Mitigating Covid-19: The Indian Navy in The Vanguard

Sub Title : Yeoman service rendered by the navy during the pandemic

Issues Details : Vol 14 Issue 2 May – Jun 2020

Author : Commander Anand Kumar & Mr Suriya NA Rayanan

Page No. : 45

Category : Military Affairs

: June 1, 2020

Indian Navy launched Operation Samudra Setu which flows from and feeds into ‘Mission Vande Bharat’ –the national effort to repatriate stranded Indian citizens from overseas. The article is a cogent articulation of the positive contribution of the Indian Navy to help those stranded away from their homes. It also covers attendant issues involved in the conduct of such operations

This article seeks to provide the lay reader an insight into the Indian Navy’s centrality and the positivity of its contribution – at the strategic, operational and tactical levels – to India’s maritime efforts to mitigate the adverse impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also seeks to provide a glimpse of the costbenefit ratio of Operation SAMUDRA SETU, as the ongoing naval deployment has been called, and includes an assessment of the inherent risk of undertaking such operations.

Amidst the pall of gloom suffusing much of a world embattled by the COVID-19 pandemic, a newsflash stating, “The Indian Government has decided to launch the largest ever evacuation, under the ‘Vande Bharat Mission’” came as heady whiff of fresh air. At the strategic and operational level, India was confidently demonstrating, through tangible manifestations of both, capacity and capability, that it was a responsible State that cares for the wellbeing of all those who bear its nationality, whether at home or abroad. India was visibly stitching together the ‘DIME’ (Diplomatic, Information, Military and Economic) components of its ‘Comprehensive National Power’ and unequivocally signalling that itintended to be an exemplar to the region. As the principal maritime manifestation of the sovereign power of the Indian republic, it was to the Navy that the nation turned, charging it to bringing its countrymen and countrywomen ‘home’.

The news that ships of the Indian Navy had sailed several of its warships to support the repatriation mission via an operation that was named ‘Operation SAMUDRA SETU’ sent mobile phones into a frenzy, with numerous WhatsApp messages crowding the airways. While the overwhelming bulk of posts were deeply appreciative ones, there were also other less-flattering ones from diehard ‘naysayers’, habitual sceptics whose apprehensions were the result of their own perceptions of the US Navy’s experience vis-a-vis the onboard spread of COVID infection. A few naval veterans questioned the wisdom of exposing the valuable crew of a significant warship to a much higher probability of infection, effectively knocking them out of action for at least 14 days thereafter.

Government’s Plan of Action

The Government of India (GoI) bears a responsibility for the protection of its citizens at home and – at least a moral one for the protection of its citizens/nationals abroad. The protection of Indians residing abroad may arise in several unstable scenarios, ranging from natural disasters, through unsafe conditions resulting from terrorist actions, and all the way to conditions of fullscale armed conflict between nation-states. In the peculiar conditions attending the COVID-19 pandemic, wherein the world is fighting an invisible but globally ubiquitous ‘enemy’, the Government of India clearly acknowledges the weight of its moral responsibility to provide succour and extrication options to its nationals, wherever they may be and this recognition is what has led to the launch of the Vande Bharat Mission a mega-plan for the repatriation of lakhs of Indian nationals stranded abroad as a result of the travel-restrictions imposed by their host-countries in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the first phase of this mission, which ran from the 7th to the 13th of May 2020, a total of 14,800 Indian nationals were repatriated to India from 12 countries. Simultaneously, the Indian Navy launched ‘Operation SAMUDRA SETU’ as part of this national effort.

The reasons for the government’s decision to use warships of the Indian Navy after having operated some 64 flights between 07 May and 13 May 2020, are of some consequence.

Historical Antecedents. Successive Governments of India have, over the past quarter of a century, progressed along a slow, halting, incremental, but nevertheless definite recovery from several centuries of ‘sea-blindness’. In the process, there has been a gradual appreciation, understanding, and, most important of all, a growing willingness to leverage the several advantages that accrue from the deployment of the much-vaunted surface combatants of the Indian Navy. These advantages stem from the inherent characteristics of warships, namely ‘access’, ‘mobility’, ‘lift-capacity’, ‘sustained reach’, ‘versatility’ (incorporating adaptability in roles – the same warship can instantly change between its military, diplomatic, constabulary, and, benign roles- and flexibility of response within any given role), ‘poise’, ‘resilience’ and ‘leverage’.

