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Military Digest: When Indian Navy struck terror over Karachi

🔴 Between the naval Operations Trident and Python, and the IAF attacks on Karachi's fuel and ammunition depots, more than fifty percent of the total fuel requirement of the Karachi zone was reported to have been destroyed.

Written by Mandeep Singh Bajwa | Chandigarh |
December 6, 2021 12:06:30 pm
operation trident indian navy pakistan karachiINS Nipat, one of Vidyut-class missile boats which attacked Karachi during Operations Trident and Python. (Image/Indian Navy)

The daring and innovative Operation Trident sank and damaged a number of Pakistani ships and set Karachi’s oil storage on fire at no cost to the Indian Navy (IN). It also created a fear psychosis among the Pakistan Navy (PN) to the extent that it ordered all surface ships into harbour two days after the attack. But a post mortem of the action gave rise to some unease.

In particular, Vice Admiral SN Kohli, Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Western Naval Command in Bombay was displeased that more missiles had not been expended on targets in the harbour or shore installations. This was put down to a degree of uncertainty among the command structure. There was also a very real apprehension of air attacks leading to a somewhat quick withdrawal. Air cover was provided to Karachi and the Pakistani fleet by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) bases at Masroor and Drigh Road.

Kohli and Nanda, the naval chief were determined to strike Karachi again, notwithstanding the retaliatory air-raid on Okha and damage caused therein. Operational momentum was to be maintained. In the meanwhile, Pakistani warships attempted to outwit the IN by mixing with merchant shipping. The Western Fleet was already at sea prepared for any operational opportunities that might present themselves. The two Whitby-class anti-submarine frigates of the 15th Frigate Squadron, INS Trishul and INS Talwar were detached. They were in tandem with the missile boat INS Vinash to launch the second attack on Karachi. As escorts they were to provide anti-aircraft cover and guard against submarines. The frigates would also maintain a lookout with their superior sensor capabilities, provide longer-range communications and platforms for command and control. The Vidyut-class missile boat, INS Vinash commanded by Lieutenant Commander Vijai Jerath with its four Styx anti-shipping missile (AShMs) capable of launching from stand-off distances was to be the strike arm.

This then was the task force which set out on December 8 to execute Operation Python. At 10 pm Pakistan Standard Time (PKT), in rough seas this group approached Manora, a peninsula south of Karachi port. On the way, electronic emissions were detected on a Pakistan naval frequency being monitored. It was analysed that a vessel with a powerful transmitter was reporting the presence of the force to the Maritime Operations Room at Karachi. On being sighted, the patrol craft was fired upon by Talwar with her 4.5-inch main guns and then on closing in with her 40mm anti-aircraft guns, blasting it to bits.

As the force approached Karachi, INS Trishul’s electronic surveillance revealed that the radar there had stopped rotating and was directed straight at the group, confirming that it had been detected. Surprise had indeed been lost but the operational ascendancy of the IN was such that no Pakistani warship or aircraft was sent to sea to challenge the group nor was any fire opened on them from the harbour defences.

At 11 PM (PKT), the ships arrived off Karachi and detected a group of vessels on their radar. Permission to engage having been given at 11:15, INS Vinash fired all her four missiles after careful deliberation. The distance from Karachi was now 12 nautical miles (nmi). Three of the targets were ships, the last being the Kemari oil farm which was set on fire again. The other missiles hit and sank the Panamanian fuel tanker Steam Ship (SS) Gulf Star and the British merchantman SS Harmattan. The fourth missile hit the PN fleet tanker PNS Dacca damaging it beyond repair. In a pre-planned move the Indian Air Force (IAF) attacked Karachi’s airfields at Masroor and Drigh Road shortly after the naval strike. This ensured that the sea group returned unhindered. Having expended all their missiles and caused significant damage the task force now withdrew.

Between the naval Operations Trident and Python, and the IAF attacks on Karachi’s fuel and ammunition depots, more than fifty percent of the total fuel requirement of the Karachi zone was reported to have been destroyed. The damage was estimated to be worth $3 billion, with most of the oil reserves and ammunition warehouses and workshops destroyed. The PAF’s flying operations were also affected by the loss of fuel. In my opinion this was a significant factor in Pakistan’s inability to fight on after the surrender at Dhaka.

With no casualties observed on the Indian side, both missile attacks led the PN to take extreme measures to prevent any further damage to their ships. On December 9, the very next day after the second attack, ships were ordered to reduce the ammunition on board so as to decrease the explosion damage if hit. They were also forbidden from venturing out to sea, especially during the night. These two measures severely demoralised the entire PN. With the destruction caused by the IN, neutral merchant vessels soon started to seek safe passage from the Indian authorities before heading to Karachi. Gradually, neutral ships stopped sailing for Karachi. In effect, a de facto naval blockade was created by the IN. The Soviet Navy was simply amazed at the IN’s feat. Meticulous planning at various levels, months of exercises and trials to hone skills, as well as spirited execution by the missile boat squadron went a long way in ensuring success of the operation. It is also necessary to acknowledge the strong political backing which this audacious plan received.

Many aspects of the attacks were novel — the use of missiles in this region for the first time, towing by bigger ships to overcome the problem of endurance, radio silence and ingenious methods of communication to remain undetected and using vessels meant for coastal defence in an offensive role. Missile boat crews were well versed in Russian having been trained in that country. The language was used for radio communications in the clear, foxing Pakistani signals intelligence. Vijai Jerath, captain of the Vinash, was awarded the Vir Chakra for the coolness and skill that he showed during the operation. A third missile attack, codenamed Operation Triumph scheduled for December 10 was cancelled in view of the virtual naval supremacy achieved by the IN.

This was undoubtedly the IN’s finest hour. The Navy fought in two separate theatres and established total sea control in both the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. A most effective blockade of East Pakistan was effected by the IN. Maritime air power was used successfully by the IN in the Eastern Theatre through INS Vikrant to sink Pakistani naval craft and destroy shore targets. The rearward move of land forces for the defence of the Dhaka Bowl was prevented by the elimination of inland water transport by the IN and IAF, particularly through the former’s special forces. In 1971, the Navy showed that it could rise to the occasion and promote Indian interests and the national war aim through meticulous planning, stealth, innovation and power projection. Control of the sea is paramount for promotion of commerce and economic well-being.

The IN has shown that it can innovate to achieve victory. Now it needs budgetary support and a cohesive national maritime strategy.

Please contact the writer with your military story on msbajwa@gmail.com or 093161-35343

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