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March 31, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

The Russian connection

President Bill Clinton's visit to India brings to mind the infamous American tilt towards Pakistan 30 years ago. Everyone is aware of how the US favoured Pakistan in those days. Yet, not many realise that partly, as a result of its lopsided policy, the US not only helped India win the naval war of 1971, but also helped its armed forces to become the most powerful in South Asia.

Even after independence, British influence on India's armed forces continued for many years. The Indian Navy continued to look to Britain for support and inspiration. The first four commanders-in-chief of the Indian Navy were Royal Navy officers and so were the fleet commanders. Most of the navy's senior officers had been trained in the United Kingdom with the Royal Navy. Not surprisingly, the ships and equipment were all British.

During the first 15 years after independence, the Indian Navy had received two cruisers, six destroyers and one aircraft carrier from the Royal Navy's 'on disposal' stock. Under the influence of the British C-in-Cs, India had placed orders for eight new frigates from the Royal Navy. In 1964, when the time came to decide on the first frigate to be constructed in India, the choice inevitably fell on the British Leander class frigate.

Thus until the early sixties, the Indian Navy was more or less an extension of the Royal Navy. Each year, the IN along with the Royal Navy, the Pakistan Navy and other Commonwealth navies, held joint exercises at Trincomalee, an erstwhile British naval base in Sri Lanka.

The entire minutes was pro-West. Officers habitually referred to Britain as 'back home.' The Indian Navy was rudely shaken out of this cozy relationship in 1964. It was extremely keen to build a submarine arm. A few Indian officers had received training in submarines with the Royal Navy and it was always assumed that when the time came to induct submarines in the Indian Navy, the British would help. The United States had already supplied a World War II submarine to Pakistan.

However, the US made it amply clear to Defence Minister Y B Chavan during his visit to that country that any military assistance to India was out of the question. When India went to Britain with its request for submarines and ships, both the Conservative government as well as Harold Wilson's Labour government, under American pressure, flatly turned down the Indian request.

This was at the height of the Cold War. Throughout the fifties and early sixties, the Soviets had kept up a steady pressure on Indian leaders, offering the armed forces anything and everything they wished to buy. The Indian Navy had resisted this pressure with the argument that all its ships were of British origin, its depots full of British spares, its manpower British-trained and its dockyards equipped to refit British ships.

The refusal of the United States and Britain to supply any more military equipment to India swept the ground from beneath the Navy's feet. There were no further excuses left to refuse Soviet equipment. On September 1, 1965, the first of the many historic documents was signed in the Soviet Union. The Indian Navy received four Foxtrot class submarines, five Petya class patrol vessels, two Polish landing ships and some patrol boats. India's Russia connection had started. It has endured for over 35 years.

Subsequently, in 1971, India received the first of its missile equipped vessels in the form of eight Osa class missile boats, each carrying four P-15 missiles. The acquisition of the missile boats was inspired by the sinking of the Israeli destroyer Eilath by Egyptian (Soviet-built) Komar class boats in June 1967.

The missile boats arrived in India just in time to take part in the 1971 war and were used to carry out the famous attacks on Karachi harbour on 4th and 8th December, which resulted in the sinking of two Pakistani warships and damage to oil installations ashore. The missile boats helped the Navy score a resounding naval victory over Pakistan.

Thus, a major political blunder by the United States in 1964 helped India forge an enduring military relationship with the Soviet Union which has even withstood the latter's breakup. The Russian connection enabled the Indian Navy to acquire a large number of ships, submarines and aircraft over the years. The naval cooperation did not end with the purchase of ships and submarines.

The Soviets assisted the Navy in setting up repair facilities, including a major naval dockyard at Visakhapatnam. Soviet designers were also on hand to assist when the Naval Design Bureau decided to design our own frigates. The culmination of the Russia connection was the acquisition by the Navy of a Soviet nuclear submarine on lease for three years. The relationship has evolved over the years.

In the early years, both sides treated each other with suspicion. The Soviets made clear from the beginning that they were doing India a great favour and that the Indian Navy would have to adapt to their methods of business. Unlike in Western countries, Indian overseers were not allowed to supervise the construction of their acquisitions at the building sites.

This, at times, lead to suspicion that the Soviets were passing off second hand ships from their fleet. Their take-it-or-leave-it attitude eventually softened and Indian teams were allowed on-board during trials. The Soviets even agreed to some modifications to the ships to suit Indian conditions.

In the beginning, the Indian training crews had to undergo a great deal of hardship. The training was carried out on an inhospitable island near Vladivostok. The living conditions were primitive. There were crude attempts to indoctrinate Indian crews during training. These were terminated when the Indian officers protested. Naval officers also had to get used to the Soviet method of doing things and to the Soviet bureaucracy, which is, if such a thing is possible, worse than the Indian bureaucracy.

For example, the Soviets wanted requirement of spare parts to be intimated to them planning for a five-year period, so that it could be dovetailed into their five year plans!

What were the Soviet ships like?

Used to British technology, we were brought up to believe that the Soviet Union was clueless in the art of warship building. However, the Soviet ships came as a pleasant surprise. In many respects, the Soviet technology was ahead of the British. They were at least ten years ahead of the West in missile technology. In ship propulsion too, they had advanced considerably, both in diesel propulsion and gas turbines. They had fitted gas turbines in their ships long before these made their appearance in Western ships. They had good radar, sonar and EW equipment.

On the other hand, Soviet ships were poor in habitability. They believed in cramming the maximum amount of equipment in their hulls sacrificing living conditions. The small Petya, for example, had far more equipment than the Leander class frigate, which was twice its size. The Soviet ships and submarines were far less sophisticated than their Western counterparts. In this respect, whereas the Western ships were the Hondas and Toyotas among warships, the Soviet ones were the Ambassadors. But then, when one wants to go from Bombay to Delhi, an Ambassador will do just as well. Besides, it costs one quarter the price of a Honda.

In later years, some inexperienced reporters as well as the babus of the Auditor General castigated the decision-makers for purchasing Soviet ships and submarines. Little do they know about the conditions and the environment in those early days. To start with, both the Indian government and the Indian Navy were starved of money for purchases. The West either refused to sell equipment or the prices of their ships were exorbitant.

On the other hand, Soviet prices were not only way below international prices but they agreed to accept payments over a period of fifteen years. The Rajput class ships cost the Navy only Rs 80 crore each when the international price of such ships was about Rs 500 crore.

In the final analysis, India's Russia connection has enabled its Navy to become a potent blue water force at minimal cost. Thanks to the induction of Russian warships in the 70s and 80s, India could boast of a fleet of over 100 warships by 1988 when the President's review of the Indian Navy made the Time magazine cover.

Part II: The charm of the Russian connection has gone forever

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd), former chief of the naval staff, is a frequent contributor to these pages.

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

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