From WW-II to Covid: Indian Navy’s Enhancing Role

Bearers of a glorious tradition, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. With the Indian Navy’s outreach spreading, its role will occupy deserving prominence in the days to come as India’s destiny for greatness takes shape

By Cmde Ranjit B Rai (Retd)

Indian Navy
Tsunami approaches Miyako City, Japan after the 9.0 Earthquake on March 11, 2011 (File Photo)

The Indian Navy has a fine lineage. Established by the British in 1939 as the Royal Indian Navy (RIN), it rapidly expanded to take part in glorious feats in the Second World War in the East, Burma and Red Sea operations and got dubbed as the ‘Royal Navy’s Daughter Navy’. However, the Royal Navy’s official history does not give due credence to the Indian officers and sailors. The actions of the RIN have now been documented in the book ‘Timeless Wake’ by Commodore Odakkal Johnson. It reveals the long-term imprint of the RIN on the Indian Navy which was so renamed in 1950 when India became a Republic.

India’s leaders did not shed a continental mindset for security and are yet to script a Maritime Strategy even today. Clearly, the Navy has not been given priority. Not allowed to take part in the 1965 war, the Navy proved its mettle in the 1971 war and Kargil ‘half-war’. The Navy has since issued a doctrine and a strategy for securing the seas.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war and Indian Navy celebrates December 4 to commemorate that night in 1971 when in Operation Trident, Osa missile boats attacked and sank four Pakistani ships off Karachi and launched operations in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal led by INS Vikrant with Sea-Hawk and Alize planes.

India’s leaders did not shed a continental mindset for security and are yet to script a Maritime Strategy even today

On December 8, Operation Python followed to hit Karachi again and re-lit the fires in the Kemari oil tanks that IAF Hunters had hit on December 4. Sadly, the Navy lost INS Khukri to a torpedo attack by PNS Hangor and 176 officers and sailors lost their lives in the sea. It was the first time in the country’s maritime history that Indian Navy was given an opportunity to prove its worth in war and did it heroically aided by Mukhti Bahini before the war which hastened the formation of Bangladesh and the surrender of Pakistani forces at Dhaka on December 16.

In the 1999 Kargil ‘half-war’, the Navy’s Eastern and Western fleets assembled with massive missile power in the Arabian Sea ready to be called to blockade Pakistan. On July 4, Pakistan was obliged to vacate the heights with some persuasion on Pak PM Nawaz Sharif by President Clinton in his Oval Office.

The Navy has also lived up to its glorious tradition in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations in peacetime and more recently in the 2004 Tsunami and the ongoing Covid pandemic.

Tsunami of 2004

One of the defining characteristics of navies in the postmodern era is the involvement in irregular security missions. From anti-piracy to anti-trafficking, counter-terrorism and migration control, the scope of unconventional security tasks undertaken by maritime forces in recent years has expanded significantly.

On Boxing day holiday of December 26, 2004, news came in that a massive earthquake measuring 9.1 magnitude on the Richter scale had hit the west coast of Sumatra with waves rising up to 30 meters. The tsunami killed over 230,000 people and inundated most coastal communities in the affected areas.

This author was present at a luncheon when Admiral Arun Prakash got a call of calamity in the Andamans. He rushed to his office and after getting NSA Mani Dixit’s go-ahead sailed over 20 ships of the Indian Navy to Port Blair and Southeast Asian shores. It was a massive humanitarian effort and showcased the Navy’s HADR response and capability.

A National Maritime Commission (NMC) is to be established by September this year as per CDS General Bipin Rawat and this will become vital to enunciate a National Maritime Policy (NMP)

The tsunami made landfall on India’s east coast and an estimated 18,045 people were killed in India including about 12,405 confirmed dead and about 5,000 reported missing, mainly in the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu and on the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Over 600,000 people had their homes destroyed and were displaced by the tsunami.

Indian Navy’s 19 ships conducted relief operations in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Maldives. The Naval and Coast Guard divers played a critical role in clearing the approach channels to Lankan ports especially Galle, to enable civilian boats and ships to join the rescue efforts. Besides discharging its peace time duties, the Indian Navy projected India’s diplomatic soft power also. As a result, the Navy’s efforts to deliver relief, save lives and help populations in coastal areas to survive natural calamities has become imperative.

