Are ships laden with dangerous weapons coming too close to India’s western coasts a security threat? The detention of the US-owned MV Seaman Guard Ohio earlier this month for illegally carrying weapons into the Indian waters highlighted this concern.
Following the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) declaration that the entire Arabian Sea is piracy-infested, merchant ships are increasingly using unregulated floating armouries for supply of arms and guards while on dangerous waters.
Vessels, such as the Seaman Guard, are used by merchant ships to pick up arms before entering the piracy-infested zone and then drop them off at another floating armoury after crossing the unsafe sector.
The police seized 35 automatic weapons and 5,700 rounds of ammunition aboard the Seaman Guard. This helps the merchant ships circumvent the restriction on bringing weapons into territorial waters — 22 km off the coast line of any country.
Private security firms that operate these floating armouries are doing a brisk business as the traffic in the Indian Ocean region is dense. More than 100,000 ships pass through it every year.
The Indian security establishment is closely monitoring at least one private security company that operates floating armouries in the Indian Ocean region as it is suspected to have a Pakistani link since it is learnt to have employed Pakistani navy veterans.
“These floating armouries have come too close for comfort and have grave security implications for us. The legal status of these armouries is doubtful,” a senior navy officer said.
Floating armouries were never this close to India’s shores before 2011. They came into the picture only after the IMO extended the high-risk area for commercial shipping from 65 degrees east longitude to 78 degrees – virtually covering the entire Arabian Sea.
The previous 65-degree limit to the high-risk area was 600 nautical miles (1,111 km) off the Mangalore coast. But the revised piracy-prone zone extends right up to India’s southern-most tip, Cape Comorin in Tamil Nadu.
The Enrica Lexie incident of February 2012 — Italian marines on board the privately owned tanker opened fire on a fishing trawler and killed two — may not have occurred had the high-risk area not been extended.
The Italian tanker was sailing barely 20 nautical miles (37 km) off the Kerala coast, on the farthest edge of the piracy zone.
“Merchant ships are hugging our western coast to keep out of the danger zone. And floating armouries enter our waters as part of the package,” a government official said.
A defence ministry official said India had been unsuccessfully trying to get the high-risk zone restored to the 2011 position. “We will take up the case more forcefully now after the Seaman Guard episode. There have been no pirate attacks during the last two years in this region.”
The Indian Coast Guard foiled two piracy attempts near the Lakshadweep in 2011, but things have been quiet thereafter.
Another concern for the Indian security establishment is that the US Navy has begun thinning out its presence in the Indian Ocean region. It will shrink drastically in the coming years due to the cuts in military spending. Besides, the Americans want to deploy their assets to keep an eye on the Chinese.