MITIGATING COVID-19

THE INDIAN NAVY IN THE VANGUARD — AS ALWAYS

Commander Anand Kumar* and Mr Suriya Narayanan**

16th May 2020

This article seeks to provide the lay reader an insight into the Indian Navy’s centrality and the positivity of its contribution — at the strategic, operational and tactical levels — to India’s maritime efforts to mitigate the adverse impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.  It also seeks to provide a glimpse into the cost-benefit ratio of Operation SAMUDRA SETU, as the ongoing naval deployment has been called, and includes an assessment of the inherent risk of undertaking such operations.

Amidst the pall of gloom suffusing much of a world embattled by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially Indian nationals stranded in foreign land,  away from their near and dear ones, with local conditions in these foreign climes often having rendered them jobless, and desperate to return home, a newsflash stating, “The Indian Government has decided to launch the largest ever evacuation, under the ‘Vande Bharat Mission’” came as heady whiff of fresh air.  At the strategic and operational level, India was confidently demonstrating, through tangible manifestations of both, capacity and capability, that it was a responsible State that cares for the wellbeing of all those who bear its nationality, whether at home or abroad.  It was effectively rebutting, through actions that spoke far louder than words, the derisory comments often made by its detractors that the government viewed an individual as possessing little or no intrinsic worth and was valued only as a constituent of one or another electoral vote bank.   India was robustly and effectively demonstrating that every Indian national was an invaluable element of India’s functional democracy and was worthy, in his or her own right, of the care and protection of the State.  India was visibly stitching together the ‘DIME’ (Diplomatic, Information, Military and Economic) components of its ‘Comprehensive National Power’, embodied by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), the three Integrated Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), civilian assets under the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) and the Ministry of Shipping, and the fiscal resources of Ministry of Finance.  New Delhi was clearly and unequivocally signalling that it intended to be an exemplar to the region as a whole.  The Indian Navy, as always, was (and remains) in the vanguard of the national endeavour to fight against COVID-19 and mitigate its adverse impacts.  As the principal maritime manifestation of the sovereign power of the Indian republic, it was to the Navy that the nation turned, charging it to bringing its countrymen and countrywomen ‘home’.

The news that ships of the Indian Navy had sailed several of its warships to support the repatriation mission via an operation that was named ‘Operation SAMUDRA SETU’ sent mobile phones — around the country, the region and world at large — into a frenzy, with numerous WhatsApp messages crowding the airways, furiously competing with a deluge of tweets from a Twitterati ‘on steroids’.  While the overwhelming bulk of posts were deeply appreciative ones, there were also other less-flattering ones from diehard ‘naysayers’, habitual sceptics, and those whose reflexive dislike of the government was such as to make them quite willing to cut off their nose to spite their face.  Much of the criticism emanated from those whose apprehensions were the result of their own perceptions of the US Navy’s experience vis-a-vis the onboard spread of COVID infection.  A few naval veterans questioned the wisdom of exposing the valuable crew of a significant warship to a much higher probability of infection, effectively knocking them out of action for at least 14 days thereafter.

Government’s Plan of Action

The Government of India (GoI) bears a responsibility for the protection of its citizens at home and — at least a moral one for the protection of its citizens/nationals abroad.[1]  With many Indians travelling and living abroad in this era of globalisation, any policy of ‘active disassociation’[2] between the Indian State and overseas Indians is rendered largely irrelevant.

The protection of Indians residing abroad may arise in a number of unstable scenarios, ranging from natural disasters, through unsafe conditions resulting from terrorist actions, and all the way to conditions of full-scale armed conflict between nation-states.  In the peculiar conditions attending the COVID-19 pandemic, wherein the world is fighting an invisible but globally ubiquitous  ‘enemy’, the Government of India clearly acknowledges the weight of its moral responsibility to provide succour and extrication options to its nationals, wherever they may be and this recognition is what has led to the launch of the Vande Bharat Mission.[3]

