Keeping with its stated objective of being the net security provider for the Indian Ocean region, the Indian Navy is now emerging as the first responder to piracy and drone attacks on cargo vessels in the Arabian Sea, which is increasingly facing threats from Somali and Houthi non-state actors.
On January 17, Indian Navy guided-missile destroyer INS Visakhapatnam, which is among the 10 Indian warships deployed on an anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden, swiftly responded to a distress call by Marshall Island-flagged MV Genco Picardy following a drone attack at 2311 hours on January 17.
According to the Indian Navy, INS Visakhapatnam, undertaking anti-piracy patrol in the region that has now come under strain due to increased pirate activity and drone and missile attacks by Houthi militants, acknowledged the distress call and intercepted the vessels at 0030 hours on January 18 to assist the distressed cargo ship.
MV Genco Picardy had 22 crew members onboard, including nine Indians. The vessel reported that it had no casualties and the fire was under control, the Indian Navy said, as the Indian warship closed in and got in touch with the crew members on board.
The Indian warship sent its Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) specialists to board the cargo vessel on January 18 to inspect the damaged area. After a thorough inspection, the EOD specialists have rendered the area safe for further transit. The cargo ship proceeded to the next port of call, it said.
India is increasingly playing the role of the first responder to incidents, as piracy and drone/missile attacks in the Arabian Sea have gone up in recent months. The Israel-Hamas conflict has compounded the trouble in the waters off West Asia and northern African coasts, as both state and non-state actors have escalated security concerns in the region.
The January 17 incident is the latest in recent incidents at sea in the region. India increased its footprint in the Arabian Sea, deploying ten or more warships to respond to the emerging security situation.
Indian Navy has responded actively to incidents at sea in recent months. In December, the Indian Navy sent its warship and maritime patrol aircraft to check on the troubled Malta-flagged merchant vessel MV Ruen, just about 700 nautical miles off the Indian coast in the Arabian Sea.
Again, that month, the Indian Navy responded positively to the Liberian-flagged cargo ship MV Chem Pluto, carrying 21 Indians among the 22 crew members, when it came under a drone attack much closer to the Indian coast, much to India’s concern, at 220 nautical miles southwest of Porbandar in Gujarat.
MV Chem Pluto was carrying cargo to New Mangalore in India when it came under a drone attack, and the analysis of the debris on the ship following the attack indicated that it was a drone strike. India recommended further forensic and technical studies on the drone attack to establish the vector, including the type and quantity of the explosives used.
Only a day following the MV Chem Pluto incident, a Gabon-flagged commercial oil tanker, MV Sai Baba, came under another drone strike again. MV Sai Baba had 25 Indians on board as crew members. The attack on MV Sai Baba occurred in the Red Sea. This incident also involved a Norwegian-flagged merchant ship.
Earlier this month, the Indian Navy foiled a hijack attempt on a Liberian-flagged bulk carrier in the Arabian Sea, deploying its marine commandoes apart from the P8I maritime patrol aircraft.
The warning from the Indian Navy resulted in the hijackers abandoning the bid on the bulk carrier and fleeing, leaving the entire crew members, who holed themselves up in the citadel, secure and safe.
Following these incidents, the Indian Navy increased its mission-deployed warships in the Arabian Sea to continue its maritime security and surveillance duty.
Over ten frontline destroyers and frigates, apart from the P8I long-range marine surveillance aircraft, Dornier naval planes, and the MQ-9B Predator drones, have been deployed for security duty.
India has refused to be part of any multi-national force to deal with the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, with the Ministry of External Affairs saying India would closely monitor the situation in the region and continue to deploy its warships to protect its coast and the sea lanes of communication in the Arabian Sea.
The statement came amid reports that the US had invited India to join the international coalition it formed in December. Naval forces of several nations, led by the US Navy, have launched Operation Prosperity Guardian to protect the shipping route in the Red Sea from attacks by Iran-based Houthi rebels from Yemen.
Indian MEA spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal told a weekly media briefing on January 4 that India attaches “very high” importance to freedom of navigation and free movement of commercial shipping.
“We are looking at the situation. It is an evolving situation, and we are looking at all aspects of it. As you know, we have Indian Navy ships patrolling the area. They are also keeping a watch on Indian ships there. So far, we are not part of any multilateral initiative or project in the area. That is where we are, but we are looking at the emerging situation very closely.”
The US-led coalition, under the Combined Maritime Forces, seeks to ensure maritime security and protect global shipping routes, which Houthi attacks have increasingly targeted. Operation Prosperity Guardian involves countries like the UK, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles, and Spain.
Though India is a member of the Combined Maritime Forces, it has been cautious in accepting the US invitation to join Operation Prosperity Guardian. Like France and Italy, India has preferred maintaining a separate naval presence in the region.
- NC Bipindra is a 30-year veteran in journalism specializing in strategic affairs, geopolitics, aerospace, defense, and diplomacy. He has written extensively for the Times of India, New Indian Express, Press Trust of India, and Bloomberg News. He can be reached at ncbipindra (at) gmail.com
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