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August 5, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend General Ashok K Mehta

The silent sentinel

During the three-month long war in Kargil hardly a word was said about the role of the Indian navy. In truth the Kargil campaign was a tri-service war. The IN lived up to its name of being the silent service. It lay in wait in the North Arabian Sea posing a strategic deterrent to Pakistan.

Given its experience in 1965, when almost the entire naval fleet was deployed in the Bay of Bengal, the IN was taking no chances this time. Just four ships were on the western sea board when on September 8, 1965, the Pakistan navy in a prophylactic attack struck at Dwarka. Fortunately no damage was caused. However, PN celebrates September 8 as Victory Day.

Once Pakistan floated the Kargil balloon it was jointly decided by the three services that the maritime fleet be poised off the west coast to act as a strategic counterweight to any Pakistani naval misadventure along the 1965 pattern.

At this time of the year, the IN carries out joint exercises of both its fleets. The war games, though planned for the Bay of Bengal, were switched to the Arabian Sea this year. These collective signals were read by Admiral Fasi Bukhari, Chief of Naval Staff, PN. He is reported to have remarked that Pakistan's already badgered economy could be throttled in a war scenario.

Although the western naval fleet is adequate to deal with PN -- force and capability ratio is seven-to-one in India's favour -- the eastern naval fleet was diverted to the west and placed under overall command of the Commander-in-Chief Western Command to deal with any maritime threat by Pakistan to India's strategic offshore assets. Surveillance by Tu 142 and Tu 138 maritime aircraft were stepped up.

As the aircraft carrier is in the wet docks for refitting, Virat-based Harriers had to operate from airfields onshore. From its forward-deployed locations the IN was prepared to execute its operational tasks -- exercise maritime superiority, neutralise the PN and carry out interdiction of sea lanes.

It is not well known that Pakistan's economic survival depends on its oil and trade flow over the sea lanes which are its lifelines. Pakistan has just three oil refineries, the main ones at Karachi and Rawalpindi. While India has several state-owned tankers, Pakistan has merely one. Therefore, foreign-flag vessels have to be requisitioned by Pakistan. India enjoys much greater autonomy in sea transit and transportation than Pakistan.

For Pakistan the situation is made more vulnerable as there are only two ports -- Karachi and Quasim -- which can handle tankers. Its strategic reserves of oil and petroleum storage capacity for civil and military usage is limited to seven days. India, on the other hand, has much larger reserves and storage capacity to handle civil and military need-based demands in a ratio of 15 to 1. In Pakistan the military and civil demand is a high of one to one. Nearly 80 per cent of Pakistan's oil and petroleum products flow from the Gulf.

In operational terms, the eastern naval fleet was deployed to cover Pakistani shipping lanes from the Gulf to its ports. PN flew its maritime aircraft and once the scale and span of deployment sank in, it went into a defensive mode, warning its vessels to steer clear of the IN. What is more, it began escorting its tankers destined for Karachi.

A Pakistani columnist writing for The Saudi Gazette reported that the IN was poised to lay a naval blockade against Pakistan, if necessary, to force withdrawal from Kargil. By lying in wait across Pakistan's soft underbelly with the combined might of both its fleet, the IN was all keyed up to strike, had the conflict spilled beyond Kargil. Springing a naval blockade like the Cuban blockade in 1962 is an act of war.

Deciphering a war-like act on the high seas is an extremely complex business. Although the navy enjoys extreme flexibility and versatility, the Rules of Engagement have to be interpreted with great sensitivity and despatch. The RoE were cleared by the Cabinet Committee for Security. The rapid deployment of maritime resources including the Coast Guard had multiple spin-offs: it deterred Pakistan from escalating the conflict and augmented the strategic pressure point of the air-land campaign. But what was most worrying for Pakistan was the threat of a naval blockade.

What else did the silent service do? It flew over Kargil its ECM and ECCM (Electronic Warfare)-fitted Dornier aircraft in support of the campaign besides providing several teams of marine commandos. Some of these commandos have been operating on the Wullar lake in Srinagar for quite some time now.

For PN, the strategic warning at sea was clear: do not escalate, climb down Kargil. There are immediate and long-term lessons from the navy's preventive deployment in the high seas. It has reinforced Pakistan's vulnerability to interdiction of its sea lanes and a blockade of Karachi. The need to modernise the IN's sea denial and domination capability stands out.

During the course of the Kargil conflict, Pakistan had tried to blackmail India with the nuclear threat. Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sushil Kumar had responded that IN was prepared to meet any threat including nuclear. The reference was to nuclear biological and chemical defensive measures. The nuclear profile of the IN will manifest once the Advance Technology Vehicle project is fully restored. An assured second strike capability for India's minimum nuclear deterrent rests with the future of the ATV project.

A key lesson from the navy's strategic role in the Arabian Sea which helped defeat the aggression in Kargil is that despite the Bhagwat episode, the IN is back to being a professional force with high morale.

By contrast the Pakistan navy has been advised by The Dawn columnist Ayaz Amir, to provide its best naval cruiser so that all the models of Shaheen and Ghauri missiles can be packed on board and dumped into the waters of the Arabian Sea.

Major General Ashok K Mehta

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