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Indian navy showcasing country's rising might

The helicopter carrying Indian commandos swooped in low over the distressed Saudi Arabian chemical tanker, firing its machine guns and sending three speedboats filled with pirates fleeing for the lawless Somali coast.

delhi Updated: Nov 13, 2008 12:05 IST

The helicopter carrying Indian commandos swooped in low over the distressed Saudi Arabian chemical tanker, firing its machine guns and sending three speedboats filled with pirates fleeing for the lawless Somali coast.

Twenty minutes later they rescued a nearby Indian ship, navy officials said, foiling another hijack attempt by a different band of pirates in east African waters of the Indian Ocean. Tuesday's rescues, by forces based on an Indian warship patrolling some 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometers) from their home port, mark a significant step for the South Asian giant, which is determined to translate its growing economic strength into global military and political clout.

"India now has the demonstrable capacity to project force beyond its border," said Ashok Mehta, a retired Indian army general and leading strategic analyst, adding that this was the first time commandos had been used so far from Indian shores. At the heart of this effort _ which has seen the country of 1.1 billion people become a nuclear power and actively campaign for a seat on the United Nations Security Council _ is a program to expand the navy from traditional coast guard duties to one of the world's largest sea forces.

Speaking at a recent conference, Indian naval chief Adm Sureesh Mehta vowed that the navy would ensure "a secure and peaceful environment in the Indian Ocean region and further India's political, economic, diplomatic and military objectives." In the process, India is acquiring the biggest visible symbols of naval power _ aircraft carriers _ and nuclear submarines. India plans to have three aircraft carriers at sea in the next decade _ a refurbished Russian one and two made locally. India is also leasing an advanced Russian Akula-class submarine and designing a homegrown version, the Advanced Technology Vehicle, which is expected to begin sea trials in the next two years after long delays as Indian engineers struggled to miniaturize their nuclear reactor to fit inside the hull.

India's attempts to secure nuclear submarines surfaced this week after 20 people were killed in an accident on a Russian submarine undergoing sea trials Saturday in the Sea of Japan. Russian and Indian media reports said the craft was destined for India, though the Indian navy refused to comment and Russia insisted the sub would be commissioned in its own navy.

However, India's navy chief said last month that a Russian submarine would be used to train the crews that will, eventually, man Indian nuclear subs.

India currently operates 16 diesel-powered submarines. Nuclear submarines, which can cruise undetected for long periods undersea, have been nuclear deterrents since the early days of the Cold War _ virtually assuring that a country that possesses them can respond to a nuclear attack.

In part, India's efforts are in response to moves by China. The two countries are increasingly competing for influence over vital Indian Ocean shipping lanes, and India fears China's large and increasingly sophisticated submarine fleet.

The US military says China already has eight nuclear submarines, three of which are believed to be able to launch nuclear weapons.

While Indian and Chinese relations are the closest in decades, the Indian military also harbors a long-standing mistrust of China dating back to a brief 1962 border war in which China routed India's forces.

But even as it waits for its aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, the Indian navy has been slowly expanding its scope of operations. It played a major role in rescue operations during the 2004 tsunami and sent warships to rescue Indians trapped in Lebanon during the 2006 war between Israel and the Hezbollah guerrilla group.

They have also embarked on a series of joint maneuvers with other navies active in the area, particularly the United States. But Tuesday's missions against pirates marked the first time the navy had fired shots in anger so far from home to protect India's overseas interests.

The Indian warship, the INS Tabar, was dispatched to the Gulf of Aden in October after a spike in piracy and hijackings off the coast of Somalia, which is caught up in an Islamic insurgency and has had no functioning government since 1991.

As of Monday, there have been 83 attacks this year in Somali waters and 12 vessels, including a Ukrainian freighter loaded with tanks and weapons, remain in the hands of pirates. Many of the ships were Indian or had Indian crews.

While several other countries sent warships to the region, India was particularly worried. Much of India's trade and the energy supplies vital to fueling India's economy flow through those waters. The patrols "are intended to protect Indian merchant vessels from being attacked by pirates and also to instill confidence in our large seafaring community," the navy said in a statement. And it seems that Indian ships may become regular sights in faraway ports.

"We operate from the Strait of Malacca to the Gulf of Aden," said navy spokesman Commander Nirad Sinha. "Ours is a growing, developing navy."