On the 5th of May, 2020, India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM), Dr S Jaishankar, announced that the ‘Vande Bharat Mission’ — a mega-plan for the repatriation of lakhs[4] of Indian nationals stranded abroad as a result of the travel-restrictions imposed by their host-countries in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic — would commence on the 7th of May.  In the first phase of this mission, which ran from the 7th to the 13th of May 2020, a total of 14,800 Indian nationals were repatriated to India from 12 countries.[5]  Simultaneously, the Indian Navy launched ‘Operation SAMUDRA SETU’ as part of this national effort.  The entire operation was reflective of a high degree of cooperation and coordination between the central government ministries of External Affairs, Defence, Home Affairs, as also a variety of state government ministries, departments and agencies.  The strong support that the operation received from the various countries from where the repatriation was planned and executed is clearly indicative of the robust goodwill and respect that India enjoys in its region.

The reasons for the government’s decision to use warships of the Indian Navy after having operated some 64 flights between 07 May and 13 May, 2020, are of some consequence.

Historical Antecedents.

Successive Governments of India have, over the past quarter of a century, progressed along a slow, halting, incremental, but nevertheless definite recovery from several centuries of ‘sea-blindness’.  In the process, there has been a gradual appreciation, understanding, and, most important of all, a growing willingness to leverage the several advantages that accrue from the deployment of the much-vaunted surface combatants of the Indian Navy.  These advantages stem from the inherent characteristics of warships, namely ‘access’, ‘mobility’, ‘lift-capacity’, ‘sustained reach’, ‘versatility’ (incorporating adaptability in roles [the same warship can instantly change between its military-, diplomatic-, constabulary-, and, benign roles] and flexibility of response within any given role), ‘poise’, ‘resilience’ and ‘leverage’.[6]   Consequently, it is heartening to note that warships of the Indian Navy have, over the past two decades or more, been utilised for what are commonly called ‘Non-combatant Evacuation Operations’ (NEO), (see figure 1 for details)[7].

These operations have almost always been in crisis-affected areas, with warships being used as part of precautionary-measures, support-operations, and for the actual evacuation of not just Indian nationals but those of friendly countries as well.  NCEO (also often abbreviated to NEO) have often been in conjunction with Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations.[8]  Both, NCEO and HADR operations fall under the ambit of the Benign Role of the Indian Navy, which envisages undertaking tasks such as provision of relief material and supplies, medical assistance, etc.[9]   

Integral Medical Facilities.

All warships have earmarked spaces known as a ‘Sick Bay’, designed to handle and treat war-casualties.  These are sometimes compared to Primary Health Care Centres (PHC) found in civilian set-ups, but this is an incorrect comparison.   A warship’s Sick Bay is really a mini-hospital and is manned on a 24 x 7 basis by well-trained military doctors and male nursing assistants.  They are capable of carrying out emergency surgical interventions and handling a variety of medical crises.  In addition, adjacent dwelling-areas of the crew (known as mess-decks) are available as ‘expansion wards’ and can be isolated by means of the ship’s internal gas-tight subdivisions, which are designed to permit the warship to operate in areas contaminated by nuclear, chemical and biological agents.

It is with a sense of quiet confidence in its own competence, born out many months and years of rigorous training, that the Indian Navy initiated Op SAMUDRA SETU, which flows-from and feeds-into ‘Mission Vande Bharat’.  Indeed, the quality of this training and the versatility of the medical capabilities of these warships and their complement of highly motivated and skilled medical personnel was in striking evidence when, during the just concluded sortie by INS Jalashwa, a proud mother delivered a healthy baby en-route.  The delighted mother, depicted in Figure 2[10], said, “They (the Indian Navy) are providing good basic medical facilities; whoever is in Maldives, nothing to worry….they are providing us all the facilities”.   As the aphorism goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

For Phase 1 of Op SAMUDRA SETU, the Navy deployed as many as four Indian Naval Ships in the first phase of this operation, namely, the Jalashwa, the Magar, the Airavat and the Shardul, all of which are ships designed for amphibious operations and have large lift-capacities (see figure 3).  On 12 May 2020, the Indian Navy successfully completed this phase, with the repatriation from Malé of 698 Indians aboard INS Jalashwa and 202 aboard INS Magar.