Covid 19 Pandemic

In the last two years, ships of the Indian Navy have been flogged with continuous deployments for HADR and exercises. Some sailors have spent close to a year at sea and in isolation to avoid Covid-19. Samuel Huntington had argued that the military services must have a ‘strategic concept’, which he described as ‘a description of how, when and where the military expects to protect and support the nation’.

The Navy launched Operation Samudra Setu on May 5, 2020, as part of the national effort to repatriate Indian citizens from overseas during the COVID-19 pandemic. It culminated after successfully bringing 3,992 Indian citizens back to their homeland by sea. Indian Navy ships Jalashwa (Ex USS Trenton), a large 10,000 ton Landing Platform Dock with helicopters and hangar for makeshift accommodation, and Airavat, Shardul and Magar (Landing Ship Tanks) participated in this operation that lasted over 55 days and involved traversing more than 23,000 km by sea. The Navy had previously undertaken similar evacuation operations as part of Operation Sukoon in 2006 (Beirut) and Operation Rahat in 2015 (Yemen).

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on ships and seafarers due to the compact environment and forced ventilation systems onboard ships. It was in these trying times and difficult conditions that the Indian Navy took up the challenge to evacuate distressed Indian citizens from overseas and to avoid outbreak of infection onboard the ships during the evacuation operations.

Women officers and military nursing staff were also embarked for the women passengers. Basic amenities and medical facilities were provided to all evacuees during the sea passage on these ships. One expectant mother, Sonia Jacob, who undertook passage on Jalashwa, gave birth to a baby boy within a few hours of reaching Kochi on Mother’s Day.

Details of the evacuation are as follows:-

Indian Navy’s IL-38 and Dornier aircraft have been used for ferrying of doctors and COVID-19-related material across the country. Indian naval personnel also innovated various customised equipment such as the Personnel Protection Equipment ‘NavRakshak’, hand-held temperature sensors, assisted respiratory system, 3-D printed face shield, portable multi-feed oxygen manifold, ventilators, air-evacuation stretcher pod, baggage disinfectants etc.

Most of these innovations were carried onboard the ships undertaking Op Samudra Setu and niche equipment were also provided to host countries from where the evacuation was undertaken.

Another Landing Ship (Tank) Kesari undertook ‘Mission SAGAR’, carrying 580 tonnes of food aid and medical stores including ayurvedic medicines to Maldives, Mauritius, Madagascar, Comoros Islands and Seychelles, covering over 14,000 km in 49 days. One medical team each was also deployed at Mauritius and Comoros Island as part of the mission.

India has to transit from a continental mindset and a ‘Brown Economy’ to a ‘Blue Economy’, with bold strategic moves for India’s security and economy

The other fleet ships made over 14 voyages to Singapore and Kuwait and other ports to bring back oxygen tanks, regeneration plants and material to help the Covid relief measures executed under the supervision of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In conclusion, a National Maritime Commission (NMC) is to be established by September this year as per CDS General Bipin Rawat and this will become vital to enunciate a National Maritime Policy (NMP) as China has eyes on the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) in collusion with Pakistan and its BRI strategy.

Despite China’s actions in Ladakh, India has to transit from a continental mindset and a ‘Brown Economy’ to a ‘Blue Economy’, with bold strategic moves for India’s security and economy. The broad contours of India’s maritime security strategy are in the October 2015 edition of the Indian Naval Strategic Publication (NSP) released by late Manohar Parrikar, titled, “Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy”.

The National Defence University (NDU), whose foundation stone was laid by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2013 in Gurgaon, also needs traction to provide a platform for multifaceted teaching and research in maritime affairs to chalk the country’s maritime interests. Neglect of the country’s maritime interests will not augur well for India’s destined future.

–The writer was Director-Intelligence and Operations- in the Indian Navy. He writes on naval affairs. He can be contacted at 011-24335654, +9810066172, +8700897597. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda