Terming the naval, and specifically the Aircraft Carrier, involvement in the 1971 war as ‘peripheral’ is not only against all known facts of but also displays an incorrect understanding of our military history and strategy.
By Capt DK Sharma
Acquiring a third aircraft carrier is a major decision. It is no surprise then that it will be taken after a much-needed deliberation of the Services as well as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).
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A strong Army well supported by an equally dynamic Air Force, hence are a must. The important questions that two questions that, however, need to be asked are:
- Is the Naval warfare being undertaken only for the sake of naval warfare?
- For a country like India which is dependent on the sea for over 97% of its trade including fuel and critical war-fighting supplies, without the Navy being strong, can the Army and Air Force every be strong?
Let us not forget, the Indian Navy “has seen action only twice, 1965 and 1971, on the sidelines of the land operations and the aircraft carrier had a minimum role”. If fact, let us face it, the Navy has seen classic naval action only in 1971. This one was a sure shot victory which also surprised its planners. The Navy, and especially INS Vikrant, played an extremely important role in this victory. Let us not forget that in 1965, thanks to political directions, the involvement of the Navy was kept to the minimum. In fact, the Indian Navy was not allowed to operate beyond the North of Okha.
Maritime domain is crucial, a fact that planners knew rather well in 1971. Lt Gen Jacob, in his memoirs of the 1971 war, talks about his briefing – at Fort William – on the draft Operation Instruction by Gen Manekshaw and the then Director of Military Operations (DMO), Maj Gen KK Singh, identified the ports of Khulna and Chittagong as “prime objective”. He writes, “At the meeting, held in the operations room, Manekshaw, KK Singh, Arora, and I were present. Sam Manekshaw let his DMO do all the talking. KK Singh spelt out the objectives, maintaining that if we captured Khulna and Chittagong, what he termed the entry ports, the war would come to an end”. Admittedly, the taking of the ports was initially planned to be an army operation and Gen Jacob was “flabbergasted”. He recommended that “we should utilise our naval superiority and have an effective naval blockade in place.”
The analysis of the war in the official history (“The Story of the Pakistan Navy”) of the Pakistan Navy acknowledges that “The success of Pakistan’s counter-plans hinged largely on reinforcements and resupply of the eastern theatre of war by the sea which could only be accomplished by a strong Navy capable of breaking India’s naval blockade”. If the Indian Navy had not effectively stymied this plan, Pakistan was quite hopeful of a ‘stalemate’ (which they could have claimed as a victory for the domestic audience, much like had been done just a few years earlier in 1965).
An argument is being made, today, that an aircraft carrier may not be useful in “future war scenarios (which) will be short and swift”. Interestingly, Pakistan Navy history laments that it was this very argument of the (ir) relevance of a navy in a ‘sharp short war’ that led to their downfall in 1971! Plans for a two-flotilla Navy (one each based in the two wings) in had been put up to the Pakistan Government as early as 1949. The plans “unfortunately had become the victim of seemingly endless bureaucratic indifference and of vague concepts such as “the defence of East Pakistan lies in the West” and “a short, sharp war” which stood in the way of the Pakistan Navy’s expansion and re-organisation from the early fifties. The Navy continued to be accorded a lower priority, and the fleet was allowed to degenerate into a shrinking force quite incapable of taking on the task of providing protection to the sea lines of communication between the two wings”.
As far as the Indian Naval viewpoint is concerned, its history (‘Transition to Triumph’) records that “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 airstrikes against East Pakistan, came to be fully realised only after the war. A new role had crystallised for an aircraft carrier in limited war”.
Terming the naval, and specifically the Aircraft Carrier, involvement in the 1971 war as ‘peripheral’ is therefore not only against all known facts of but also displays an incorrect understanding of our military history and strategy. Close to a lakh Pakistani soldiers would possibly not have surrendered unless they had lost their ‘will to fight’. The Indian Navy – the silent service – ensured this by enforcing a blockade where no reinforcements were forthcoming, no supplies could be provided and no escape route was possible. Without the Carrier, the proponents of ‘alternate scenario’ of history can possibly at best come up with a stalemate followed by international intervention.
Another dangerous shibboleth that needs to be discarded is regarding the ability of the Air Force – any Air Force, not just the Indian – being able to provide effective air cover at sea. It is all very well to state that this would be undertaken to score inter-service brownie points in peacetime debates. Once again, military history shows otherwise. In 1971 war itself, the carrier-borne aircraft of INS Vikrant repeatedly attacked the Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar airfields on request of AOC-in-C Eastern Command (the Indian Air Force Commander in the East).
Before concluding – and moving away from military history – a few quick counterpoints to a recent article in the media which talked about a third aircraft carrier may be in order.
Firstly, it is a very narrow interpretation to state that China went in for an aircraft carrier only after building its army. This may have been Hobson’s choice for China. Was the option of a carrier ever really available to them? They had to go for a second-hand Russian carrier to learn the nuances before they could think of embarking on an ambitious carrier building program. Aircraft carrier operations take years to master even if a ship is available or can be built. Further, China’s 2015 defence white paper, ‘China’s Military Strategy’, explicitly states that “The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned”. Even as China is reducing its land forces and focusing on the sea, it is being propounded that India does the exact opposite.
Secondly, forgoing an aircraft carrier due to budgetary constraints is counterproductive. Aircraft carriers are certainly expensive, but even if we ignore the military power it bestows, purely from an economic viewpoint an indigenously constructed carrier can effectively galvanise the economy given a large number of industries and MSMEs involved in the supply chain. The money whilst going out of the defence kitty –goes back into reviving the national economy. Numerous examples can be cited of countries GDP being impacted solely by the shipbuilding industry – which is considered a strategic ‘mother industry’.
Thirdly, saying that aircraft carriers are required only for global powers is debatable. India had initiated procurement of INS Vikrant within a few years of Independence. The ‘Plans Paper’ giving the blueprint for the Indian Navy written in 1948 itself saw the need for three aircraft carriers. However, even if we admit that it is, indeed, true that India would require a carrier only when it becomes a major power; it must be pointed out that ships – especially carriers – cannot be built overnight. India had announced the plan to replace its ageing British-built carriers in 1989, work on the indigenous design began in 1999, and the keel of the first indigenous aircraft carrier was laid only in February 2009. Planning for the future requires foresight. Can we today say what our global posture or military requirements would be in 2035? Would just stopping cross border infiltrations continue to be our “priority”? If not, then we need to think big and think strategically while formulating our current plans.
Parochialism and Sea Blindness in an era of COVID budget cuts can have a long term impact on the Comprehensive National Power.
(The author is Indian Navy Veteran. He was the Spokesperson of Indian Navy at Ministry of Defence. Views expressed are personal.)