Why India should worry about drone attacks on merchant ships

Any threat to these ships will disrupt the world's supply chains

PTI12_24_2023_000034B Rough voyage: MV Chem Pluto was attacked by a drone | PTI

TWO DRONE STRIKES on December 23―one on MV Chem Pluto, about 200 nautical miles southwest of Veraval (Gujarat), and another on MT Sai Baba, in the Red Sea―were the latest of 15 attacks on commercial shipping allegedly by the Houthi rebels of Yemen since October 2017. At a time when the world started thinking that piracy off the Somalia coast and in the Gulf of Aden had reduced significantly and the safety outlook for commercial shipping was improving, these attacks have worrisome portents.

About 10 per cent of seafarers are Indians, who are the third largest group after Filipinos and Indonesians.
Any disruption, especially because of conflict or violence, is likely to raise insurance premiums, which directly affects supply chains and cost of living.

There are, however, major differences between the piracy threat and the recent drone attacks. Piracy off Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, which started in 2008, was a result of feuds of warlords and misgovernance in Somalia leaving large sections of its people impoverished. These people had no option but to resort to alternative ways of earning a livelihood that included small-time thefts from ships at anchorage, armed robbery and piracy at the higher end. The ransoms paid out by shipowners kept the trade going. Concerted efforts by maritime forces at sea and better governance on land ensured the gradual reduction of piracy to a trickle and the piracy high-risk zone was shrunk considerably.

The Houthi attacks are in a different league. While they are also a result of misgovernance or internal feuds between opposing parties on land, the Houthi movement has more specific objectives against specific entities. The Houthis are a Shia group that has been on a warpath for many years with the ruling dispensation in Yemen. The Houthi movement started in 1992 and has continued with varying levels of violence. They are against Saudi Arabian and US support to the Yemen government and aligned ideologically with the Hezbollah. The Houthis have reportedly assisted Hamas in the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict.

MV Chem Pluto is a Liberian flagged, Dutch-operated, Japanese-owned chemical tanker with an Israeli connect. MT Sai Baba is a Gabon-owned and flagged crude oil tanker. Both ships have a majority Indian crew. About 10 per cent of seafarers are Indians, who are the third largest group after Filipinos and Indonesians. Ship management companies often prefer to keep crew of one nationality together for administrative and cultural convenience.

The flag state of a merchant vessel is the jurisdiction under whose laws the vessel is registered or licensed and is deemed to be the nationality of the vessel. The flag state has the authority and responsibility to enforce regulations over vessels registered under its flag, including those relating to inspection, certification, and issuance of safety and pollution prevention documents. Laws of the flag state are applicable if the ship is involved in arbitration or litigation. On the other hand, a ‘flag of convenience’ describes the practice of registering a merchant ship in a state other than that of the ship’s owners and flying that state’s civil ensign on the ship. Ship owners often prefer flags of convenience to reduce operating costs or to avoid stringent regulatory norms.

Why is this important? An attack on a merchant vessel is deemed to be an attack on the flag state. Much depends on the credibility and capability of the flag state to respond to or retaliate against such attacks. Flags of convenience and weak flag states have no wherewithal to shape any deterrent response. In the recent attacks, Gabon and Liberia have very little international heft to take any significant action, leave alone considering reprisal. What if the attacked vessels were American or Chinese or Indian flagged vessels? The complexion of the response would change dramatically. And the attackers know that. Hence, the preferred choice of vessels to be attacked would be those from weak flag states or those carrying flags of convenience.

The violence initiated by the Houthis, too, is at a different level. Pirates had sticks, stones, ladders, a few grenades, small arms and at best, a rocket launcher. These were enough for hijack and ransom, but did not cause great damage to ships. Missile attacks and bomb payloads dropped from drones are another story. It requires organisation, funds, skill, training, intelligence and support to operate a drone force. It can function well as a state activity or a state-sponsored non-state activity, depending on the sophistication. A rag-tag rebel outfit in country boats is unlikely to carry out this form of warfare. A state hand behind the Houthi attacks cannot be ruled out and this is of concern.

ISRAEL-PALESTINIANS/SHIPPING-OIL New challenges: A Houthi fighter stands on the cargo ship Galaxy Leader, which was attacked by Houthi rebels in November 2023 in the Red Sea | Reuters

The details of the attacked ships, and indeed any other commercial ship, will indicate the international nature of the trade. A ship is typically owned by one entity, operated by another, carries a mixed crew of three or four nationalities, flies a flag of another state or a flag of convenience, calls at several ports around the world and carries cargo to and from several countries. Disruption of international sea trade, therefore, has international ramifications. More than 90 per cent of international trade, by volume, travels by sea. This is of significant value and hence the maritime insurance industry thrives on this trade. Any disruption, especially because of conflict or violence, is likely to raise insurance premiums, which directly affects supply chains and cost of living around the world.

Should India be concerned? Of course. First, one in every ten seafarer is an Indian and, therefore, in terms of crew, India faces one-tenth the global threat. Our people must be secure, wherever they are. Second, India’s economy depends heavily on the oil and commodity trade routing from the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Any attack on these shipping lanes will affect our economic security. Third, a bigger attack may cause an ecological catastrophe if there is a large-scale oil or chemical spill. The attack on a tanker 200 nautical miles from our coast should serve as a warning. Fourth, India will be caught in political crossfire, being a friend to all and enemy to none. India has good relations with the US, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran, and will find it difficult to take sides. However, terrorism in any form must be condemned.

Commercial ships are defenceless and hence soft targets for attack by non-state entities and militant organisations. The sea areas in which these attacks have taken place are choke points of busy maritime highways. The Indian Navy’s anti-piracy operations in those sea areas have revealed that it is difficult to anticipate an attack. There are ships and boats of all kinds and it is impossible to investigate every vessel. Drones can be operated from any platform, small or big, at sea or over land; and would be even more difficult to detect and neutralise. Higher lethality of ordnance dispensed from drones can trigger greater human and ecological casualties.

There is little doubt that international trade will operate warily, affecting supply chains. Insurance costs for goods transported over the sea will rise. International maritime forces will have to cooperate to stabilise the situation at sea, assure seafarers as well as businesses and deal decisively with emerging threats at sea. Piracy prompted commercial ships to employ armed guards. Drone attacks will further prompt shipping companies to consider investing in anti-drone systems. These do not bode well for peace and stability at sea.

It is important that the solution to discontent between states and rebels be found on land through mature debate and negotiations. While an immediate and swift international response by maritime forces at sea is imperative and will happen, any mitigation measure at sea will, at best, be a temporary fix.

The author is a former commander-in-chief of the Eastern naval Command.