Red Sea Attacks: Should Indian Navy Join US-Led Naval Coalition & Expand Its Global Power & Influence?

India’s rise as a global power and the growing expectations from its partners that it should play an active role in the Indo-Pacific appears to be on a test in the Red Sea, adversely affected by the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.

There is the first major “ideological question” whether India should involve itself in areas and issues where it is not exactly “a party.” Should India play “power politics” by going beyond its traditional so-called “nonaligned” image?

There is the additional question of whether India has the capacity to play such an active role, given its tight military budgets, lack of clarity on the defense-command structure, and absence of “unity in strategic thought across the many echelons of the government.”

Based on these two questions, critics in India are demanding a serious debate on the decision of the Narendra Modi-led government that India should be the “net security provider” in the region.

They say that this concept of being a “net security provider” unnecessarily complicates the task of the Indian Navy, which is rather happy being only “a preferred partner” or “the first responder” in a developing crisis, humanitarian or otherwise.

It may be noted that in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war in October, the Red Sea, the shipping artery for 12 percent of global commerce and about 30 percent of the world’s container shipping, has been in the news for the periodic attack to the commercial ships by missiles and drones from Iran supported Houthi rebels of Yemen. Some of these attacked ships, like a Gabon-flagged crude oil tanker (‘MV Sai Baba’), had Indian crew.

On December 23, a Liberian-flagged chemical tanker, the MV Chem Pluto, was attacked by drones in the adjoining Arabia Sea, 200 miles from India’s Porbandar coast, and this ship had a crew of 20 Indians.

Given the grim situation, the US Central Command has become active, and it has established “Operation Prosperity Guardians (OPS) – an important multilateral security initiative under the umbrella of Combined Maritime Forces (CMS), a US-partnered coalition of which India is a full-fledged member. The CMS is meant to provide security to the free and open waterways in the region, attend to natural disasters, and deal with acts of counter-terrorism.

Of course, India, like Italy, Spain, and France, has not exactly joined the US for the OPS. However, the Indian Navy has substantially enhanced maritime surveillance efforts in the Central/ North Arabian Sea and augmented force levels for any exigency.

In an official press release on December 31, 2023, the Ministry of Defence disclosed that  Task Groups comprising destroyers and frigates have been deployed to undertake maritime security operations and render assistance to merchant vessels in case of any incident. Aerial surveillance by long-range maritime patrol aircraft and RPAs has been enhanced to have complete maritime domain awareness.

Towards effective surveillance of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), the Indian Navy is also operating in close coordination with the Coast Guard. The Navy’s Information Fusion Centre for Indian Ocean (IFC-IOR), located in Gurugram, is actively monitoring the region.

“Indian Navy remains committed to ensuring the safety of merchant shipping in the region,” the release said.

Incidentally, while commissioning INS Imphal, a Project 15B stealth guided missile destroyer, into the Indian Navy on December 26, Indian defense minister Rajnath Singh had referred to the drone attack on MV Chem Pluto in the Arabian Sea and the attack on ‘MV Sai Baba’ in the Red Sea. Stating that “India’s growing economic and strategic power has filled some forces with jealousy and hatred,” he had assured that “the perpetrators of these attacks” will soon be brought to justice “from the depths of the oceans” if need be and strict action will be taken against them.

“India plays the role of a Net Security Provider in the entire Indian Ocean Region. We will ensure that maritime trade in this region touches greater heights. For this, together with our friendly countries, we will keep the sea lanes secure. We have full confidence in the ability and strength of our Navy,” Singh had said.

This assertion of Singh has been described by critics to be an act of “bravado” and “rather premature.”

But then, to be fair to Singh, he has been reflecting the Modi government’s views in this regard. He did not use the term “net security provider” for the first time. At the multi-agency Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) exercise ‘Samanvay 2022’ in Agra, Singh had similarly highlighted that “India has emerged as a net security provider in Indo-Pacific” in line with Prime Minister Modi’s policy of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region).

Even India’s minister of external affairs, Dr S Jaishankar, asserted the same theme on October 11 last year while addressing the  23rd Meeting of the Indian Ocean Rim Association Council of Ministers at Colombo.

He had said, “Where India is concerned, we will continue our approach of contributing to build capacity and secure safety and security in the Indian Ocean Region, including as first responder and a net security provider. India’s commitment to the well-being and progress of nations of the Indian Ocean is based on our Neighbourhood First policy, the SAGAR outlook, and our approach to the extended neighborhood and to the Indo-Pacific. A multilateral rules-based international order along with sincere respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity remains the foundation for reviving the Indian Ocean as a strong community”.

It may be noted that Prime Minister Modi himself has used this term. As the first Prime Minister of India to chair a UN Security Council session ( when India was a non-permanent member in 2021),  he had highlighted India’s role as the “Net Security Provider” for the Indian Ocean region, referring to the Indian Navy’s anti-piracy patrolling, India’s support to other nations, be it to boost maritime security capability and dealing with natural disasters or to conduct a hydrographic survey or to enhance maritime domain awareness.

