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.

Burney points

Beyond the Pakistani initiatives in releasing MV Suez

Other than the fact that six of its 22 sailors were Indian nationals, the MV Suez, an Egyptian-owned, Panamanian-flagged ship, was more about Pakistan.

It was captained by a Pakistani national and was on a voyage from Karachi to the Eritrean port of Massawa in July-August 2010, when it was hijacked by Somalian pirates in the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC), off the Horn of Africa. It sent distress signals to the EU Naval Force (EU NAVFORCE) patrolling the region but was seized before naval helicopters could arrive. The ship, cargo and crew have been held for ransom since then.

Its release was also, on the face of it, a largely Pakistani affair. Negotiations between the ship’s Egyptian owners and the pirates were deadlocked until February 2011, when Ansar Burney, a prominent Pakistani human rights activist, entered the scene. A ransom was arranged through his good offices and paid sometime in late May. As is usual with such arrangements, the source of the funds, its final recipients and suchlike are unclear. Somalia’s transitional federal government, which is against ransom payments, might even have apprehended the individuals and cash (which may be between $2 million to $4 million) in Mogadishu on May 25th. Eventually though, the pirates released the ship and its crew.

But the drama didn’t end there. Pirates attacked it again after it was released, and a Pakistani naval ship, Babur, which happened to be in the vicinity as part of the international coalition task force (CTF-151) came to its assistance and chased the pirates away. The Pakistani initiatives received well-deserved applause all around, including in the Indian media. After all, Pakistani individuals and the Pakistani navy had helped secure the return of Indian sailors when the Indian government, on the face of it, didn’t.

Indeed, the episode turns a little bizarre thereafter. MV Suez‘s crew claims they called an Indian naval ship, the Godavari, for assistance, but it didn’t respond. According to the Indian Navy, Godavari diverted course from the two ships it was escorting and tried to contact the Suez, failed, and returned to its original course. The Pakistani authorities now charge that INS Godavari “hampered humanitarian operations”, violated international codes of conduct and brushed against PNS Babur. Whoa!

Update: The Indian Navy has dismissed Pakistan’s allegations. India’s foreign ministry spokesman tweeted that India had summoned the Pakistani naval adviser in New Delhi yesterday to register serious concerns on PNS Babur‘s risky manoeuvres and that it had lodged a protest with the Pakistani government today. Also, MV Suez ran out of fuel and is stranded off Oman. 18th June, 1945 IST

Now it is extremely unlikely that the Godavari‘s captain would deliberately engage in such behaviour. It won’t be difficult to establish facts of the case, as video footage is likely to be available. The Pakistani navy is under a cloud at this moment, and the officers of PNS Babur might have resented the presence—of all ships, an Indian one—at their moment of glory. Interestingly, MV Suez‘s captain suggested that even PNS Babur was attacked by pirates, which was denied by the Pakistani navy chief.

The media coverage does not emphasise the reality that the high seas are global commons. The world’s navies on anti-piracy operations are securing the world’s shipping, providing international public goods. This is, of course, interpreted selectively, but by and large, it is not uncommon for one country’s naval ship to assist ships of other countries. In any case, international shipping is a truly international enterprise: with owners, flags, crews and cargos belonging to different countries. One’s own security lies in everyone’s security. So it is that as of November 2010, more than 1037 foreign-flagged ships benefited from the Indian Navy’s protection, compared to only 144 Indian-flagged ones. You can be sure that most of those ships, Indian or foreign, had some crew members who were Indian nationals.

The Indian government was in a bind because it could neither pay out ransoms itself nor condone the payment of ransom by others. It therefore couldn’t satisfy the relatives of the hostages. This is understandable. What is not understandable, and certainly not excusable, is its inability to manage the hostage crisis competently. The Ministry of External Affairs explained the limits of its mandate, passing the buck to the Director General of Shipping. The Ministry of Shipping had little to offer. The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs made promises it was unlikely to be able to keep. The lack of purposefulness is palpable even if the Indian Navy continues to discharge its duties admirably.

The Cabinet Committee on Security must create a Maritime Security Management Task Force, headed by a serving or retired officer with expertise in maritime security and intelligence. Reporting to the National Security Advisor, it must have senior officers from the ministries of external affairs, defence, shipping, commerce, the cabinet secretariat, in addition to the three armed services. The buck on piracy matters should stop there.

