North Arabian Sea Crescent: The New Maritime Hotspot and India’s Maritime Security

Sub Title : Increasing strategic significance of the North Arabian Sea

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 6 Jan – Feb 2024

Author : Dr Vijay Sakhuja, Former Director, National Maritime FoundationDr Vijay Sakhuja, Former Director, National Maritime Foundation

Page No. : 53

Category : Geostrategy

: January 27, 2024


The North Arabian Sea Crescent (NASC) has become a new maritime hotspot, impacting India’s maritime security. The Israel-Hamas conflict, involvement of Iran-backed Houthi militia, and attacks on international shipping have disrupted supply chains. Houthis’ threats led to Operation Prosperity Guardian, with a coalition led by the US. The North Arabian Sea Crescent has a history of conflicts, involving various countries and international naval coalitions. The recent focus on the region underscores its strategic importance and ongoing challenges for maritime security.

The Israel-Hamas conflict has spilled into the Arabian Sea, and Houthis, an Iran backed militia in Yemen, have come out openly in support of the Hamas. They have been attacking-hijacking international shipping between the Red Sea-Bab el Mandab strait-Gulf of Aden region, particularly those ships that are linked to the Israelis.

A spate of missile and drone attacks and multiple hijacking attempts by the Houthis rebels forced several shipping companies, particularly the container carriers such as the Italian and Swiss-owned Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), Denmark-based shipper Maersk, German shipper Hapag-Lloyd, France-based shipper CMA CGM, and Japanese container conglomerate Ocean Network Express ONE) to suspend operations through the Red Sea; they announced rerouting vessels, via the Cape of Good Hope ie Africa’s southern tip.

Consequently, there have been delays in supply chains particularly oil and gas shipments given that the route accounts for 12% of total seaborne-traded oil (first half of 2023), and liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipments accounted for 8% of worldwide LNG trade. As a result, oil prices jumped to over US$ 80 a barrel (Brent trading). The rerouted vessels unavoidably add at least 10 days of cruising time around the Cape of Good Hope which increases shipping rates by as much as 15%.

The Houthis have been bold and have threatened attack against military vessels particularly those of the US, UK and France. Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, the Houthi leader, in particular warned “Any American targeting of our country will be targeted by us, and we will make American battleships, interests, and navigation a target for our missiles, drones, and military operations,”

This prompted the US to announce a limited international coalition carved out of the larger Combined Maritime Forces (39 international partners) comprising of Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy (later chose to opt out), the Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles, Spain (later chose to opt out), and the United Kingdom for maritime security mission Operation Prosperity Guardian against Houthis attacks-hijackings. Besides these 10 countries, according to the US, 20 more had extended support.

However a few major regional and other US allies have chosen to give the US call a pass. Notable among these are (a) major regional players Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain; (b) Quad partners Australia, India and Japan; and (c) few EU member states including France and Germany have either chosen to distance themselves from the initiative or deploy ships independently under national command.

According to Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander of US naval forces in the Middle East, since the launch of Operation Prosperity Guardian, “1,200 merchant ships have traveled through the Red Sea region, and none had been hit by drone or missile strikes”. Meanwhile, the US forces retaliated and opened fire in self defence against Houthis rebels killing 10 of them and destroying their three boats after they attempted to board a cargo ship in the Red Sea.

Turbulent North Arabian Sea Crescent

The North Arabian Sea Crescent (NASC) stretching the Makran Coast (Iran-Pakistan)-Persian Gulf-Gulf of Aden-Red Sea has history of wars/conflicts/tensions involving regional countries such as the India-Pakistan War (1965 and 1971); Iraq and Iran (1980–88); Iraq and Kuwait in 1991; Saudi Arabia and Yemen (since 2015), Iran-Israel (since 1967), and contestations between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Member States (a political and economic alliance of the above six members-Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman- established in 2000) and Iran.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, a number of extra regional powers deployed their forces in the NASC region in support of the Gulf War (1991), Operation Enduring Freedom (2001), Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003), and the war on terror in Afghanistan. The Somali piracy also forced several countries to deploy navies to the Gulf of Aden and these have continued to be present in the region since 2018.

The result is that numerous international naval coalitions grouped under a variety of task forces such as CTF 150 (Gulf of Oman security and counter-terrorism), CTF 151 (counter piracy), CTF 152 (Arabian Gulf security and cooperation), CTF 153 (Red Sea/Gulf of Aden security and cooperation) and CTF 154 (maritime security training) are conducting operations. These are led by the United States and are tailored for counter terrorism against Al Qaeda and counter piracy operations against pirates from Somalia.

The EU has an ongoing counter piracy operation under Operation Atlanta, and the Chinese TF 525 comprising of at least three warships has maintained a sustained presence in the Gulf of Aden since 2009. During the last “15 years, 45 consecutive fleets, 150 vessels and 35,000 personnel of the PLA Navy have joined the efforts, escorting more than 7,200 Chinese and foreign vessels, including 12 World Food Program ships”.

The regional countries have welcomed the US naval presence and consider it significant to underwrite regional security. However, Iran has consistently opposed forward military presence by the US, UK and France who have set up facilities in the Persian Gulf but is amenable to PLA Navy presence at Djibouti.

It also conducts trilateral exercises with Chinese and Russian Navy in the Arabian Sea.

Iran and Oman are littoral states astride the Strait of Hormuz and as per international law exercise control for the purposes of safety and security of the international shipping. However, there have been several instances of tensions between Iran and the US as well as the UK over issues of dominance in the region.

In 2004, eight British servicemen were detained for three days, after Iran said they had entered Iranian territorial waters. They were released unharmed after the British and Iranian governments agreed there had been a misunderstanding. Three years later in 2007, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy once again captured British Royal Navy sailors and marines in the disputed waters off the coast between Iraq and Iran.

In 2012, Iran warned “We are not after closing the Strait of Hormuz but if the hostility of the enemies’ increases, we will be able to do so”. Iran has been encouraging Oman to support a new regional framework called ‘Hormuz Peace Endeavor’ or HOPE.

During 2019, Iran was at the centre of several incidents involving attacks against commercial vessels (Japanese tanker Kokuka Courageous and the Norwegian-owned Front Altair were struck ostensibly by Iranian limpet mines); downing of a US Navy remotely piloted aircraft over international waters; and interdiction, seizure and detention of merchant vessels in the Persian Gulf.

Iran was also accused of launching drone attacks against oil facilities in Saudi Arabia which was denied by Tehran prompting Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Musavi to refute “such fruitless and blind accusations are incomprehensible and meaningless.” Amirali Hajizadeh, a senior Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander, warned “Everybody should know that all American bases and their aircraft carriers in a distance of up to 2,000 kilometers around Iran are within the range of our missiles,” In March 2022, the Houthis targeted a Saudi Aramco refinery in Riyadh using three Samad-3 drones believed to be based on Iranian technology. Iran has also supplied drones to Russia and these have proven successful.

India’s Maritime Security

In December 2023Iran was again under US scrutiny after Pentagon accused Tehran of a drone attack against chemical tanker MV Chem Pluto (Liberia-flagged, Japanese-owned, and Netherlands-operated) about 220 nautical miles southwest of Porbandar, Gujarat in India.  The Pentagon also claimed that this was the “seventh Iranian attack on commercial shipping since 2021.” According to media reports, the Dutch company operating the MV Chem Pluto “is connected to Israeli shipping tycoon Idan Ofer.”

The Indian Navy dispatched its warships and surveillance aircraft (P8I multi-mission aircraft and Sea Guardian drones) to offer assistance to MV Chem Pluto after it received a request from the shipping company. The Indian Coast Guard Ship Vikram along with Dornier aircraft escorted Chem Pluto to Mumbai. According to Indian Ministry of Defence, the initial assessment “pointed to a drone attack…further forensic and technical analysis will be required to establish the vector of attack, including type and amount of explosive used”. Meanwhile another India bound oil tanker with 25-member crew had come under a suspected drone strike in Southern Red Sea on the same day.

The Indian Navy has constituted and deployed task groups comprising destroyers and frigates in the north Arabian Sea and “aerial surveillance by long-range maritime patrol aircraft and RPAs has been enhanced to have a complete maritime domain awareness.”

The above incident merits a careful assessment of maritime domain awareness (MDA) in the Arabian Sea. It is critical for maritime security and needs to be reinforced by as many equipment, systems, and platforms. In this context the existing Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC) under the Indian Navy is being upgraded to the National Maritime Domain Awareness (NMDA) Centre (can take up to 3 years); it will enable 15 agencies under seven Ministries to access and exchange information.

Perhaps, it is the counter drone warfare which demands urgency by the Indian maritime security agencies (at sea and ashore) given that drone warfare has become popular both among militaries as well as non-state actors. In particular the PLA Navy could reconstitute the composition of the future task forces bound for the Indian Ocean that are proficient in drone warfare. It is quite plausible that in future PLA Navy may even conduct UAV/drone swarms led exercises and supported from friendly Indian Ocean military facilities in Djibouti, Pakistan, Iran, Yemen and even Maldives.

Indian naval planners may have to develop new strategies and fleet architecture that integrate counter drone warfare technologies. These plans are sure to impact on ship design, budgets and concept of operations.