Over four decades ago in 1971, the Indian Naval Headquarters in Delhi, along with the Western Naval Command, planned to attack the port of Karachi. A strike group under Western Naval Command was formed for the mission. The group was to be based around the three Vidyut-class missile boats already deployed off the coast of Okha in Gujarat. However, these boats had limited operational and radar range. To overcome this difficulty, it was decided to assign support vessels to the group.
As planned, on December 4, the strike group reached 250 nautical miles (460 km; 290 mi) (nmi) south off the coast of Karachi, and maintained its position during the day, outside the surveillance range of the Pakistan Air Force. As Pakistani aircraft did not possess night-bombing capabilities, it was planned that the attack would take place between dusk and dawn. At 10.30 pm Pakistan Standard Time (PKT), the Indian task group moved 180 nmi (330 km; 210 mi) from its position towards the south of Karachi. Soon Pakistani targets, identified as warships, were detected 70 nmi (130 km; 81 mi) to the northwest and northeast of the Indian warships.
INS Nirghat drove forward in a northwesterly direction and fired its first Styx missile at PNS Khaibar, a Pakistani battle-class destroyer. Khaibar, assuming it was a missile from Indian aircraft, engaged its anti-aircraft systems. The missile hit the right side of the ship, exploding below the galley in the electrician’s mess deck at 10.45 pm (PKT). This led to an explosion in the first boiler room. Subsequently, the ship lost propulsion, and was flooded with smoke. An emergency signal that read: “Enemy aircraft attacked in position 020 FF 20. No. 1 boiler hit. Ship stopped”, was sent to the Pakistan Naval Headquarters (PNHQ). Due to the chaos created by the explosion, the signal contained the wrong coordinates of the ship’s position. This delayed rescue teams from reaching its location. Observing that the ship was still afloat, Nirghat fired its second missile hitting Khaibar in the second boiler room on the ship’s starboard side, eventually sinking the ship and killing 222 sailors.
A PNS destroyer, Shah Jahan — in the service of the British Royal Navy when it was known as HMS Charity — was badly damaged by Styx missiles fired by INS Nipat.
After verifying two targets in the area northwest of Karachi, at 11 pm (PKT), INS Nipat fired two Styx missiles – one each at cargo vessel MV Venus Challenger and its escort PNS Shah Jahan. Venus Challenger, carrying ammunition for the Pakistani forces, exploded immediately after the missile hit, and eventually sank 23 nmi (43 km; 26 mi) south of Karachi. The other missile targeted Shah Jahan and damaged the ship very badly. At 11.20 pm (PKT), PNS Muhafiz, an Adjutant-class minesweeper, was targeted by INS Veer. A missile was fired and Muhafiz was struck on the left side, behind the bridge. It sank immediately before it could send a signal to the PNHQ, killing 33 sailors.
Meanwhile, INS Nipat continued towards Karachi and targeted the Kemari oil storage tanks, placing itself 14 nmi (26 km; 16 mi) south of the Karachi harbour. Two missiles were launched; one misfired, but the other hit the oil tanks, which burned and were destroyed completely, causing a Pakistani fuel shortage. The task force returned to the nearest Indian ports.
Soon the PNHQ deployed rescue teams on patrol vessels to recover the survivors of Khaibar. As Muhafiz sank before it could transmit a distress call, the Pakistanis only learned of its fate from its few survivors who were recovered when a patrol vessel steered towards the ship’s burning flotsam.
Aftermath of Attack
The Pakistan Air Force retaliated by bombing Okha harbour, scoring direct hits on fuelling facilities for missile boats, an ammunition dump, and the missile boats’ jetty. The Indian Navy anticipated this attack and had already moved the missile boats to other locations. However, the destruction of a special fuel tank prevented any further incursions until Operation Python, executed three days later.
As a result of the operation, Pakistan Armed Forces were put on high alert. The deployments raised a number of false alarms in the ensuing days about the presence of Indian Navy vessels off Karachi. One such false alarm was raised by a Pakistan Navy Fokker Friendship reconnaissance aircraft on December 6, 1971, which incorrectly reported a frigate of the Pakistan Navy as an Indian Navy missile boat. The PNHQ requested a Pakistan Air Force air strike on the supposed Indian ship. At 6.45 am (PKT), fighter jets were scrambled and strafed the vessel before it was identified as the frigate PNS Zulfiqar. This friendly fire incident resulted in casualties and damage to the vessel.
With no casualties on the Indian side, Operation Trident, which saw the first use of anti-ship missiles in combat in the region, is considered to be one of the most successful in modern naval history post-World War II.
Significance of Operation Trident
For former chief of Naval Staff Admiral SM Nanda, the heroics of December 4, 1971, meant that the sidelined Navy could finally gain its rightful place in India’s security matrix. “India’s naval power had remained neglected as our political leaders envisioned threat only from across our Western land border.”
A 2004 Tribune review of the memoir The Man Who Bombed Karachi captured Nanda’s thoughts, “A misperception had gained ground (in the 50s and 60s) among the political and military planners that the Navy had only a marginal role to play in the armed conflicts India was forced into.”
In the aftermath of the war, as Vice Admiral GM Hiranandani noted in his book Transition to Triumph, the government finally realised the effectiveness of sea power. The Navy, as the book stated, also rose in the eyes of Western and Russian navies for its “professionalism and innovativeness”.
A cumulative effect was that India’s Navy, with a humble beginning post independence, became the seventh largest in the world. To mark this victory, the Indian Navy annually celebrates Navy Day on December 4.
Pre-colonial dynasties such as the Cholas used naval power to extend Indian trade and influence overseas, particularly to Southeast Asia. The Marakkar Navy under the Zamorins in the 15th century and the Maratha Navy of the 17th and 18th centuries fought against British and Portuguese colonisers. The British East India Company organised its own navy, later known as the Bombay Marine.
With the establishment of the British Raj in the 19th century, the naval force became ‘His Majesty’s Indian Navy’, then ‘Her Majesty’s Indian Marine’, and finally the ‘Royal Indian Marine’. This navy transported large numbers of Indian troops overseas during WWI, and – as the Royal Indian Navy – took part in combat and protected communications during WWII. When India became independent in 1947, part of the Royal Indian Navy was allotted to the new state of Pakistan; the remaining Indian force took the title of Indian Navy in 1950 and the vessels were redesignated as Indian Naval Ships (INS). Vice Admiral RD Katari was the first Indian Chief of Naval Staff, appointed on April 22, 1958.
Third Project 15B Destroyer ‘Imphal’
This third ship of the Visakhapatnam-class destroyers (P-15 B), to be commissioned as INS Imphal, entered water on April 20, 2019. It is 163 metres long. The indigenous Visakhapatnam-class destroyers are an evolution of the Kolkata-class (Project 15A) destroyers that entered service between 2014 and 2016. Propelled by four marine gas turbines, the ships will be capable of achieving speed in excess of 30 knots. They will also have stealth features achieved through shaping of hull and use of radar transparent deck fittings. The destroyers will carry and operate two multi-role helicopters. The first ship of the Visakhapatnam-class is expected to enter service in 2021.
4th Scorpene Submarine ‘Vela’
This Scorpene-class submarine, to be commissioned as INS Vela, was launched on May 6, 2019. Vela is now set to undergo harbour and sea trials. The submarine is the fourth of overall six units that will be delivered to the Navy through a transfer of technology agreement with France’s naval group. The lead boat in the class, INS Kalvari, was commissioned in December 2017 and the launch of the third boat, INS Karanj, took place in January 2018. Scorpene-class (also known as Kalvari-class) submarines are 67.5 m long with a height of about 12.3 m. They are fitted with 360 battery cells (each weighing 750 kg) powering the permanently magnetised propulsion motor. The boats are equipped with the Submarine Tactical Integrated Combat System (SUBTICS), sea skimming SM 39 Exocet missiles or the heavy weight wire guided Surface and Underwater Target (SUT) torpedoes.
The second of six diesel-electric submarines (Scorpene-class) that will be built for the Navy, was commissioned on September 28, 2019. INS Khanderi is the follow-on to INS Kalvari, which was the first of the Naval group-designed Scorpene-class submarines being indigenously constructed in India and commissioned in 2017. The country has launched four boats so far equipped with SUBTICS, sea skimming SM 39 Exocet missiles or the heavy weight wire guided SUT torpedoes.
Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited (MDL) launched country’s first Project 17A frigate, the future INS Nilgiri, on September 28, 2019. Nilgiri is the lead ship in a new class of follow-on ships to the Project 17 (P17) Shivalik-class, already in service with the Navy. Four units are to be built by MDL and three by Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers Limited, Kolkata. Measuring 149 metres in length, the completed ships will have a tonnage of 6,670 tonnes. Propelled by two diesel and two gas turbine power plants in a combines diesel or gas (CODOG) configuration, the frigates will be able to achieve speeds in excess of 28 knots.
French Navy aircraft carrier FS Charles de Gaulle and its carrier strike group set sail to India where they were joined by Navy aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and other units for what was described as the largest naval exercise between the two countries ever on April 15. The bilateral engagement was part of the longstanding Varuna exercise, which was first organised between the two countries in 1993. It was held last time in 2017 off the coast of France.
The focus of the Royal Australian Navy’s 2019 Indo-Pacific Endeavour (IPE19) was on developing cooperation with the Indian Navy. India is one of Australia’s key strategic partners in the Indian Ocean region. The Joint Task Force for next year’s expedition will involve up to five Royal Australian Navy vessels, including a landing helicopter dock, Australian Army and Royal Australian Air Force assets and personnel, and foreign force elements.
The bilateral Indian and US armed forces exercise ‘Tiger Triumph’ kicked off in Visakhapatnam with the arrival of USS Germantown (LSD 42) on November 13. The training was aimed at enhancing US-India military-to-military relations and hone individual and small-unit skills in humanitarian assistance and disaster response. More than 500 US marines and sailors, and about 1,200 Indian soldiers, sailors, and airmen participated in the nine-day exercise.