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Active Defence of Indian Shipping Against Somali Piracy

The policy of the Indian Navy in its operations against Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden area can be characterised as one of active defence of Indian shipping. That means, protection of Indian commercial ships and foreign ships with a large complement of Indian crew transiting through these waters and action in self-defence against pirate boats and ships, which threaten Indian lives and interests and threaten to attack Indian naval ships patrolling the seas in this area. The indications till now are that their role will not be extended to cover active intervention to free already hijacked ships. If preventive measures fail, the responsibility for getting a hijacked ship released from the custody of the pirates will be largely that of the company owning the ship.

2. Any active intervention role will require the presence of more ships with more specially-trained commandoes on board. Moreover, if the intervention attempt fails, there could be diplomatic and other complications. It has been reported that the Ministry of Shipping of the Government of India is keen that at least four ships of the Navy should be on anti-piracy patrol. The present policy seems to be to have one ship on rotation on permanent anti-piracy patrol. At the most, this may be increased to two if resources and circumstances permit. Admiral Sureesh Mehta, the Chief of the Naval Staff, told the media on November 20, 2008,that the Navy was also considering the option of an aerial recce of the region. He has also been quoted as saying: “We are considering augmenting our efforts to keep the Indian traffic in the region safe.”

3. The Government of India has reasons to be gratified that the successful action of INS Tabar, the frigate presently on patrolling duty, in sinking a suspected mothership of the pirates on November 18,2008, has been positively viewed by the countries of the region as well as by those outside the region. It has also been uniformly hailed by private shipping companies using the Gulf of Aden. It is equally gratifying that the Government of Pakistan, which under Pervez Musharraf was opposed to any Indian role in maritime security in this region, has not so far reacted adversely to the proposed permanent presence of one or two Indian naval ships in the waters of this region.

4.Was the US consulted before India decided to deploy INS Tabar in the Gulf of Aden? An answer to this question is not available. It may be recalled that in the past the US had tried to have India’s role in maritime security confined to the seas to the East of India. It was opposed to any Indian role in the seas to the West of India out of deference to the sensitivities and concerns of Pakistan.Now, it seems to be reconciled to India’s role even if it had not actively encouraged it.

5.Pakistani sources, however, suspect that India would not have taken this initiative without an approving nod from the US and that the US would not have given this nod without consulting the Government of Pakistan. If it ultimately turns out that the US did consult Pakistan and that it did not object to the Indian role, this would mark a qualitative change for the better in the perceptions of the present Pakistani Government towards India.

6. It is, at the same time, intriguing that the US has not hailed the successful action of INS Tabar as enthusiastically as one would have expected it. Official US comments on what is perceived by private shipping companies as the weak response of the US-led coalition to the surge in piracy in this region have emphasised caution in dealing with the piracy. According to a despatch of the Agence France Presse (AFP), Geoff Morrell, a media spokesperson of the Pentagon, told pressmen in Washington DC on November 19,2008, that a military approach was not the answer to a surge in piracy off the Horn of Africa and said that the shipping companies should do more on their own to protect their vessels. “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,” he said, and added: “It requires a holistic approach from the international community at sea, ashore, with governance, with economic development.”

7. According to the AFP, Morrell said that at least 18 ships are currently being held for ransom by Somali pirates, along with 330 crew members taken hostage. This year there have been 95 attempted ship seizures by pirates in the Gulf of Aden, 39 of them successful.Not only has the incidence of piracy increased, but pirates are going farther out in the high seas. He then said: “Trust me, this subject is being dealt with at the highest levels of this Government.It is a real concern. And we are constantly evaluating what the best approach is.I’m just trying to get you to think beyond the notion of, ‘The answer is strictly kinetics. We’ve got to board more ships. We’ve got to fire on more pirates.’

8. Commenting on the hijacking of a Saudi oil supertanker, another Pentagon spokesperson Dana Perino said: “The White House said President George W. Bush had been briefed about the seizure of the Saudi supertanker. Ensuring the safety and well being of the crew is of paramount importance in preventing or dealing with issues of piracy.And the goal would be to try to help get this ship to safety, secure the crew, and then work with our international partners to try to alleviate the piracy problem. Washington is working with other members of the Security Council right now to work out how to more effectively fight against piracy.It’s a very complicated issue. There’s a lot of international laws that factor into these efforts.”

