Just 217 nautical miles off Gujarat’s Porbandar coast is uncomfortably close to India’s Exclusive Economic Zone’s territorial limit of 200 nautical miles. Yet it was here that a suspected drone hit the MV Chem Pluto, a Liberian flagged, Japanese-owned, and Netherlands-operated chemical tanker on December 23.
The ship was carrying 21 Indians and one Vietnamese crew.
And then on December 24, a Gabon-flagged tanker MV Sai Baba with Indian crew on board that was heading to India also reported a drone attack in the Red Sea area.
Asked if India was planning to join Operation Prosperity Guardian, a top Navy official told THE WEEK: “At the moment, there is no reason to involve ourselves in the Operation as our interests are being protected. But of course, if we find that they are being threatened at any point of time, we are ever-ready to do the needful.”
A multinational security initiative to thwart Houthi attacks in the crucial Red Sea route, Operation Prosperity Guardian was announced by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on December 19. Besides the US, it includes the UK, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles, and Spain and a few other countries. The navies of these countries will conduct joint patrols in the region to provide an umbrella of protection to merchant vessels.
On Tuesday, speaking at the commissioning of the INS Imphal in Mumbai, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said: “India’s growing power has filled some forces with jealousy and hatred… Perpetrators of attacks on merchant vessels Chem Pluto and Sai Baba will soon be brought to justice.”
Speaking at the same event, Navy Chief Admiral R. Hari Kumar said: “Even as we speak, we have four destroyers of Project 15B & 15A class deployed to counter piracy and drone attacks on merchant shipping. Also the P8I Aircraft, Dorniers, Sea Guardians, Helicopters and Coast Guard Ships all deployed jointly to counter these threats.”
INS Imphal is the first warship to have successfully undertaken test firing of the BrahMos surface-to-surface missile. Third in a row, the fourth destroyer is slated for commissioning in 2024 after the INS Visakhapatnam in 2021, and the INS Mormugao in 2022.
In the Arabian Sea, it is the trio of guided missile destroyers—INS Mormugao, INS Kochi and INS Kolkata—that are maintaining a deterrent presence in various areas in the region.
Meanwhile, an Indian Coast Guard Ship (ICGS), Vikram, escorted the Chem Pluto towards Mumbai, where it arrived on Monday.
A Navy statement had said: “Analysis of the area of attack and debris found on the ship points towards a drone attack. However, further forensic and technical analysis will be required to establish the vector of attack, including type and amount of explosive used. A joint investigation by various agencies has commenced on completion of the analysis by the Navy's Explosive Ordnance Team.”
While investigations are ongoing, it is interesting that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has recently introduced a new force multiplier—drone carrier—to conduct combat operations in the Arabian Sea area.
These forward base ships and sustainment vessels would be used to project force in the waters far and near including the Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman.
These ships carrying drones, fighter aircraft, helicopters, and missile launchers include the ‘Shahid Roudaki’ commissioned in November 2020, the ‘Shahid Soleimani’ in September 2022, and the ‘Shahid Mahdavi’ in March 2023.
In addition, the IRGC Navy is also building a fourth forward base ship—‘Shahid Bahman Bagheri’— that many have specifically described as a ‘drone carrier’.
Iran has also helped the Houthis in producing the ‘Shahed-136’ drone, which has an operational range of more than 2,000 km.