In a first of its kind operation that started a week ago, the Indian Navy has deployed MARCOS (marine commandoes) on board Indian merchant ships carrying crude oil from the Persian Gulf.
Two Indian warships—destroyer INS Chennai and offshore patrol vessel INS Sunayna—are currently stationed in the region taking turns to protect Indian-flagged merchant ships transiting through the Straits of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman. This step, ordered by the government after attacks on Saudi Arabian and UAE oil tankers in the past one month, is seen as New Delhi’s resolve to ensure smooth energy supply for the country in the wake of heightened tension between the United States and Iran.
The two Indian naval ships, deployed at either end of the narrow straits, coordinate the movement of Indian merchant carriers that volunteer to be advised by the navy about their movement and safety precautions. The Marcos, stationed on board the warships, first inspect the merchant ships in harbour for any explosives or signs of sabotage and then embark on the carriers. The Marcos remain on board the merchant ships throughout their east-bound passage across the Persian Gulf and disembark at the other end before returning to their respective warships. The same commandos carry out a similar exercise for west-bound merchant shipping that seek the navy’s protection. A rough estimate suggests that on any given day, at least half a dozen large Indian oil tankers transit through the area.
Indian warships have operated in the Gulf of Aden in the past decade to protect general merchant shipping from heightened piracy but this is the first time that Marcos are being deployed aboard commercial carriers.
Under Operation Sankalp, the two warships with over 500 personnel including the Marcos, will remain in the region as long as they are needed, top government sources told SNI.
Indian Navy sources, speaking to SNI, revealed that the unprecedented step was taken following a multi-stakeholder consultation in the Navy’s war room in New Delhi last week that included the director-general shipping and representatives of an association of merchant ship owners and the navy’s operations branch. The shipping industry feels crude carriers could become victims of collateral damage in the fight between the United States and Iran. India, which imports over 50 per cent of its crude from the region, does not want to take chances in the event of any disruption. Hence, the precautions.
The naval deployment which began last Saturday also included one P8-I maritime reconnaissance aircraft which kept a watch over the area, operating from Muscat for over four days, coordinating the movement of both the warships as well as Indian merchant shipping. It has since returned to India but can be redeployed if necessary.
Operation Sankalp is also being seen as reaffirmation of India’s enhanced standing in West Asia, following a proactive outreach to the region’s monarchies by the Modi government since 2014. The ships can complete their operational turnarounds or seek replenishment of fuel and food from any of these prominent ports, Dubai, Duqm, Abu Dhabi or Salalah, during their deployment.