Somali pirates and the Indian Navy

Many years ago, the architect of India naval strategy, eminent historian and reluctant diplomat KM Panikkar said: "A navy is not meant for the defense of the coast. The coast has to be defended from the land. The objective of the navy is to secure the control of an area of the sea, thus preventing enemy ships from approaching the coast or interfering with trade and commerce and conversely after securing the control to blockade the enemy’s coast and destroy his shipping. The Indian navy, whether it be large or small, must learn this lesson. Its purpose is to protect the seas and not the land and if it cannot protect the seas vital to India’s defense, then it is better not to have navy at all”. He further argued that “while to other countries the Indian Ocean is only one of the important oceanic areas, to India it is a vital sea. Her lifelines are concentrated in that area, her freedom is dependent on the freedom of that water surface. No industrial development, no commercial growth; no stable political structure is possible for her unless her shores are protected.” Jawaharlal Nehru agreed with Panikkar in this case: “History has shown that whatever power controls the Indian Ocean has, in the first instance, India’s sea borne trade at her mercy and, in the second, India’s very independence itself.” Note here that the Indian Ocean region in this context means the seas and oceans around India.
But let us get back to the oceans, in this case the Gulf of Aden. When I read about the Ukrainian ship with many T72 Russian Tanks being held by these pirates, and that it still is, I was flabbergasted. Russia had no compunctions in chasing the Chechnyan’s with the hot pursuit logic that USA once followed, but have done nothing to the Somali pirates holding their ship. It was also a bizarre fact that terrorizing of this shipping lane had been going on now for 15 years. The surge in attacks came fourteen years after the fall of Somalia's last effective government. Now entire villages on the coastline collaborate in these activities and the rich takings have resulted in an even better equipped pirate force with mother boats, fast speedboats, satellite phones, RPG’s and automatic weapons. Can you believe it; they took just 16 minutes to subdue the Saudi Tanker (BTW it had only about twenty five crewmen)!!
From a $135,000 ransom for the ‘Semlow’ in 2005, it has now reached a $25 Million demand for the Saudi Oil tanker ‘Sirius Star’ (While the pirates have so far earned a total 150M$ in 2008). Currently some 15-17 ships (95 plus attacks this year) are held captive by the Somalis. The average going rate is a ransom of 1M$ per ship.
Why did this happen? Why are ships being terrorized? While an answer points to greed, it was primarily due to antiquated maritime laws which do not make it easy for a merchant ship to carry arms. To this day they have only water cannons and possibly acoustic bangers even though some have recently started to employ security guards. One other reason is that tanker environments are too explosive for arms to be carried or used. So what can these ships do? Either travel in convoys with an armed escort, or reroute away from the Gulf and employ faster, bigger ships. But that adds to the cost (fuel bills alone increase by 20-25%) and delays the shipment. Peter Hinchcliffe, marine director with the International Chamber of Shipping, explains to ABC News Australia
“First of all we think that to put arms on board, even with trained armed guards, is not a good thing to do, because that is going to increase the potential heat and damage out of a firefight.” So we're not in favour for that reason, but there are more fundamental reasons. “Firstly that some flag states do not allow ships flying their flag to carry small arms on board.” And even more serious from a commercial point of view, some port states will not allow the ships into their ports if there are small arms on board.
Further complicating are other issues like if a ‘pirate’ is killed, the ship would have to enter port and her master and crew would be detained and questioned. You can imagine their plight in a lawless country like Somalia. The legal advice typically goes as follows - Since privately owned merchant ships are not armed in peacetime, it is not usually prudent to risk crew and cargo if the harassing vessel has demonstrated the intent to use force to prevent free passage (e.g. firing a warning shot across your bow)
What had India got to do with this situation and Somalian Piracy? A large number of Indians work in the mercantile marine and serve the many ships operating in that region. Recently the Japanese ship that was hijacked by Somalis had 18 Indian crew members (do you remember the number of news reports featuring Seema Goel, the wife of the ship’s captain PK Goel?). They were released after the Japanese paid a large ransom. Then comes the commercial facts (so nicely explained in this article by CSM) 85% of India’s sea trade is carried on these routes by foreign ships. Over 300 Indian ships are at risk on this route and finally as an ex Army man says, India also had a present need and opportunity to project its forces beyond its borders as a show of might and to bolster its claim for a seat in the Security Council.
Here is a real pointer - Senior shipping sources said the move of Indian armed security follows a recent refusal by a Western naval patrol to protect an Indian merchant ship that felt “vulnerable” to attacks on what is perhaps the world’s most dangerous stretch of water. “When the Indian captain asked for protection, he was asked, firstly, about which flag he was flying, then about the nationality of his crew, and finally about which cargo he was carrying,” said Shipping Corporation of India Chairman S. Hajara. When informed that it was an Indian ship with Indian seafarers, the captain was told that he could not be provided immediate protection, Hajara, who is part of the Indian delegation to the IMO Council meetings, told IANS.
The nation of 1.1 billion people provides one-sixth of the world's maritime workers and every month it sends 30 Indian-owned vessels carrying oil and other goods valued at $100 billion through the Gulf of Aden. Indian shipping firms say they are losing $450,000 a month on cost overruns and delays due to piracy. "India cannot wait to take action until the Somali pirates hit the coast of Bombay ," says Mr. Bhaskar. "They must be quarantined in their own waters before they cause more damage."
India finally entered the fray on Nov 2nd with the deputation of F44 INS Tabar (battle axe). INS Tabar, a Talwar-class Russian made stealth frigate, the Indian navy's latest, is on an anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden and recently shot into limelight with the destruction of a Somali mother ship (later clarified as a Thai fishing ship Ekawat Nava 5 hijacked by pirates) on Nov 19th and successfully escorting approximately 35 ships, including a number of foreign flagged vessels, safely during their transit through pirate infested waters of the Gulf of Aden plus preventing two hijacking attempts. The bigger INS Mysore will either join or replace it soon. The official version of the pirate boat sinking by INS Thabar is dull and drab. If you want a proper Indian masala version, look at the one put up by Chairboy in Digg.
And now, who are the pirates and what is their cause? CSM explains
Today's pirates are mainly fighters for Somalia's many warlord factions, who graduated from operating roadblocks to terrorizing ships, who have fought each other for control of the country since the collapse of the Siad Barre government in 1991. Their motives are a mixture of entrepreneurialism and survival, says Iqbal Jhazbhay, a Somali expert at the University of South Africa in Tshwane, as Pretoria is now called. Using a mother ship – often an Old Russian trawler – to prowl deeper waters for their target, they can offload smaller boats to move in close and overtake the ship, and climb up with hooks and ladders, and submachine guns.

