Why we need a policy on overseas military deployments

Knee-jerkism is dangerous

Manu Pubby reports on the details of the MV Suez-PNS Babur-INS Godavari business in the Indian Express.

Pictures and videos of the encounter — which have been shared with Pakistan — show that Babur was deliberately tailing the Godavari so close that it brushed past the Indian warship’s aft. As the Pakistani warship — which was described by government sources as a “history-sheeter” with two earlier incidents of risky behaviour at sea — tangled with the INS Godavari, its crew shouted anti-India slogans.

One of the first warships that responded, officials said, was PNS Babur, which is part of CTF 151. The Pakistani warship declared that it was proceeding to escort the Suez. As per the laws of the sea, the other warships in the region then continued on their patrols, staying on alert for other piracy attempts.

However, late on Wednesday, apparently after repeated reports on Indian TV that a Pakistani naval ship had reached the Suez while India was “taking no action” and “letting down” its citizens on board, the government directed the Indian Navy to send in a warship to “establish contact” with the Suez, sources said.

The directive meant pulling the Godavari off its regular mission, and putting the warships of India and Pakistan in close proximity on the high seas — a situation that has the potential of turning tense.

As it turned out, the Suez, which already had several Pakistani commados on board, failed to respond to multiple attempts by the Godavari to get in touch.

Afterward, as the Indian warship sought to disengage and return to its original escort duties, the Babur brushed across its aft. [IE]

The behaviour of the Pakistani naval ship and its crew is appalling, but hardly comes as a surprise. It is unlikely that the Pakistani navy would wish to share brownie points with its Indian counterpart, not least when the entire MV Suez affair was largely a Pakistani one. But the juvenile manner in which the Pakistani navy conducted itself presents a counter-point to the conventional wisdom we come across about the Pakistani armed forces being “professional” outfits. That is, if Syed Saleem Shehzad’s final revelations about the Pakistani navy, al-Qaeda and PNS Mehran have not already provided that counter-point.

What is more worrisome is the sheer ad-hocism that passes off as New Delhi’s policy on maritime security. After having stayed in the background over MV Suez (justifiably, in my opinion) and abdicating crisis management at home (inexcusably), did the Indian government think that getting INS Godavari to participate in the victory lap would redeem its failings? Apparently, it thought so. In so doing, it put three other merchant ships (carrying 21 Indian sailors) at risk and created the conditions for the ugly incident involving PNS Babur.

These are the wages of the lack of a policy on overseas military deployments. The Indian government is pretending that a dogmatic insistence (via Pragmatic Euphony) on “we will only send troops under UN flag” is its policy. It is not. However, because of this pretense, India’s policy is reactive, knee-jerk and triggered by media outrage. You might remember that the Indian navy was allowed to conduct anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia after the Indian media played up a hostage crisis involving an Indian captain.

That move should have been followed up with careful consideration of the motivations, goals, strategies and capacities India will bring to bear in overseas military operations. We have consistently advocated the need for this. [For instance, see posts 1 2, op-eds 1 2 and policy briefs 1 2] Unfortunately, neither the government’s security establishment nor the UPA government’s political leadership thinks it necessary.

As the previous post argued, India needs to immediately set up a Maritime Security Management Task Force to steward policy in the urgent, but limited area of maritime security. In parallel, the National Security Council ought to be deliberating on a broader policy on overseas military deployments. So what if the domestic political context isn’t ready for such a proposal at this time? Domestic political contexts do, after all, change.

When India used to secure Somalia’s Red Sea coast

And why it must do so again

The pirates of Puntland made the strategic mistake of becoming too successful. And they also ran out of luck, when among the vessels they hijacked was one carrying a huge arms shipment, and another something mysteriously important. And suddenly, the world’s navies with the capability to get there—save India’s—decided that it was time to sail to go pirate hunting (or, at the very least, pirate watching) in the Red Sea. The US navy is already there. The Russian navy is on its way (and may well demonstrate some muscle in the days ahead). Even the European Union “is setting up an anti-piracy taskforce to help protect the lawless sea lanes off east Africa.”

Now, piracy off Somalia presents both threat to humanitarian relief operations, international security and to international commerce. And both the UN security council and the president of Somalia have called for the international community to take an interest in patrolling the region. And as Seth Weinberger writes, suo motu action against pirates has legal sanction under international law.

Piracy is one of the clearest examples of jus cogens, a preemptory norm that creates a crime for which there is no possible justification and for which there is universal jurisdiction. Thus, anyone who wishes to act against the pirates is legally allowed to do so. However, that creates a problem—in the absence of a specific jurisdiction, no one has the responsibility or strong incentive to act (why should one state bear the cost of enforcement when the cost of piracy falls on many?). [Security Dilemmas]

The question, though, is how long these navies will stay in the region. While the United States and its allies have the logistics and support infrastructure in the region, other naval forces will have to work out arrangements if they are to maintain forces for an extended period of time.

Amid all this, the Indian government is demonstrating an inexplicable reluctance to dispatch the Indian navy to the waters off Somalia. Not only does this position disregard the threat to India’s interests in the region, it also ignores the fact that a century ago, it was the (British) Indian navy that used to secure the Red Sea.

During the prime mininstership of William Gladstone in the 1880s, it was decided that the Indian government should be responsible for administering the Somaliland protectorate because the Somali coast’s strategic location on the Gulf of Aden was important to India. Customs taxes helped pay for India’s patrol of Somalia’s Red Sea Coast. [David D Laitin/LOC]

According to retired Vice Admiral Arun Kumar Singh, “it is almost impossible, and prohibitively expensive, for the Indian Navy to send two warships and a tanker, some 2,000 nm from our west coast, and keep them on patrol for 365 days a year in the “safety corridor”. He argues that apart from placing armed “Sea Marshalls” on board commercial ships passing through the region, the Indian navy should partner those of the west and Russia to patrol the region.

The long-term solution, of course, lies on land: extricating Somalia from its civil war, and stabilising the entire Horn of Africa. That’s a tall order. In the meantime, it is necessary to contain the Somali pirates. There is a clear case to deploy the Indian Navy in the Red Sea off the coast of Somalia, with rules of engagement that include hot pursuit. Indeed, there is a clear case to task the marine commandos with hostage-rescue missions where Indian ships and nationals are taken hostage.

Related Links: On INI, Pragmatic Euphony has more. Information Dissemination & Eagle1 are two excellent blogs covering maritime security issues. A Chatham House paper by Roger Middleton on the subject.