Cost Benefit Analysis: Air Repatriation Vs Repatriation by Sea

Like the warships of all professionally competent navies, those of the Indian Navy, too, are always ready to deploy at very short notices, compared to the assets of land and air forces.  Sea-borne forces arrive fully prepared to carry out all tasks that might be assigned, need no major logistic support from ashore, do not require rights of access or over-flight, have very considerable staying power, and can be withdrawn easily leaving behind strong symbolic reminders of their presence. Under the extant repatriation operation, which was highly political, media-centric and required to be executed at very short notice, warships fare far better than any other platform.  One of the many reasons why the Indian Navy is quite so suitable an instrument for the execution of the maritime facets of ‘Mission VANDE BHARAT’ is because large ships designed for amphibious operations, such as a Landing Platform [Dock] (LPD) or a Landing Ship [Tank- Large] (LST[L]), apart from being able to accommodate far more human beings than an average aircraft, can also provide better security and protection from other threats, such as a possibly hostile local population, during the process of repatriation.

Infrastructure and Procedural Requirements.  Another factor to be considered is the infrastructure and procedural requirement at the embarkation point as well as at the disembarkation one.  These include the following:

  • Repatriation by Air. Air-travel requires extensive infrastructural requirements (such as, inter alia, airport-security staff, an ATC, boarding and immigration facilities) and have several other disadvantages including, amongst others, very limited baggage-allowance, possibly-difficult movement from hinterland areas to the nearest international airport, multiple clearances from various agencies, etc.  As per the travel-account of one of the repatriated individuals (at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi), “although it takes 02-03 hours for pre and post boarding formalities, the remaining procedure took 09-10 hours”.  Now, if we add to this the actual flight duration of two hours from Male to Kochi, the total time taken will amount to 13-15 hours.  Considering that an Air India flight, A-320, can accommodate up to 150 passengers in one trip, it will take six trips to evacuate a total of 900 passengers.  Hence the total time taken for evacuating 900 passengers will be 90 hours (15 hours x 6 trips), i.e., just under four days (3.75 days, to be precise) excluding the aircraft’s own turnaround time.
  • Repatriation by Warship. Since, warships have their own crew, who are highly trained and can set up basic pre- and post-boarding facilities, as also provide for the requirements for immigration and medical screening, without any external assistance, the overall infrastructure requirement is limited to a jetty of suitable length with an adequate depth of water.  There is no limitation on the quantum of baggage being carried per passenger.  In terms of the overall evacuation-time, the warships evacuated a total of 900 passengers and took about 36 hours, i.e., one-and-a-half days to reach Kochi, which is considerably faster than repatriation by air.  Although the actual passage time is longer time (36 hours compared to just two hours by air) travel aboard these types of warships, with their extensive facilities and commodious living spaces are far more comfortable — practically  a home away from home, and one that certainly provides each evacuee with an abiding feeling of being welcome.

  Features of Operation SAMUDRA SETU

 

Civil-Military Coordination.  Coordination between the military force and the diplomatic mission is a key determinant of success of any Non-combatant Evacuation Operation.  In the case of Op SAMUDRA SETU, the Indian Navy — the military component — operated at the diplomatic- as well as at the military-strategic level. Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), as also an acute awareness of the changing diplomatic, political, and military environments, any or all of which may rapidly move from a ‘permissive’ to an ‘uncertain’ to a ‘hostile’ paradigm, is crucial in all naval operations, but is especially important in an NEO.  With a threat such as COVID-19, other nations, fearing the possibility of having an external and multitudinous human agency, such as the crew of a foreign warship, contaminate and infect the locals with whom it came into contact, could turn to hostile to the repatriation operation itself.  In terms of support at the military level, the Indian Navy’s operational force was and remains supported by the Information Fusion Centre – Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR), while diplomatic support is catered-for by the Indian missions in the nation(s) from which repatriation is to be affected.

Risk of Infection on Board.  Unlike many of the previous evacuation operations, wherein the Indian Navy warship concerned was required to rescue stranded Indian nationals from a war-zone or from an area affected by some natural calamity, and which, of course, required ironclad willpower and, at times, the threat of brute-force, too, this time around the enemy was invisible, dangerously contagious, and there was precious little known about the foe.  The danger, not only to the repatriate but also to the care giver, who might inadvertently infect many other unsuspecting repatriates.  So, the warships needed to prepare for the operation with the utmost care and meticulous attention to detail.  

