Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd)
To most sea-power advocates, whose pleas have, for decades, been falling on deaf ears, it seemed ironic that the events of May 2020 in the icy Himalayan wastes should have focused the nation’s attention on the maritime domain. To use a hackneyed idiom, chronic ‘sea-blindness’ amongst our decision-makers has been the bane of the Indian Navy (IN) and has served to stunt its growth since Independence. Even as our attention is currently engaged in predicting outcomes on our northern borders and in the waters of the Indo-Pacific, a look back at the 1971 Bangladesh conflict may be useful.
While the 1947 and 1962 conflicts had lacked a maritime dimension, the 1965 Indo-Pak war saw the IN discomfited by an unreasoned government directive not to initiate any offensive action at sea, nor to permit its units north of Kathiawar. To add to the Navy’s woes, a Pakistan Navy (PN) task force bombarded the coastal town of Dwarka, and retired with impunity, leaving a psychological scar on the IN. However, just years later, the Indian subcontinent was again engulfed in a conflict, providing the IN another chance to vindicate itself.
In early 1971, Pakistan, riven by political and ethnic differences between its Punjabi-dominated western wing and its Bengali eastern wing, descended into civil war, triggering a massive exodus of East Pakistani refugees into India, creating a social and economic crisis for India. The cynical American duo of President Nixon and his Chief of Staff, Henry Kissinger, not only lent full support to Pakistan’s military rulers, but also egged on China to create military diversions for India. It was under these circumstances that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in consultation with her military commanders, crafted a grand strategy which would halt the Pakistan army’s murderous rampage and reverse the refugee influx.
The IN, still smarting from the ignominy of inaction in 1965, ensured that it had an important role to play in the coming conflict. The Service was truly blooded during the Bangladesh war, in which an imaginative leadership boldly employed the full range of maritime capabilities.
While the heroic exploits of our sailors will be recounted elsewhere, here are a few defining events that not only encapsulated the significant maritime contribution to this conflict, but also highlighted some serious shortcomings of the IN:
- The deployment of small Soviet-built missile boats on the high seas and use of radar-homing missiles which devastated ships and shore targets in Karachi were, undoubtedly, a demonstration of IN ingenuity and innovation.
- The sinking of merchant shipping in Karachi, and the consequent stoppage of all shipping traffic to and from West Pakistan, highlighted the importance of trade warfare.
- Deployment of aircraft-carrier INS Vikrant to blockade East Pakistan was a gamble which paid off handsomely. Vikrant’s air squadrons wreaked havoc on airfields, ports, harbours and riverine traffic in East Pakistan, expediting the surrender of Pakistani forces. This reinforced the Navy’s faith in tactical air power; if a small carrier with old aircraft could achieve this, ran the Navy reasoning, imagine what a bigger carrier could achieve.
- The sinking of PN submarine Ghazi off Visakhapatnam and torpedoing of the frigate INS Khukri by the PNS Hungor were both replete with lessons in submarine operations as well as anti-submarine warfare (ASW) tactics.
- The fact that the 3,500-km transit of PNS Ghazi from Karachi to Visakhapatnam and the prolonged presence of PNS Hungor off our west coast remained undetected, was a reflection on airborne ASW and maritime reconnaissance capabilities; so far, the IAF’s bailiwick.
- A botched landing of troops by LSTs near Cox Bazaar revealed grave shortcomings in amphibious training and inter-Service cooperation. While a Chinese diversionary attack, despite active encouragement by Nixon, failed to materialise, the actual intervention, on behalf of Pakistan came from an unexpected quarter: the USA. A task force led by nuclear carrier USS Enterprise entered the Bay of Bengal to warn India off West Pakistan. It turned out to be a futile gesture, but provided a lesson to India in coercive realpolitik; reinforcing the case for a strong sea-denial capability to insulate the nation against foreign interference.
This war saw the IN employing the full gamut of its maritime capabilities, including missile warfare, carrier operations, submarine and anti-submarine warfare, trade warfare, amphibious operations, shore bombardment, special operations, and mine counter-measures. It was, fondly, hoped that the IN contribution to the 1971 victory would stamp, indelibly, on the minds of India’s decision-makers the vital role that maritime power could play in India’s security matrix. That this did not happen has been amply demonstrated by the Navy’s dwindling share of the defence budget over the past 50 years.
The nature of warfare has, no doubt, transformed since 1971. However, given the reality that the growing Chinese military pressure in the north, coupled with a steady naval build-up in the Indo-Pacific, could have ominous security implications for India, perhaps some lessons of the past will be useful.
The writer is former Navy Chief