9. According to the AFP report, Morrell urged that the UN Security Council should vote a resolution that authorizes anti-piracy activities. He said that commercial shipping companies also should stick to safer sea lanes away from shore and invest in protective measures, including technical devices and armed guards.”The shipping companies also have an obligation to secure their ships to prevent incidents such that we’ve been seeing at alarming rates over the past several months,” he added.

10.The State Department convened a high level group of officials to examine the issue, but Sean McCormack, a spokesperson of the Department, called piracy “an international problem” that the US was not going to solve alone.

11. Do the guarded comments of the Pentagon and the State Department and the absence of appreciative references to the action of INS Tabar in US Governmental circles indicate a discomfort over India’s unilateral and proactive role? Such guarded comments, however, are not new. In the past too, the US attitude to its anti-piracy role in the Horn of Africa region lacked clarity and a readiness to act.Caution in dealing with the increasing problem of piracy in the Horn of Africa area has been a defining characteristic of the US policy and this is one of the reasons which had contributed to the surge in piracy.

12.After launching its military action against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan under Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7,2001, the US took the initiative in setting up a joint naval task force called the Combined Task Force (CTF) 150, with headquarters in Djibouti. The Pakistani Navy was invited to be a member of this Task Force. Musharraf agreed to the Pakistani Navy joining it on condition that the Indian Navy would be kept out. The Task Force is commanded by naval officers from different member countries by rotation. It is presently commanded by Commodore Per Bigum Christensen of Denmark. It conducts Maritime Security Operations (MSO) in the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

13.According to a US Navy website, “the MSO help develop security in the maritime environment, which promotes stability and global prosperity. These operations complement the counterterrorism and security efforts of regional nations and seek to disrupt violent extremists’ use of the maritime environment as a venue for attack or to transport personnel, weapons or other material.” Since its inception, its focus was mainly on anti-smuggling and anti-infiltration tasks—-meaning preventing the smuggling and pentration of men and material to Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and to Al Qaeda in Iraq. Counter-piracy was given a low priority.

14.On August 22,2008, the Task Force established a Maritime Security Patrol Area (MSPA) in support of the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) call for international assistance to discourage attacks on commercial vessels transiting the Gulf of Aden. According to statements issued by the US Navy, the MSPA is a geographic area in the Gulf of Aden utilized by Combined Maritime Forces to focus their efforts against destabilizing activities. These activities include, but are not limited to: criminal activities, drug smuggling operations that support terrorist and violent extremist organizations and human smuggling. Coalition forces patrol the MSPA, which is not marked or defined by visual navigational means, on a routine basis.Vice-Admiral Bill Gortney, Commander, Combined Maritime Forces, was quoted as saying: “Coalition maritime efforts will give the IMO time to work international efforts that will ultimately lead to a long-term solution.” He said that the shipping industry must consider hiring security teams for their vessels.

15.Even after the setting-up of the MSPA, the US response to the surge in piracy has been cautious. It has been trying to discourage any undue expectations from the shipping companies that this probably presaged a more robust role by the US Navy against Somali piracy. The only Navies, which have so far shown a readiness to play a robust role are those of France, the UK and India. The reasons for the continued US caution are not clear.

16. India’s decision to send INS Tabar to the Gulf of Aden to protect Indian shipping was triggered off by the hijacking of a Japanese ship with largely Indian crew and the emotional criticism by the families of the crew of the seeming Government inaction. It was a tactical move taken in a hurry without much thought being given to the development of a strategic martime security architecture in the region to protect the region against piracy as well as maritime terrorism, in concert with other affected countries. The development of such a mechanism needs attention.

17. The Chinese are as much worried over piracy in this region as we are.A Chinese fishing vessel with a 26-member crew, 17 of them Chinese, was hijacked recently by Somali pirates. It is not known whether the vessel is still in the custody of the pirates or has been released. Our support for any Chinese role in a multilateral maritime security mechanism should be made conditional on their supporting India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council. (21-11-08)

(The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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