Onboard Preparations

On board the warships, two very different requirements needed to be met.  These involved the need to ensure the safety of the crew as well as the repatriates.  Additional medical supplies and naval medical-staff, including doctors and medical assistants (male nurses), were embarked and the ship’s crew, as a unit, was isolated on board, in harbour, for a full 14 days, without anyone stepping ashore (For additional details on the Indian Navy’s Standard Operating Procedures [SOP] in this regard, this aspect was covered in an NMF article of 30 March 2020, “Impact Of COVID-19 and other Viral Outbreaks Onboard Ships” by Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan and Commander Saurav Mohanty).   Additional paramedical training was provided to the ship’s crew to cater for possible ‘surge requirements’ of medical personnel.  Before the ship was deployed for Op ‘SAMUDRA SETU’, the crew was one again thoroughly screened to ensure that there was no infection on board.  The entire ship, especially the accommodation areas earmarked for the people who were to be repatriated, was once again carefully and thoroughly sanitised.  The overall carrying capacity was rationalised to ensure adherence to specified social-distancing norms, separate isolation facilities were created to manage any passenger who might develop COVID-19 symptoms whilst en-route.  All in all, in keeping with the high standards of training and preparedness that is emblematic of the Indian Navy as a whole, the ships were prepared meticulously to ensure the safety of the crew and the repatriates, and hence the success of the operation. Figure 4[11] depicts preparations onboard an Indian Naval Ship, in line with the laid down procedures, for repatriation.

 

Additional Humanitarian Support to Island Countries in the IOR: Op ‘SAGAR’

In sharp contrast to the COVID-mitigation measures adopted by many advanced navies, which were curtailing ongoing warship deployments, confining their warships to shore-berths, and offloading member of the crew of such warships, India is probably the only nation to have actively deployed its naval warships to undertake humanitarian assistance to far flung littoral- and island-nations of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Apart from the deployments involved in Op SAMUDRA SETU, another Indian warship, INS Kesari (see figure 5), has been deployed to provide essential medicines and food supplies to the Maldives, Seychelles, Comoros, Madagascar, and Mauritius, thereby, not merely underscoring its well-establishing role as a regional ‘First Responder’, but also reinforcing its credibility as a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean Region, and, perhaps most important of all, providing tangible manifestation to the Indian regional geopolitical doctrine of SAGAR (Security And Growth for All in the Region).

Legal Aspects 

Op SAMUDRA SETU is of course, a manifestation of humanitarian assistance offered by the Indian Navy.  That said, the Indian Navy remains conscious of the fact that it is, nevertheless, a military operation, to which the law of the sea, as well as customary international laws, are applicable.  The protection of civilians, the sick and/or the wounded is a longstanding principle of international law, even in the absence of an International Armed Conflict (IAC).  Therefore, adequate legal consideration is required in the planning and execution of every such operation. The Indian Navy while acting purely as a non-combatant evacuation force, in its plan and conduct recognised that it needed to operate in accordance with international treaty law, the law of the sea, customary international law, and, the domestic laws of India.  Non-combatant evacuation operations usually occur in scenarios of heightened inter-State tensions, where confrontation is escalated to point only just short of an armed conflict.  There are generally two legal bases cited for the protection of nationals:

  • It does not constitute a use of force prohibited by Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter, or
  • It is a legitimate exercise of a State’s right of self-defence.[12]

Although, in the extant case, there relatively limited complexity involved, since the operation is being executed with the express permission of the State(s) concerned, the legal aspects of ‘Overseas Evacuation Operations’ by Naval warships nevertheless need to be well understood and the levels of shore-based planning-staff, as well as by the seagoing commanders involved.  For instance, international maritime law mandates that a nation that intends to evacuate its nationals from foreign shores must obtain berthing-approval from the Coastal State, since the port(s) from which such evacuation is being planned would almost invariably lie within the ‘Internal Waters’ of the State concerned, and is/are subject to sovereign jurisdiction.[13]

