Metamorphosis 50 — Indian Navy in 2021

Vast improvements in communications and satellite technologies have enabled the Indian Navy to transit to network centricity and vastly improved maritime domain awareness

Issue: 6-2021 By Vice Admiral K.N. Sushil (Retd)Photo(s): By Indian Navy / Twitter
INS Vikrant with its aircraft during the 1971 conflict

Fifty years ago, the Indian Navy wrote its coming-of-age chapter in the service of this great nation. The spectacular manner of its success brought home to the country the importance and significance of the Navy in our overall security calculus, The operations undertaken in the course of the 1971 war epitomised meticulous application of the principles of war, executed by a professional and committed force.

Indian Navy During 1971

The Naval war opened with spectacular missile attacks that set Karachi harbour ablaze. To overcome the constraints posed by the short sea legs of the Missile boats and the limited range of the missile the boats were towed to near their launch points and allowed to go in for the kill. In hindsight this may seem as a very obvious thing to do, but to tow these boats from Mumbai to Ohka evading detection was vital to maintain surprise. The Western Fleet, under the command of Rear Admiral E.C. Kuruvilla, dominated the North Arabian Sea, rendering the Pakistan Navy ineffective.

INS Vikrant had been deployed in the Bay of Bengal to support Army and Air Force action in the then East Pakistan. The operations of the Eastern fleet sealed off the SLOC to and from East Pakistan thus choking the supply and cutting off the escape routes. Pakistan, having seen that Vikrant was operating in the Bay of Bengal despatched the PNS Ghazi, as early as November 1971 to establish a patrol area off Visakhapatnam, to interdict INS Vikrant. Pakistani intelligence, confounded by a brilliant deception plan conceived and executed by Vice Admiral Krishnan, was unable to provide reliable information to PNS Ghazi. The Submarine, unable to find Vikrant and operating in enemy waters must have come under tremendous pressure and on the intervening night of December 3 and 4, 1971 December perished off Vizag. The otherwise successful Naval Campaign of 1971 was marred by the unfortunate and tragic loss of INS Khukri to a submarine attack.

As we look back and celebrate that great moment in history, the metamorphosis that the Navy has undergone becomes apparent. At the time of the 1971 war, the technical and technological capabilities available to the Navy was mostly at par with World War II systems. Communications were mostly HF for long range and V/UHF for short range, long or Medium range maritime surveillance was almost absent. the fleet depended mostlyon radar based integral surveillance systems and EW intercepts, Air Defence was all gun based centred around the FPS5 systems in the newer ships, ASW was on short range rudimentary sonars, the ASW weapons were mostly Mortar Mk 10 and depth charges, with the exception of the Petya Class which could deploy torpedoes and ASW rockets in addition to depth charges. The induction of the Seaking helicopters provided a quantum jump in ASW capability of the fleet. The new capability addition in terms of technology differential was the 6 missile boats with short range missiles. The submarine arm was just 4 years old with 4 F-Class submarines. The missile boats were used with great tactical effectiveness while the submarines were stymied by positive identification constraints imposed to ensure that collateral damage to non-Pakistani vessels were avoided.

Metamorphosis of Indian Navy

Immediately after the war, the Navy, without simply sitting on its laurels got down to the serious business of building for the future. The commissioning of INS Nilgiri (based on the Type 12 general purpose frigate design in collaboration with Yarrow Shipbuilders UK) in 1972 at MDL was the first indicator of the Navy clear appreciation of the strategic need to develop indigenous capabilities. The Nilgiri was capable of embarking the Seaking helicopters. The ability to embark ASW helicopters would become an essential QR for all capital ships. INS Godavari, was the first ship to be indigenously designed and constructed. The remarkable feature of this ship was that the expanded hull form provided it the capability to embark two Seaking helicopters, without compromising on speeds. This ship would feature the APSOH indigenous sonar and integrate some of the Soviet weapon systems. The ships symbolised the Navy’s ability to integrate and deploy technologies that would provide the front-line ships optimum improvement in their capabilities in a cost-effective manner. The INS Godavari programme was the harbinger of a successful surface ship building programme that saw a progression of very capable ships, the latest being the INS Vishakhapatnam with formidable firepower in all domains.

