After fighting Somali pirates, Indian Navy ships visit Haifa

HAIFA — Having stopped along on the way to fight pirates off the coast of Somalia, three ships from the Indian Navy reached Israeli waters this week for three days of exercises, sightseeing and meetings with representatives from the Israeli Navy.

The ships — the INS Trishul, INS Mumbai and INS Aditya — reached port on Tuesday and will remain docked on the civilian side of the Haifa port until Friday, according to the crew.

The visit by the Indian Navy’s Western Fleet, led by Rear Admiral RB Pandit, is in celebration of the 25th anniversary of ties between Israel and the South Asian nation. In July, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will also arrive in Israel for a short visit to commemorate the occasion.

Though vastly different in most ways, Israel and India share similar naval concerns, notably the threat of terrorist attacks from the sea — as occurred in Mumbai in 2008 — and the need to secure economic waters, according to Sunil Kumar Roy, who commands the INS Mumbai, a destroyer.

From left, Cpt. Sanjay Sachdeva, Indian defense attache Gp. Cpt. Tejpal Singh, Indian Ambassador Pavan Kapoor, Rear Admiral RB Pandit and Cpt. Sunil Kumar Roy pose for a photograph on board the INS Trishul, docked in Haifa as part of an official visit by the Indian Navy on May 10, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

“We are not very close, but we have common security concerns in the maritime domain. We are both interested in good order at sea and the aspect of terrorism that affects the security of the nation from the sea,” Pandit told reporters on board the Trishul (Hindi for trident).

“We have met each other regularly over the years, and we do seek to learn from each other,” he said.

Illustrative: The Israel Navy launches its new 'Barak 8' missile defense system on November 26, 2015. (screen capture: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

Israel and India teamed up to create the Barak 8 air defense system, which can be installed on ships or used on land.

“We live in a difficult neighborhood,” Pandit said, unknowingly echoing a sentence that Israeli leaders often use to describe the Jewish state’s own geopolitical predicament.

For Israel, the missile defense battery is mainly seen as a counter to the Russian Yakhont anti-ship missile.

Pandit would not say against what specific threats his navy intended to use the Barak 8, saying only that the system is “both anti-aircraft and anti-missile.”

Indian Ambassador Pavan Kapoor and Rear Admiral RB Pandit walk the deck of the INS Trishul, docked in Haifa as part of an official visit by the Indian Navy on May 10, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The Barak 8 has been considered operational in Israel since 2015. According to Pandit, three of the missile defense systems have been installed on Indian Navy ships thus far, though not the ones in the visiting flotilla.

In addition to providing coastal security — a mission that took on particular importance following the 2008 Mumbai attack — the Indian fleet also plays a “well-recognized” role in combating piracy at sea, according to India’s Ambassador to Israel Pavan Kapoor.

On their way to Israel, Pandit’s ships demonstrated just that, helping a ship that was under attack by pirates off the coast of Somalia.

“They responded to a call and helped rescue a ship that was being taken hostage by pirates,” Kapoor said.

An Indian sailor stands guard aboard the INS Trishul, docked in the Haifa port for a visit, on May 10, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The INS Mumbai took the lead on the rescue mission, while the Trishul, a frigate, provided assistance by bringing in a helicopter, Pandit said. (The Aditya, a tanker, did not play much of a role in the operation.)

Before the Indian vessels reached Haifa, they took part in a small exercise with the Israeli Navy, Pandit said.

Once inside the port, the crewmen, who had spent weeks making the voyage from India, through the Suez Canal and into Israeli waters, were finally let off the ships.

“It has given immense happiness to me and all of my officers and men to be here in Haifa, to see the beautiful city,” Pandit said.

The Indian Navy band performs in a park in the northern city of Haifa, where three Indian ships are docked as part of an official visit, on March 9, 2017. (Reuven Cohen/Haifa Municipality)

The Indian Navy band performed in Haifa, while other sailors painted Tel Aviv red, visiting the city’s Gordon Beach and Jimmy Who bar.

“Everywhere we’ve gone, we’ve only received warmth and affection,” Pandit added.

In addition to holding professional powwows, the Indian sailors were also able to socialize with their Israeli counterparts through sports competitions, Roy said.

Sunil Kumar Roy, left, captain of the INS Mumbai speaks to a fellow officer on board his ship, which is docked in Haifa as part of an official visit by the Indian Navy on May 10, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

For some senior Indian officers, it wasn’t the first trip to Israel.

Roy, who has served in the Indian Navy for nearly 30 years, said he’d visited the Jewish state a year and a half ago, ahead of some tests of the Barak 8 system.

He recalled visiting the Yad Vashem national Holocaust memorial and proudly telling his tour guide that India is one of the only countries on Earth where the Jewish population was not persecuted.

Pandit didn’t say when the Indian Navy would next come to Israel, but joked that it might visit a bit farther south.

“I have been told by my Israeli friends that next time we need not come up the Suez Canal, but that we should come to Eilat since it’s a shorter way to Israel. The Israeli Navy is there too,” he said.

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