Opinion | MV Ruen's Rescue by Indian Navy: Why It Reflects More Than What Meets the Eye – News18

Written By: Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha (Retd)
Last Updated: March 26, 2024, 22:41 IST
New Delhi, India
Indian Navy personnel carry out an anti-hijacking operation onboard MV Ruen. (Image: PTI/File)
Writing for gCaptain on December 19, 2023, Mike Schuler reported that the European Union Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) was closely monitoring the situation of the hijacked Maltese-flagged MV Ruen in cooperation with local Somali authorities. The ship was en route from Gwangyang in South Korea, carrying a cargo of metals, and was hijacked on the morning of December 14 in the Indian Ocean at approximately 680 nautical miles (1,260 km), east of Bossaso in Somalia. At this stage, the exact demands, motivations, etc, of the hijackers were unknown.
EUNAVFOR flagship, a Spanish Navy ship ESPS Victoria was dispatched to gather more information and evaluate future action in conjunction with other naval ships in the area. Victoria remained with MV Ruen and entered Somali waters somewhere between Eyl and Xaafun peninsula in Somalia (normal hijack area).
With the help of Somali authorities, it was confirmed that MV Ruen had been hijaked. Thus, this became the first successful hijacking involving Somali pirates since 2017. It may be recalled that an earlier attempt by five Somali pirates was thwarted by the Indian Navy.
On December 15, an Indian Navy P8 I Maritime Patrol Aircraft arrived in the area and established contact with the crew who were safely locked up in a citadel. Victoria was joined by the Japanese naval ship Akebono and the Indian Navy destroyer INS Kochi on 16 December.
It is important to remember that these hijacking attempts come amid the broader maritime security situation in the Red Sea as Yemen-based Houthis target commercial ships in the region in support of Hamas in Gaza.
Later, the pirates broke into the citadel and took the crew hostage. One of the crew was evacuated for a medical emergency.
MV Ruen is being managed by Bulgaria’s Navigation Maritime Bulgare.
The Somalian government permitted the shadowing of Ruen even within their territorial waters. Victoria was using its UAV, Scan Eagle to obtain situational awareness by collecting data on the hijacked vessel. However, MV Ruen left this area for some logistics and other replenishment. It was not under the control of the crew.
MV Ruen after having been taken over by pirates would have been used as a mother ship for other piracy attempts as had been the trend. INS Kolkata replaced INS Kochi during the movement of MV Ruen. And then the next 40 hours of actions will go down in the history of anti-piracy/hijacking operations as a text and standard operating procedure worth emulation by the navies of the world. When INS Kolkata began the operation, the MV Ruen was almost 2,600 km (1,400 nautical miles) from the Indian coast. Calibrated actions of INS Kolkata were supported by INS Subhadra, high altitude long endurance unmanned aerial vehicle, P8 I maritime patrol aircraft and MARCOS (Marine Commandos) air-dropped by a C17 aircraft of the Indian Air Force.
These actions had become necessary since the pirates had opened fire on the warship INS Kolkata while they were being warned to surrender or face consequences. The actions taken by the Indian Navy were under international law, ie, in self-defence and to counter piracy/hijacking attempts with the application of minimal force necessary to neutralise the pirates’ threat to shipping and seafarers.
After having left the territorial waters, MV Ruen was flying no flag (Maltese flag was hauled down). It implied that the ship was stateless and, hence, treated as a ‘pirate ship ex Ruen’. Actions were taken per international law against pirate and stateless ships and in self-defence as the vessel committed a hostile act against the Indian Navy by firing at the ship.
After forceful negotiation by INS Kolkata, the MARCOS using Combat Rubberized Raiding Craft (CRRC) boarded the MV Ruen. The commandos sanitised the ship and ensured the safety of 17 crew members (seven Bulgarians, eight Myanmarese and two Angolans), and forced the surrender of 35 pirates.
Bulgarian owner Navibulgar hailed MV Ruen’s release as “a major success not only for us but for the entire global maritime community”. He went on to say that “resolution of this case proves that the security of commercial shipping will not be compromised”. Later, the prime minister of Bulgaria spoke to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi and thanked him. Secretary of defence of the United States Lloyd Austin during his conversation with his counterpart Rajnath Singh praised the proactive operational measures taken by Indian Navy to maintain order in the Indian Ocean and ensure a safe and secure maritime environment for global commerce.