Andrew Mwangura, head of the Kenya-based East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme told Deutsche Presse that there were fewer than 100 gunmen operating in 15 groups in 2005. Now there are some 160 groups with a total of up to 1,200 pirates operating in Somalia's coastal waters. The pirates, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons, launch speedboats from 'motherships' to pursue their targets. The mother ships are old captured Russian trawlers (Guardian confirms this - It turned out to be a previously captured ship being used by pirates as a base to launch their speedboats far out to sea.) 'The big question is where does the money go?' Mwangura said. 'We think they are collecting money going to fund other projects onshore ... we can say they are doing this on behalf of organized crime and for terrorist activities.' However some other reports mention a fishing class that had their daily means disrupted by the busy ocean waters and the ships taking up arms. Others mention that a good portion of the ransom is diverted to the insurgent groups.
Finally I read reports that India has to seek UN approval for each operation and that recently Somali had acceded to India’s request to enter their waters. With the going average ransom rate at 1M$ and possible local competition, the Somali pirates have not been troubled by sailing brazenly as far as 400 nautical miles from their shores as they did in capturing the Saudi tanker. Or is it that they realize that time could run out soon for them?
I agree that it is time to take the fight to the pirates and if the Indian Navy has to set an example, let it be so. Kudos to the navy!! KM Panikkar would finally be smiling from up above!!
Update - 26th Nov 2008: It has now been clarified that the destroyed trawler was the Thai fishing vessel Ekawat Nava 5 which was comandeered by Somali pirates before the event. A survivor recounts that the ship was hijacked by 10 Somali pirates on Nov 18th.
Recommended reads
India & the Indian Ocean – KM Panikkar
India in the Indian Ocean – Donald Berlin
Dimensions of National Security: The Maritime Aspect
Pirate speedboat - from Herald Sun
Location map - WSJ
INS Thabar - from
Barum mother ship - NPR


Unknown said...

The blood boils. Entire countries are watching this bunch of yokels merrily seize ships whose worth is larger than Somalia's GDP and meekly ferrying across the ransoms as demanded, no doubt feeling very smug about having reduced the sum by 30% or whatever. Wimps! High five for the Indian Navy!

Rada said...

Very educative post! I must say I learned a few things I didn't know before, after reading your post: the inability of commercial ships to carry arms, for example.

Surely, the International community has to sit down and some of these archaic laws have to be revised before a solution can be found to this raging issue?

Sagarone said...

Very nicely researched article. Really enjoyed it but then I have been visiting your blog for a while and this is the standard that one has come to expect from your work. Keep it up.

Happy Kitten said...

That was an excellent summary..Thank you..

Even Hubby was immersed in this news since the last few days and I was called in between my tasks at home to look at maps of the Gulf of Aden etc. He raised the question as to why the US who are at every troubled spot in this Universe with their might, is missing here.. and maybe they are beneficiaries in some manner?

Maddy said...

Thanks guys
HK - check this out


Thanks, Maddy - that was nice and clear. I second Narendra Shenoy - High Five for the Indian Navy!

Arby K said...

It is time for Indian Navy to stand up and be counted. And so they have. With lot of Indians traveling on the oute, we have a lot at stake here.
But still, they are limited to an extent, because the Somalis can always retreat to land, if things go awry. In the long run, there is a need to patrol the Red Sea - Gulf of Eden belt or to have a stable government in Somalia, even if the current situation is handled.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant posts.As a history buff liked most of them.

As a favor can you also uncover the real history of Katabomman's betrayal and arrest. I've searched far and wide but i am not able to actually establish that ettapan betrayed Katabomman as his arrest took place at Pudu Kottai which was not under etappan's watch.

Also that period contained a bucket full of interesting characters like MaruthaNayakam alias Yusuf Khan,Puli Thevar etc.

Maddy said...

Sadly the prophecy from KM Panikkar echoed again two days ago with the militants & terrorists apparently using the sea to gain entrance to Mumbai. And Gujarat's Modi said that there was even an agreement with Pak that India & Pak will not use the seas to attack each other. It is now over 48 hours and the situation has not been contained.. Maybe we will learn some lessons from this, watching the TV and seeing the 'sakarams' loitering around when the NSG's were conducting their operations was pathtic.. I mourn the dead and applaud the actions of the NSG though it appears that they were not equipped to international standards..

Once again echoing KMP's words "The Indian navy, whether it be large or small, must learn this lesson. Its purpose is to protect the seas and not the land and if it cannot protect the seas vital to India’s defense, then it is better not to have navy at all”

Thanks Arby, Raji and thanks Praveen. I will check out the ethapan polygar story

Maddy said...

Praveen - I am not sure if you are the blogger Praveen GK. Nevertheless, here is an account of my study on the Ettayapuram and Panchalamkurichi Palayakkaras.