To tackle piracy, go on offensive

Large navies with great deal of capital invested in them these days prepare not for great fleet battles but for the infinitely less taxing anti-piracy operations. When this role is devolved by governments to shipping Companies who, in turn, pass on the authority to privately-owned vessels guarded by naval commandos, what you get is the incident off the Kerala coast. A couple of Italian Navy master sergeants on-board Enrica Lexie took pot-shots, it would seem, against  medium range, slightly mobile, targets bobbing on water they identified as pirates. The crucial question to ask is whether this identification was made instantaneously or with deliberation, and on what basis, before the shooting started? Or, was the labelling of those killed as pirates done, ex-post facto, as it afforded a convenient rationale and cover for the extra-legal killings once the Italian ship captain realized his men had fouled up and he had a problem on his hands?

If the Lexie was within the 12-mile Indian territorial limits, then the claim of eliminating persons perceived as pirates packs no credibility whatsoever and is ipso facto untenable. If, on the other hand, the Italian vessel was in international waters – the farther out the better for it, then the claim would surely require evidence of provocation offered by the fishermen or of some actions taken by them that could be interpreted, however remotely, by the Lexie crew as not just suspicious but actually threatening. But whatever the extenuating circumstances, the conclusion cannot be avoided that this was a case of, what may be called, recreational shooting indulged in by a couple of bored non-commissioned officers of the Italian Navy with itchy fingers, cocked rifles, perhaps, with telescopic sights, or sub-machine guns, which can easily be determined by the wounds on the dead fishermen, and inadequate knowledge of the ramifications of gun-slinging. Moreover, common sense should have suggested to the Lexie commander and his gunmen that so close to the tip of India was too far for the pirates to venture. Do the Italians really think they can sell the shooting as action to pre-empt a forcible takeover of the ship? To Italy, all of Arabian Sea is piracy-zone; it is so designated by many other countries as well. In the event, the Italian naval guards were primed to expect that Keralites and Somalis are  same.

That said, this incident reveals the larger truth that, fed up with the menace, many countries are dealing with suspected pirates with extreme prejudice. Not so long ago, Russians captured some pirates, shackled them to their “mother ship”, and then proceeded to blow up the boat. This episode was filmed and uploaded on U-tube, there to serve as warning and deterrent to Somalis to keep off Russian merchant vessels. It has worked. There have been no cases reported since of Russian ship hijackings off the Gulf of Aden and proximal waters. By last count, some 750 sailors of different nationalities and scores of ships are prisoners of the numerous pirate combines holed up on the Somali coast. Of these, some half a dozen merchant ships and nearly 100 crew members comprise the Indian complement.

The US government has chosen commando raids to rescue American hostages, most recently on January 25 this year when SEALs attacked the Somali base at Harardheere, killing all nine of the Somalis involved and freeing a US aid worker. This followed the Special Forces action in April 2009 when the Maersk Alabama and its crew were freed from the clutches of Somali sea brigands. Indeed, forcefully taking out the pirates seems to be an effective mode for the navies of the world to adopt, a ready solution for the scourge of piracy. Indian Navy ships on anti-piracy patrols, each with a couple of marine commandos on board are, however, restrained by the Indian government from taking any offensive action. Pirates are captured and dutifully handed over to non-existent Somali authorities, ensuring their return to the same work in next to no time, there being no government worth the name in that country. This much was clear at the recent London Conference that ended February 23. The President of the transitional Somali government, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, and master of only the municipality of the capital city of Mogadishu, courtesy the African Union peace-keeping force in town, confessed he was “scared”. Actually, the real problem are the powerful transnational mafia financing the pirate network and facilitating their nefarious activities. This mafia passes on authoritative information such as names of ships, the course they’ll take, value of cargo, and extent of insurance cover.

Ships under Indian flag are viewed as easy targets because the Indian ship owners ultimately pay up and because there is no danger from on-board sharpshooters, or from Indian Marine Commando suddenly dropping in on the scene to spoil their game, the Indian government, as usual, in its do-nothing mode, is relying on the UN Contact Group on Piracy to alight on a, presumably, “responsible” solution. In the mean time, more Indian ships and sailors will pass into Somali captivity, even as, for obvious reasons, US and Russian carriers are left well enough alone.

Were the commanders of Indian naval ships authorized to take out pirates on the high seas and to destroy pirate strongholds along the Somali coast or, alternatively, Indian merchantmen were permitted to carry if not small detachments of armed Indian Navy personnel doing guard duty, then armed private guards, the incidence of piracy against Indian vessels would reduce markedly. If, further, the Navy’s Marine Commandos were now and again tasked to free Somali-held Indian ships, it would fuel fear and uncertainty among the pirate fraternity. But imposing a new risk calculus on the pirates requires the Indian government to think and act aggressively in the national interest, something the Manmohan Singh regime avoids doing. It forswears use of force except, apparently, in the dead of night against unarmed people sleeping peacefully at Delhi’s Ramlila ground!

[Published on Thursday, March 1 in the ‘Ásian Age’ at and in the ‘Deccan Chronicle’ at]


About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in civil-military relations, Great Power imperatives, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Special Forces. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to To tackle piracy, go on offensive

  1. Ravi says:

    Despite their well established lack of stomach when in a fight with a worthy opponent, Italian soldiers are notorious in perpetrating criminal atrocities against unarmed non-whites. Here are some links of sample activities of Italian soldiers and those from other “civilized” and “human rights conscious” countries in Somalia when on a peace keeping mission:,5219660

    The Italian soldiers who murdered the Indian fishermen need to be tried and convicted for murder in India. Perhaps, additionally, a word of “friendly advise” from the Indian Govt. that any further incident will lead to an Italian vessel being arbitrarily chosen for target practice for a BrahMos missile, might further send the proper message across!

  2. Italians, at least in the late 19th & 20th centuries, have been considered cowardly, bad fighters and they should face the music of Indian law ofcourse (But why did the Kerala High Court order special Italian ffod to be served to these murderers???). However, the question of how best and terminally to deal with the Somali pirate problem is still out there, wgich is what my piece essenttially concerned itself with.

    • Ravi says:

      It’s really difficult to deal with the Somali pirates unless one realizes that there are growing reasons to believe that they are sponsored by certain States. Not long ago, there was news of the pirates having well connected “moles” in London. See:

      Predictably, in response, this link provides a “stout defense” of the brokers at Lloyds:

      While the information in the first link needs to be investigated in-depth, the defense provided in the second link need not be taken as the “gospel truth”. There’s a lot more than what meets the eye, which “people in the know: are very hesitant to talk about, either for fear of becoming “targets”, or for fear of exposure and charges of complicity.

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