’s reluctance to take a more forceful stand against Somali pirates is intriguing.

Strengthening India’s naval presence off Somalia

Remaining sensitive to the maritime balance of power

How success changes things. It was only a couple of months ago that Defence Minister A K Antony said that “as a policy, the government would not carry out hot pursuit of pirates, as it had wider implications.” Today, on the back of INS Tabar’s stellar performance, the Indian government has let it be known that not only will the naval presence be strengthened, but that it has allowed the navy to conduct hot pursuit into Somalian waters.

No, is not the Indian Navy that has come of age—rather, India’s political leadership has—with much kicking and screaming—shockingly realised how military capability can be used to advance India’s geopolitical interests.

That the INS Mysore, a Delhi-class destroyer will join and eventually replace the Tabar is a good thing. So is the decision to deploy an aircraft for aerial reconnaissance. For while there is much celebration on the Tabar’s sinking of a pirate mother ship, it remains exposed to asymmetrical warfare at sea. The Somali pirates are aggressive and their rocket-propelled grenades could cause some damage to naval assets. Explosive-laden speedboats could be used to ram naval ships if they are off-guard. But the naval ships’ weapons have greater range and superior firepower. Therefore the capability to engage pirate vessels while remaining outside their range is a source of tactical advantage. Aerial reconnaissance is one way to augment this capability. Another way is to coordinate with international navies patrolling those waters.

Coordination is also useful is to optimise patrolling arrangements. While coordination is necessary, placing the flotilla under a UN flag is unlikely to be the answer. The idea of a UN command has surfaced again. That is a dogmatic approach and adds the deadweight of bureaucratic and political control that is both unnecessary and counterproductive. If the UN peacekeeping has failed on land, there is no reason why it will succeed at sea. As we have argued it is timely for India to rethink the entire policy on overseas military deployments to ensure that these are effective, and serve the national interest. Another issue—as highlighted in our policy brief—is for the armed forces to develop “cooperation capital” that will allow them to coordinate with those of other countries on such missions.

Finally, commenting on the issue, the Indian Express asserts that “international naval presence in the region will work to everyone’s advantage”. The developments in Somalia do not support this conclusion, nor does it stand up to scrutiny. Much depends on the identity, capabilities and intention of the international naval presence in the region—India must remain sensitive to the maritime balance of power in the Indian Ocean region, and not get carried away by a rare moment in history where the world’s major powers appear to have a shared interest in one theatre.

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.