Military & Aerospace

1971 War: The Navy in War-I
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He (Nehru) felt that India, by virtue of its location, potential wealth and vast population, should play a dominant role in the Indian Ocean region.

It was appreciated that the Pakistan Navy could manage no more than one bold foray from the Karachi fleet against Indian coastal shipping, and perhaps a short bombardment of some west coast city. But afterwards, pursued by superior Indian naval strength, it would be bottled up in Karachi under constant attack from Indian carrier-borne and land based air attacks until the outcome of the land battle. The security of India’s merchant shipping presented no serious problem, as the small number of Indian registered vessels would so mingle with the flag carriers of other nations in the busy sea lanes that it would be difficult to pick them out singly without incurring the hostility of other nations. And in any event the bulk of our foreign trade and oil imports from the Persian Gulf was carried in foreign bottoms.

Oversimplification of the contingency task against a weak Pakistan Navy had however generated a complacent attitude regarding priorities for the Indian Navy so far as allocation of fiscal resources was concerned. Most Indian naval vessels were of World War II vintage and needed a well-planned and continuous refitting program, which if delayed would seriously affect the war worthiness of the Indian fleet. Inadequate docking and repair facilities, aside from Bombay and Cochin, seriously curtailed the fleet’s capability to sustain naval operations in the Bay of Bengal.

The sluggish flow of spare parts in the pipeline, which was constantly interfered with or cut off by lack of funds or diplomatic reasons, had seriously affected the fleet’s serviceability. The cruiser Delhi, although refitted in 1955, had very little operational life and rarely left harbor even in its training capacity. The three R class destroyers and three H class frigates were obsolete as their detection systems were not capable of tracking modern submarines, much less nuclear-powered ones. The cruiser Mysore was outclassed by similar ships in service in the region with the Indonesian and Iranian navies.

Indian_Navy_2But the Indian fleet was however still capable of holding its own against Pakistan, a fact which was over publicized for the consumption of the Indian layman. The Chinese invasion of India in 1962 consisted mainly of local army actions in NEFA and Ladakh and did not encompass the Air Force and the Navy. Although these operations were very limited in nature, they brought into focus the glaring voids in India’s defences. Shedding the garb of neutrality, the Government thereupon launched a defence buildup with the help of the Western powers, notably the US and Britain.Since the potential Chinese threat was mainly on the Himalayan frontier, the accent and priority of this program were on organizing and equipping land armies to hold the mountain passes, with some offensive capability, and to organize air defence on a proper footing. The US advisory group on military aid did not give much thought to revamping the Indian Navy as the Chinese naval threat was marginal. The Chinese were concentrating their efforts on increasing the submarine strength of their navy.

Until 1952, all naval officers were sent to Britain for training , but by 1955 India has created adequate training facilities to meet most of the Navys basic needs.

In the event of future conflict, there was a possibility of Chinese submarines carrying out forays from bases provided in erstwhile East Pakistan, but this too was marginal and distant. As a result of this assessment by India’s decision-makers in defence matters, the Navy was passed over to attend to other pressing priorities. The obsolescent fleet of World War II vintage continued to keep its keels intact in Indian waters, but otherwise its war potential was known to be a diminishing asset.

It is an amazing fact that between the Chinese invasion of 1962 and the Indo-Pakistani conflict of 1965, the naval chiefs and admirals went to sleep, accepting the finality of higher decisions without protest. A little leak of shortcomings to a public whose anger had been roused would have redressed matters, but the admirals preferred the path of acquiescence and the country suffered as a consequence in the next conflict. At the outbreak of hostilities in 1965, our warships had just returned from the east coast and were re-servicing. The Vikrant, the mainstay of the naval strike element, was undergoing repairs in dry dock and in no position to take to the sea at short notice.

In his book Twenty Two Fateful Days, DR Mankekar commented that “the Indian Navy was caught napping by this unexpected attack.” The attack was however by no means unexpected. The conflict started with the Pakistani incursions in the Rann of Kutch on 9 April 1965, followed by large-scale Pakistani-sponsored infiltration by raiders into Jammu and’ Kashmir in early August. The struggle to block the infiltration routes across the ceasefire line started soon after and mounted to brigade-sized but isolated operations. On 1 September, Pakistan launched a divisional attack in the Chhamb sector, which India countered by invading West Pakistan on 6 September.

Book_India_wars_sinceIt is inconceivable how the shadows of the gathering storm eluded the notice of the Chief of the Indian Naval Staff and his admirals, and how the inbuilt systems of the Indian higher direction of war allowed such a calamitous lapse to occur. The Defence Ministry, the Chiefs of Staff Committee and the top naval brass must bear the blame for such callous neglect of the Navy’s preparedness for the oncoming conflict.


