August 23, 2001


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Admiral (retd) J G Nadkarni

Pearl Harbour -- no, not the movie

Pearl Harbor is a mess -- the movie, that is. By imposing a love story on top of dramatic events of the past, historical facts become the first victims. Senior participants in the events end up as caricatures, lost amidst the spectacular, but now familiar, super explosions which seem to puncture every movie. What next? What about Robert Clive and his Indian girl friend in opposite camps in the Battle of Plassey? Or a Maratha warrior falling in love with a girl amongst Abdali's followers at Panipat?

The actual story of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour has enough drama and suspense in it to provide material for six movies. Meticulously planned and boldly executed, the pre-emptive attack wiped out the American battle fleet at Pearl Harbour in one swift stroke. It brought the United States of America into the Second World War, which eventually led to the defeat of the Axis powers -- Germany, Italy and Japan.

This year is the sixtieth anniversary of Pearl Harbour. It is also the thirtieth anniversary of India's 1971 victory over Pakistan. Both these events are connected, albeit in a tenuous way.

To the Indian Navy, Pearl Harbour is important in many ways. It dramatically demonstrated the reach and power of carrier-based aircraft.

Aircraft carriers, in a crude way, had been around since 1914. However, it was only during the early years of the Second World War that their full capabilities became obvious. The losses of merchant ships in the Atlantic convoys due to submarine attacks fell dramatically once makeshift flattops were integrated into the escort forces. Carrier planes were also used to attack the Italian fleet at Taranto. However, the carriers really came into their own after the Japanese used them to such advantage at Pearl Harbour.

Pearl Harbour and the first six months of 1942 saw many actions involving carrier-based aircraft, which changed the total nature of warfare at sea. The attack on the unsuspecting American fleet at Pearl Harbour on a Sunday morning in December was the brainchild of Admiral Isoruko Yamamoto, commander-in-chief of the Japanese navy.

Yamamoto's inspiration was Admiral Togo, dubbed the 'Nelson of Japan'. Thirty-seven years earlier, Togo in a brilliant move had pre-emptively attacked the Russian fleet at Port Arthur, wiping out most of its major ships. Next year, at the Battle of Tsushima, Togo scored a massive victory over the Russian Baltic fleet, which was sent by the tsar to exact revenge.

If only the American admirals had made a study of Togo's methods! Yamamoto planned to attack the American warships at Pearl Harbour to gain naval supremacy in the Pacific. Six Japanese carriers sailed from a northern Japanese port and after taking a northern route to avoid detection launched the strike in two waves at 8am.

The Japanese attack came as a total surprise and caught the US battleships with their guard down. In one swift stroke the entire battle fleet was sunk or severely damaged. Obviously, Pearl Harbour would not have been possible without carrier-borne aircraft.

Fortunately, by a quirk of fate America's own carriers were out at sea and escaped unscathed. This was a decisive factor in sea battles during the next six months. Just three days later, another lesson in modern warfare at sea was driven home. To bolster defences in the east, Churchill had dispatched the mighty battleships, HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales to Singapore. Hearing of some Japanese troop movements, the two battleships had made a sortie out to sea. They had no air cover, but the admiral had been assured of air support by the Royal Air Force. Japanese shore-based aircraft taking off from Indochina carried out air attacks on the two ships. Both went to the bottom in a matter of 20 minutes. The Royal Air Force aircraft arrived too late, only to see the two battleships go down.

During the next six months Japanese carriers were invincible with no opposition to speak of. They even forayed into the Bay of Bengal, bombing Calcutta and Visakhapatnam and sinking some ships in Trincomalee.

But the Japanese triumph was short-lived. In an act of defiance, land-based B-25 bombers, embarked on the carrier Hornet, took off at a range of 670 miles and attacked Tokyo before going on to China to land. Once more an action which was made possible by aircraft carriers!

In two decisive battles, just six months after Pearl Harbour, the Japanese suffered major losses at Coral Sea and Midway. At Coral Sea they lost a carrier while two were damaged. At Midway they lost four of their prime carriers and were never the same force at sea afterwards.

At Tsushima, 40 years earlier, ships had fought at ranges of 5,000 yards. At Coral Sea and Midway, for the first time, opposing forces never saw each other. The nature of warfare had changed.

Pearl Harbour and the events during the next half-year established a number of tenets of modern warfare. First, carrier-based aviation had proved its worth. The battleship as the main weapon of naval warfare was finished. In fact, no nation ever built a battleship after 1942 (although those under construction were completed).

Second, the need for an in-house air capability to defend a fleet at sea was established. The main weapon for establishing control at sea would hereafter be the aircraft carrier. Unfortunately, these lessons were lost on the hardliners of the air force, who still believe in the myth that shore-based aircraft can defend fleets at sea!

The carrier was also able to demonstrate the reach of a naval force. With the introduction of the logistic fleet train and nuclear-powered carriers, that reach would soon encompass the globe. In the Gulf War of 1991, the carriers off the Gulf were operating from bases in the United States.

All these lessons were, of course, not lost on the leaders of the Indian Navy. It became obvious that in any future action with Pakistan, to protect its sea-borne trade, the Indian Navy would have to establish control over the Arabian Sea. The force that would establish that control would be built around an aircraft carrier.

This strategic concept resulted in India acquiring its first carrier, the Vikrant, in 1961. She was to prove her worth in 1971 by dominating the approaches to Chittagong and blockading East Pakistan. Subsequently, in 1987 the country acquired the second carrier, the Viraat.

Ironically, the acquisition of a carrier by India may have unwittingly led to the naval arms race between India and Pakistan, which continues to this day. Traditionally strong maritime countries, especially those who depend on the sea for trade, follow the strategy of sea control while weak nations follow the strategy of sea denial. The classic weapon for sea control is the aircraft carrier; that for sea denial is the submarine.

When India acquired its first carrier, Pakistan adopted the sea-denial weapon. With American assistance, Pakistan acquired its first submarine in 1965. India followed suit with a submarine arm of its own in 1967.

The battle of acquisitions has grown more furious and costlier since then. Pakistan augmented its submarine fleet by acquiring four more French-built subs in the 1970s and three more in the nineties at a cost of Rs 4,500 crore. India countered by going Soviet. They started the submarine arm by getting eight Soviet Foxtrot-class and another eight Kilo-class submarines. In addition four German HDW subs were built.

India is now mulling over the purchase of the 15-year-old Soviet carrier Admiral Gorshkov at a cost of nearly Rs 6,000 crore. On the 60th and 30th anniversaries of Pearl Harbour and the 1971 war, this December, it might be useful to think over what carriers built at one hundredth the cost of the Gorshkov were able to achieve in those far-off days.

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

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