Liberating Bangladesh was a necessity for the protection of human values and the lives of fellow citizens next door. India was witnessing a violation of human rights in erstwhile East Pakistan by the state of Pakistan. It had led to millions of people fleeing across the border and taking shelter in India. Except for pleasant statements very little was forthcoming from the international community. The need of applying all of the state power to return the refugees home and provide succour by liberating Bangladesh from the clutches of the inhuman state of Pakistan became a necessity. The Government of India ordered its military (along with Mukti Bahini) to achieve this objective and establish a popular government.
As one of the important arms of Indian armed forces, the navy made war plans to apply its power in all three dimensions — surface, sub-surface and air — to achieve the national objective and in the process establish the efficacy of its long-standing doctrine. While many accounts of day-to-day war have appeared in the press, it is necessary to glean over the principles of maritime warfare which the Navy successfully employed and validated.
The first, important principle was to maintain the confidentiality of its plan. While surface-to-surface missile attack on Karachi harbour by OSA missile boats in conjunction with IAF Bomber/Fighter attacks over land targets was a fine example of joint warfighting, it also validated this important principle of war. This attack also provided the army somewhat confident entry into West Pakistan by breaching their defences. The navy destroyed and crippled a number of Pakistan Navy ships and merchant vessels and virtually blockaded the Karachi harbour and denied passage of oil tankers to East Pakistan which would have helped sustain their warfighting abilities.
The second important principle of maritime warfare of using multiple platforms on widely dispersed targets was validated on the eastern seaboard. Very small patrol boats, armed and manned by special forces, hugged the coast of East Pakistan and destroyed ships close to Chittagong, Khulna and Chalna harbours using covert and overt means. This blockaded these harbours in quick time.
Third, an offensive was also launched by aircraft carrier Vikrant on the eastern seaboard. Her Sea Hawk fighters and Alize anti-submarine aircraft repeatedly bombed all harbours of East Pakistan. This action lasting over a week blocked the exit of ships from East Pakistan and left no option for either logistics support or fleeing of Pakistani troops out of East. During this time the Indian Army was making rapid advances towards Dhaka under complete air superiority achieved by the innovative bombing of targets in East Pakistan by the Indian Air Force.
Deployment of Maritime Air Power, therefore, in one theatre of war, and deployment of surface and sub-surface power in the other, succeeds. It reinforced the Navy’s long-held belief in tactical maritime airpower, particularly when adversarial objectives are geographically displaced vast distances.
The presence of the USS Enterprise in the Bay of Bengal demonstrated that superpowers can use military power to support allies even if they were involved in committing mass human rights violations. It also exposed friends and foes. A lesson for statecraft.
Another dimension of warfare — Anti Submarine warfare — too was put into action. The loss of INS Khukri, an anti-submarine frigate, taught the Navy the necessity of modernisation of ASW platforms, sensors and weapons. ASW has remained, to date, a priority area of the navy’s war preparedness. Conversely, Pakistani submarine Ghazi having traversed from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal undetected exposed the navy’s underbelly then. Ever since the Navy’s focus on ASW has been a high priority.
While no two wars will be identical, the Navy tasted blood for the first time and used firepower in all three dimensions that Navies operate in — surface, sub-surface and air.
New areas of warfare have emerged since, cyber, information, space, nuclear and artificial intelligence. Therefore, newer assets will have to be inducted and so will be new methods of their application.
There are two glaring learnings for the country. One, the necessity of accelerating the attention of our country on maritime security. It has been a gradual process, particularly now by the present government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Maritime security finds leading space in all bilateral agreements with many countries more so post emergence of Indo-Pacific challenges.
However, the budgetary allocations to the navy need enhancement. Two, the vital role of maritime power in any future contestation in the world is indisputable. The prosperity of a country is dependent on the seas, and hence their judicious exploitation and security. The sea lanes of communication need to be kept open for trade and commerce by the global commons. And that is possible by strictly following UNCLOS and rule-based order. The Navy’s role in ensuring compliance of UNCLOS by all seafarers is unquestionable. Our navy too needs to be suitably equipped and manned for such enforcements.
In the recent past there have been cases of complete rejection of judgements given by the Permanent Court of Arbitration of the International Court of Justice. There have been cases of complete disregard for ocean ecology. The important choke points of the Indian Ocean are being militarised giving rise to suspicious intentions of countries.
The Indian Navy will be called upon to prevent/deter maritime conflicts in the Indo-Pacific. While a full-fledged conflict would be harmful to every country, contestation for resources and geopolitical superiority cannot be ruled out. To deter a full-blown conflict, a strong and capable Navy is mandatory. The weaknesses which were observed during the liberation war of Bangladesh must always be kept at the forefront by planners.
While the two-and-a-half front war over land borders has become a new reality for India and the armed forces are gearing up, the navy always had two fronts in the form of the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal. Force structures exist to tackle those realities. The capacities would have to be gradually scaled up to incorporate new domains. Artificial intelligence, cyber, space, information and hypersonic are new vistas of warfare, calling for changes in the manner that we will fight future wars.
The joint command structure is one such change that is in the pipeline. This would have to be supplemented by budgeting for equipping and developing joint warfighting doctrines. It must accommodate all the principles of warfare which itself is in the process of rapid transformation.
The writer is a former Commander-in-Chief of Western Naval Command and Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. The views expressed are personal.