Conclusion 

As may be gathered from the preceding paragraphs, Operation SAMUDRA SETU is a well-intentioned, well-timed, and well-executed operation.  It has underscored the flexibility and versatility of naval warships in times of peace and those of conflict, thereby fulfilling the role of ensuring the ‘societal wellbeing of the people of India’, as envisaged in the Constitution of India. The Indian Navy has yet again brought good cheer, succour, and pride to the nation.  It is well worth reiterating that:

  • In sharp contrast to the COVID-mitigation measures adopted by many advanced navies, which have been curtailing ongoing warship deployments, confining their warships to shore-berths, and offloading member of the crew of such warships, India is probably the only nation to have actively deployed its naval warships to undertake humanitarian assistance to far flung littoral- and island-nations of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Op SAMUDRA SETU has, yet again, underscored the Indian Navy’s standing as the region’s ‘First Responder’.
  • This operation has reinforced India’s (and the Indian Navy’s) credibility as a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean Region.
  • The operation serves as a telling example of how greatly the Indian Navy can contribute to the Indian regional geopolitical doctrine of SAGAR (Security And Growth for All in the Region).

 *********************

*Commander Anand Kumar is serving Indian Naval Officer, presently a Research fellow and Deputy Director, National Maritime Foundation. The views expressed are personal and do not represent the official policies of the Indian Navy or the Government of India. He can be contacted at nmf.deputydirector@gmail.com

**Mr Suriya Narayanan is an Associate Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation. He can be contacted at researchassociate3.nmf@gmail.com

Endnotes

[1] For an analysis of the difference between ‘citizens’ and ‘nationals’ and the obligation of the State in respect of each, see: Himanil Raina, “India and the Protection of its Overseas Nationals”, National Maritime Foundation Website (Articles), 03 December 2018, https://maritimeindia.org/3944-2/

[2] Latha Vardarajan, “The Domestic Abroad: Diasporas in International Relations” (Oxford University Press: 2010), 19.

[3]The Hindu, “All about Vande Bharat Mission”,  https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/vande-bharat-mission-indias-repatriation-operation-to-bring-back-stranded-indians/article31548550.ece

[4] One Lakh = One hundred-thousand

[5] Sanju Verma, “Modi’s Vande Bharat Mission & Corona Files”, DNA Newspaper (Online), https://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/report-modi-s-vande-bharat-mission-corona-files-2824633

[6] British Maritime Doctrine, Joint Doctrine Publication 0-10 (JDP 0-10), (Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, Ministry of Defence, Shrivenham, SWINDON, Wiltshire, SN6 8RF, UK, August 2011), 2-1 to 2-6

[7] IHQ MoD(N), Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy (IMSS), (New Delhi, 2015), 99, Table 5.3.

[8] IHQ MoD(N), Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy (IMSS), (New Delhi, 2015), 30.

[9] IHQ MoD(N), Indian Maritime Doctrine, 2009, updated online version 2015, 120, available at https://www.indiannavy.nic.in/sites/default/files/Indian-Maritime-Doctrine-2009-Updated-12Feb16.pdf

[10] Hindustan Times, e-paper, 10 May 2020, available at https://www.hindustantimes.com/videos/coronavirus-crisis/pregnant-woman-on-board-ins-jalashwa-thanks-indian-navyvideo)

[11] PTI, 07 May 2020, available at https://www.oneindia.com/india/operation-samudra-setu-ins-jalashwa-reaches-male-to-evacuat-3084812.html

[12] Rex J Zedalis, “Protection of Nationals Abroad: Is Consent the Basis of Legal Obligation?”, 25 TEX. INT‘L LJ 209, 221 (1990) (providing a survey of this basis); Paul Stoffa, “Special Forces, Counterterrorism, and the Law of Armed Conflict”, 18 STUD. CONFLICT & TERRORISM 47, 54 (1995)

[13] United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982 – Article 8 (Internal Waters), read in conjunction with Art 11 (Ports), Art 7 (Straight Baselines) and Art 2 (Legal status of the Territorial Sea)

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