Coordinating and Deconflicting Naval Operations in the Western Indian Ocean

On patrol: USS Essex and USNS Wally Schirra transit the Strait of Hormuz in formation. Image: US Navy / Wikimedia Commons

With the Houthi threat, the recent resurfacing of piracy, and continuing patterns of blue crime contributing to growing insecurity in the Western Indian Ocean, fresh efforts are needed to coordinate and deconflict the patchwork of naval operations in the region.

The EU is soon to launch a new naval operation in the Western Indian Ocean. This will enhance and bolster the US-led Operation Prosperity Guardian's efforts to safeguard shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, including protection against air strikes from Houthi forces.

The new operation will bring the number of multinational missions guarding shipping in the region to a total of eight. Navies operating in the region must ensure that there is close coordination and deconfliction, including with independent deployers and the shipping industry.

The current backbone for coordination continues to be the counter-piracy structures created in 2008. Given the increasingly complex patchwork of missions with overlapping mandates, together with independent deployers – notably China – operating in the region, these structures need a refresh.

The Patchwork of Multinational Naval Missions in the Western Indian Ocean

Out of the eight multinational operations, five are either directly led by the US or operate within the framework of the US-coordinated Combined Maritime Forces (CMF).

The CMF is a complex construction that is often described as a multinational maritime partnership. 41 states are listed as current members. These include nine EU member states, together with other naval powers such as Australia, Brazil, India, Pakistan and Turkey. The US is commanding and providing logistics through its headquarters in Bahrain, while the UK acts as deputy commander.

States make voluntary and often temporary contributions to the construct by employing surface vessels or sending staff. The broad mission of the CMF, originally launched as a counterterrorism operation, is to address threats from non-state actors at sea, including by disrupting smuggling, piracy and environmental crimes.

The CMF's work is organised into operational task forces, of which three are regionally focused and one concentrates on counter-piracy. The recent Operation Prosperity Guardian runs under the Combined Task Force (CTF) 153, which formally overlaps with the area of operation of CTF 150. In addition, the US leads the so-called International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) together with the UK to deter threats to shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.

The growing naval presence is problematic: it brings new geopolitical tensions into the region, and carries the risk of unplanned encounters at sea with the potential for escalation

As part of the EU’s commitment to be a global maritime security provider, three multinational operations are led by EU member states, with two formally under an EU mandate. Operation Atalanta is the longest-running mission; focused on countering piracy since 2008, it was also later tasked with monitoring environmental crimes and sanction violations.

The European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz initiative (EMASoH) and its Operation Agenor was launched in 2020 and is the European counterpart to the IMSC. It is not formally an EU mission, but a cooperation between member states. While discussions took place on bringing EMASoH under a formal EU umbrella and extending its work to addressing the situation in the Red Sea, EU member states decided to launch an additional Operation Aspides in January 2024.

In addition to these missions, China has a strong naval presence in the region. It maintains a naval base in Djibouti and has strong political ties with countries in the region, including the Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. China has contributed to and closely coordinated with multi-national operations in the fight against piracy in the past, the current operational mandate includes other tasks. Russia’s navy has contributed to counter-piracy in the past, but currently mainly engages in regional naval exercises.

Two regional mechanisms, although not exclusively focused on military operations at sea – the Djibouti Code of Conduct, coordinated by the International Maritime Organization, and the Maritime Security Programme, led by the Indian Ocean Commission – further enhance this complexity.

There is no doubt that given the insecurities in the region, shipping needs to be guarded by a strong naval presence, and the growth in regional blue crimes must be addressed. Yet, the growing naval presence is also problematic: it brings new geopolitical tensions into the region, and carries the risk of unplanned encounters at sea with the potential for escalation.

How Does Coordination Currently Take Place?

Outside the structures provided by the US and the EU, cross-operational coordination takes places through tools developed as part of the counter-piracy response between 2008 and 2012. The information-sharing system Mercury, run by the Maritime Security Center Horn of Africa, as part of the EU's Operation Atalanta, provides shared incident alerts and direct lines of communication between naval operators, including the navies of China and Russia. The UK's Maritime Trade Office provides an initial entry point and MSCHoA direct communication with the shipping industry through issuing alerts and its voluntary reporting mechanism. Several regional missions, however, run separate liaison mechanisms with the industry.

Historically, the pivotal element facilitating the operationalisation of these information-sharing tools was the Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) mechanism.

What is SHADE?

SHADE was initially created by the EU, NATO and the CMF to better coordinate and enhance the effectiveness of counter-piracy operations, specifically through a protected transit corridor in the Gulf of Aden and the organisation of convoys. When more navies arrived that were not part of these missions, the number of navies participating was widened to include China, Japan, Korea and Russia, and the shipping industry and private security companies were also invited to attend.

Securing the sea lanes of the Western Indian Ocean is a global responsibility; regional states need a strong voice, and the shipping industry must be included

As an informal navy-to-navy mechanism, SHADE was run through regular meetings of senior commanders, and served the purpose of sharing threat assessments, exchanging operational best practices, explaining future operations and plans, and getting information-sharing tools operative. SHADE was one of the core factors in the successful suppression of piracy from 2012.

As it became clear that the risk of piracy had decreased, interest in the mechanism dwindled. Participation declined, both in rank and numbers. What the mechanism should focus on in the absence of a clear piracy threat – and whether it was needed at all – became a core issue, including in the meetings I have attended in recent years. SHADE became more and more a space for contemplation rather than operation – formally maintained, but with little impact at sea. Yet today, it is needed once again to deconflict operations.

Refreshing and Reassembling SHADE

The Western Indian Ocean requires a forum to better coordinate and deconflict the patchwork of naval operations in the region. This is not a task that should be left to the US Navy and its CMF framework. Securing the sea lanes of the Western Indian Ocean is a global responsibility; regional states need a strong voice, and the shipping industry must be included.

The Houthi threat, the recent resurfacing of piracy, and continuing patterns of blue crime present an unprecedented moment of multifaceted insecurity in the region. If not appropriately addressed, this insecurity will be here to stay.

SHADE needs to reconvene with a broad remit of fostering regional maritime security. It should focus on sharing threat assessments, intentions and operational plans, including with independent deployers. It needs to ensure strong synergies between missions through a focus on burden-sharing, interoperability and effectiveness. This could include tactical questions such as best practices for defending against drones and missiles. Dialogue with the industry should focus on questions of routing and self-protective measures. Finally, given the growing presence of surface vessels, it is time that a code for unplanned encounters at sea in the region is negotiated, for which SHADE would be the ideal forum.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Christian Bueger

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