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In the year 2024, maritime shipping market size may touch US$380 billion and it is likely to reach US$ 470 billion by the year 2029. Currently the international shipping is having challenging times view developments in Gulf region.

Seven months since the October 7 Hamas attack last year, Israel continues to inflict pain on the Palestinians ignoring proportionality, a fundamental principle of the International Laws of Armed Conflict. Nothing seems to stop them. They bash on regardless of a UN resolution to stop the assault, domestic demands from within Israel, gathering angst from the world over, cases at ICJ and ICC, or increasing threat of sanctions. Likewise, nothing seems to deter the Houthis from continuing their wanton destruction in the Red Sea in response to the Israeli offensive against Palestinians. Even Operation Prosperity Guardian led by the US Navy, involving several other modern navies has not borne fruit. International shipping is having challenging times in coming years view changing geopolitics.

News that the US has appealed to Iran to rein in the Houthis was bad enough an indicator of the world’s helplessness. Subsequent reports about the US offer to remove the Houthis from a terror list as quid pro quo for peace in the Red Sea prove the world’s impotence in deterring committed adversaries who are willing to die to win their goals. Tim Lenderking, President Joe Biden’s special envoy for Yemen removed any lingering hope when he admitted on April 3 that the US favours a diplomatic solution and that they “know that there is no military solution”. As per media reports, US aircraft carrier Dwight Eisenhower deployed with great fanfare in the Red Sea has left the area and several navies including the US Navy are only escorting high-value ships through the area now. 

This is an important reality for international trade. The merchant marine has no option but to co-exist with perennial strife in the foreseeable future. As of now, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Here is why. Several other factors combine with perennial strife to form an uncomfortable new normal for ships at sea. First among them is the inevitable dependence on choke points where ships become easy targets owing to restrictions that constricted spaces and traffic density place on their movements at these points. Second, is the ease of targeting as ship identities, positions and details of their traverse cannot be hidden near choke points and live updates on them can easily be fed to adversaries.

Third, is the easy availability of low-cost, over-the-shelf, or indigenous technologies and materials that completely preclude any chance the world may have in preventing the unwanted proliferation of modern non-traditional weapons and ordnance delivery platforms. Fourth, is the impending shift of anti-shipping offensives to the underwater realm, buoyed by the success of Ukraine’s surface and below-surface drones which drove the mighty Russian Navy away from the operationally important parts of the Black Sea.

Fifth, is the multitude of conflicts and potential conflicts that abound the world over, mostly embers from the age of European colonialism which can be fanned to infernos at will. That non-state actors dominate several of these conflicts further increases the degree of difficulty for states or global organisations like the UN in resolving them. All these combine well to form a highly incendiary mix in an increasingly right-wing world that is intent on questioning history and undoing the ‘wrongs’ of the past. With no limits on the distance to travel into the past to unearth new grievances, new trouble spots are sure to emerge. 

What does this mean for the merchant marine? After all, there are no military solutions. A massive whole-world approach that combines diplomatic, technological, economic, social, and military measures, that draw deeply from history stands the best chance of success. Though underwater warfare on trade started at the beginning of WW I, it manifested in its most destructive form only in WW II. It is unsettling to recollect that the single largest campaign that ran throughout the duration of WW II was the Battle of the Atlantic, where German U Boats kept sinking Allied shipping. It started at the beginning of the war and ended only when Germany capitulated. 

How is this relevant today? Firstly, while it was Germany, a formal state, that inflicted losses on the allies with wanton destruction using submarines during WW 2, today it is Houthis, a non-state actor, difficult to be held accountable. Secondly, submarines were large, manned, craft whose deployment and actions were inevitably influenced by the need to provide a reasonable chance of survival to the crew during action. No such baggage restricts anti-ship surface or sub-surface drones. Thirdly, submarines were large enough craft that gave some chance for their adversaries to detect and avoid or destroy them. Small surface or sub-surface drones have much less vulnerability. 

So what do we do to protect seaborne trade? Firstly, the world must accept that even the best navies have no foolproof solution to protect even themselves from underwater attacks using drones, especially in large numbers. Secondly, we must learn from history. Every material and tactical countermeasure that has been developed from the early part of the 20th century, right up to the lessons of the previous bout of piracy off the Somalian coast needs to be considered for increasing the survivability of ships.

Some of these lessons must be incorporated right from the design stage for merchant ships. Thirdly, multi-modal operations need to be developed to reduce dependence on volatile choke points to the extent possible. Fourthly, governments in the world have to assume direct responsibility and mandate the above steps as these steps cost money and if left to the corporate world they wouldn’t act optimally for profitability considerations. Last but not least, fighting navies must make serious adjustments to force structuring, operations, and training to meet the new threat. 

Ocean shipping is an international treasure. It is time the world went back to the drawing board to improve the survivability of merchant ships and the military capabilities of navies in handling underwater attacks. However, what must take the utmost preference is the fact that the non-military solutions stand the best chance of bringing lasting solutions to sustain international shipping. 

Title Image Courtesy: Vara Allied

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies

Article Courtesy: Wion News

By Cmde G Prakash (Retd)

Commodore G Prakash, Nau Sena Medal, (Rtd,IN) served the Indian Navy for 36 years. He is a specialist in Air Warfare and Anti Submarine Warfare. He has had the honour of commanding three war ships and four naval bases. He has served at the Naval Headquarters, New Delhi, in the field of Naval Aviation Future Plans and Strategy, Concepts and Transformation. He has vast experience in Operations, Training, Policy Making and Human Resource Management. He has been lecturing over fifteen years at the national level on National Security, Doctrine & Strategy, Military History, Leadership etc and has lectured at the National Defence College, the War Colleges, at the College of Defence Management, Corporate bodies, Universities and Colleges. He is also a keen writer on a variety of topics.