Admiral Nanda reviewing an honour guard at INS Adyar in 1972

December 4 commemorates Navy Day, what the Indian Navy calls its finest hour—the raid on Karachi port by three missile boats. The engagement, which lasted under 30 minutes, saw the destruction of a Pakistan Navy destroyer, minesweeper and a merchant ship bringing arms and ammunition for its military. Fifty years on, the largest naval missile engagement in maritime history tells you how rare force-on-force naval combat has been since the Second World War.

It was the only war the Indian Navy participated in. It was largely because of one man—then navy chief admiral Sardarilal Matharadas Nanda. Under him the navy was bold, aggressive, took enormous risks and punched way above its weight. Remarkably, these were also the characteristics his colleagues attributed to the bull-headed navy chief.

He took over when the navy was already at the margins. It had the smallest part of the defence budget and was seen as inconsequential to the outcomes of three land battles, which is where India’s disputed boundaries lay. As Nanda wryly recounted in his 2004 autobiography The Man Who Bombed Karachi, prime minister Indira Gandhi had turned to him at the end of the meeting with the service chiefs, after looking at her watch.

The navy lost an opportunity to plunge into the 1965 war when a five-destroyer Pakistani flotilla attacked the port town of Dwarka. An Indian frigate anchored in the vicinity did not engage them because the government had kept the navy out of the war. Admiral Nanda, like so many other naval brass, was stung by the turn of events. The British-built INS Talwar was among Asia’s newest gun frigates. Its radar-directed twin ‘Mark 6’ 4.5-inch naval cannons could belch out high explosive steel to engage the Pakistan Navy’s World War 2-era destroyers from 16 km away. But those guns remained silent. Among other things, that incident would have told Nanda that the men behind the machines mattered the most. When he took over as navy chief in 1970, ‘Charles Nanda’, as he was nick-named, plunged headlong into preparations for war. Teaming up with his brilliant director, naval intelligence, the enigmatic captain (later vice-admiral) Mihir Kumar Roy, Nanda green-lit an ultra-secret operation to train hundreds of Mukti Bahini naval commandos. These Bengali naval commandos, trained at a secret camp on the battlefield of Plassey, went on to sink and disable over 100,000 tonnes of merchant shipping in East Pakistan in multiple covert attacks between August and November 1971. These were the largest special forces missions carried out by an Indian armed force. When war was formally declared on December 3, Nanda’s missile boats rained destruction on Karachi and in the east, carrier-borne jets from the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant bombed and strafed targets in East Pakistan, cutting off the seaward retreat of the Pakistani garrison. All these operations, it needs to be emphasised, directly affected the outcome of the battle on land.

When the war began, the navy’s missile boats did not have the range to strike at Karachi and return. A boiler crack prevented the navy’s sole aircraft carrier the INS Vikrant prevented from steaming full speed ahead to launch aircraft. The service had no special forces units to train guerrillas. Like the stupefied captain of the Talwar in 1965, Nanda could have chosen to sit out the war. He could have cited lack of government direction or complained about inadequate force levels and, consequently, watched the service descend into further irrelevance. The Admiral of course, did none of this. He rolled up his sleeves. Under him the navy improvised and innovated. The missile boats were towed to Karachi by larger warships, the Vikrant deployed at slower speeds with a welded boiler and the navy’s diving teams trained the Mukti Bahini saboteurs. How much of a one-man show this naval campaign was can be understood by looking at a ‘what if?’ scenario. Suppose the crisis in East Pakistan had erupted in 1973 and not in 1971 and the navy was headed by Nanda’s eventual successor Admiral S.N. Kohli, how would the conflict have unfolded? The missile attacks on Karachi could have been ruled out as being too risky. The covert war plan risked being turned down for being equally tricky if not for being ‘ungentlemanly warfare’. The Vikrant would have stayed in dry dock. The first scenario would almost certainly have come to pass—Kohli, then the C-in-C of the Western Naval Command had vehemently opposed the missile attack citing Karachi’s shore defences.

As the Navy basks in the glory of a hard-won victory 50 years ago, it urgently needs to look eastwards at China’s rising maritime power.

The new navy chief Admiral Hari Kumar, who took over on December 1, is a no-nonsense professional with a reputation of being a doer. It will be left to him and his successors to steer the navy through some of the biggest challenges in the turbulent decade ahead.

Beijing today fields the world’s largest navy that is growing exponentially. China is adding warships and submarines at the rate of one Indian Navy each decade. By the end of this decade, it could possibly have enough warships for a permanently-based Indian Ocean fleet.

