In their heyday of empire building the British consolidated their possessions by the gun power of the Royal Navy. Being essentially a trading nation, they shipped raw materials from the colonies to industries located in the mother country and brought the finished goods back to the protected consumer markets of their overseas possessions. The navy protected the right of way of merchant shipping on the high seas and defended the colonial coastland and attendant naval bases from hostile seaward invasion. The prevalent slogan was “Britannia rules the waves.” This island power had created formidable naval strength before and in the Second World War.
The Japanese threat of invading India, including naval landings, loomed large in this war. To ward off this threat, the British raised the Indian Navy as an auxiliary force comprising small vessels mainly meant for patrolling Indian coastal waters and for close defence of major Indian seaports. Most officers as well as NCOs were drawn from the merchant navy, and ratings through open recruitment. Some Indian naval craft saw action in Burmese waters off the Arakan coast against the Japanese and had odd encounters in the Persian Gulf on escort duty with credit.
Indian merchant shipping tonnage was kept low so as to protect British shipping from competition. Fishing craft were mainly confined to sailing vessels incapable of a hazardous journey on the high seas. India, whose commerce had once flourished in Southeast Asia and African countries, was made dependent for its overseas trade on British shipping. With the emergence of the Indian Navy as a separate service, the pace was now set for it to shoulder increasingly greater responsibility for defence along with New Zealand and Australia, especially in the Far East, in view of the costlier turnround of shipping from Britain itself. An increase in the manpower of the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) was very much in the offing after the end of the Second World War.
To ward off this threat, the British raised the Indian Navy as an auxiliary force comprising small vessels mainly meant for patrolling Indian coastal waters and for close defence of major Indian seaports.
But the mutiny in the naval establishments in Bombay and Karachi in February 1947 gave the British second thoughts, and as a result drastic cuts in naval strength were ordered on one excuse or the other. This reduction would have proceeded at a much faster pace but for the timely intervention of the Interim National Government which had been installed by then.
The partition of the country in the wake of independence saw the division of RIN in the rough proportion of two to one between India and Pakistan. India’s share came to some 32 light vessels against approximately 16 for Pakistan, with some dock repair facilities in Bombay. The Indian flotilla was an odd collection comprising four sloops, two frigates, one corvette, 12 minesweepers, four trawlers, four motor launches and a survey ship, all manned by some 1,000 officers and 10,000 ratings. As the names and roles of these ships signify, they were only meant to support larger fighting ships in coastal waters, in mined stretches, and to perform other odd jobs as mere “maidservants” to a bigger master. But on its own it was an unbalanced force.
The National Government had many urgent problems arising out of partition on its hands and had no time for far-reaching decisions regarding the size and shape of the Indian Navy. Lord Louis Mountbatten, the first Governor-General of India and himself a sailor, had considerable influence with Nehru and was responsible for laying the keel for the growth of the Indian Navy. Since nobody at the decision-making level knew anything about sea power, he brought a Briton, Vice-Admiral WE Parry, to advise on and formulate a proper naval development program.
Indian merchant shipping tonnage was kept low so as to protect British shipping from competition.
With increasing industrialization, he expected the expansion of India’s overseas trade, and with that the size of its merchant shipping fleet. To ensure the freedom of the seas to Indian shipping in the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal, he wanted the planned growth of the Indian Navy to be developed and scheduled to achieve his aim. Such a strategic role necessitated all the ingredients of naval power-maritime reconnaissance, a strike force of aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers, escort vessels, local flotillas to safeguard base areas and so on. India had neither the resources nor the immediate requirement to go in for such elaborate sea power status in one go, but plans could certainly have been formulated on a long range basis to create the necessary infrastructure to fulfill Nehru’s dream.
Unfortunately, the politicians and bureaucrats set about achieving it the wrong way. Considering that the development of naval power was a long term process requiring the help and cooperation of an established navy, they hitched their wagon to Britain, a declining power, and thus reduced the Indian Navy to a junkyard of British discards for a decade and a half. Given a little courage and dare, India should have been able to secure some powerful warships from German and Japanese war reparations for a nominal price. It would have been preferable to mothball some vessels for lack of trained manpower rather than spend manifold sums later, which India eventually did.
The Parry plan proposed a ten-year expansion program about the end of 1947. It envisaged complete Indianization as soon as practicable, which was consistent with the declared policy of the Government, and the eventual creation of a task force comprising two fleet aircraft carriers, three cruisers, eight to nine destroyers and the necessary support vessels. This force level was supposed to have an inbuilt capacity for expansion in the event of war. Although primarily designed for a defensive role, it could be called upon to carry out-offensive tasks in the Indian Ocean. The specific roles visualized for it in warfare were defined sometime in March 1949 as the protection of merchant convoys, assistance to the Army in amphibious operations, and offensive operations against enemy ports and installations.
China was still fighting the last stages of its civil war and was too geographically remote and preoccupied with its own problems to count as a significant sea threat. Under the circumstances, it would have been prudent to emphasize the establishment of the essential infrastructure in the way of bases, refueling and repair facilities, establishment of shipbuilding yards, installation of communication networks, suitably located to serve both the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.