Overseas military deployments & defence decisionmaking

India needs to rethink its defence decisionmaking system

It is usual to conduct navel gazing after failures and fiascos. But it is good to do so after little successes. Even as the Indian Navy demonstrated the utility of its deployment in anti-piracy operations far from Indian shores, it is opportune to examine a debate that has been taking place in the background. As Manu Pubby reports the “Navy feels that it needs greater authority to tackle piracy off the Somalia coast. While the Navy has proposed that the Chief of Navy Staff be given the direct authority to sanction action against pirates in the high seas, the ministry has said that all permissions should be routed through the South Block.”

The navy’s case is based on allowing its commanders the operational flexibility to employ the appropriate assets to achieve its mission. This need not be inconsistent with the political leadership and top defence ministry officials having oversight over the broader strategic and policy issues. There is, obviously, a tension between the two, arising from where operational control ends and strategic policy starts. But the fact that there is contention between the naval headquarters and the defence ministry suggests that such issues have not been satisfactorily ironed out (perhaps because of a paucity of unilateral overseas military deployments).

Sushant Singh and I have previously argued that India must rethink its policy on overseas military deployments, and have advocated sending forces only to theatres—such as Somalia and Afghanistan—where its interests are involved. Such a policy requires development of guidelines that achieve the twin objectives: strategic alignment with geopolitical goals and operational flexibility for military commanders.

The decision of where and when to deploy is primarily a political imperative and should rest with the legitimate constitutional authority: the prime minister, the appropriate cabinet committee and the defence minister. The national security advisor, the defence secretary and the chief of defence staff must inform and advise the political authority. Of course, this means that the political leadership can task the armed forces with a particular mission. But it should not exclude the armed forces from submitting proposals to the political leadership, through defence ministry channels, seeking mandates to conduct particular operations. It is up to the civilian component—political and bureaucratic—to define the mission, sanction the capacity and approve the rules of engagement.

So empowered, the armed forces will have the mandate to conduct a particular military campaign with full operational autonomy for almost all levels of conventional warfare. Within the sanctioned capacity and rules of engagement, the military commanders will have the latitude to decide the best course of action to achieve the mission’s objectives.

It also needs changes to the structure of the armed forces. As Sushant Singh & Rohit Pradhan argue in this month’s issue of Pragati it is important to distinguish the roles military advisors and military commanders. So while the chief of defence staff (CDS) should rightly be the government’s chief military advisor, in this capacity he should not have operational control of the troops. Operational control, as K Subrahmanyam has pointed out, should be vested in theatre commands that combine army, navy and air force resources, along the lines of the US model.

Both the political leadership and the military brass might find it seductive to merely seek “control”: but what India needs is both a policy framework that defines roles and responsibilities of the top echelons of India’s defence setup, as well as a restructuring of the armed forces themselves. Until this happens, India’s approach to emerging military threats will be reactive, ad hoc and sub-optimal.

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.

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!

Tragedy aboard the Nerpa

Twenty die in an accident on a nuclear-powered submarine that might have been leased to India

There were four times as many people on board as there should have been. And an accidental burst of fire-suppressant gas suffocated twenty of them to death. The Nerpa, an Akula-II class nuclear submarine that was undergoing sea trials in the Sea of Japan has returned to its base on Russia’s Pacific coast.

According to some media reports, the Nerpa was to have entered service in the Indian Navy as INS Chakra, under a ten-year lease from Russia. This would allow the navy to train its personnel ahead of the launch of the Advanced Technology Vessel, India’s indigenous nuclear submarine. But both governments have been cagey over the existence of such a deal, although 40 navy personnel were supposed to have left for Vladivostok earlier this month. However, the Indian Navy has officially denied that the Nerpa had Indian crew members on board.

Update: 1. From Information Dissemination & 2. The list of casualties released by Russian authorities does not have any Indians (via BRF)

My op-ed in Mail Today: Send the Navy to tackle Somali pirates

India must act to protect its interests off Somalia

In today’s op-ed in Mail Today, I argue that India must be the ultimate protector of its citizens, wherever they might be on the planet.

ACCORDING to the International Maritime Bureau, pirates have attacked 69 ships off the coast of Somalia since January this year. They hijacked 27 and are currently holding 11 of them for ransom. Along with the ships and their cargo, they are holding more than 200 sailors hostage, of whom at least 18, including Captain P K Goyal of MT Stolt Valor, are Indian nationals. At least two Indian owned ships have been lost off these waters since 2006. A piracy-powered economy has developed in the Puntland region of Somalia, astride a corridor that carries a significant part of the worlds—and India’s—seaborne trade.
Continue reading “My op-ed in Mail Today: Send the Navy to tackle Somali pirates”

We will negotiate but we won’t

Is the government confused on handling the hostage crisis in Somalia or is it just confused reporting?

The pirates holding the crew of MV Stolt Valor have apparently issued a 48-hour ultimatum to the owners of the ship.

Under pressure, Indian Government was forced to react and Anand Sharma, MoS, External Affairs has said that India is being helped by neighbouring powers and international agencies were working with India to free sailors.

Earlier, the Defence Minister had categorically ruled out an offensive in the high seas saying that the Indian government was banking on negotiations to resolve the crisis. The statement had prompted angry families to ask if authorities were even considering ransom as a final option.

Government had also said that the government views Somali pirates as terrorists and as a policy will not negotiate with them. However, the government had assured that they will do everything to save the lives of the Indian citizens. [TOI]

Little did one know that the government’s much touted (and flouted) “no negotiations” policy would end up this way. It won’t send the Navy, and will rely on negotiations, but at the same time, it won’t negotiate with hostage takers because that is the policy. That means that the government won’t actually do anything, other than rely on commercial negotiations, neighbouring powers and international agencies.

But it’ll still send peacekeepers to the Congo…in the service of an ideal. The policy on overseas military deployments could certainly do with some rationalisation.

Let’s hope the above report is inaccurate. Because such a mix of apathy, pusillanimity and cravenness is well and truly unbearable. [A friend mentions seeing reports of the dispatch of a Navy ship. But it is unlikely that the ships can get there in 48 hours]

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.

Don’t rule out military options

The navy shouldn’t have its hands tied in the fight against pirates

That the Indian government is ‘finalising’ a strategy against piracy in the high seas is good news, although that a special strategy is being contemplated suggests an absence of an effective, comprehensive maritime strategy. Pirates, after all, have been around for almost as long as there have been ships, and tackling them should actually be old hat.

So while we await what the government will finalise, we know that it has already ruled out some options. According to Defence Ministry A K Antony “as a policy, the government would not carry out hot pursuit of pirates, as it had wider implications.” Mr Antony’s statement ruling out one option or the other is not prudent, not timely and wholly unnecessary. Not least when negotiations are in progress to secure the release of Indian crew held hostage by Somali pirates.

What Mr Antony should have said is that “all options are on the table.” Ideally the ‘finalised strategy’ should say so too. But now pirates, terrorists and Indian naval commanders know that the Indian Navy’s hands are tied behind its back.

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.

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