MISSION SAGAR: MAINTAINING A POSITIVE AND FAVOURABLE MARITIME ENVIRONMENT IN THE FACE OF THE COVID PANDEMIC 

Captain Sarabjeet S Parmar*

15 June 2020

Introduction

India has been providing Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) assistance to nations as its sense of obligation, and historical experience require it to demonstrate empathy for the victims of disasters in all parts of the world”.[1]  While rendering assistance India respects the sovereignty of the recipient nation by following a model of “direct government to government aid.  This direct assistance to the affected nation acts as a bridge to promote future bilateral dialogue between the affected and the donor nation”.[2]  This is the reason why warships of the Indian Navy (IN) are always permitted to enter ports of nations, either to evacuate people from an unstable/ conflict area, or render assistance post a natural disaster.  A distinct advantage, given the prevailing Covid pandemic.

The ongoing Covid pandemic required India to evacuate its citizens from various nations by air and sea.  Close on the heels of the Vande Bharat Mission (the evacuation of Indian citizens from Indian Ocean Region (IOR) island-nations), India once again deployed the IN, to provide assistance to five IOR island nations: Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar and Comoros.  Details of Operation SAMUDRA SETHU, which was the IN’s contribution to the Vande Bharat Mission, and a brief prelude to Operation SAGAR, which is the IN’s part of Mission Sagar, was covered in the National Maritime Foundation Article, Mitigating Covid-19: The Indian Navy in the Vanguard — As Always.[3]   While Operation SAMUDRA SETHU emphasised the importance placed by India on rendering evacuation assistance to her citizens (Non-combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO)), Operation SAGAR formed part of HADR missions.  Both operations highlight the benign role of the IN, and provide tangible manifestation to the objectives, missions and tasks listed under this role, which is a major component of the IN’s Strategy for Shaping a Favourable and Positive Maritime Environment.[4]  This strategy is aligned with the concept of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) and aims at strengthening the position of India as a net provider of security, with the IN as the principal maritime agency and first responder in the maritime domain.  This article will highlight the philosophy of deployment and assistance provided by the IN under Mission Sagar, and identify some aspects that need to be considered for similar operations in the future.

Deployment Philosophy and Assistance Rendered 

The assistance provided under Mission Sagar was based on the request of the five IOR island nations (Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar and Comoros), in response to which the IN delivered food items, COVID-relevant medicines (including HCQ tablets), special Ayurvedic medicines, and, also landed Medical Assistance Teams to support the ongoing national efforts of these nations.[5]   The IN deployed the Indian Naval Ship (INS) Kesari, an amphibious ship (Landing Ship: Tank [Large] (LST [L]) for this mission.  The choice of an LST [L], is in keeping with the IN’s operational philosophy of deploying ships best suitable for the given mission. An LST [L] has the carrying-capacity and endurance to best accomplish this mission, which required traversing the length and breadth of the South West Indian Ocean (see Figure 1).[6]

 This deployment which is in line with India and the IN being the ‘first responder’ and providing assistance based on the request of nations can be traced to the 2004 tsunami and other such weather-induced natural disasters that have subsequently occurred in the IOR.  However, this was the first time that IN ships were being deployed in response to a pandemic situation, and this required particularly careful planning and foresight.[7]   Table 1 summarises the assistance rendered by the IN.[8]

Future Operations and Preparedness 

The possibility of pandemics in the future cannot be ruled out, especially if the rate in increase of natural disasters is to be taken as a baseline.  It is evident that the enormity of the scale of assistance required, as also the impact on human life, cannot be addressed by a single nation.  Therefore, in the first instance, there is a need to reassess capacity and capabilities, and to progress the formulation of SOPs that would aid cooperation and enhance the ability of regional nations to address common challenges posed by weather and disease.  Presently, in the context of the IOR, India, and the IN, aspects that urgently merit attention are set forth in the succeeding paragraphs.

Standard Operating Procedures

There will be lessons to be learnt and imbibed, which will form the base for formulating a regional SOP, and nations would need to share these lessons for an effective pan-regional SOP to be formulated.  It is important to note that after the 2004 tsunami, a major SOP adopted by the IN was the embarkation of pre-palleted stores (called ‘bricks’) that might be needed for HADR situations encountered by warships proceeding for deployments abroad.   This SOP resulted in timely assistance being rendered by the IN to Indonesia after a major earthquake in October 2018, and to Mozambique after the cyclone-induced floods of March 2019.  On both occasions, IN ships were able to leverage their pattern of mission-based deployments and render meaningful and significant assistance, almost immediately.[9]  A second important point to note is that the development of HADR Guidelines/ SOP, to be adopted by the IOR navies that are members of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), are in progress.  This was initiated by the IN, which chairs the HADR IONS Working Group (IWG).[10]  Formulation of ‘HADR and Pandemics’ guidelines will enable nations and their navies to cooperate together, render timely and effective assistance, and, maintain a favourable and positive maritime environment.