Warships of the Indian Navy have, over the past two decades or more, been utilised for what are commonly called ‘Non-combatant Evacuation Operations’ (NEO). These operations have almost always been in crisisaffected areas, with warships being used as part of precautionary-measures, support-operations, and for the actual evacuation of not just Indian nationals but those of friendly countries as well. NCEO (also often abbreviated to NEO) have often been in conjunction with Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations. Both, NCEO and HADR operations fall under the ambit of the Benign Role of the Indian Navy, which envisages undertaking tasks such as provision of relief material and supplies, medical assistance, etc.

Integral Medical Facilities. All warships have earmarked spaces known as a ‘Sick Bay’, designed to handle and treat war-casualties. A warship’s Sick Bay is really a mini-hospital and is manned on a 24 x 7 basis by well-trained military doctors and male nursing assistants. They can carry out emergency surgical interventions and handling a variety of medical crises. In addition, adjacent dwelling-areas of the crew (known as mess-decks) are available as ‘expansion wards’ and can be isolated by means of the ship’s internal gas-tight subdivisions, which are designed to permit the warship to operate in areas contaminated by nuclear, chemical and biological agents.

It is with a sense of quiet confidence in its own competence, born out many months and years of rigorous training, that the Indian Navy initiated Op SAMUDRA SETU, which flows-from and feeds-into ‘Mission Vande Bharat’.

For Phase 1 of Op SAMUDRA SETU, the Navy deployed as many as four Indian Naval Ships in the first phase of this operation, namely, the Jalashwa, the Magar, the Airavat and the Shardul, all of which are ships designed for amphibious operations and have large liftcapacities. On 12 May 2020, the Indian Navy successfully completed this phase, with the repatriation from Malé of 698 Indians aboard INS Jalashwa and 202 aboard INS Magar.

Cost Benefit Analysis: Air Repatriation Vs Repatriation by Sea

Sea-borne forces are always fully prepared to carry out all tasks that might be assigned, need no major logistic support from ashore, do not require rights of access or over-flight, have very considerable staying power, and can be withdrawn easily leaving behind strong symbolic reminders of their presence. Under the extant repatriation operation, which was highly political, media-centric and required to be executed at very short notice, warships fare far better than any other platform. One of the many reasons why the Indian Navy is quite so suitable an instrument for the execution of the maritime facets of ‘Mission VANDE BHARAT’ is because large ships designed for amphibious operations, such as a Landing Platform [Dock] (LPD) or a Landing Ship [Tank-Large] (LST[L]), apart from being able to accommodate far more human beings than an average aircraft, can also provide better security and protection from other threats, such as a possibly hostile local population, during the process of repatriation.

Infrastructure and Procedural Requirements. Another factor to be considered is the infrastructure and procedural requirement at the embarkation point as well as at the disembarkation one. These include the following:

  • Repatriation by Air. Air-travel requires extensive infrastructural requirements (such as, inter alia, airport-security staff, an ATC, boarding and immigration facilities) and have several other disadvantages including, amongst others, very limited baggage-allowance, possibly-difficult movement from hinterland areas to the nearest international airport, multiple clearances from various agencies, etc.
  • Repatriation by Warship. Since, warships have their own crew, who are highly trained and can set up basic pre- and post-boarding facilities, as also provide for the requirements for immigration and medical screening, without any external assistance, the overall infrastructure requirement is limited to a jetty of suitable length with an adequate depth of water. There is no limitation on the quantum of baggage being carried per passenger. In terms of the overall evacuation-time, the warships evacuated a total of 900 passengers and took about 36 hours, i.e., one-and-a-half days to reach Kochi, which is considerably faster than repatriation of the same number of people by air on account of the number of trips aircraft would have to make due to lower capacity and the additional time required for various other activities. Travel aboard these types of warships, with their extensive facilities and commodious living spaces is also relatively more comfortable

Features of Operation SAMUDRA SETU

Civil-Military Coordination. Coordination between the military force and the diplomatic mission is a key determinant of success of any Non-combatant Evacuation Operation. In the case of Op SAMUDRA SETU, the Indian Navy – the military component – operated at the diplomatic- as well as at the military strategic level. Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), as also an acute awareness of the changing diplomatic,political, and military environments, any or all of which may rapidly move from a ‘permissive’ to an ‘uncertain’ to a ‘hostile’ paradigm, is crucial in all naval operations, but is especially important in an NEO. With a threat such as COVID-19, other nations, fearing the possibility of having an external and multitudinous human agency, such as the crew of a foreign warship, contaminate and infect the locals with whom it came into contact, could turn to hostile to the repatriation operation itself. In terms of support at the military level, the Indian Navy’s operational force was and remains supported by the Information Fusion Centre- Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR), while diplomatic support is catered-for by the Indian missions in the nation(s) from which repatriation is to be affected.

