The Kolkata-class stealth guided-missile destroyer INS Kolkata steams in formation while participating in Malabar 2020 in the North Arabian Sea – U.S. Navy

As tensions boil in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, where Iran-backed Yemeni Houthi militants have hijacked and attacked commercial shipping over the past months, the international community has scrambled to address the crisis. While attention has centered on the Houthis, across the sea in Somalia, pirate groups have seen a resurgence after years of inactivity. Since November, more than 20 attempted hijackings have taken place in the waters near Somalia, a massive uptick from years past. Amidst this chaotic environment, a surprising new player has risen to meet the challenge: India.

Unexpected Involvement

As the U.S. and E.U. scramble to blunt Houthi attacks, Somalian pirates have taken the opportunity to escalate hijackings. The first and most significant hijacking took place on Dec. 14, when the Maltese-flagged bulk carrier MV Ruen was seized off the coast of Somalia, the first such instance in almost seven years. The Ruen was only recently recovered in a March 17 rescue operation, not by U.S. Navy SEALs or British S.A.S operators, but by Indian naval commandos. In a 40-hour operation led by the INS Kolkata, commandos paradropped onto the vessel, capturing the 35 pirates onboard, and rescuing 17 crewmembers held hostage. The pirates were brought back to Mumbai to face trial on March 23.

The retaking of the Ruen was a major success for India’s expanding anti-piracy and maritime security mission, dubbed Operation Sankalp. Indian forces had previously responded to the attempted hijacking of the bulk carrier Lila Norfolk in January, deterring pirates who fled before navy commandos arrived. Since December, New Delhi has committed over 5,000 personnel and over 20 ships to the area, quietly becoming the largest national naval deployment in the region. Indian forces have responded to more than 18 incidents, investigating over 250 vessels and boarding more than 40.

With Western surface assets involved in countering the Houthi threat, India has stepped up its role, expanding previous counter-piracy deployments into a force of equal size to the entire U.S.-led Operation Prosperity Guardian. Operation Sankalp has become one of the largest naval deployments in the country’s history, providing a stabilizing force in a security vacuum created by the re-focusing of Western naval vessels on Houthi attacks.

Indian Interests

India’s interest in the conflict is multifaceted, with some concerns stemming from the economic reality that approximately $240 billion of the country’s commerce comes through the Red Sea. Concerns for Indian nationals may also play a role, with an estimated ten percent of the global maritime workforce coming from India, the third highest of any country. The rate of Indian commercial sailors is expected to further grow to 20 percent in the next decade, making maritime security an increasing necessity for safeguarding citizens.

Politically, the deployment paints a picture of India as a responsible global power both willing and capable of deterring piracy and guaranteeing the safety of maritime commerce. It further sends a clear message to other international actors, that India can and will take a more active military role in its eponymous ocean. This is consistent with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s long-term aspirations for a central Indian role in the commerce and security of the Indian Ocean. In a 2015 speech in Mauritius, Modi, referring to the Indian Ocean as the top of New Delhi’s policy priorities, outlined five key planks of his policy for the region including “doing everything to… defend our interests”.

Operation Sankalp has also given India an excellent invitation to display the results of the ambitious naval modernization efforts that New Delhi has financed in recent years. Inconspicuously central to the undertaking are India’s modern Kolkata-class stealth destroyers, all three of which have been deployed to the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden throughout the operation. Additionally, India’s recently procured MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones have played an active role in its operations, including the retaking of the Ruen.

An Eye To Beijing

In the shadow of its growing rivalry with China, India has further sought to demonstrate its newfound abilities and evolving naval posture. Particularly as China faces allegations of inaction in the wake of the Houthi and Somalian pirate attacks, India’s show of force telegraphs clear modern skills and capabilities.

Historically a less active naval power, under Modi India has shown a drive to expand its role in the region and beyond. In doing so, New Delhi reminds Beijing that India will not sit idle as the Chinese navy expands its global role and presence.

While India will ultimately not become a global naval power overnight, deployments such as Operation Sankalp are critical milestones in the evolution of New Delhi’s capabilities at sea. Successes in counter-piracy provide Indian Navy personnel with useful real-world experience and test their ability to sustain long-term deployments outside of territorial waters. Perhaps more importantly, these deployments cultivate an image of India as both a valuable contributor to global security and an increasingly capable player in the maritime domain.


  • “Captured Somali pirates arrive in India to face trial over ship hijacking.” Al Jazeera, 23 Mar. 2024.
  • Gupta, Shishir. “India stations two destroyers off the coast of Aden for maritime security” Hindustan Times, 19 Dec. 2023.
  • “How India plays a significant role in keeping the global shipping industry running” Economic Times of India, 28 Mar. 2024.
  • Johnson, Keith. “How Pirates Kick-Started India’s Navy Into Action.” Foreign Policy, 14 Feb. 2024.
  • Orchard, Andrew. “What Does China Think About India’s Increased Anti-Piracy Patrols Amid the Red Sea Crisis?” The Diplomat, 10 Feb. 2024.
  • “Prime Minister’s remarks at the Commissioning of Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) Barracuda in Mauritius” Ministry of External Affairs, 12 Mar. 2015.