Update: Pakistan’s Express Tribune, without quoting sources says “India, which was due to contribute $500,000 as part of its share of the ransom fee, never turned up with its promised amount, almost putting the lives of 22 sailors in jeopardy.” (19th July)

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

Now China wants to divide up the sea

Maritime territorialism is a bad idea—but it might signal something worse

Rory Medcalf, over at the Lowy Interpreter flags a very important issue (via NRA). He draws attention to a media report that suggests China is considering maritime territorialism in the Gulf of Aden where navies from as many as 40 countries are engaged in anti-piracy operations. Not only that, but in what appears to be another manifestation of the kind of thinking that made a Chinese admiral recently offer to divide up the world’s oceans with his US counterpart, China is discussing this with Russia, Japan, EU and NATO. Mr Medcalf writes:

I very much doubt that other powers would accept such a move—and nor should they—because it would suggest that China is not really willing to engage in serious coordination, cooperation or transparency at sea. Carving up national maritime zones in the Indian Ocean would both reflect and worsen mistrust. It implies the failure of multilateralism, not its success. The Cold War was all about zones, spheres, sectors: think occupied Berlin. And what would happen if ships from one country strayed into another’s chosen sector?

We also need to wonder how accurate is the article’s assertion that ‘the prospect of each country being given responsibility for a certain area of ocean’ is being welcomed by the shipping industry.

Second, it was intriguing that India received no mention in the article as one of the countries that China needs or wants to coordinate with in the Indian Ocean.[Lowy Interpreter]

The first thing to note here is that such territorialism doesn’t make much sense given the vast expanse of the world’s oceans—or even the Gulf of Aden—compared to the number of ships that the world’s navies have. There is thus a very strong case for naval co-operation and co-ordination against maritime threats. It is inconceivable that Chinese maritime strategists are unaware of this.

So why is China floating what appears to be a foolish idea? Look at the countries mentioned in the media report—Russia, Japan, EU and NATO. What is common to them is that they—like China itself—are outside the Indian Ocean region. Furthermore, China has not been admitted to the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), a new platform for the navies of Indian Ocean littoral states. Beijing might be attempting to force its way into IONS by raising the bogey of an alternative organisation of extra-regional powers. (India’s unwillingness to admit China into IONS is par for the course, as China routinely attempts to keep India and the United States out of East Asian groupings)

But that is only a charitable explanation. China might be trying to gain exclusive control of key international waterways—an intention that is all the more disturbing given the rapid expansion of the PLA Navy’s capacity.

In any event, India must strengthen not only its naval operations in Indian Ocean theatres like the Gulf of Aden—something that we have been stressing for long—but also deepen maritime co-operation with the navies of the United States, Australia, Japan and Indonesia.

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

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.

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 foiled two hijack attempts

Double Hurray!

Yesterday’s operation by the Indian Navy in the Gulf of Aden saved two ships: the Saudi Arabia-registered MV NCC Tihama, in addition to MV Jag Arnav. According to TOI’s Rajat Pandit:

INS Tabar, a Talwar-class guided-missile stealth frigate, was cruising in the Gulf of Aden at about 10 am when it got a frantic distress call from Saudi Arabian chemical and oil carrier NCC Tihama.

Tihamas call said two to three high-speed boats, with several armed men, were trying to hijack the ship which was headed westwards. An armed Chetak helicopter, with four marine commandos, was immediately launched from INS Tabar, said a senior Navy officer.

Even as the Chetak hovered over Tihama, the marine commandos opened fire with their automatic weapons at the pirates trying to board the Saudi tankship after surrounding it. Deterred by the fire, the pirates promptly turned tail and fled in their speedboats into Somali waters.

It was around this time10.30 am or sowhen the Chetak was still in the air, that INS Tabar received another SOS call. This time, the message was that Indian merchant vessel Jag Arnav—which is owned by the Mumbai-based Great Eastern Company and was eastward bound after transiting through the Suez Canal a few days earlier—was being ambushed by another band of pirates in two boats about 60 nautical miles east of Aden.

The Chetak was then diverted towards Jag Arnavs position, about 25 nautical miles away from INS Tabars location, with instructions to Tihama to follow the Indian frigate for safety.

There was no need to fire even warning shots this time. Seeing the helicopter approach Jag Arnav, which had a 25-member crew, the pirates promptly jettisoned their hijack plans and sped away, said the officer. [TOI]

As long as the anti-piracy forces are better-armed and equipped than the pirates, such operations will increasingly deter pirates from attacking their targets with impunity. A key task for international forces engaged in Somalia, as well as the flotilla that has assembled off its coast, is to prevent the pirates from acquiring more sophisticated weapons. Since the Puntland coast is awash with piracy-generated income, weapons transfers to the region must be watched very closely.