Americas amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge sails through the Suez canal in Ismailia, about 120km north of Cairo, on Wednesday. Two US amphibious assault ships, the Kearsarge and the Ponce, have entered the Suez on their way to the Mediterranean. (Reuters)
New Delhi, March 2: When the Indian Navy pulled out the INS Jalaswa, the second-largest warship in its fleet, from its biggest wargames called Tropex 2011 and assigned it to the Mediterranean this week, military headquarters in South Block had quietly taken up an unprecedented and ambitious operation.
It is called Operation Blossom.
But that has got masked under the foreign affairs ministrys Operation Safe Homecoming, the evacuation of Indians from embattled Libya that is now under way.
While the meaning of the name for the foreign ministrys mission is apparent — there were an estimated 18,000 Indians in Libya — the reasons for christening the navys forward deployment to the west Blossom are shrouded in mystery.
But Op Blossom could well mark the emergence of the Indian Navy in the eyes of the US and Nato forces as the maritime force of the future in the Indian Ocean region, despite Chinas bigger and, possibly more powerful, resources.
In Op Blossom, the navy has dispatched a potent flotilla, comprising the INS Jalaswa, the INS Mysore and the fleet tanker the INS Aditya, to West Asia. Each of the ships has helicopters and detachments of Marine Commandos on board.
Navy sources said the Aditya would replenish the two other vessels en route its 12-day voyage to the Libyan coast but was in itself not part of the mission.
The reason for this is not immediately clear. By themselves, the Jalaswa and the Mysore are large vessels capable of carrying enough food, oil and lubricants (FOL) — and, of course, firepower — to sustain themselves for up to a month or more.
Yet, the Aditya has been assigned to remain east of the Suez and loiter in the north Arabian Sea. It is likely that the Aditya will also be used to replenish Indian warships on counter-piracy and convoying duties on the 300-nautical mile (about 555km) long Internationally Recognised Transit Corridor leading into the Gulf of Aden, off the coasts of Yemen and Somalia.
The Jalaswa and the Mysore will continue to sail westwards and cross the Suez and land in Benghazi and/or Tripoli in Libya or in Alexandria in Egypt. But the Indian warships are likely to reach Libyan waters only around the middle of March, a length of time during which the situation in Libya — as in other countries in the north and the Horn of Africa (notably Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia) as well as in the Arabian peninsula (notably Yemen and Bahrain) — could turn more tense or more stable.
Bahrain, particularly, is of concern. The US Navys Fifth Fleet is headquartered there and it is the forward base for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Should the protests in Shia-majority Bahrain (like Iran) against its Sunni ruler escalate, US strategic and military interests could be at serious risk.
This is the security calculus in which the Indian Navy has been asked to launch Op Blossom, a forward deployment without a definite timeframe and certainly made with multiple objectives — not only the evacuation of Indians from Libya, for which the ships could be too late any way.
When the Jalaswa crosses the Suez into Mediterranean waters, there will be another event of remarkable coincidence featuring the landing platform dock. It could easily be mistaken for the USS Ponce, the ship that, along with the USS Kearsarge, was yesterday directed by the Pentagon to head towards Libya for emergency evacuations and a possible assault from the sea.
Indeed, the Jalaswa is the same Austin-class of ship as the Ponce. It is the only US-origin warship in the Indian fleet that is equipped for exactly the tasks that the USS Ponce is. (In the US naval fleet, the Jalaswa, then the USS Trenton, was numbered LPD14 and the Ponce is numbered LPD15).
In eastern Mediterranean, in July-August 2006, the Jalaswa in its earlier avatar as the USS Trenton was closely watched by the officers and sailors of a four-ship Indian naval flotilla. The flotilla was returning from a voyage to Russia when the Israel-Hezbollah war broke out. The Indian ships (the destroyer Mumbai, frigates Brahmaputra and Betwa and the tanker Shakti) were asked to turn back from the Suez and head towards Beirut to evacuate Indian and South Asian nationals in an operation that was named Sukoon (relief).
Two years later, the Trenton joined the Indian fleet at a cost of $48 million for the vessel and an additional $39 million for six UH 63 Sea King onboard helicopters.
The Jalaswa is back in familiar terrain under the Indian flag this time, in waters that it policed as part of Natos Mediterranean Amphibious Ready Group.
In Delhi, the military headquarters is now convinced that despite the costs of forward deployment, it makes sense to keep its ships in waters around West Asias arc of fire. Co-ordinated tasks in counter-piracy patrols with US- and Nato- led forces have made the decision easier.
The return of the Jalaswa (seahorse) looks indeed set to mark a new blossoming.