Northwood Headquarters, UK, April 22: Trophies from a war waged 30 years back decorate the Falklands Room in the officers’ mess of this military establishment of the UK just outside London.
Thirty years after that war in the South Atlantic, Northwood Headquarters is directing another overseas military mission, this time for the European Union, in the Indian Ocean.
The European Union is asking India to put its navy on board a new “forward from the seas” policy.
The new policy authorises warships and aircraft to bomb suspected pirate bases on Somalia’s coast.
“We now have permission to isolate pirates’ logistics sites,” said Admiral Duncan L. Potts, commander of Operation Atalanta — the name for the EU naval mission in the Indian Ocean.
In Brussels, at the headquarters of the European Union, the chief of the EU Military Staff, Lt Gen. Ton Van Osch, said: “I now have the political mandate to engage India.”
The changed rules of engagement in the counter-piracy war, the political mandate to militaries and the outreach to India come at a time the eurozone crisis has made it difficult for western European nations to sustain and underwrite the costs of long-distance armed conflict, even if that is to be waged against desperadoes from one of the world’s poorest countries, Somalia.
The EU is seeking Indian involvement in aerial surveillance, and for Autonomous Vessel Protection Detachments (AVPDs, or armed guards on board ships) and replenishments. The outreach to India is part of an EU programme under its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).
“I know that in India the EU is seen as a trade bloc. But, in the end, the EU is a political project, not an economic project,” said David ’Sullivan, chief operations officer of the EU’s External Action Service, its foreign relations wing. The EU is also seeking deeper collaboration in counter-terrorism and cyber security.
But it is the naval mission on India’s western seaboard that the EU has prioritised for a military collaboration.
Operation Atalanta is being directed from Northwood Headquarters. In the 30 years since Operation Corporate — as the UK called its mission to free the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean of Argentine occupation in 1982 — Northwood Headquarters itself has changed.
The base, used for overseas operations of the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy, Joint Staff, Nato and the European Union, now accommodates an international staff.
At the MSCHOA (Maritime Security Centre for the Horn of Africa), the naval team is peopled by naval personnel from countries across Europe — not all of them EU member-states — each with the flag of his/her country next to desktop computers that track ships and aircraft in the Indian Ocean in real-time from so many thousands of miles away.
The EU’s military staff say there is room for the Indian Tricolour.
Operationally, an Indian warship that has been escorting Indian convoys in the Gulf of Aden for four years now co-ordinates its movements with the EUNAVFOR (European Naval Force).
There is operational co-ordination between the Indian Navy and the Chinese navy, as there is with a Nato force.
The big difference in the EU’s invitation to India for closer co-operation now is in the changed rules of engagement (RoE) that it has given to its multinational naval deployment. So far restricted to escorting UN food programme vessels and deterring pirates at sea, the EU warships under Operation Atalanta were last month authorised to attack suspected pirate bases on Somalia’s coastline.
This they will do by firing from ships and from aircraft (likely to be ship-borne helicopters) but without putting “boots on the ground” — landing troops on the African country’s beaches.
The new RoE have not yet been in evidence. There is concern that they will lead to greater “collateral (civilian) damage”.
The new RoE are an extension of America’s concept for its navy in 21st-century warfare, summed up in a doctrine called “Forward... from the seas.”
“We have 2.4 million square miles of (the Indian) ocean to protect. The pirates attack at sea but piracy originates on land. These are sophisticated gangsters and criminals. We have permission to isolate logistics sites on shore. Our mission is intrinsically an ‘economy of effort’ operation,” said Adm. Potts, who commands Operation Atalanta.
He said that between January and March this year, India, China and Japan had shared intelligence with EUNAVFOR through an inter-agency outfit in the Seychelles.
In New Delhi, senior navy officers acknowledge the importance of deterring pirates on land. But they add that the new RoE for the EU warships are sensitive and fraught with consequences for civilians unless backed by sharp intelligence.
For more than a decade, Somalia has been without an effective centralised administration. The EU is supporting a transitional government militarily by training its soldiers in Uganda before sending them back home.
Indian officials worry about the impact of offensive military action in a continent where New Delhi has huge stakes and where it is competing with China for strategic space.
New Delhi is also sticking to its policy of deploying its military overseas only under the UN blue flag. The anti-piracy mission has a UN mandate but there is no UN force.
But Indian Navy officers admit that piracy originating in Somalia is getting dangerously close to home.
Indian defence sources are also sceptical of operations inside Somalia though they admit that piracy threatens to take a heavy toll on Indian lives and businesses.
In 1994, India sent about 4,500 soldiers into Somalia and a naval task force to patrol the waters off Mogadishu under UNOSOM II (United Nations Operations in Somalia). UNOSOM II was touted as a humanitarian mission with mostly US military escort.
It failed — its failure immortalised in the Hollywood film Black Hawk Down, based on an incident in which Somali militia shot down an American helicopter and dragged the bodies of the US soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu.
The Indian Army understood better than the Americans that the militia in Somalia operate on the basis of clans and tribes.