Military & Aerospace

The Sinking of Khukri: The Balance Sheet of Victory
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Issue Book Excerpt: War in the Indian Ocean | Date : 07 Dec , 2015

1971 War: The victor and the vanquished, signing the Instrument of Surrender

Therefore arise, thou Son of Kuntl!
Brace thine arm for conflict;
Nerve thy heart to meet,
As things alike to thee, pleasure or pain,
Profit or ruin, victory or defeat,
So minded, gird thee to the fight, for so
Thou shalt not Sin!

– BHAGAVAD GITA

The Pakistan Navy’s punch was in their latest submarine, the Daphnes, which contained the elite of their Navy. However, the poor material state of the surface ships and the sinking of the Ghazi had negated any operation that the Pakistani Naval Headquarters may have planned against India. It was therefore increasingly clear that their submarines would need to be more audacious and aggressive to somehow redress the maritime balance. Similarly, there crept into the Indian psyche a certain degree of overconfidence and perhaps less urgency to maintain the necessary first degree of anti-submarine readiness.

At this juncture, DIF intercepts were obtained on 7/8 December in an area South-West of Diu Head which was classified as a submarine transmission. The war room at Delhi flashed the bearing cuts of these intercepts which were originating 35 miles South-West of Diu Head to Maritime Operations Room at Bombay.

The 14th Frigate Squadron consisting of INS Khukri (Captain M. N. Mulla) and Kirpan (Commander Rishi Raj Sood) were designated as the Search and Attack Unit (SAU) to prosecute the contact in an area 55 miles by 50 miles and on a datum which was already 24 hours late and in sea state 4, with the knowledge that the sonar detection range of the Daphnes were almost twice that of the Type 14 frigates.

…the poor material state of the surface ships and the sinking of the Ghazi had negated any operation that the Pakistani Naval Headquarters may have planned against India.

Hence, it was a tall order for the two frigates (Kuthar was still hors de combat) without support from anti-submarine aircraft to commence a hunter-killer operation. Nonetheless, Khukri and Kuthar without hesitation departed late on 8 December and commenced operations South of Kathiawar on 9 December.

Hangor thankfully picked up the contacts of the tw6 ships on her sonar. but at extreme ranges. She began snorkelling to close the contact which fortuitously was making good only 10 knots and surprisingly on a steady course with a narrow weave which was a flagrant violation of the anti­submarine doctrine. The reason for these risky tactics in a known submarine area was the brainchild of a bright electrical officer. Lieutenant V. K. Jain of Khukri, who had attached a gadget to the 17 0/174 sonar to increase the range of detection.

At 1900, Hangor manoeuvred into an attacking position and came up to periscope depth as the range on her sonar indicated only 9800 metres. She could not however sight the target even at this range, as all ships were fully darkened.

The submarine then went down to 55 metres and made a sonar approach for firing her torpedo. The Khukri continued on the same course as she had not picked up any submarine contact. Hangor then fired a down the throat’ homing torpedo at 1951 from a depth of 40 metres. No explosion was heard. She therefore fired a second torpedo which found its mark. Hangor fired a third torpedo and turned away and went down deep.

The two torpedoes struck Khukri which sank with 18 officers and 176 sailors. Kirpan which was about 5000 yards away heard the hydrophonic echo of an approaching torpedo and immediately increased to full speed, streamed noise-makers, fired a mortar to confuse the target. She witnessed the second torpedo striking Khukri’s oil tanks.

The submarine then went down to 55 metres and made a sonar approach for firing her torpedo. The Khukri continued on the same course as she had not picked up any submarine contact.

Kirpan then cleared the area as per the doctrine but after some hesitation. She returned with Katchall for rescue operations on the next morning – an action which generated discussions on the ethics of these tactics for quite some time in Indian naval circles.

Operation Falcon

A massive hunt was immediately launched with all available anti-submarine ships, Alize aircraft and the newly arrived Seaking helicopters which however had not yet been integrated into fleet operations.

Hangor remained deep and crept away at low submerged speed in order to run silent and avoid detection. She could therefore only signal her success to Karachi a few days later. During this period, a naval Alize aircraft (Lieutenant Commander Ashok Roy, Lieutenant Sirohi and Aircrewman Vijayan) failed to return when the turbo prop aircraft most probably strayed into Badin’s air surveillance area. The most plausible theory for the disappearance of the Alize aircraft flying at 120 knots was that she was shot down by a Pakistani Star Fighter as boasted by a Pakistani air attache in Delhi years later.

Operation Falcon was terminated after four days at 1900 hours, on 13 December when the Hunter-Killer Group was approaching Karachi’s air strike rcmges. Hangor entered Karachi on 18 December and Commander Ahmed Tasnim was deservedly awarded a bar to the ‘Sitara-i-Jurat’.

Captain Mulla chose to give his life-jacket to a young sailor and went down with his ship, nonchalantly lighting a cigarette in the highest traditions of naval service. This colourful personality will be missed not only by his young family but also a host of friends in the Indian Navy and perhaps a few in the Pakistan Navy, such as the late Vice Admiral H. H. Ahmed and Captain Afzal Khan, who had been shipmates in the forties. Captain Mulla was posthumously awarded the Maha Vir Chakra (equivalent to Distinguished Service Order). Perhaps the Param Vir Chakra (equivalent to the Victoria Cross) would have been more appropriate.

The despatch of only two ships with vintage sonars and without air support to hunt for a retiring submarine armed with state-of-the-art torpedoes and in a datum which was already 24 hours late will continue to exercise the minds of professionals. Moreover the Type 14 frigates despatched to hunt a frustrated Daphne on her way back to base fortunately provided a much-sought-after target for the Pakistani submarine to eke out a success after the disastrous sinking of Ghazi.

It will therefore be necessary to link tactics and technology not only between surface ships and submarine but also between submarine and submarine where the indiscretion factor, sonar ranges and weapon parameters will need to be carefully considered. And finally there is always a need for a taut ship with a well-trained A/S team supported by the bridge to prosecute an underwater adversary.

The despatch of only two ships with vintage sonars and without air support to hunt for a retiring submarine armed with state-of-the-art torpedoes and in a datum which was already 24 hours late will continue to exercise the minds of professionals.

The loss of Khukri will no doubt be a continuing reminder to the Navy of the need to meticulously prosecute a submarine single-mindedly, A Home was constructed for the sons and widows in record time, thanks to the generosity of the citizens of Bombay.

The balance sheet of war

The ground situation in 1971 was vastly different to that of 1965. The objectives of the Indian armed forces were unambiguously articulated by both political and military commanders.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (with the Nehru genes), sincerely tried her best to avoid a military conflict with Yahya Khan’s Pakistan in spite of over 10 million refugees pouring in from East Pakistan, which threatened to cripple India’s economy.

The boast of Pakistan that their fighting machine could take on their larger neighbour in view of their martial background had encouraged them to follow a harder line against their Bengali countrymen. Added to this was their hope of a pincer movement from China and US as Pakistan had provided a conduit for Kissinger’s negotiations at Beijing. That wishful hope acted as a lifebuoy for their besieged forces in East Pakistan.

The civil war in East Pakistan provided a fertile ground for the break-up of Pakistan. Hence, the use of military force to achieve national aims was for the first time articulated by a political party which had come to power through non­violence. Further, India’s military actions were earlier a reaction to Pakistan or China’s initiatives. However, in 1971, a clear policy to liberate Bangladesh was enunciated and the military commanders were given the unfettered responsibility to achieve this aim. The defence forces were therefore ready in all respects to impose their will on the feudal warlords of Pakistan.

The most plausible theory for the disappearance of the Alize aircraft flying at 120 knots was that she was shot down by a Pakistani Star Fighter as boasted by a Pakistani air attache in Delhi years later.

The Chiefs of Staff of the Indian armed forces were fortuitously professional leaders who not only forged a close unity among themselves but also with the Foreign, Home, Finance and Defence Ministries. Above all, their relations with the Prime Minister and her Cabinet were similar to that forged in Britain and the United States during hostilities.

Field Marshal Manekshaw, the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, had the charisma, professionalism and standing to provide a strong and aggressive leadership. Admiral Charles Nanda and Air Chief Marshal Pratap Lal who were strong protagonists of sea and air powers respectively bent backwards to accommodate and implement a united war plan. Admiral Nanda was a practical sailor, not given to highfalutin jargon but prepared to listen to voices of reason and, above all, keen to have a go at Pakistan who perhaps had overestimated their potential by misplacing their faith in some form of celestial guidance and external assistance to take on India’s professional Navy.

The Indian Navy had not been truly blooded as the liberation of Goa was hardly a testing operation. But, as already stated, it had brought out many weaknesses in inter-service cooperation particularly due to General Chaudhuri’s overweening attitude that only the Indian Army and himself were all that mattered. The lessons of the 1965 war have already been covered. Hence, naval officers whose training extended to over five years were measured against the yardstick of their dismal record of inaction in 1965. Hence, all ranks were straining to ‘have a go’ and redeem themselves in the eyes of their fellow countrymen. Therefore, in many cases, when the material state of ships should have led to genuine concern, the commanding officers and sailors did not bring the shortcomings of their ships to the attention of their superiors as they feared that they may be accused of lack of aggression and thereby miss the opportunity of demonstrating their professionalism at sea.

…the sinking of the Khukri exhibited the non-cpmpliance of a well-practised doctrine. This was perhaps because the technology for the recently inducted OSA boats, submarines and Petyas was not sufficiently absorbed by the Navy.

Further, the Naval Dockyard which worked round the clock both in peace and in war, pronounced technical verdicts which in a way impinged on the operational effectiveness which ultimately is the raison d’etre of a fighting force. For example, the initial insistence of laying off Vikrant due to a crack in the forward water drum of the boiler which was only discernible by an isotope examination and then agreeing to sail the ship at reduced speed which they ensured by sealing the safety valve was, in hindsight, beyond their technical responsibility. Again limiting the speed of the Osas when being towed so that the water flow would not damage their propellers, left a psychological dent on the sea captains, who had to operate in a high submarine-threat area where speed was the most effective antidote. Moreover, the sinking of the Khukri exhibited the non-compliance of a well-practised doctrine. This was perhaps because the technology for the recently inducted OSA boats, submarines and Petyas was not sufficiently absorbed by the Navy. In addition, the high proportion of breakdowns during a short war of two weeks merits a deeper analysis.           .

It was clear that the Indian Navy had to carry the fight to the Pakistani forces even if it meant attacking the heavily defended ports of Karachi and Chittagong. The dramatic results achieved by Indian sea forces were mainly due to the missile and carrier-borne air attacks which pulverized the Pakistan Navy.

In the Arabian Sea, it was predominantly the Styx missiles that changed the psychosis of the Pakistanis who had only six years ago boasted of drawing first blood by the meaningless bombardment of Dwarka which had no military targets. However, only four OSA boats out of a squadron of eight were used in the missile strikes.

The eleven Styx missiles fired caused not only considerable damage to the Pakistani fleet but more significantly had a crippling effect on their morale forcing the fleet to retire into harbour, reduce their ammunition outfits and continue to remain paralysed.

The eleven Styx missiles fired caused not only considerable damage to the Pakistani fleet but more significantly had a crippling effect on their morale forcing the fleet to retire into harbour, reduce their ammunition outfits and continue to remain paralysed. Perhaps if 20 to 24 missiles were fired by 6 to 8 missile boats; there would have been a long-term damage to the Pakistani flotilla and to the facilities at Karachi.

The example, albeit 20 years later during the UN operations against Iraq, demonstrated the need to ruthlessly destroy the enemy’s fighting machine which for a developing country takes a longer and a more painful path to rebuild.

Again with the aim of putting further pressure on the ebbing morale of the Pakistan Navy, the intention of sailing Vikrant with despatch to the Arabian Sea after the main task was achieved in the Bay of Bengal should have been widely publicized. It is not enough to do one’s best but give one’s utmost in war. By this time, the second missile attack on Karachi had further reduced the Pakistan Navy and its human hardware to such a low ebb that Mysore and her surface action group would have had little opposition in bombarding even Karachi. Such an opportunity comes once in a lifetime and should have been fully exploited.

The Western Fleet Commander frittered away his aim by various diversionary tactics such as chasing merchant ships, keeping out of air strike range and turning away when a snooper was detected. In the First World War Emden bombarded Madras. In 1965, the Pakistani flotilla lobbed shells in Dwarka. Hence, in hindsight it was disappointing to see the Western fleet operating in a triangle in the 1965 conflict and in a rectangle in the 1971 conflict.

The fIeet failed to shell Karachi or the Makran Coast as naval bombardment leaves an indelible impression at the receiving end. The untenable Pakistani contention that the larger Indian Navy sank only a destroyer and a minesweeper, not to mention Ghazi, while Pakistan sank a frigate and hence the honours were about even, was far removed from the real balance sheet of war.

In 1948, when the Indian Army required just three more days to capture Muzafarbad and had the Pakistani forces well on the run, the Indian forces were stopped short of total victory in Kashmir and the matter referred to the United Nations.

The Indian warships, on the other hand, enforced a total blockade imposing both sea control and sea denial. Several Pakistani merchantmen were captured, reinforcements from sea were prevented and sea routes for escape were effectively sealed to prevent a Dunkerque resulting in over 92,000 prisoners of war being taken by the Indian forces. Moreover, a large sea area was kept under effective control by a comparatively small number of ships and aircraft which were judiciously deployed to gain the best results. Perhaps the kudos that the Indian Navy merited was in a way diffused by the heady victory on land with the capture of Dacca and an unconditional surrender.

General Niazi who at that juncture had more troops in Dacca than the Indian Army capitulated without much resistance as they were subjected to subtly mounted psychological warfare where the safeguards of the Geneva conventions were judiciously mixed with the exaggerated accounts of foreign war correspondents of impending mammoth air drops which were not denied by the Chief of Staff, Major General Jacob.

The part played by India’s newly acquired submarine arm also merits mention. Similar to the Fleet Air Arm which was not blooded for 10 years until 1971, India’s highly professional submarine arm still remains without a kill although it is one of the most aggressive components of the Indian Navy. And no doubt the sinking of the Ghazi and Khukri has been carefully analysed against the background of technology, involvement and professionalism of its officers and sailors.

And lastly, while kudos was paid to Indira Gandhi for her understanding of the role of force in achieving national aims, her inability to fully exploit the fruits of that glorious victory merits highlighting as Pakistan is back to sniping at India.

In 1948, when the Indian Army required just three more days to capture Muzafarbad and had the Pakistani forces well on the run, the Indian forces were stopped short of total victory in Kashmir and the matter referred to the United Nations. This was not only because of Nehru’s faith in justice and fair play but perhaps also due to clever British manipulation of the known weaknesses in the non-violent psyche of the big brother on the subcontinent.

Again the lAF was not utilized during the 1962 Sino-­Indian conflict due to some mental hang-up as air attacks may have halted the rout of the Indian forces by an increasing attrition rate among the invaders who had no air support. In 1971, the IAF flew nearly 500 sorties per day, which was an eye-opener to the developed nations, presently using computers for the management of air strikes as seen in the US-Iraq conflict.

Moreover in 1965, the Army had captured Haji Pir Pass and brought Lahore and Sialkot under their guns. But nevertheless, General Chaudhuri whose mindset was more like the Commander­-in-Chief in the British Raj negated Lal Bahadur Shastri’s logical suggestion to continue with operations and inflict substantial damage before he would agree to a cease-fire. General Chaudhuri, as we have seen, chose to throwaway victory.

India preferred to continue with her image of being a ‘soft state’ .

Above all in 1971, with 92,000 prisoners and substantial captured territory in Sind, and smaller areas in Shakrgarh, Akhnoor, Sialkot, Tithwal and Kargil sectors, India signed the Shimla Agreement surrendering all their advantages without settling the Kashmir question which still continues as the major casus belli in the confrontation between India and Pakistan. No Indian military officer was included in these border negotiations. India preferred to continue with her image of being a ‘soft state’.

National security and national development are but two sides of the same coin just as defence and diplomacy are the two legs of a country’s national policy. Hence, as clearly illustrated during the Israel-Arab conflict or the US-Iraq imbroglio that unless the armed forces are used as an. instrument of national policy for both peace-making and peace-keeping, adventurism will continue to escalate the use of force particularly with missile warfare being scaled up the missile ladder for checkmating the proposals for a new oceanic order.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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Vice Admiral Mihir K. Roy

Vice Admiral Mihir K. Roy

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