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India’s Anti-Piracy Missions Were Years in the Making

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India’s Anti-Piracy Missions Were Years in the Making

The recent uptick in activity is the culmination of a long-term shift that has largely gone unnoticed. 

India’s Anti-Piracy Missions Were Years in the Making

In this handout photo from the Indian Navy, an Indian destroyer assists the Palau-flagged vessel MV Islander, which caught fire after a suspected drone attack, in the Gulf of Aden, Feb. 22, 2024.

Credit: Indian Navy

India seems to have a considerable amount of influence in the Indian Ocean, even though China’s assertive advancements have placed India under a substantial amount of pressure. Today, the Gulf of Aden and Western Arabian Sea are seeing the greatest deployment of the Indian Navy (IN) to date, as India seeks to secure global shipping lanes against attack by non-state actors. This deployment is separate from the current U.S.-U.K. military campaign in Yemen against the Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran. 

Twelve warships make up the IN’s extraordinary naval armada. Two of the most modern ships are stationed in the Gulf of Aden, while the other 10 are spread around the northern and western Arabian Seas. Both in terms of strength and the scope of the mission being carried out, this deployment represents a substantial departure from earlier ones in these regions. The IN’s continuous mission around anti-piracy and anti-hijacking activities demonstrates a profound shift in its approach.

India’s Maritime Approach: A Recap 

India has always been a seafaring nation; its vast coastline necessitates a robust naval strategy to fend off both traditional and non-traditional security threats. But it took a long time for India to contemplate threats coming from its coastline. For decades after independence, the threats emanating from land borders with Pakistan and China monopolized India’s security strategy.

However, India’s increasing maritime might, coupled with the tumultuous global situation, has encouraged the country to modernize its navy. The process began when the country started a blue water navy modernization program in the mid-1990s and significantly increased military spending. The Indian Navy released “Freedom of use of seas: Indian maritime military strategy,” its inaugural maritime doctrine, in 2004. It was later revised in 2007. The budget for the IN increased by 5 percent between 2000 and 2005 and by 10 percent between 2005 and 2008, along with an increase in the navy’s portion of the yearly defense budget. 

The navy’s force structure and sea control capabilities improved as a result of these increased resources. India acknowledged the Indian Ocean Rim (IOR) as a vital hub for international maritime commerce in the early 21st century, but then it was not the highly contested arena as it is today. India at the time still saw itself as a developing nation with a small fleet that could only operate in coastal seas. But Indian strategists were conscious of the way the IOR was shifting, particularly with regard to China’s rising military might and its heightened hostilities with the United States. 

India’s goal during the initial years of the 21st century was to selectively dominate the Indian Ocean by maintaining a naval presence in the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, and Bay of Bengal in addition to growing the Indian Coast Guard to conduct additional police operations in addition to the navy. New Delhi has concentrated on strengthening its security relationships on the Arabian Peninsula (near the Straits of Bab al-Mandab and Hormuz), the Indonesian archipelago (including the Straits of Malacca, Lombok, and Sunda), and chokepoints leading from southern Africa into the Indian Ocean.  

In late 2008, the Indian Navy started stationing ships in the Gulf of Aden to conduct anti-piracy missions. Offering naval escort to commerce vessels sailing under any flag is a commendable global initiative taken by countries such as India. 

A Shift That Must Be Recognized 

India was motivated by a number of considerations to change its emphasis from being a passive navy to a true net security provider for the region. The change in the perspective of Indian foreign policy from a “Euro-Atlantic” focus to an “Indo-Pacific” one, as well as the realignment of global military and economic power toward Asia, has had a tangible impact on India’s maritime environment and caused significant political, economic, and social changes in the Indian Ocean region.

In addition, the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008 made a reassessment of India’s offshore and coastal security necessary. The development of a comprehensive and accommodating plan was aided by the increasing acknowledgment of the importance of maritime security to national advancement. Furthermore, the explicit encroachment in the Indian Ocean by China resulted in India’s increased alertness. 

India released a new maritime doctrine in 2015, “Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy,” which substitutes “strategy” for “doctrine” and commits to “securing” rather than “using” the Indian Ocean’s waters. The approach not only clarified the IN’s regions of interest but also used tougher language when it came to the use of force. Other remote parts of Africa and Australia were referred to as India’s secondary zones of interest, while the oceans surrounding the Indian possessions were designated as primary areas of interest. The recent anti-piracy operations by the Indian Navy demonstrate its commitment to securing these primary areas of Interest.

The IN’s new proactive approach is reflected in the growing number of rescues carried out by the force. Early in January, a Liberia-flagged vessel carrying 21 crew members, including 15 Indian nationals, was towed to Bahrain by the IN’s Marine Commandos. The troops, who were stationed on the guided-missile destroyer INS Chennai, had boarded the vessel after an attempted hijacking, and saw the ship safely to port. 

On January 26, the INS Visakhapatnam responded to a distress call following a Houthi missile attack on a British ship. 

Later in January, two hijacked vessels were saved off the coast of Somalia by the patrol boat INS Sumitra. In the first rescue, which took place on January 28, the Indian warship freed the crew from pirates who had taken control of a ship flying the Iranian flag. Within 48 hours, the INS Sumitra saved another Iranian-flagged ship with 19 Pakistani crew members on board. 

All these operations show the Indian Navy’s ability to respond quickly and maintain continuous functioning. The frequency and intensity of the most recent wave of pirate attacks doesn’t seem to be as great compared to the 10 years between 2008 and 2018. However, the recent surge in piracy did not occur in a vacuum; rather, it is a result of West Asia’s continued status as a geopolitical hotbed, which requires India to maintain a high level of naval vigilance. 

Previous Indian naval doctrines depict a force that is restricted to presence, observation, and constructive maritime engagement. However, as the regional security dynamics have changed and India’s main objective has evolved from “using” the seas to “securing” the seas, India’s strategic involvement in the IOR has grown. The present deployment suggests that the IN has more capability and knows how to carry out intricate anti-piracy operations quickly, efficiently, and even without using force across a large body of water. 

A single navy would find it difficult to control a large swath of waters, but the Indian navy has proved that it can rightly claim to be a net security provider in these regional waters.