Risk of Infection on Board. Unlike many of the previous evacuation operations, wherein the Indian Navy warship concerned was required to rescue stranded Indian nationals from a war-zone or from an area affected by some natural calamity, and which, of course, required ironclad willpower and, at times, the threat of brute-force, too, this time around the enemy was invisible, dangerously contagious, and there was precious little known about the foe. The danger was therefore, not only to the repatriate but also to the care giver

Onboard Preparations

On board the warships, two very different requirements needed to be met. These involved the need to ensure the safety of the crew as well as the repatriates. Additional medical supplies and naval medical staff, including doctors and medical assistants (male nurses), were embarked and the ship’s crew, as a unit, was isolated on board, in harbour, for a full 14 days, without anyone stepping ashore.

Additional paramedical training was provided to the ship’s crew to cater for possible ‘surge requirements’ of medical personnel. Before the ship was deployed for Op ‘SAMUDRA SETU’, the crew was one again thoroughly screened to ensure that there was no infection on board. The entire ship, especially the accommodation areas earmarked for the people who were to be repatriated, was once again carefully and thoroughly sanitised. The overall carrying capacity was rationalised to ensure adherence to specified social-distancing norms, separate isolation facilities were created to manage any passenger who might develop COVID-19 symptoms whilst en-route. All in all, in keeping with the high standards of training and preparedness that is emblematic of the Indian Navy as a whole, the ships were prepared meticulously to ensure the safety of the crew and the repatriates, and hence the success of the operation.

Additional Humanitarian Support to Island Countries in the IOR: Op ‘SAGAR’

In sharp contrast to the COVID-mitigation measures adopted by many advanced navies, which were curtailing ongoing warship deployments, confining their warships to shore-berths, and offloading member of the crew of such warships, India is probably the only nation to have actively deployed its naval warships to undertake humanitarian assistance to far flung littoral- and island-nations of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Apart from the deployments involved in Op SAMUDRA SETU, another Indian warship, INS Kesari, has been deployed to provide essential medicines and food supplies to the Maldives, Seychelles, Comoros, Madagascar, and Mauritius, thereby, providing tangible manifestation to the Indian regional geopolitical doctrine of SAGAR (Security And Growth for All in the Region).

Legal Aspects

Op SAMUDRA SETU is of course, a manifestation of humanitarian assistance offered by the Indian Navy. That said, the Indian Navy remains conscious of the fact that it is, nevertheless, a military operation,to which the law of the sea, as well as customary international laws, are applicable. The protection of civilians, the sick and/or the wounded is a longstanding principle of international law, even in the absence of an International Armed Conflict (IAC). Therefore, adequate legal consideration is required in the planning and execution of every such operation. The Indian Navy while acting purely as a noncombatant evacuation force, in its plan and conduct recognised that it needed to operate in accordance with international treaty law, the law of the sea, customary international law, and the domestic laws of India. Non-combatant evacuation operations usually occur in scenarios of heightened inter-State tensions, where confrontation is escalated to point only just short of an armed conflict. There are generally two legal bases cited for the protection of nationals:

  • It does not constitute a use of force prohibited by Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter, or
  • It is a legitimate exercise of a State’s right of selfdefence

Although, in the extant case, there relatively limited complexity involved, since the operation is being executed with the express permission of the State(s) concerned, the legal aspects of ‘Overseas Evacuation Operations’ by Naval warships nevertheless need to be well understood and the levels of shore-based planning-staff, as well as by the seagoing commanders involved.


As may be gathered from the preceding paragraphs, Operation SAMUDRA SETU is a well-intentioned, welltimed, and well-executed operation. It has underscored the flexibility and versatility of naval warships in times of peace and those of conflict. It is well worth reiterating that:

  • In sharp contrast to the COVID-mitigation measures adopted by many advanced navies, which have been curtailing ongoing warship deployments, confining their warships to shore-berths, and offloading member of the crew of such warships, India is probably the only nation to have actively deployed its naval warships to undertake humanitarian assistance to far flung littoral- and island-nations of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Op SAMUDRA SETU has, yet again, underscored the Indian Navy’s standing as the region’s ‘First Responder’.
  • This operation has reinforced India’s (and the Indian Navy’s) credibility as a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean Region.
  • The operation serves as a telling example of how greatly the Indian Navy can contribute to the Indian regional geopolitical doctrine of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region).