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Retrospect Of The 1971 War
RETROSPECT OF THE 1971 WAR
The foregoing accounts and analyses of the major events of 1971 war have examined why and how certain operations were successful and other operations less so. As in all wars, many of the outcomes were not foreseen.
NAVAL OPERATIONS IN THE ARABIAN SEA
The withdrawal of the Pakistan Fleet into the inner harbour of Karachi on 7/8 December yielded maritime supremacy to the Western Fleet within the first six days of the war. This withdrawal was exactly the opposite of our expectation that repeated attacks alternately from Saurashtra and the southwest would provoke the Pakistan Flotilla to react and join in a gun battle with the Indian Fleet, for which the latter had so assiduously prepared.
The destruction of the oil tanks at Keamari on 8 December was fortuitious. A radar homing missile can be expected to home on to any shore installation which, due to its size, shape, location and other characteristics gives the missile's homing radar a better radar response than its surroundings. Claims that these tanks were targeted and hit on 4 December are not substantiated by the Pakistani records.
The Pakistan Navy knew exactly where the Western Fleet was from 2 December when it sailed from Bombay till the early hours of 4 December. Submarine HANGOR was the first to report the Western Fleet's position, course and speed on the night of 2/3 December. Within hours of HANGOR's report being received in Karachi on AM 3 December, Pakistani requisitioned civil aircraft were circling the Western Fleet when the war started on the evening of 3 December. The Western Fleet's southward diversion on night 3/4 December shook off the shadowers in the early hours of 4 December. Thereafter the Western Fleet remained undetected. The Pakistan Navy's account gives no indication that it was particularly concerned where the Indian Fleet was. All available civilian air reconnaissance effort was concentrated within 200 miles of the approaches to Karachi to detect the approach of missile boats.
During the second missile attack on Karachi by the Western Fleet, the only major Pakistani naval ship which was not inside harbour, the tanker DACCA, was fortuitously hit. The naval ships inside Karachi harbour found themselves in dire straits. Their predicament was compounded by the Indian Air Force air attacks on the 8th evening which fortuitously hit workshops in the Naval Dockyard where the ships were berthed. In an unprecedented but sensible move, Pakistani warships were ordered to reduce the ammunition they had on board, so as to minimise the damage that an explosion might cause if they were hit.
The sinking of the KHUKRI on 9 December and the loss of Alize 203 on 10 December were unforeseen consequences of the fortunes of war. Despite specific mention of Hunter Killer Operations in his pre war plans, the fact that he limited the duration of the operation from 8 to 10 December shows that FOCINCWEST had a very limited aim. He wanted to ensure that the Pakistani submarine D/Fd off Diu would not interfere with the third missile attack which he planned to launch on 10 December.
FOCINCWEST, when according approval for the Sonar 170 modification to be embarked in KHUKRI, could not have foreseen that KHUKRI, in trying to increase sonar detection range would do so low a speed as to become an easy target for the submarine's torpedoes.
Similarly it could not have been foreseen that a Pakistani F 104 returning homewards from an evening raid on Okha would make a chance sighting of Alize 203 and shoot it down with an air to air missile.
It could not have been foreseen that the Pakistan Air Force would be tardy in responding to the Pakistan Navy's calls for air support on the night of 4/5 December. When however, the PAF did respond, it mistakenly struck a Pakistan naval ship ZULFIQAR on AM 6 December. This was to have an altogether unforeseen result. The CNS became apprehensive that an alerted PAF might inflict similar damage on Western fleet ships who were on their way in to attack Karachi on the night of 6/7 December. NHQ not only intervened to cancel this attack but assumed control of separated groups of ships of the Western Fleet and Western Naval Command by ordering R/V's off Saurashtra to give the Western Fleet a second missile boat to replace the one which had earlier returned to harbour. Not only could the R/V not be kept, but the TIR group off Saurashtra reported Pakistani aircraft overhead on several occasions. When this second missile boat reported defects necessitating return to harbour, Naval Headquarters restored the control of operations to FOCINCWEST.
It was not foreseen that Pakistan could not deploy its midget submarines and chariots in a preemptive attack on the Western Fleet in harbour. Indeed the most elaborate precautions had been taken against this threat. Post war reports indicated that whereas the crews had been intensively trained in 1968-69, thereafter they did not take the midgets and chariots out to sea for long enough to prove the endurance either of the craft or the crews. Spares problems had also begun to affect their material state. By 1971, the crews were not confident of sailing the midgets independantly from Karachi to Bombay.
There were also reports that the Pakistani Navy, on their own, fitted two midgets with external torpedo tubes for firing Mk 44 torpedoes. During the war, these midgets were deployed 30 miles from Karachi. When one of them tried to fire against an Indian ship, the fire control system did not work.
An East Bengal sailor, who had been trained on the midgets and chariots and who deserted the Pakistan Navy joined the Mukti Bahini Naval Commandos in mid 1971. He informed that their prime objective was to put a huge limpet mine under the VIKRANT.
It was not foreseen that Pakistan submarines would be prohibited from attacking Indian merchant ships.
On the other hand, several outcomes were foreseen and came to pass.
FOCWEF had foreseen that in an encounter with a Pakistan Daphne Class submarine, surface warships would be worsted. The sinking of KHUKRI on 9 December, the failure to sink the HANGOR in the intensive anti submarine Operation FALCON from 10 to 13 December and the consistent lack of debris after innumerable anti submarine attacks by diverse ships, all reiterated the basic reality that underwater operations in the Arabian Sea favour the submarine.
It was foreseen that Pakistani merchant ships had to be apprehended in the early days of the war. Only the PASNI could be seized on 4 December. The MAQBOOL BAKSH escaped despite being sighted by our reconnaissance aircraft. The seizure of MADHUMATI south of Jiwani on 8 December was fortuitious.
NAVAL OPERATIONS IN THE BAY OF BENGAL
It could not have been foreseen that the greatest single threat to VIKRANT, the submarine GHAZI, would sink outside Visakhapatnam at the commencement of the war. Had this not occurred, the entire pattern of the Eastern Fleet's operations would have been different. It would not have been possible to stop ships at sea for refuelling and transferring stores and personnel, troops and vehicles whenever convenient. Nor would it have been permissible for the Fleet to break wireless silence every few hours to make long sitreps to FOCINCEAST and NHQ.
On the other hand, it was correctly foreseen that after the Air Force had struck Chittagong and Dacca airfields, the Pakistan Air Force Sabre squadron in East Pakistan would cease to pose any air threat to the VIKRANT or to offer any opposition to VIKRANT's air strikes.
It was correctly foreseen that by themselves the ships of the Eastern Fleet were too few and too slow to enforce contraband control and that help would be needed from VIKRANT's aircraft. But the extraordinary extent to which VIKRANT's aircraft actually
succeeded in assisting ships in contraband control and apprehending merchant ships, over and above their air strikes against East Pakistan, came to be fully realised only after the war. A new role had crystallised for an aircraft carrier in limited war.
It was correctly foreseen that an amphibious landing might be required in East Pakistan prior to western naval intervention. The inescapable need for secrecy and the inability to spare the already heavily tasked ships of the Eastern Fleet precluded any prior training for a landing. The ENTERPRISE Task Group came through the Malacca Straits on the afternoon of 14 December and the forces in East Pakistan surrendered on the afternoon of 16 December. A successful landing on the morning of 15 December would still have been timely.
However, it could not have been foreseen that the LST's would beach over an hour later than scheduled and thereby get seriously affected by the cross currents of a changing tide and sea and swell.
SUBMARINE ATTACKS ON MERCHANT SHIPS AT SEA
In the 1971 war, the policy regarding attacks on merchant shipping proved to be quite complex.
PAKISTAN NAVY'S POLICY ON ATTACKING MERCHANT SHIPS
"The Story of the Pakistan Navy" states:
"The operational orders issued to submarines confined them to attacks against warships only and interdiction of merchant ships was not permitted.
"The Indian Navy made no effort at maintaining even a semblance of legal propriety, by declaration of a blockade or a war zone before embarking on a callous slaughter of merchantmen and their crew by those who claim to have taken up arms to champion the cause of the oppressed. For it was well known to the Indians that missiles hurled blindly at ships at Manora anchorage were bound to take a toll of neutral merchant ships."
INDIAN NAVY'S POLICY ON ATTACKING MERCHANT SHIPS
There were two basic problems to be resolved:
(a) Clearly neutral ships were not to be attacked. But what was one to do when a Pakistan merchant ship changed identity and masqueraded as a neutral merchant ship - as MADHUMATI did in the Arabian Sea and ANWAR BAKSH did in the Bay of Bengal? The only way out was to put the onus for positive identification on the attacker.
(b) How was a submarine expected to positively identify a warship or a merchant ship before attack? The Pakistan Navy solved its problem by restricting its submarines to only attacking Indian warships. The Indian Navy directed its submarines to attack only positively identified Pakistani merchant ship and warships. No encounter occurred between Pakistani warships and KARANJ in the Arabian Sea or with KHANDERI in the Bay of Bengal. As regards Pakistani merchant ships, the only way a submarine could positively identify a merchantman by day was to surface and board. This was unrealistic. By night, it was even more unrealistic to expect a submarine to effect positive identification. In the event, the Indian submarines did not carry out a single attack.
Giving submarines carte blanche to fire torpedoes would only have been legitimate if unrestricted submarine warfare had been resorted to - as between Germany and Britain in the Second World War. Neither India nor Pakistan had any such intention. With the large number of neutral ships plying the Arabian Sea, unrestricted submarine warfare would have had the most serious international repercussions.
INADVERTENT DAMAGE TO NEUTRAL SHIPS IN HARBOUR
An American merchant ship, SS BUCKEYE STATE was off Chittagong harbour at the time that Chittagong installations were under attack by VIKRANT's aircraft. She reported that she had been strafed whilst she was in international waters. The American Government lodged a protest. Naval Headquarters was able to prove that the ship was close to a Pakistani merchant ship which was being attacked and may have suffered inadvertent damage.
A useful insight on the American thought process which led to the American protest regarding the BUCKEYE STATE can be had from the following excerpts of the Minutes of the Washington Special Action Group:
(a) 6 Dec 71. "Dr Kissinger asked about a legal position concerning the current Indian naval blockade. Mr Sisco stated that we have protested both incidents in which American ships have been involved. However no formal proclamation apparently has been made in terms of a declaration of war, that it is still essentially an undeclared war, with the Indians claiming power to exercise their rights of belligerency. The State Department would however prepare a paper on the legal aspects of the issue. Ambassador Johnson said that so far as he was concerned, the Indians had no legal position to assert a blockade. Dr Kissinger asked that a draft protest be drawn up. If we considered it illegal, we will make a formal diplomatic protest."
(b) 8 Dec 71 "Turning to the question of blockade, Ambassador Johnson said that both India and Pakistan have taken blockade action, even though the Pak blockade is essentially a paper blockade. Dr Kissinger said that we should also protest to the Paks. Ambassador Johnson indicated we do not have a legal case to protest the blockade. The belligerent nations have a right to blockade when a state of war exists. We may think it unwise and we may question how it is carried out. We have, in fact, normally expressed our concern. On the other hand, we have no problem in protesting the incident of the SS BUCKEYE STATE which had been strafed in a Pakistani port."
The unambiguous provisions of international law regarding blockade, contraband control and attacks on merchant ships make it clear that our submarines will continue to be deprived of the freedom of unrestricted attack on merchant shipping.
Even when a war zone is declared, as was done by Britain in the Falklands War of 1982, the British Navy's sinking of the Argentinean cruiser BELGRANO outside of this war zone invited opprobrium even though BELGRANO, being a warship, was a legitimate target.
A different kind of precedent was set in the Persian Gulf in the Iran - Iraq war of the mid 1980's. Iraq declared a war zone and freely fired missiles at all tankers going to or suspected to be going to Iranian ports. In retaliation, Iran responded by firing missiles at tankers seen to be heading for Iraqi ports. In both cases, tankers of all nationalities were hit.