In fact, the idea that India is a Net Security Provider in the Indian Ocean Region predates even the Modi government. In the current strategic vocabulary, it was noticed first when the then  US Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates,  argued, while speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2009, that  “we look to India to be a partner and net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond.”

This phrase was subsequently repeated in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review of the US, which said that “as its military capabilities grow, India will contribute to Asia as a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and seven beyond.”

Thereafter, in an interview with Jane’s Defence Weekly in June 2011, the then-Indian Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Nirmal Verma,  stated that “the Indian Navy is evolving as a credible and operationally capable force that is looked upon as a regional net security provider.”

Later this year, the then Defence Minister A K Antony was reported to have said at the three-day Naval Commanders’ Conference that the Indian Navy has been mandated to be a ‘Net Security  Provider’ to the island nations in IOR.

In an address at a leading Indian think-tank on March 5, 2013, another Chief of the Indian Navy, Admiral D K Joshi had said, among other things, that “India’s geo-strategic location positions us right at the confluence of major arteries of world trade. The Indian Navy is, therefore, viewed by some of the littorals as a suitable agency to facilitate regional maritime security in the IOR as a net security provider. India’s standing as a benign power provides credence to this perception, making us a preferred partner for regional security”.

Such intent was made more obvious when none other than the then-Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, said on 23rd May 2013, while addressing a gathering after laying the foundation stone of the Indian National Defence University (INDU) in Gurugram, “We live in a difficult neighborhood, which holds the full range of conventional, strategic and non-traditional challenges….We have added the Army‘s firepower …  We have enhanced the full spectrum of capabilities of our Air Force… We have placed special emphasis on strengthening the capabilities of our Navy… We have also sought to assume our responsibility for stability in the Indian Ocean Region. We are well positioned, therefore, to become a net provider of security in our immediate region and beyond”.

All these quotations above have been reproduced to deal with the contention that there was no unity among the Indian policymakers over the concept of India being a net security provider in the IOR. There has been no disharmony between the political and military leaderships. In fact, the idea of being a “preferred security partner” derived from, as Admiral Joshi had implied, the idea of a “net security provider” and need to be seen together rather than as an alternative.

Poster of Indian Navy on Facebook Page: Via Indian Navy

The idea seems to have been further clarified by India’s revised maritime-military strategy, titled, ‘Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy’ (IMMS-2015), released by the late defense minister Manohar Parrikar in October 2015. The phrase “Ensuring Secure Seas” here needs to be emphasized because the previous 2007 version of the strategy was named “Use the Seas: India’s Maritime-Military Strategy (IMMS-2007)”.

There is a big difference between “Using” and “Ensuring”. And when talking of “ensuring, “it is implied that the country needs to provide security.

In fact, the 2015 Strategy expanded India’s “primary area” of maritime interest to include the South-West Indian Ocean and Red Sea. It says the western  Coast of  Africa,  the Mediterranean Sea, and “other areas of national interest based on considerations of Indian  Diaspora,  overseas investments and political reasons” are within its  ‘secondary area’ of interest.

The IMMS-2015 says clearly to, “Strengthen itself continuously as a formidable, multi-dimensional and networked force that maintains high readiness at all times to protect India’s maritime interests, safeguard her seaward frontiers and defeat all maritime threats in our areas of interest”.

The strategy “employs the various roles and means of the Indian Navy in an integrated manner, and also guides the development of new means. It further utilizes the potential for increased maritime cooperation and coordination across multiple agencies in India and with friendly nations. This strategy, while it is centered on the Indian Navy as the prime maritime force of the nation, also provides a broader framework for synergizing actions in the maritime domain with the other stakeholders.”

Therefore, when one talks of being a net security provider, it does not necessarily mean that India is going to be the sole provider of net security. Apart from doing everything to strengthen and modernize itself, the Indian Navy will partner with countries sharing the same naval outlook and respect for international law. Partnering involves military- exchanges,  training with partner-friendly countries, and joint exercises from time to time.

And here, the security is not only confined to the traditional security in military terms. IMMS-2015 clearly talks of non-traditional threats such as piracy and armed robbery at sea, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations, Non-combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO), and Environmental protection. The strategy talks of the importance of working in coordination with the partner and friendly countries.

In concrete terms, it implies that India will be one of the net security providers, along with others in its areas of interest. Accordingly, India, in recent years, has worked towards maximizing its maritime partnerships in the region through friendly international collaborations, creating platforms and initiatives to address key challenges of the region.

Prime Minister Modi has visited extensively in the last 10 years throughout the Indian Ocean region. India’s relations with the countries in the Middle East have gathered strength.

In fact, a new division in India’s Ministry of External Affairs was established in 2016; it is the “Indian Ocean division” to look at the region more holistically. Strategic fora like QUAD (the US, Australia, India, and Japan) and relations with other resident powers such as France have gained impressive momentum.

Notwithstanding what the nay-sayers may say, this momentum will likely be maintained in days to come, given the expansion of China’s hegemonistic and aggressive reach in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

  • Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has commented on politics, foreign policy, and strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. 
  • CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at)
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Prakash Nanda
Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: