Prospects Of A Maritime India

Indian Navy is looking far ahead to cross turbulent waters safely for ensuring the prosperity of our country and citizens.
Keywords: Indian Navy |Indo-Pacific | 1971 War | Pakistan | Indian Ocean | EEZ | UNCLOS | Blue Economy | Multilateralism | Quad | Malabar | Naval Exercise
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It’s Navy day on 4 December. The day was chosen after 1971 war fought and won by India’s armed forces to liberate Bangladesh. Indian Navy played a stellar role in forcing an early surrender of the Pakistani  Armed Forces lead by a Lt General in erstwhile East Pakistan. In the modern history of warfare surrender by 93000 troops is unheard of. Navy played an exceedingly offensive role leading to the adversary’s early collapse and  India’s victory over Pakistan and the latter’s dismemberment . 

Leading the pack of OSA class missile boats the then Commander I J Singh (later Commodore) launched the first surface to surface Styx missiles on PNS Khaibar off Karachi harbour in the night of 4/5 December 1971. The Pakistani destroyer sank with 222 men onboard . INS Nipat fired its missiles on PNS Shah Jahan which was badly damaged. The accompanying merchant ship Venus Challenger carrying ammunition for the Pak Armed Forces exploded post missile hit and sank.  Nipat continued to attack Keamari oil farm south of Karachi harbour; The tanks caught fire and were completely destroyed. INS Veer sank the minesweeper PNS Muhafiz, a minesweeper. It was the beginning of the end for the Pakistan’s Navy and its attempt to to protect the country’s eastern half from being detached to become Bangladesh. It was a daring feat. Missile boats do not have the desired radius of operation for missions of this nature. They were towed upto the Gujarat coast and let go for the biggest fireworks ever seen in the Indian Ocean, particularly on the Makran coast. This was followed by INS Veer and two frigates Talwar and Trishul attacking group of ships off Karachi. The Fleet tanker PNS Dacca was damaged beyond repairs, curtailing sea sustaining ability of Pakistan Fleet. 

On the East Coast, the aircraft launched from our sole carrier INS Vikrant were creating havoc over East Pakistan. On 4 December Sea Hawk fighters launched from the Vikrant struck shipping in Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong harbours sinking and incapacitating most of the ships. Devastating attacks continued till the 10th December and resumed on the 14th December targeting Khulna,Mongla, Dacca cantonment, Khulna, Mongla and Cox’s Bazar military targets. The enemy was choked inland, prohibiting escape of the Pakistani troops by sea route. East Pakistan was blockaded.

The saga of 1971 is  reflective of the ability of Indian Navy to exploit innovatively existing weapon platforms and systems to win a war. It is a legendary feat.

India is headed towards becoming $5 Trillion economy. The contestation for resources has turned the attention of  countries that hitherto had a continentally-oriented mindset towards the oceans. Capturing islands in the EEZ of other countries, developing them into potent combat bases, flouting UNCLOS and indulging economic coercion on smaller countries  by compelling them to lease their ports and lands for strategic advantage has become a norm in the Indo Pacific. 

Not having achieved much in its continental strategy over 60 years India has discovered its blind spots at  sea. The lawmakers have begun to realize that the development and prosperity of country depend a lot on the maritime domain. It is critical to keep free and open seas as  global commons for trade and commerce to flow as per the rule of law. Differences must be resolved through dialogue and in accordance with UNCLOS. Sea belongs to all for peaceful, responsible and legal use. The Indian Navy’s prime function is to protect commerce in regional waters. The Navy is required to have adequate platforms to reach out to nations in the Indo Pacific littoral for creating a favourable maritime environment. The foundation of our future navy has to be laid now because shipbuilding is time consuming and expensive venture. It is to be remembered that capital budget outflow is spread in instalments over many years and therefore overall costs get amortised in time.

The attention of the world has turned to the Indo Pacific since the largest volume of merchandises goes across over these seas. Any unlawful restriction on safe and smooth transit of goods must be lifted with the full power of maritime forces. For India, carrying out this role in the Indian Ocean should always remain within Navy’s reach whereas in the context of the larger Indo Pacific, multilateral cooperative arrangement among countries which have converging interests would be necessary. This understanding has led to the formation of Quadrilateral Maritime Security or QUAD construct. The US, Australia,  Japan and India have come together to cooperate for taking up issues relating to the International order, freedom of navigation, overflights and inclusive open seas. These four democracies have their navies come together in the MALABAR exercise for ensuring interoperability and common  SOPs for complex tactical procedures.

The World is transiting through rough seas and shifting geopolitical realities. There will be new alignments and some misalignments. India and the Indian Navy are looking far ahead to cross these turbulent waters safely for ensuring the prosperity of our country and citizens. Platforms needed over the next decade need to be invested in now to provide for for long gestation period. The Government would be looking at the institutionalisation of Quad, making its charter well defined and developing SOPs for enforcing the rule of law at sea. Training and maintenance to absorb emerging technologies hold the key to adequate combat power.

The Navy’s leadership will have to help steer the government in the right direction for the country to find its rightful place in the world. Conventional wisdom is being superseded in the  emerging post COVID era . The time to make bold alterations is here and now.

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Shekhar Sinha

Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha (Retd.) was the Commander-in-Chief of the Western Naval Command, Indian Navy. He was also Chief of Integrated Defense Staff to Chiefs of Staff committee. He is a Member of the Board of Trustees, India Foundation.

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