In retrospect, a striking contrast can be discerned between trade warfare in the 1965 war and the 1971 war:
(a) In 1965, the Indian Fleet, prohibited from taking offensive action, could do nothing to prevent merchant ships STEEL VENDOR and STEEL PROTECTOR from going to Karachi. The Chief of the Naval Staff was constrained to state:
"When naval officers generally and senior ones in particular, who ought to know better, talk glibly of blockade, contraband control, seizing enemy merchant ships and attacking enemy warships at sea and their ports without a proper and formal declaration of war, one wonders whether they realise that any such action on the high seas without the declaration of war is liable to be branded as piracy, especially if any neutral ships become involved."
(b) In 1971, the second missile attack inadvertently damaged merchant ships. When diplomatic protests were received, NHQ issued an IG:
FROM : NHQ
TO : 254 IG
"IN ORDER THAT NO NEUTRAL SHIPS ARE DAMAGED INADVERTENTLY DURING NAVAL OPERATIONS AGAINST PAKISTAN'S MILITARY TARGETS IN WEST PAKISTAN PORTS AND TERRITORIAL WATERS, OPERATIONS WILL BE SO CONDUCTED BY THE INDIAN NAVY THAT NEUTRAL SHIPS MAY LEAVE THE PORT OF KARACHI BY 1800 HOURS ON 12 DEC."
In 1971, there was near unanimity between the Chief of the Naval Staff, the Commanders in Chief and the Fleet Commanders that offensive action alone would carry the day. And so it transpired. Diplomatic protests were handled by directives to the Fleets to be careful and by genuine expressions of regret. By then, the war at sea had been won.
If one takes an overview of the Navy's successful operations in the 1971 war, the following stand out:
(a) In the West, the missile attacks on Karachi achieved maritime supremacy and the Fleet remained "in being." The Pakistan Navy's surface threat was bottled up. The air threat did not materialize. The submarine threat proved its deadliness; the midget submarines and chariots were not seen
(b) In the East, VIKRANT's air superiority over the sea achieved maritime supremacy and the Eastern Fleet remained "in being." The Pakistan Navy had not deployed any major units in the East, so there was no surface threat. The GHAZI's sinking removed the sub surface threat. The Indian Air Force strikes grounded the Pakistan air threat.
(c) In the South, the few ships keeping vigil on inter-wing Pakistani traffic helped capture one Pakistani merchant ship and alert NHQ on the movement of western naval ships.
(d) Given the density of neutral shipping and the imprudence of mistakenly attacking innocent merchant ships in what was already an internationally sensitive political situation, there was no option but to insist that submarines positively identify targets as enemy vessels. On the one hand, positively identified enemy warships were legitimate targets for submarines to attack but they were not to be found at sea. On the other hand, positively identified enemy merchant ships could only be apprehended if submarines had boarding parties, for which submarine do not have space. Under international law, enemy merchant ships could only be sunk after all crew and passengers had been removed to a place of safety - submarines have no space to accommodate merchant ship crews. For all practical purposes the submarines remained a force in being. It remains in the realm of speculation whether the declaration of war zones could have sidestepped the stipulations of international law.
(e) The Navy achieved what it did despite the considerable limitations described in the section on "Events Prior to the War" and despite the material state of ships before and during the war being so poor.
Lest the lay reader feel that the war was won just by the missile boats and the VIKRANT, it is essential to remember that both these elements were entirely supported by ships, submarines and aircraft in all three dimensions of naval warfare - on the sea, below the sea and above the sea.
There were many significant spinoffs after the 1971 war. Within India, for the first time since independence, there was public jubilation at the Navy's startling contribution to victory. There was the Government's realisation of the effectiveness of seapower. Both of these dispelled the doubts about the "relevance of a Navy for a peace - loving country like India which had no vital interests overseas". The maritime world accepted India's naval predominance in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.
Within the Navy, there was an upsurge of self confidence to overcome problems. In its wake, there followed a remarkable synergy of events. The success of the Leander frigate programme. The admiration of Russian and Western navies for the Indian Navy's professionalism and innovativeness. The remarkable interaction which helped in integrating the latest weapon systems from Russian, Western and indigenous sources into Indian hulls. All these combined to propel the Indian Navy upwards to the seventh rank in the world's navies.