Capacity

The best platforms for HADR missions are amphibious ships, as mentioned earlier.  Table 2 lists the amphibious ships presently operated by the IN, which can be effectively used for HADR missions over long ranges:[11]

Most of these ships are based at Visakhapatnam, on the eastern coast of India, for a variety of reasons, ranging from operational and training to benign.  The east coast of India has seen an increase in cyclonic storms that wreak great havoc.  These ships also support the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.  However, there is also a need to have an increased presence on the western coast to address the growing number of HADR missions.  It is noteworthy that the LST [L]s have been constructed at Indian shipyards, which provides telling evidence of the IN’s well-established claim of being a ‘Builders Navy’, and its consistent push for indigenisation.  Therefore, this need to increase the capacity can be addressed by placing the procurement of four LPDs, a case languishing for a decade, on fast track.

Conclusion 

India’s position as first responder, and its credibility as net provider of security, have been established, the former more deeply.  The number of HADR missions are only going to increase.  India would need to take the lead to address them and ensure that the regional maritime environment remains favourable and positive, thereby ensuring a high degree of stability and security.  This onus rests with the IN, India’s principal maritime agency.  The IN will have to take the lead in formulating SOPs, just as it has for HADR, to address pandemic situations through the IONS route.  In parallel, there is a need to increase the capacity to address HADR situations and maintain, if not increase the present ability of the IN to deploy an adequate number of ships.  As the pandemic continues to unfold, there will be more lessons to learn and imbibe, and India and the IN will have to exhibit a high degree of flexibility to address these lessons.   

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*Captain Sarabjeet S Parmar is a serving Indian Naval Officer and the Executive Director of the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. He examines issues related to national security strategies and doctrinal concepts, and has written extensively on the IOR, South China Sea, International Maritime Law, and Lawfare. The views expressed are the authors and do not reflect the position of the Government of India, Indian Navy, or the National Maritime Foundation.  He can be contacted at execdir.nmf@gmail.com.

Endnotes

[1] For more details see Sarabjeet Singh Parmar, “Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) in India’s National Strategy”, in Jo Inge Bekkevold Robert S. Ross (eds), “International Order at Sea: Anti-Piracy and Humanitarian Operations, 33-42, https://idsa.in/system/files/book/book_OrderSea.pdf

[2] Ibid

[3] Details of the Indian Navy’s part in this mission named as Op SAMUDRA SETU has been covered in an NMF online article. See Commander Anand Kumar and Suriya Narayanan, “Mitigating COVID-19: The Indian Navy in the Vanguard — As Always”, National Maritime Foundation Website, 16 May 2020, https://maritimeindia.org/mitigating-covid-operation-samudra-setu/

[4] IHQ MoD(N), Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy (IMSS), (New Delhi, 2015), 78-101. For details of objectives, missions and tasks see table 5.1 on page 79

[5] Press Release, “Mission Sagar – 10 May 2020”, Ministry of Defence, Government of India, https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1622644

[6] Commander Anand Kumar and Suriya Narayanan, “Mitigating COVID-19: The Indian Navy in the Vanguard — As Always”, National Maritime Foundation Website, 16 May 2020, figure 5, https://maritimeindia.org/mitigating-covid-operation-samudra-setu/

[7] Note 3.

[8] Details have been collated from various National Press Releases and Integrated Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence (Navy)/ Government of India.

[9] Indian Navy, “HADR Assistance by 1st Training Squadron to Indonesia”,  https://www.indiannavy.nic.in/node/20925 and “Indian Navy – First Responder to Cyclone ‘IDAI’ in Mozambique 19 March 2019, https://www.indiannavy.nic.in/node/22314

[10] Indian Navy, “10th Anniversary of Indian Ocean Naval Symposium to be Hosted on 13-14 November 2018”, https://www.indiannavy.nic.in/content/10th-anniversary-indian-ocean-naval-symposium-be-hosted-13-14-november-2018

[11] Basic details taken from Indian Navy, “Surface Ships”, https://www.indiannavy.nic.in/surface-ships-0. More details are available at Chapter 6 (Asia), The Military Balance 2020, International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), London, 272

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