“The maritime rivalry between the US and China in the Indo-Pacific, the entry of the PLA Navy in strength into the waters of the Indian Ocean and the growing asymmetry between the PLA Navy and the Indian Navy, all focus on how the Indian Navy will respond to these challenges as the primary custodian of India’s maritime power,” military historian Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam (Retd) writes in the 2021 book ‘Force in Statecraft’.

The Indian Navy’s underwater arm has suffered egregious neglect. This decade, it will induct only six new conventional submarines as against a requirement of at least 12. It has failed to develop an indigenous submarine design despite buying the technology from West Germany in 1981 and France in 2005. It has been slow to realise the fearsome potential of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs)—of the kind Australia is now seeking from the US and UK. The navy has preferred to lease individual SSNs from Russia, instead of building a fleet of its own. A project to build six indigenous SSNs has been stuck for over a decade and even if approved now, it will take at least 12 years for the first unit to be delivered.

Principal surface combatants, too, are being added on at a leisurely pace. It took an Indian shipyard eight years to build the INS Visakhapatnam, which entered service last month. This is double the time it takes a Chinese shipyard to build a comparable 052C class destroyer.

This is not to discount the formidable advantages the Indian navy has built up over the years. It is the pre-eminent regional naval power in the Indian Ocean with two fleets that have the ability to simultaneously project power from the western and eastern coasts. The navy was the first service to get a military communications satellite a decade ago, while the other services are still playing catch up. It has indigenously developed an impressive chain of coastal radar stations and data fusion centres tracking all shipping in the entire Indian Ocean region. The army and the air force have not been able to deploy a similar sensory perimeter capable of looking deep across India’s disputed land frontiers despite having fought five border wars. The navy is slowly building up a lethal triad of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) assets—shore-based long-range P-8I aircraft, Sea Guardian HALE drones and MH-60R helicopters, all designed to operate together.

In 1971 India faced two superpowers, the US and China which backed Pakistan but only after a signed agreement assured support from the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union despatched Pacific Fleet units to tail the Seventh Fleet that entered the Bay of Bengal in 1971. It is unlikely that India could expect similar assistance from its Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad partner nations, the US, Australia and Japan, in a conflict with China.

The Indian navy, it can be argued, is back where it was in 1965. If it doesn’t present credible options against China in the event of a border war, it risks irrelevance. The challenges are of an order far greater because its new adversary working in concert with the old one. By the end of the decade, Pakistan will deploy eight Chinese-built conventional submarines armed with cruise missiles. These could be used to offset the overwhelming advantage it enjoys over its western adversary.

This collusive two-front threat is only one of the reasons why the navy needs to think out of the box and work in concert with the other services.

Given the economic worries, the defence budget is unlikely to increase and consequently the navy’s share might not cross the usual 15 per cent of the budget. Expensive buys, like a third aircraft carrier, will find it difficult to pass the scrutiny of the Chief of Defence Staff’s upcoming capability development plan that calls for rationalising big-ticket items across the services.

The National Maritime Theatre Command being set up next year will concentrate all of India’s military maritime assets under a single commander. The Indian Navy-steered NMTC will need more teeth if it is to provide options against its adversaries. It needs to fine-tune the contingency plans it began working on when the Chinese threat appeared in Ladakh in May 2020.

In the interim, it needs to look at a range of force-multipliers it can rapidly deploy in the coming decade. These could include options being worked on globally, like repurposing transport aircraft and civilian airliners into long-range bombers, pioneering civil-military fusion to speed up development projects, increasing the range and lethality of existing cruise missiles and torpedoes, accelerating projects for hypersonic weapons and working with the DRDO to convert Agni ballistic missiles into long range ship-killing missiles. It needs to look at light general-purpose frigates which could be churned out rapidly by domestic shipyards. Unmanned platforms could perhaps be what the naval missile was in 1971—massive force multipliers which gave existing platforms greater striking range. There is strangely, no Indian navy-funded swarm drone project. There are no projects either for ship or submarine launched UAVs and UCAVs or large underwater autonomous vehicles like the US Navy’s Orca.

There is a need for the navy to build a network of seabed sensors for ‘underwater domain awareness’ to track Chinese and Pakistani submarines. This sensor chain can also be used to secure underwater bastions in the Bay of Bengal from where its ballistic missile submarines can safely launch their missiles. These technology gaps are bewildering given the presence of multiple Indian civilian scientific agencies with such capabilities. But more than anything else, the navy needs to look within and rediscover the fighting ethos displayed by its chief a half-century ago.