  1. Asian Recorder, Vol II, “Aircraft Carrier Vikrant Commissioned,” p. 3865.
  2. Asian Recorder, Vol VIII, No 37, p. 4152.

Fazal Muqeem remarked in Pakistan’s Crisis in Leadership, that the Indian Navy was taken completely by surprise, and was not prepared to seek an engagement at sea with a much weaker opponent.” Little did he know that the Indian Navy, thanks to its admirals, was not in a position to take to the sea, let alone seek an engagement. As a result, a Pakistani naval flotilla approached Dwarka, a small fishing port on the Saurashtra coast, and standing off at a distance took a pot shot at an abandoned World War II radar installation and damaged a country fishing boat.

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The American-gifted submarine Ghazi prowled in and around Bombay harbor without indulging in any warlike activities. As the conflict progressed, some antisubmarine frigates were able to chase the Ghazi back to its lair in Karachi harbor. In fact, one may ask why the Pakistan navy did not make better use of the opportunities offered by the absence of challenge in Indian waters. The Pakistan Navy claimed to have sunk an Indian frigate on 22 September 1965 somewhere off the Baluchistan coast. The target later turned out to be two frigates of the Iranian Navy.

INS-KalapaniAlthough no official inquiry was held to assess the performance of the armed forces and highlighting the shortcomings in the conduct of the 1965 war, it appeared that some lessons had gone home. The Indian Navy received immediate attention in the way of allocation of funds and the replacement of its obsolescent fleet. After the Tashkent Agreement the Soviet Union emerged as a major source of war supplies. A concerted effort was therefore made to revamp the Indian Navy with Russian aid.By 1971 the Navy had acquired a fleet of new anti-submarines, a few minesweepers and some Ossa missile boats along with a large number of patrol boat Apart from modernizing its fleet, the Indian Navy set about rationalizing its command and control and establishing the necessary infrastructure to improve its administrative and communication base so as to enhance its operational capability. Three operational naval commands were established: Western Naval Command at Bombay to look after the northern portion of the Arabian Sea; Southern Naval Command at Cochin, apart from looking after the training establishments there, was responsible for the southern half of the Arabian Sea up to the southern tip of the Indian landmass; and Eastern Naval Command at Vishakhapatnam was primarily responsible for operations in the Bay of Bengal.

The threat from China, although developing fast on the land frontier, had not much potential in the Indian Ocean.

Task forces, composed of a mixture of warships, depending upon the operational requirements of the time, were to be allotted to the naval commands to carry out the tasks allotted to them in their respective areas of responsibility. In addition, extensive facilities were created at other seaports along the Kathiawar coast and in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands which would provide advance bases for the naval task forces, as also to act as dispersal areas against air and submarine attacks. A maritime air command was also established close to Western Naval Command to coordinate the operations of maritime reconnaissance and other close offensive air efforts in support of naval operations.

Three Constellations of Air India, fitted with surveillance radar and other detection equipment, were allotted for reconnaissance tasks. Although these aircraft had the requisite range, they were not armed to take an offensive action once a surface or under-surface craft was sighted. The only action possible for them was to relay siting information.

In any case, these aircraft, essentially meant for civilian use, were a poor substitute for modern types of long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft. Close air support was to be provided, apart from the fleet air arm, by IAF from airfields located along the coast to provide deep cover over our waters. The air effort was to be made available in quantity and quality, depending upon operational requirements. A few months before the Indo-Pakistani conflict of 1971, a dozen-odd Seaking helicopters were bought from Britain to further enhance the Navy’s anti-submarine capability. Admiral SM Nanda, Chief of Naval Staff, possessed a bulky body and the typical look of a seadog.

Oversimplification of the contingency task against a weak Pakistan Navy had however generated a complacent attitude regarding priorities for the Indian Navy so far as allocation of fiscal resources was concerned.

His bulk moved from one service’s operational room to another looking for tasks in performing which the Navy could show its mettle. He felt aggrieved that from independence onward the Navy had never got a chance to do so, and he was bent upon redeeming its honor after the left-out-of-battle impressions of the previous conflicts. He was essentially an operational man and had an offensive outlook. He felt that the best defensive roles could be carried out only by going on the offensive at the very outset of battle.

When the overall strategy for liberating East Pakistan was being formulated Nanda offered to blockade the major seaports of Khulna-Chalna and Chittagong. The offer was gratefully accepted as attempts to capture these ports by land operations were leading to time-consuming schedules. The Army allowed a portion of the trapped Pakistani to escape by sea. In fact, our military planners wanted the ports blocked at the very outset of hostilities so as to create a sense of isolation and insecurity of home return among the troops operating in East Pakistan.

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