There is a need to reflect upon not only the MV Ruen episode but also the Indian Navy’s demonstration of grit and determination over the last 100-plus days when ‘Operation Sankalp’ began to ensure maritime security and good order at sea and ensure safe passage to global trade through the Indian Ocean. This area of the Red Sea and sea lanes passing through the Gulf of Aden, Babel-e Mandab and into the Arabian Sea of the Indian Ocean and leading up to Malacca Straits in the east has been disturbed by indiscriminate missile and drone attacks.
The Houthis have attacked commercial ships passing through the Red Sea in support of Hamas who are fighting in Gaza against Israel. Simultaneously, the acts of piracy and attempts to hijack have spurred in and around Somalia. Quite possible that the funding for the weapons of Houthis is becoming critical and, therefore, the cartels that work in support of these outfits are seeking help from Somalian pirates and using the ransom money to sustain their disruptive armed activities.
It may be recalled that before the Houthi attacks, piracy had been largely under control. The Houthi attacks have triggered the piracy activities. The two activities are too close to be coincidental. The navy has succeeded in preventing hijacking/piracy attempts making the passage of global commons safe. It has given confidence to seafarers.
The effort and commitment have been phenomenal for the navy over 100-plus days, which includes 5,000 personnel, 21 ships and 900 hours of flying by maritime surveillance aircraft. The Indian Navy is the largest resident naval power in the Indian Ocean. This fact is etched in the naval leadership. It is their duty, therefore, to ensure the security of the entire global trade in this area irrespective of the flag of the ship or nationality of the crew. This gets further fillip by Prime Minister Modi’s often-spoken theme “world is one family” (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam).
The technical life consumed by ships and aircraft leads to more frequent maintenance routines and checks. Replacement platforms for under maintenance is another important consideration for naval planners at Command Headquarters. And this is in addition to the navy’s traditional operational threats from two nuclear-armed neighbours.
Another important reflection of this episode has been India’s ability to jointly plan and execute operations 2,600 km away from the Indian coastline. The ability of the Indian Navy to follow international laws while executing a tricky operation in the face of armed adversary. Ability to hard negotiate to disarm pirates while ensuring the safety of crew and also the pirates. The ability of the navy’s marine commandos to undertake real-life operational tasks on the high seas is always hostile. Their professionalism and bravery have to be acknowledged.
This operation and many others undertaken by the navy have given confidence to the world that the Indian Ocean Region is safe, secure and stable. They have ensured that IOR is free, open, inclusive and has rule-based order. Of course, the insurance rates have gone up by almost 35-40 per cent since shipping companies have started rerouting their ships around the Cape of Good Hope. Indian Navy responded to 18 incidents and played a pivotal role as ‘first responder’ and ‘preferred security partner’ in the IOR.
In the end, MV Ruen could fly its Malta flag again and the crew took charge of the ship on the way to their intended destination.
There are challenges. Drone and missile attacks by Houthis raise some questions. Who supplied them with these assets? Also, a missile may cost Rs10-20 lakh, whereas to shoot it down the missile cost is Rs 5-10 crore. Similarly, a locally made drone flying out over 1,500 kilometres and delivering weapons is much cheaper, plywood and four-stroke engine and basic PCB having been used caused much destruction to the ship. So far, no Indian-flagged ship has been targeted nor any port, yet the naval ships are deployed in the area which has a risk of these attacks. Therefore, their security against these threats also needs to be ensured.
Now we are witnessing true grey zone warfare where there are vast asymmetry of power and cost. In the coming days our navy not only has to address traditional and non-traditional threats but also techniques to fight grey zone warfare. It must be a technology-driven approach and less expensive to fight.
It is a sound demonstration of India’s naval power as the key to a free Indo-Pacific and open sea. Her calibrated actions have benefitted the world at large. An effective partner in Quad and Malabar gives confidence to partner countries. Bharat is well on its way to seeking its rightful place in the comity of nations.
(The author is Chairman Trustee Board, India Foundation and former Commander-in-Chief, Western Naval Command. He is also on the Governing Council, ICWA. Views expressed in the above piece are personal and solely that of the author. They do not necessarily reflect News18’s views)


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