January 9, 2002


 Search the Internet
Send this page to a friend
Print this page Best Printed on HP Laserjets
Recent Columns
The Defence Budget:
     Lost opportunities
The sad tale of the LCA
Rewriting history
It's communications,
CDS - An idea before
     its time

Admiral (retd) J G Nadkarni

Our superiority will prevail

The rather lukewarm handshake between General Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee has failed to reduce both the tension and the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between India and Pakistan. With the armed forces of both countries fully prepared for action, even the slightest spark can result in a full-scale war.

Most people in India and even some of our top leaders naively believe that it is possible for India's forces to carry out a "quick surgical strike" against terrorist camps situated in Pakistan, a la the United States in Afghanistan and Israel in Palestine. They forget that no self-respecting country, which has the power and the military wherewithal to fight back, will allow such action against itself.

Pakistan is neither Afghanistan nor is it Grenada or Panama. Any strike by Indian forces will inevitably lead to a full-scale war between the two countries in which all the armed forces will be involved. In such an eventuality, what part will the Indian Navy play? What will be its strategy and its role?

We have just celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Indian naval action in the 1971 war. The navy really came of age in that war. It had three distinct achievements to its credit in 1971. Although the missile attack on Karachi received wide publicity, the navy's main achievement was less romantic but far more important.

The navy managed to keep the port of Bombay open throughout the 14-day war. This was indeed a major achievement because closing the port even for a day could have resulted in a major disruption in India's war effort. The Indian Navy not only managed to keep its own ports open, but was also able to bottle up the port of Karachi by undertaking its effective blockade. The two missile attacks on Karachi on December 4 and 8 ensured that no ship would be able to enter or leave that port.

The third achievement of the navy was to block all entry and exit routes to East Pakistan. Once again, with the help of the carrier Vikrant and her escorts, Chittagong and other harbours were effectively bottled up.

Nothing can take away from the outstanding performance of the Indian Navy in 1971. But the navy had considerable advantages during that war. There was a great deal of asymmetry in the opposing forces. The Indian Navy had received eight missile boats equipped with the deadly Styx missiles just a few months before the war. Pakistan may have known of the acquisition, but they seemed unaware of both the lethal power and the deadly accuracy of these missiles.

Further, they were caught off-guard by the innovative use of these missile boats in an offensive role by the Indian Navy. The navy was also fortunate that Pakistan did not have any viable air reconnaissance facility to give them adequate warning of Indian naval forces. Pakistan also failed to carry out any air strikes against Indian forces, which went quite close to Karachi.

During the past 30 years both sides have tried to learn from the errors and omissions of 1971. India has added considerably to its fleet of surface ships and submarines, both by indigenous construction and by acquisitions.

Today the Indian surface fleet is far stronger, both in quantity and quality, than the Pakistan Navy. Pakistan, as has been its practice in the past, has replaced its old second-hand ships with newer second-hand ships. But all of these ships have been retrofitted with the deadly Harpoon missile. Indeed, the Pakistan Navy has put the Harpoon not only on their surface ships but also in their submarines and maritime aircraft. The Harpoon is today, admittedly, the world's most sophisticated and lethal missile and will pose the maximum threat to the Indian Navy.

On paper at least, the Indian Navy has a three-to-one superiority over the Pakistan Navy. But it must be remembered that the navy has to defend a much larger area than Pakistan. Its resources are divided between the East Coast and the West Coast and it is difficult and not advisable to concentrate all its fleet against Pakistan. The navy also has considerable superiority in missiles and missile boats.

Although ships and weapons change over the years, the basic role of navies in war remains the same. The Indian Navy's role in any future war with Pakistan will also be similar to that which obtained in 1971. Both countries depend heavily on the world for everything from oil to armaments. Furthermore, the world's only superpower, the United States, and other powers like China and Russia have a considerable stake in ensuring peace in this area. It is thus most unlikely that these powers will allow both countries the luxury of a long-drawn-out war. They will ensure that the war will be halted after two weeks after both countries' honour and ego are satisfied.

In such a short war only the land war is of any consequence. The period is too short for any naval strategy or action to have a decisive effect on the overall outcome. In these circumstances, the naval wars between India and Pakistan tend to become wars of morale. The idea is to inflict maximum punishment on the territory and ships of the other.

Being the superior naval power, the Indian Navy is likely to follow the classic strategy of sea control over the Arabian Sea. Sea control will necessarily mean that Indian ships, both naval and commercial, will be free to ply the seas for various purposes. An obvious corollary is that the same sea will be denied to Pakistani ships.

A blockade of Karachi is an obvious possibility, though the forces that ensure the blockade will have to be a little more distant than in 1971. The Indian Navy will also try to ensure that no Indian port remains closed during the war.

This will require instilling confidence on the large number of ships belonging to neutral countries, which trade with India. Oil will be a vital necessity and the navy will have to ensure that India's lifeline is not severed by enemy elements.

Bombarding each other's harbours and ports is a favourite tactic of both navies. In 1965, Pakistani naval ships bombarded Dwarka. Although the shells landed harmlessly on the beach and caused little damage, it was a considerable morale-booster for the Pakistani Navy.

In 1971, the Indians got their revenge by attacking Karachi with missiles, which resulted in the blowing up of fuel tanks at Kiamari. With considerable increase in detection and attack capabilities on both sides over the past 30 years, it will be difficult for surface ships to carry out attacks against shore targets without suffering collateral damage.

But both sides now have submarines armed with missiles and one cannot rule out submarines attacking Mumbai or Karachi with missiles. A missile on Mumbai can hardly cause much damage, but Pakistan can gain considerable propaganda advantage by undertaking such an attack.

Submarines on both sides will play a considerable role in any future war. With its hydrological conditions which invariably favour the submarine, the Arabian Sea is a paradise for subs and both sides are likely to use this type of warfare to the maximum. The main strategy of each side will be not to provide easy targets to the other.

To conclude, the Indian Navy is most likely to continue with the prescription that served it so well in the past. It will have tougher opposition than in 1971, but in the long run its superiority will prevail.

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

Tell us what you think of this column