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The Indian Navy approaches the M/V Lila Norfolk in the Indian Ocean, January 5, 2023. Photo courtesy Indian Navy

The Indian Navy approaches the pirated M/V Lila Norfolk in the Indian Ocean, January 5, 2024. Photo courtesy Indian Navy

India Expects Piracy Attacks to Rise, Stretching Navy Resources

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March 1, 2024

By Sudhi Ranjan Sen (Bloomberg) —

Attacks on commercial shipping in the Arabian and Red Sea by pirates and Iran-backed Houthi rebels are likely to continue, according to senior Indian officials. 

Those attacks are stretching the Indian Navy’s capabilities as it maintains the tempo of its increased deployments in the region. Last week, an Indian warship rushed to the aid of merchant vessel Islander in the Gulf of Aden after it was hit by a drone, injuring a member of its crew. An explosive disposal team boarded the vessel before it was cleared for onward transit, an Indian Navy spokesperson said.  

The attacks in the Arabian and Red Sea were the focus of discussions between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar at the recent Munich Security Conference. Blinken described the two countries’ approach to tackling the maritime problems as “mutually reinforcing,” according to a statement.  

India has deployed a dozen warships alongside long-range surveillance maritime aircrafts and drones — its largest peacetime mission in seven decades — to monitor nearly 4 million square kilometers (1.5 million square miles) of the Arabian Sea, primarily to tackle increased piracy in the region that has largely coincided with the Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea. 

There have been as many as eight hijacking attempts including a successful one since last November, according to the officials, who did not want to be named because they are directly involved in operations. 

Even as the piracy attempts have dropped off since the US and UK began striking Houthi targets in Yemen — the US has now struck 230 targets in Yemen — the Indian Navy will need to continue its enhanced operations, according to the officials, given that fighting piracy requires time, huge resources and patience.

As an example, an Indian naval ship trailed a hijacked Iranian-flagged fishing vessel for over a day before the pirates eventually surrendered. The pirates set the 11 crew members free after it became clear that they would no longer be able to hijack the vessel and demand ransom, the people said, describing one operation. 

The sustained operations are also stretching the Indian Navy, according to the officials and analysts. The navy has had to move ships from the Bay of Bengal — a key area of operations given the increased presence of Chinese vessels in the area — to patrol the Arabian Sea.

“The Indian Navy has done a very impressive job of maintaining a high tempo of operations in the region — and its role has been noticed and generally welcomed by the international community,” said Anit Mukerjee, a senior lecturer of South Asian security issues at Kings College, London. He warned though that it “is an open question” whether the Navy can maintain the deployments and tempo of operations given its limited resources.

The Indian Navy and Ministry of Defence declined to comment.

The Indian Navy is trying to add new anti-piracy capabilities. Earlier this week, marine commandos with motorized crafts parachuted into the Arabian Sea from a US-made C-130 transport plane. The commandos could add capability if the nearest warship is at quite a distance from a hijacked vessel, people familiar with the matter said.

Much of the piracy could be opportunistic, with Somali pirates trying to take advantage of the turbulence in the region. “The crisis in the Middle East, with the war in Gaza and the Houthi attacks, have certainly emboldened the Somalia-based pirates,” said Mukerjee.

Somali piracy in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Sea peaked between 2010-2013. The World Bank estimates that ransom payments yielded as much as $413 million in the seven years through 2012. The global economy lost an annual $18 billion, according to the United Nations.

India meets 88% of its oil demand via seaborne imports which is highly susceptible to any disruptions in sea lanes, according to the consultancy Wood Mackenzie. 

© 2024 Bloomberg L.P.

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