The acceptance of maritime security as an important adjunct to national security dawned on the nation’s policy makers after 1971. That acceptance saw changes in the Navy’s share of the budget allocation and set the path for its rightful growth.

The induction of the IL-38 aircraft in 1977, was the first step toward improving capability in the vital area of airborne ASW. This not only filled a capability gap of the 1971 war, but also was a counter to the Pakistani submarine programme. This was followed by the induction of TU-142M in 1988. The Navy and DRDO attempted to enhance the ASW capability of these aircraft through indigenously developed sonobuoys. In the meanwhile, the 1980s saw the induction of the Shishumar and Sindhugosh class submarines from Germany and the erstwhile Soviet Union. The success story of the surface ship construction programmes could not be replicated in the aviation and submarine programmes. So we see the induction of the P-8I LRMP from the US that brought about substantial improvements in the surveillance and maritime domain awareness capability. In so far as submarines were concerned the P75 programme started in 2007 still has to deliver two more submarines.

Not part of the lessons of 1971 was the responsibility of providing the sea-based leg of the nuclear triad. INS Subhadra was suitably modified to be able to launch the Dhanush a short range nuclear capable ballistic. The Navy’s ongoing SSN under the aegis of the ATV programme was modified to become an SSBN that would carry 12 short-range ballistic missiles. It could also carry the longer-range missile albeit in lesser numbers.

The Indian Navy, like all other navies of the world face challenges that rapid advances in technology brings. Vast improvements in communications and satellite technologies have enabled the Navy to transit to network centricity and vastly improved maritime domain awareness. Secure communications and comprehensive off board surveillance allow the Navy crucial advantages in the information warfare. This advantage translates in accelerating the vital OODA loop that holds the key to winning modern battles. The old adage hit first, hit hard is currently enabled only through information warfare advantage.

The acceptance of maritime security as an important adjunct to national security dawned on the nation’s policy makers after 1971. That acceptance saw changes in the Navy’s share of the budget allocation and set the path for its rightful growth. The Navy’s Combat, Diplomatic Constabulary and HADR roles came to be clearly understood in the various operations that the Indian Navy constantly undertakes. Operation Cactus, Operation Sukhoon, antipiracy operations or providing assistance in the aftermath of natural calamities has shown how indispensable the Navy really is to our countrymen. The IONS initiative, other cooperative maritime security arrangements with friendly Navies in the region and the articulation of Maritime Security doctrine have considerably helped in confidence building and maintain security in the region.

Modern Indian Navy

The Navy’s responsibility of providing maritime security under a nuclear deterrence umbrella behoves it to constantly assess the Strategic technology environment and calibrate its force levels. There is currently a rapid growth in unmanned vehicles. Drones have become a vital part of any service inventory, especially armed drones capable of precision strikes that limit collateral damage and afford higher degree of control on the escalation dynamics. The arsenal ship is an unmanned vessel with tremendous firepower capability. There is a great deal of activity in the autonomous unmanned underwater vehicles. The manner in which such systems will influence future warfare must be a subject of serious study. There is also the worrying question of non-state actors gaining access to such technologies. When this is coupled with the inherent deniability that such systems offer, it would flummox our response.

The Navy has done well so far. But there are areas and technologies that have constantly eluded us despite considerable efforts. For example, the torpedo is the oldest underwater unmanned vehicle, we are still looking for a torpedo for our new submarines. The Navy, the DRDO, the academia and the industry must come together to create capabilities that national security demands.

The Navy, fully seized with the changing world will surely address the future challenges with professionalism and dedication that have been the hall mark of naval thinking so far. As they say we have promises to keep… and miles to go before we sleep.

Sha no Varuna. Jai Hind!


The writer is former Inspector General, Nuclear Safety and FOC-in-C, Southern Naval Command. He was the senior-most submariner of the Indian Navy at the time of retirement.