Ready to counter

Emerging pirate-jihadi nexus

Even as the Indian Navy is being modernized with the acquisition of stealth technology frigates and fast offshore patrol vessels a chink is beginning to appear in maritime defence that has all the hallmarks of the land-based “sub-conventional warfare” by non-State actors instigated, financed and launched by nation-States that have, like Pakistan become rogues in their mentality and worldview.

One symptom of that change is the “revision” of India’s anti-piracy rules of engagement brought about by targeted attacks on Indian seamen by Somali brigands. It raises the question whether it is worth wasting so much money to create new stealth and rapid deployment capabilities if the nation is scared of the consequences.

As has been seen in land-based terrorist strikes they have become low-cost options for military establishments that fear geopolitical developments if there is a direct conventional exchange between two countries.
Under cover of jihadi reaction Pakistan has already demonstrated how its campaign to bring India down “with a thousand cuts” as executed in Mumbai on 26/11. What is emerging in the Indian Ocean Rim (some parts of which Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh has just visited and addressed the issue of piracy) is the nexus between piracy and waterborne jihad.

The David Coleman Headley trial in America has revealed evidence of Coleman being the common factor in the Mumbai attack and the meeting in Mogadishu, Somalia, with an Al Qaeda operative.

Unfortunate consequences

It now turns out that the Indian Navy has been instructed not to bring arrested pirates to the mainland for trial because Indian sailors are being targeted and taken to Somalia and not being released even after ransom is paid by the victim shipping company.

India, it turns out, is a victim of its own much-trumpeted success in anti-piracy operations. Clearly, none of the stakeholders in India’s maritime defence had thought out how to handle maritime piracy to protect Indian national interest.

This includes the Navy which gave high-powered publicity to every anti-piracy operation, the Ministry of Defence which was a silent and appreciative spectator of how the Navy was handling it, the Ministry of External Affairs which should have known better of how to handle the piracy problem because it affects many littoral nations and has its roots in one source-Somalia.

It would have been better to have a larger fleet of Indian military vessels, a better communications system between commercial vessels and the Indian Navy so as to ensure that no ship with an Indian crew is captured by Somali or other east African pirates.

 With one or two ships of the size of INS Delhi clearly the job is too big to handle and the ships too big for the job. Even if the success rate was high it would also have been better if we had not trumpeted it so loudly and persistently.

A job well done, quietly, is a situation foreign to our strategic planners; especially the armed forces who are reveling in acquiring their own publicity departments the main aim of which is to direct friendly fire at other Indian institutions and crib about “babus” retaliating when they get the flak.

In between the successes came abject failures when large commercial vessels were captured by the pirates and huge ransoms had to be paid out to save crew and cargo.

Indian sailors were held captive during negotiations for the release of the captured pirates. So this brings us back to square one even after making so much investment in equipment and infrastructure.

Given the density of commercial traffic through the Gulf of Aden as well as the Malacca Strait and south of Indonesia it needs to be reconsidered whether the projected ten water jet-propelled fast attack craft will be sufficient to ensure adequate time on station and rotation of ships to deal with a problem that brooks no half-measures.

This is because one failure can unravel the whole skein of past successes by hostage-taking and swapping of prisoners as India has just learned to its chagrin.     

Which brings us to the other well-trumpeted achievement – the creation of capabilities to design and manufacture fast offshore patrol vessels with ranges capable of policing larger, piracy-prone areas of the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal by the Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers Limited (GRSE).

The indigenous water jet-propelled fast attack craft with a top speed is 63 kilometers an hour and cruising distance (at about 35 kilometers an hour) is 3,600 kilometers. Properly based with the help of satellite imagery and Global Positioning System communications a fleet of four to six such craft can intervene within hours if a ship has been hijacked.

Given its girth the water jet-propelled fast attack craft has both “green water” as well as “brown water” capabilities.

This factor alone can ensure that pirates cannot attack commercial shipping in the most important chokepoints on the map (the Red Sea-Suez canal opening into the North Arabian Sea through which most of the world’s oil is shipped eastwards) and the Malacca Straits/passage south of Indonesia or flee into shallow waters after taking hostages because the Indian vessels can ply in five meters water depth.

With the possibility of a jihadi-piracy nexus becoming solidified in both the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal India needs to accelerate the manufacture of this particular type of fast attack craft.

This it can do with greater public sector-private sector participation between Government owned and private shipbuilding firms that are increasingly showing greater interest in warship-building contracts.

The Pipavav Shipbuilders on the Gujarat coast for instance has shown interest in bidding for contracts. Goa Shipyard Limited makes a smaller version offshore patrol vessel (OPV) with limited range and speed for the Coast Guard to police the 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone. It uses a combined gas and diesel propulsion (instead of water-jet).

Pro-active steps

It needs to be appreciated that the achievement of a top speed of 63 kilometers per hour is no mean achievement but given the vast spaces in the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean that need rapid deployment to prevent the fast-growing nexus between Islamic jihad and piracy, either a faster speed or a larger number of fast attack craft will be required in the future for failsafe anti-piracy operations.

Instead of being paralyzed by the possibility that the pirates could target Indian seamen the Indian Navy must adopt a pro-active role.

Its suggestion that ocean-going ships must reconstruct the bridge area so that an automatic shutdown can occur and the Captain and navigating crew cannot be captured by the pirates is not immediately possible. It will require the ship to come to dock so that the suggested improvements can be incorporated which is time-consuming.

More appropriate would be to install transponders on every ship that is registered anywhere in the world so that in the event of an attempt at hijacking an alarm is triggered from any one of several points on the ship so that both the shore control room as well as the Indian Navy ship in the vicinity are alerted simultaneously and counter-piracy operations can be launched.

That is why it is suggested that more than the projected 10 fast attack craft will be needed and standard operating procedures so designed that the commercial ships are either escorted in convoys or that Indian ships patrol in packs in a pattern that allows swift deployment to any point within an hour so as to intercept the pirate/jihadis before they can attack a ship.

The miscreants can then be disarmed, their vessel disabled and they should be set adrift.

The Indian Navy frigates, the newer stealth versions of which have integral land-attack missiles may need to be available to carry out the kind of operation that the Americans did in Abbottabad to get Osama bin Laden.

In the case of the pirate/jihadi the need may arise that the land-based headquarters of the mastermind may need to be neutralized to free Indian sailors who have been taken captive. For such operations a vessel bigger than the fast attack craft needs to be part of convoy escort. Helicopters on board can prepare the area for onshore operations.

There needs to be both an acceleration of shipbuilding activity and improvement in speed and range of new generation platforms.

In the meantime, instead of abdicating responsibility because Indian sailors are being targeted the Indian Navy should insist that all vessels traversing the Arabian Sea or the Indian Ocean must form convoys and use their onboard communications equipment as part of a network for mutual security.

The signs are there that maritime security could be afflicted by the same “low cost options” that have become rampant on land. It is time to plan ahead rather than be caught by surprise again.