The Indian navy was successful in yet another anti-piracy operation yesterday. The INS Tabar spotted a pirate ship accompanied by speed boats at around 10pm during one of its patrols off the coast of Somalia. The pirate ship was challenged by the Talwar class stealth frigate, at which point the pirate ship tried to ram Tabar.
You have to give the pirates some credit for the sheer audacity of such a move. Maybe they did not really see what they were up against in the darkness. The result, surprise surprise, was that the INS Tabar opened fire and sunk the pirate vessel. Earlier this month, the very same INS Tabar had been instrumental in repelling two successive attacks on commercial ships plying off the territorial waters of Somalia.
So far this year, only the Indian Navy has had high-profile run-ins with pirates off the coast of Somalia. At a time when the Indian profile in world affairs has been markably ascendant, and when the Indian high command has started talking in public about force projection, these successes hold great value in furthering India's cause in regional and global diplomacy.
Over the past few years, many have expressed great concern about the direction India has been heading militarily. Apart from extensive defense spending in general, bilateral and multilateral military exercises such as the Malabar naval exercise in 2007 involving Indian and U.S. navies, along with those of Japan, Australia and Singapore have drawn a lot of flak. The direction in which Indo-American military ties have been heading has also been criticized. A report from 3-4 years back by the Information Assurance Technology Analysis Center (IATAC), quoted here, reads, "U.S. military seeks a competent military partner that can take on more responsibility for low-end operations in Asia, such as peace-keeping operations, search and rescue, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and high-value cargo escort, which will allow the U.S. military to concentrate its resource on high-end fighting missions." (emphasis added).
While the American conceit should not be overlooked, India needs to look at its options dispassionately. For sure, India should refrain being from allowing the U.S. to setup military bases in India similar to those in Turkey or Poland, or allow too much inter-operability to be established between the armed forces of the two countries (which could potentially allow the U.S. to remote-control maneouvres and operations of Indian forces should they wish to.) However, the low-end operations should not be looked at with too much disdain.
Low-end operations such as off-shore patrolling, and securing the high seas and busy shipping lanes from acts of piracy ought to be seen as confidence-building measures among regional countries. In geopolitics, a country is often only as powerful as other think it is. So far, a non-specific acknowledgement of Indian ascendancy is sometimes given in various parts of the world, but the Indian point of view has rarely been given due consideration. By winning over smaller powers by gestures of goodwill, India can develop its sphere of influence from the bottum-up and in an arguably more stable manner.
A landmark pact in defense cooperation was signed just earlier this month by Manmohan Singh and the Emir of Qatar, where India agreed to 'go to the rescue if the latter's interests are threatened '. Chief among Qatari concerns was piracy on the high seas, and the pact lays out 'a structure for joint maritime security and training '. India has also been deploying its navy for piracy patrol in the straits of Malacca since 2006, relieving U.S. naval ships and joining the Singaporean and Malayasian navies. When taken together with the Indian Navy's recent activities off the horn of Africa, one can comfortably make the claim that India now is a major player in securing three strategically important areas in South Asia: the strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Aden, and the Straits of Malacca. Over half the reported incidents of piracy in the world these last few years have taken place in the latter two.
If success continues over the next few years in similar ventures, India will also be in a much better position to get the U.S. to dismantle its military base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, amongst others in south Asia.
All this needs to be given priority while setting the defence budget by whichever government that comes to power in 2009. Acquisition of 4th and 5th generation fighter aircraft, T-90S Bhishma tanks, aircraft carriers such as the Admiral Gorshkov and nuclear submarines, though all vital for national defense and necessary to maintain a suitable deterrent against external threats of agression, by themselves they will not actively enhance India's importance in the region or the world. Instead, it would be the construction and deployment of lower-profile ships such as corvettes, frigates and offshore patrol vehicles that would truly make a difference.
It is assuring to learn though, that the current defense budgets and proposals are not ignoring such needs. 5 frigates, 8 corvettes and several patrol vehicles are either currently under construction or have been ordered, with many more planned for the near future. Whether these are enough, or whether there is a need for increased spending for such ships is hard to say.
Personally, I should admit that I am very impressed by the diplomatic and strategic overtures made by the current administration, more so over the past few months than before. Where there was a certain lack of will and apparent sycophancy among certain members of the current government, it seems to have been replaced almost entirely by a rational, considered and deliberate (even if a bit too deliberate) outlook in India's foreign affairs.